Friday, August 25, 2006

A Divide Between Ancient and Modern Philosophy?

Bridging the Ancient and Modern: Thoughts on Machiavelli, Hobbes and Locke


Plato and Aristotle’s concerns in The Republic and Politics was understanding virtue and justice, and determining who was best fit to lead. In both cases, Plato and Aristotle were concerned about the political community at large, and about how morals and politics intersected. Nicolo Machiavelli, Thomas Hobbes and John Locke question this assumption to some extent, and relate their own concerns about good government, order, and human nature. This essay will contrast the works of Machiavelli, Hobbes and Locke with respect to their understanding of government. While many have argued that Machiavelli, Hobbes and Locke make a clean break with the ancient philosophers, my contention is that some of the puzzles for Plato and Aristotle remained so for modern theorists. First, this paper will summarize succinctly the contributions of Machiavelli, Hobbes and Locke. Second, this essay will illuminate the differences between the three theorists. Lastly, the essay will explore the connections between ancient philosophy and modern philosophy.

Machiavelli, Hobbes and Locke: the Foundations of Modern Philosophy

Machiavelli is generally seen as a transitional figure between the ancient and modern philosophers. Unlike Plato and Aristotle, however, Machiavelli was not concerned that government should be elevated to a “living moral force, capable of inspiring the people” (Machiavelli xvii). Machiavelli’s The Prince is more concerned with order than virtue, and thus morality is in some ways foreign. The Prince is an interesting work because it provides a blueprint for obtaining and maintaining power in a way that ancient works did not. Machiavelli’s writing is often characterized as “realistic” because it took the world for what it was – man as self-interested and calculating -- not for what it ought to be as many ancient philosophers tried to construct.[1] Machiavelli also gives prominence to the role of war and violence in his work. The Prince must not only be wise in governing, but also skilled in the art of war. To not be skilled in the latter renders a prince useless in the former.

Thomas Hobbes’ The Leviathan is similarly concerned with the state of war and the need to maintain order. Like Machiavelli, Hobbes understands humans as rational creatures who are self-interested and calculating. His understanding of the political community is not grounded in moral virtue. In fact, Hobbes passes no judgment on man’s virtue at all. “The desires, and other passions of man, are in themselves no sin,” Hobbes wrote, “…no more are the actions that proceed from those passions” (Hobbes 187). For Hobbes, men are made equal, and while some might be stronger or smarter, each live under the same constraints and fears (Hobbes 183). Hobbes’ famously understood the nature of mankind as “nasty, brutish and short” (Hobbes 186). This forced man to seek the Commonwealth for protection from war, harm and death. The Commonwealth, simply put, is effective so long as it protects mankind. Unlike Machiavelli’s work, Hobbes does not actually deal with the mechanisms which make for effective governing. Hobbes’ work deals more with the social contract between man and the sovereign. In social contract theory, individuals give up their liberty to the sovereign – or state – in return for protection. The sovereign is thus obligated to man to keep the peace.

John Locke’s Second Treatise on Government is frequently seen as a direct response to Hobbes’ Leviathan. Locke and Hobbes both deal with man in the state nature. Hobbes and Locke agree that the laws of nature obligate man to treat one another equally, at least in terms of their life and possessions (Locke 5). However, unlike Hobbes, Locke seemed less worried that man would be in a constant state of war without government, or a sovereign (Locke x-xi). Locke’s work also reads less pessimistically than Hobbes’ or Machiavelli’s work. While Locke agrees that men are born free, the agency he gives to man is more robust than Hobbes understanding of mankind (Locke 4). Reading Hobbes, one gets the impression that mankind must choose the sovereign or suffer. Man in Locke’s state of nature chooses the sovereign consensually, and does so not because he fears for his life. Locke stands in particular opposition to Machiavelli. While Machiavelli had no problems with hereditary rule, Locke insisted that there were “ten other men” that could do that same job with as much wisdom and skill. Although government’s main objective is to provide order, stability and thus protection, the Second Treatise relates that the need for government also exists to protect “life, liberty and property” (Locke 71). Locke’s lasting legacy was his direct influence on America’s founding fathers, who admired his devotion to a very limited, or small, government.

Are the Modern Philosophers So Modern?

Machiavelli, Hobbes and Locke were said to be the “modern break” with the ancient philosophers of Plato and Aristotle. Indeed, there are several notable contributions of the modern philosophers. First, all three philosophers deal with man as he is – rational, self-interested and calculating – and not how men ought to be. Second, these modern philosophers are the first to investigate individualism and consent in political life. Although Machiavelli speaks less on this subject, Hobbes and Locke explore why individuals seek government in the first place. This has been called social contract theory, because citizens submit – or consent to be governed – out of their own free will. Lastly, the modern philosophers’ major impact and difference from the ancients was their insistence that men were born equal. This sets the stage for the rise of modern, individualist liberal theory.

On the other hand, the modern philosophers shared with the ancient philosophers more ideas than they are given credit for. Machiavelli, for example, bridges the divide between ancient and modern. Like Plato, Machiavelli agreed that some were more suited than others to lead. As Machiavelli argued, “a wise man ought always to follow the paths beaten by great men” (Machiavelli 41). Moreover, Machiavelli noted that only wise princes – which were relatively rare historically – could redress the evils and grievances that arise when governing (Machiavelli 22). Machiavelli also believes that aspects of governing resemble what Plato called the “noble lie”. In The Republic, Plato suggested that the Guardians would defend the Gods and a class of tales which would serve as the basis for order. It was not important that these tales where true, so long as they were believed (Plato 62). Similarly, Machiavelli’s five qualities that made for a good prince – mercy, faithfulness, humanity, religiosity and uprightness – were not necessarily to always be followed. However, it is necessary for the Prince to “appear to have them” (Machiavelli 139). Lastly, like Aristotle, Machiavelli believed that good laws were critical to a well-functioning regime. “The chief foundations of all states, new as well as old…are good laws,” wrote Machiavelli.[2] (Machiavelli 93). Aristotle agrees that good laws can “educate” the citizenry and stabilize government (Aristotle 110).

Hobbes’ Leviathan seems to stand in direct opposition to Plato and Aristotle, particularly his insistence that man is fundamentally self-interested. As well he presents a bleak state of affairs. But a closer of reading of Hobbes relays a different picture. In particular, many of Hobbes’ Laws of Nature are concerned with aspects of right and wrong and even morality to some extent. Hobbes’ urges those in the state of nature to treat others as they would like to be treated (Hobbes 214). Hobbes’ makes clear that man should not hate one another, or hold contempt of one another (Hobbes 211). Moreover, Hobbes’ urges man not to focus on the evil of the past but to look forward to the “greatness of the good to follow” (Hobbes 210). Lastly, Hobbes’ concern with order and stability was also Plato’s concern in constructing the appropriate political community.

John Locke also shares with the ancient philosophers several similarities. First, like Plato, Locke was very conservative in his preference for stability and order over change (Locke xiii). Locke was against violence and war. As he noted: “People are not so easily got out of their old forms as some are apt to suggest” (Locke xii). Secondly, Locke’s suspicion of certain understandings of liberty is reminiscent of Plato’s concerns with democracy (Plato 193). For Locke, liberty is not the ability for one to do whatever they want, whenever they please, “but freedom of men under government… to have a standing rule to live by” (Locke 15). Lastly, Locke’s concern for having good laws to prevent unwanted tyranny is similar to Aristotle’s desire for good laws. “Wherever law ends, tyranny begins if the law be transgressed to another’s harm” (Locke 114).


Machiavelli, Hobbes and Locke are frequently considered to be the beginning of modern philosophy, and each mark a shift from the ancient to more liberal notions of government. Machiavelli’s The Prince is a handbook of sorts for accruing and maintaining power. The Prince also is a straightforward account of man’s self-interested, individualist ways. Hobbes’ The Leviathan is less an account of how to govern as it is a discussion for the need of authority and the sovereign. Hobbes’ discussion of the state of nature describes a place that is dangerous and full of war. Man desires the sovereign to escape this world. Locke’s discussion of the state of nature is less grim, and for Locke, government arises to protect not only life, but “liberty and property.” Locke also argues against the lawlessness and lack of consent inherent in tyrannical regimes. Although Machiavelli, Hobbes and Locke are considered modern philosophers, each share some similarities with ancient philosophers. Surprisingly, the same problems that contemporary theorists explore – order, stability, consent, human nature and morality – confronted modern and ancient theorists as well. This essay has tried to show that connection.

Works Cited

Aristotle. Politics. Ed. Peter L. Phillips Simpson. Chapel Hill: UNC Publishing, 1997.

Hobbes, Thomas. The Leviathan. London, UK: Penguin Books, 1987.

Locke, John. The Second Treatise on Government. New York, NY: Macmillan

Publishing Company, 1952.

Machiavelli, Nicolo. The Prince. London, UK: J.M Dent and Sons, 1948.

Plato. Republic. Ed. G.M.A. Grube. Indianapolis, IN: Hackett Publishing, 1974.

[1] In fact, the entire basis for classical realism in IR theory develops from many aspects of The Prince.

[2] Of course, Machiavelli believes that these good laws can only be backed up by a state with “strong arms”.

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