Among the most widely-read of the Renaissance thinkers was Niccolo Machiavelli, a Florentine politician who retired from public service to write at length on the skill required for successfully running the state. Impatient with abstract reflections on the way things “ought” to be, Machiavelli focused on the way things are, illustrating his own intensely practical convictions with frequent examples from the historical record. Although he shared with other humanists a profound pessimism about human nature, Machiavelli nevertheless argued that the social benefits of stability and security can be achieved even in the face of moral corruption.
The Prince In 1513 Machiavelli wrote his best-known work, Il Principe (The Prince). Dedicated to Lorenzo de’ Medici, this little book offers practical advice on how to rule a city like sixteenth-century Florence. Its over-all theme is that the successful prince must exhibit virtu [variously translated as “strength,” “skill,” or “prowess”] in both favorable and adverse circumstances. This crucial quality of leadership is not the same as the virtuous character described by ethical philosophers, since Machiavelli held that public success and private morality are entirely separate.
The question is not what makes a good human being, but what makes a good prince. Since all governments are either republics or principalities, Machiavelli noted, their people will be accustomed either to managing their own affairs or to accepting the leadership of a prince. (For that reason, the safest princes are those who inherit their rule over people used to the family. ) A prudent leader, however, will be able to anticipate problems long before they actually arise, using virtu to forestall what would otherwise be great difficulties.
Whatever vitality a former republic may have, then, Machiavelli counselled that it either be destroyed or ruled carefully by a resident prince. (Prince 5) One of the most obvious ways of doing so is by the careful use of military forces, and to this Machiavelli devoted great attention. In fact, in a separate work entitled L’Arte della guerra (The Art of War) (1520) he offered extensive advice on the acquisition, management, and employment of the army of the state. In The Prince he was content to distinguish types of forces which one might acquire, noting the advantages and disadvantages of each, and to emphasize that such matters are the most vital component of any prince’s interest. (Prince 14).
Leadership Qualities Machiavelli’s insistence on the practicality of his political advice is most evident in his consideration of the personality, character, and conduct of the successful ruler. (Prince 15) No matter what idealistic notions are adopted as principles of private morality, he argued, there is no guarantee that other people will follow them, and that puts the honorable or virtuous individual at a distinct disadvantage in the real world.
In order to achieve success in public life, the ruler must know precisely when and how to do what no good person would ever do. Although private morality may rest on other factors? divine approval, personal character, or abstract duties, for example? in public life only the praise and blame of fellow human beings really counts. Thus, Machiavelli supposed, the ruler needs to acquire a good reputation while actually doing whatever wrong seems necessary in the circumstances.
(Prince 18) Thus, rulers must seem to be generous while spending their money wisely, appear to be compassionate while ruling their armies cruelly, and act with great cunning while cultivating a reputation for integrity. Although it is desirable to be both loved and feared by one’s subjects, it is difficult to achieve both, and of the two, Machiavelli declared, it is far safer for the ruler to be feared. (Prince 17) Since the modern state is too complex to be managed by any single human being, the effective ruler will naturally need to have advisors who assist in governance.
Choosing the right people for these jobs and employing their services appropriately, Machiavelli supposed, is among the practical skills most clearly associated with good leadership. (Prince 22) A good ruler will invariably choose competent companions who offer honest advice in response to specific questions and carry out the business of the state without regard for their private interests; such people therefore deserve the rewards of honor, wealth, and power that unshakably secure their devotion to the leader.
Ineffective leaders, on the other hand, surround themselves with flatterers whose unwillingness to provide competent advice is a mark of their princes’ inadequacy. All of this talk about skillful leadership would be pointless, of course, if human beings do not in fact have control over their own actions, but must constantly live at the mercy of blind fate or fortune. In the end, Machiavelli argued that even if sheer luck determines the greater portion of our destinies, we can still take full responsibility for whatever remains.
(Prince 25) Acknowledging the possibilities for failure, the skillful ruler does better to act boldly than to try to calculate every possible eventuality. Hobbes’s Leviathan Thomas Hobbes Even more than Bacon, Thomas Hobbes illustrated the transition from medieval to modern thinking in Britain. His Leviathan effectively developed a vocabulary for philosophy in the English language by using Anglicized versions of the technical terms employed by Greek and Latin authors.
Careful use of words to signify common ideas in the mind, Hobbes maintained, avoids the difficulties to which human reasoning is most obviously prone and makes it possible to articulate a clear conception of reality. (Leviathan I 4) For Hobbes, that conception is bound to be a mechanistic one: the movements of physical objects will turn out to be sufficient to explain everything in the universe. The chief purpose of scientific investigation, then, is to develop a geometrical account of the motion of bodies, which will reveal the genuine basis of their causal interactions and the regularity of the natural world.
Thus, Hobbes defended a strictly materialist view of the world. Human Nature Human beings are physical objects, according to Hobbes, sophisticated machines all of whose functions and activities can be described and explained in purely mechanistic terms. Even thought itself, therefore, must be understood as an instance of the physical operation of the human body. Sensation, for example, involves a series of mechanical processes operating within the human nervous system, by means of which the sensible features of material things produce ideas in the brains of the human beings who perceive them.
(Leviathan I 1) Human action is similarly to be explained on Hobbes’s view. Specific desires and appetites arise in the human body and are experienced as discomforts or pains which must be overcome. Thus, each of us is motivated to act in such ways as we believe likely to relieve our discomfort, to preserve and promote our own well-being. (Leviathan I 6) Everything we choose to do is strictly determined by this natural inclination to relieve the physical pressures that impinge upon our bodies. Human volition is nothing but the determination of the will by the strongest present desire.
Hobbes nevertheless supposed that human agents are free in the sense that their activities are not under constraint from anyone else. On this compatibilist view, we have no reason to complain about the strict determination of the will so long as we are not subject to interference from outside ourselves. (Leviathan II 21) As Hobbes acknowledged, this account of human nature emphasizes our animal nature, leaving each of us to live independently of everyone else, acting only in his or her own self-interest, without regard for others.
This produces what he called the “state of war,” a way of life that is certain to prove “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short. ” (Leviathan I 13) The only escape is by entering into contracts with each other? mutually beneficial agreements to surrender our individual interests in order to achieve the advantages of security that only a social existence can provide. (Leviathan I 14) Human Society Unable to rely indefinitely on their individual powers in the effort to secure livelihood and contentment, Hobbes supposed, human beings join together in the formation of a commonwealth.
Thus, the commonwealth as a whole embodies a network of associated contracts and provides for the highest form of social organization. On Hobbes’s view, the formation of the commonwealth creates a new, artificial person (the Leviathan) to whom all responsibility for social order and public welfare is entrusted. (Leviathan II 17) Of course, someone must make decisions on behalf of this new whole, and that person will be the sovereign. The commonwealth-creating covenant is not in essence a relationship between subjects and their sovereign at all.
Rather, what counts is the relationship among subjects, all of whom agree to divest themselves of their native powers in order to secure the benefits of orderly government by obeying the dictates of the sovereign authority. (Leviathan II 18) That’s why the minority who might prefer a different sovereign authority have no complaint, on Hobbes’s view: even though they have no respect for this particular sovereign, they are still bound by their contract with fellow-subjects to be governed by a single authority.
The sovereign is nothing more than the institutional embodiment of orderly government. Since the decisions of the sovereign are entirely arbitrary, it hardly matters where they come from, so long as they are understood and obeyed universally. Thus, Hobbes’s account explicitly leaves open the possibility that the sovereign will itself be a corporate person? a legislature or an assembly of all citizens? as well as a single human being. Regarding these three forms, however, Hobbes himself maintained that the commonwealth operates most effectively when a hereditary monarch assumes the sovereign role.
(Leviathan II 19) Investing power in a single natural person who can choose advisors and rule consistently without fear of internal conflicts is the best fulfillment of our social needs. Thus, the radical metaphysical positions defended by Hobbes lead to a notably conservative political result, an endorsement of the paternalistic view. Hobbes argued that the commonwealth secures the liberty of its citizens. Genuine human freedom, he maintained, is just the ability to carry out one’s will without interference from others.
This doesn’t entail an absence of law; indeed, our agreement to be subject to a common authority helps each of us to secure liberty with respect to others. (Leviathan II 21) Submission to the sovereign is absolutely decisive, except where it is silent or where it claims control over individual rights to life itself, which cannot be transferred to anyone else. But the structure provided by orderly government, according to Hobbes, enhances rather than restricts individual liberty. Whether or not the sovereign is a single heredetary monarch, of course, its administration of social order may require the cooperation and assistance of others.
Within the commonwealth as a whole, there may arise smaller “bodies politic” with authority over portions of the lives of those who enter into them. The sovereign will appoint agents whose responsibility is to act on its behalf in matters of less than highest importance. Most important, the will of the sovereign for its subjects will be expressed in the form of civil laws that have either been decreed or tacitly accepted. (Leviathan II 26) Criminal violations of these laws by any subject will be appropriately punished by the sovereign authority.
Despite his firm insistence on the vital role of the sovereign as the embodiment of the commonwealth, Hobbes acknowledged that there are particular circumstances under which it may fail to accomplish its purpose. (Leviathan II 29) If the sovereign has too little power, is made subject to its own laws, or allows its power to be divided, problems will arise. Similarly, if individual subjects make private judgments of right and wrong based on conscience, succomb to religious enthisiasm, or acquire excessive private property, the state will suffer. Even a well-designed commonwealth may, over time, cease to function and will be dissolved.
Locke: Social Order John Locke’s intellectual curiosity and social activism also led him to consider issues of general public concern in the lively political climate of seventeenth-century England. In a series of Letters on Toleration, he argued against the exercise of any governmental effort to promote or to restrict particular religious beliefs and practices. His epistemology is directly relevant to this issue: since we cannot know perfectly the truth about all differences of religious opinion, Locke held, there can be no justification for imposing our own beliefs on others.
Thus, although he shared his generation’s prejudice against “enthusiastic” expressions of religious fervor, Locke officially defended a broad toleration of divergent views. Locke’s political philosophy found its greatest expression in the Two Treatises of Civil Government, published anonymously during the same year that the Essay appeared under his own name. In the First Treatise Locke offered a point-by-point critique of Robert Filmer’s Patriarchia, a quasi-religious attempt to show that absolute monarchy is the natural system of human social organization.
The Second Treatise on Government develops Locke’s own detailed account of the origin, aims, and structure of any civil government. Adopting a general method similar to that of Hobbes, Locke imagined an original state of nature in which individuals rely upon their own strength, then described our escape from this primitive state by entering into a social contract under which the state provides protective services to its citizens. Unlike Hobbes, Locke regarded this contract as revokable.
Any civil government depends on the consent of those who are governed, which may be withdrawn at any time. Property From the outset, Locke openly declared the remarkable theme of his political theory: in order to preserve the public good, the central function of government must be the protection of private property. (2nd Treatise §3) Consider how human social life begins, in a hypothetical state of nature: Each individual is perfectly equal with every other, and all have the absolute liberty to act as they will, without interference from any other.
(2nd Treatise §4) What prevents this natural state from being a violent Hobbesian free-for-all, according to Locke, is that each individual shares in the use of the faculty of reason, so that the actions of every human agent? even in the unreconstructed state of nature? are bound by the self-evident laws of nature. Understood in this way, the state of nature vests each reasonable individual with an independent right and responsibility to enforce the natural law by punishing those few who irrationally choose to violate it.
(2nd Treatise §§7-8) Because all are equal in the state of nature, the proportional punishment of criminals is a task anyone may undertake. Only in cases when the precipitate action of the offender permits no time for appeal to the common sense, reason, and will of others, Locke held, does this natural state degenerate into the state of war of each against all. (2nd Treatise §19) Everything changes with the gradual introduction of private property.
Originally, Locke supposed, the earth and everything on it belongs to all of us in common; among perfectly equal inhabitants, all have the same right to make use of whatever they find and can use. The only exception to this rule is that each of us has an exclusive right to her/his own body and its actions. But applying these actions to natural objects by mixing our labor with them, Locke argued, provides a clear means for appropriating them as an extension of our own personal property. (2nd Treatise §27).
Since our bodies and their movements are our own, whenever we use our own effort to improve the natural world?the resulting products belong to us as well. The same principle of appropriation by the investment of labor can be extended to control over the surface of the earth as well, on Locke’s view. Individuals who pour themselves into the land? improving its productivity by spending their own time and effort on its cultivation? acquire a property interest in the result. (2nd Treatise §32) The plowed field is worth more than the virgin prairie precisely because I have invested my labor in plowing it; so even if the prairie was held in common by all, the plowed field is mine.
This personal appropriation of natural resources can continue indefinitely, Locke held, so long as there is “enough, and as good” left for others with the gumption to do the same. (2nd Treatise §33) Within reasonable limits, then, individuals are free to pursue their own “life, health, liberty, and possessions. ” Of course the story gets more complicated with the introduction of a monetary system that makes it possible to store up value in excess of what the individual can responsibly enjoy.
(2nd Treatise §37) The fundamental principle still applies: labor is the ultimate source of all economic value. (2nd Treatise §42) But the creation of a monetary system requires an agreement among distinct individuals on the artificial “value” frozen in what is, in itself, nothing more than a bit of “colored metal. ” This need for agreement, in turn, gives rise to the social order. Civil Society The first instance of social organization, on Locke’s view, is the development of the family, a voluntary association designed to secure the propagation of the human species through successive generations.
(2nd Treatise §78) Although each individual in the state of nature has the right to enforce the natural law in defence of property interests, the formation of a civil society requires that all individuals voluntarily surrender this right to the community at large. By declaring and enforcing fixed rules for conduct? human laws? the commonwealth thus serves as “umpire” in the adjudication of property disputes among those who choose to be governed in this way. (2nd Treatise §87-89) An absolute monarch, by contrast, can only remain in a state of nature with respect to the subjects under its rule.
Securing social order through the formation of any government invariably requires the direct consent of those who are to be governed. (2nd Treatise §95) Each and every individual must concur in the the original agreement to form such a government, but it would be enormously difficult to achieve unanimous consent with respect to the particular laws it promulgates. So, in practice, Locke supposed that the will expressed by the majority must be accepted as determinative over the conduct of each individual citizen who consents to be governed at all.
(2nd Treatise §97-98) Although he offered several historical examples of just such initial agreements to form a society, Locke reasonably maintained that this is beside the point. All people who voluntarily chooses to live within a society have implicitly or tacitly entered into its formative agreement, and thereby consented to submit themselves and their property to its governance. (2nd Treatise §119) The structure or form of the government so established is a matter of relatively less importance, on Locke’s view.
(2nd Treatise §132) What matters is that legislative power? the ability to provide for social order and the common good by setting standing laws over the acquisition, preservation, and transfer of property? is provided for in ways to which everyone consents. (2nd Treatise §134-8) Because the laws are established and applied equally to all, Locke argued, this is not merely an exercize in the arbitrary use of power, but an effort to secure the rights of all more securely than would be possible under the independence and equality of the state of nature.
Since standing laws continue in force long after they have been established, Locke pointed out that the legislative body responsible for deciding what the laws should be need only meet occasionally, but the executive branch of government, responsible for ensuring that the laws are actually obeyed, must be continuous in its operation within the society. (2nd Treatise §144) In similar fashion, he supposed that the federative power responsible for representing this particular commonwealth in the world at large, needs a lengthy tenure.
Locke’s presumption is that the legislative function of government will be vested in a representative assembly, which naturally retains the supreme power over the commonwealth as a whole: whenever it assembles, the majority of its members speak jointly for everyone in the society. The executive and federative functions, then, are performed by other persons (magistrates and ministers) whose power to enforce and negotiate is wholly derived from the legislative.
(2nd Treatise §153) But since the legislature is not perpetually in session, occasions will sometimes arise for which the standing laws have made no direct provision, and then the executive will have to exercize its prerogative to deal with the situation immediately, relying upon its own counsel in the absence of legislative direction. (2nd Treatise §160) It is the potential abuse of this prerogative, Locke supposed, that most often threatens the stability and order of a commonwealth. Revolution.
Whether any specific use of executive prerogative amounts to an abuse of power, is a question that transcends the social contract itself, and can only be judged by a higher appeal, to the divinely ordained law of nature. (2nd Treatise §168) Remember that according to Locke all legitimate political power derives solely from the consent of the governed to entrust their “lives, liberties, and possessions” to the oversight of the community as a whole, as expressed in the majority of its legislative body.
(2nd Treatise §171) The commonwealth as a whole, then, is dissolved (and a new one formed) whenever there is a fundamental change in the membership of the legislature. (2nd Treatise §220) The most likely cause of such a revolution, Locke supposed, would be abuse of power by the government itself: when the society unduly interferes with the property interests of the citizens, they are bound to protect themselves by withdrawing their consent. (2nd Treatise §222) When great mistakes are made in the governance of a commonwealth, only rebellion holds any promise of the restoration of fundamental rights.
(2nd Treatise §225 ) Who is to be the judge of whether or not this has actually occurred? Only the people can decide, Locke maintained, since the very existence of the civil order depends upon their consent. (2nd Treatise §240) On Locke’s view, then, the possibility of revolution is a permanent feature of any properly-formed civil society. This provided a post facto defense of the Glorious Revolution in England and was a significant element in attempts to justify later popular revolts in America and France. The Enlightenment: Continental Among Germans, the Enlightenment was studiously academic.
Development of the German universities fostered a preference for synoptic philosophizing: the goal of German philosophers was often to combine rational and empirical elements in a single comprehensive system. Both Leibniz and Christian Wolff had tried to develop complete metaphysical systems that could explain the phenomena of nature in rationalistic terms. Lessing fondly recalled the metaphysical monism of Spinoza, and Moses Mendelssohn mounted a lofty defense of the immortality of the human soul. But many of these efforts ignored the force of Hume’s skeptical arguments, rather than responding to them constructively.
The greatest philosopher of the German Enlightenment, Immanuel Kant, took a different approach. In France, the skepticism promoted by Bayle helped to promote opposition to the church and to encourage political revolution. The Encyclopedists and “free-thinkers” of the eighteenth-century sought to undermine confidence in established social positions of every sort. Voltaire’s, for example, was a brilliantly mocking voice that aimed to deflate any and all claims of certitude. If we agree that god exists, he supposed, we must then face the severe difficulties presented by the existence of evil in the world.
(In Candide Voltaire savagely attacked the practical consequences of Leibniz’s claim that this is “the best of all possible worlds. “) If we suppose that morality is vital for human life, we must somehow learn to deal with the evident determination of the will. Above all, Voltaire bitterly rejected all claims of social or religious authority. Rousseau Swiss philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau also harbored a profound dislike for authority (or even structure) of any sort and sought to restore a proper respect for the creativity and worth of individual human beings.
But Rousseau also explored the political implications of these ideas: his notion of individual liberty and his convictions about political unity helped to fuel the romantic spirit of the French Revolution. In the second of his essays for the Dijon competition, the Discours sur l’origine et les fondements de l’inegalite parmi les hommes (Discourse on the Origin of Inequality) (1755), Rousseau emphasized that the natural condition of humanity is disguised by the corruptive influence of civilization. Reliance on the feeling of compassion and on native respect for sentience, he believed, was an adequate guide for human life.
Although some few natural inequalities among individual human beings are inevitable, Rousseau argued that the far more significant moral and political inequalities are purely conventional in origin. Savage human beings, like animals of any species, are well-adapted by nature to their surroundings in the natural world. In the absence of any discursive reasoning about themselves, such beings have no need for morality or a concept of duty. Their lives are wholly guided by their feelings of pity and love for each other, and conventional inequalities do not arise. It is concern for private property, according to Rousseau, that gives rise to civil society.
Everyone’s well-being is served by reliance on each other in the basic cooperation that characterizes the family as a primitive social unit, designed to secure the necessities of human life. But the very success of this cooperative effort produces time for leisure, which in turn leads to the production of agriculture and industry. These developments require ownership of land and promote acquisition of wealth, both of which entail the protection of a stable government. Thus, Rousseau held, a body politic must be established by means of a contract that unites many wills into one. The Social Contract.
The details of this process Rousseau described in Du contrat social (On the Social Contract) (1762). At the outset, Rousseau notes that since perfect freedom is the natural condition of human beings, it is the existence of social restrictions that requires explanation. Only the family is truly a natural association, and its features are commonly extended far beyond the basic needs from which it arises. Military conquest and slavery in its usual forms cannot establish any genuine right for one person to rule over another. So, Rousseau concluded, society must devolve from a social contract in which individual citizens voluntarily participate.
Each citizen chooses to trade the natural liberty of independent life for the civil liberty secured by the state, allowing social rights over property to outweigh individual rights. But according to Rousseau, this surrender of each to the good of the whole must take place in a way that also secures the unity of all in a desire for what will most benefit the whole. “Trouver une forme d’association qui defende et protege de toute la force commune la personne et les biens de chaque associe, et par laquelle chacun s’unissant a tous n’obeisse pourtant qu’a lui-meme et reste aussi libre qu’auparavant.
” This is the fundamental problem of all social organization: to secure the participation of every individual in the general will. The General Will As Rousseau envisioned it, the general will [Fr. volonte generale] is not merely the cancelled-out sum of all the individual wills of those who participate in the social contract, the will of all [Fr. volonte de tous]. Indeed, he warned that the influence of parties representing special interests is directly inimical to the sort of sound public deliberation that can arrive at a consensus regarding the welfare of all.
So thoroughly must each individual surrender to the whole as to acknowledge that “sa vie n’est plus seulement un bienfait de la nature, mais un don conditionnel de l’Etat”. By entering into the original agreement, I have sworn to seek only the welfare of the community, no matter what the consequences may be for me. The general will must be concerned solely with the general interest, which is the inalienable responsibility of the sovereign body, expressed through legislation.
Although the general will must be arrived at through reasoned deliberation in the state as a whole, its execution depends upon an embodiment in the structure of government. Thus, for Rousseau, distinct forms of government have to do only with the execution of the sovereign laws: democracy is dangerous in application to particular cases, where the general will can easily be lost in the pressure of private interests; aristocracy is acceptable so long as it executes the general will rather than serving the welfare of the ruling elite; and monarchy clearly raises the temptation to serve private welfare at the expense of the common good.
The appropriate form of government for any state depends upon the character of its people and even its physical climate, Rousseau supposed, and its success can be measured easily by the extent to which its population thrives. Abuses of power can, of course, threaten the very life of the state. When the government? properly responsible only for carrying out the general will? takes upon itself the sovereign responsibility of establishing legal requirements for the people, the social contract has been broken.
For Rousseau, then, the establishment of a government is always provisional and temporary, subject to the continual review by its citizens. Since the legitimacy of the social contract depends upon the unanimous consent of all the governed, the sovereign general will is fully ex