The Prince and the Social Contract

Many medieval political thinkers observed that power and authority came first from God and then from a social mandate. In Leviathan, Thomas Hobbes proposes that power comes from the social mandate first. (Leviathan, Bk. I, Ch. 18, pp. 230) He makes this assertion on the basis that it is within the human nature to secure its life through banding together with others to form a community. Each community, then, is held together by a common desire for protection from the wild while maintaining isolation of the self from others. (Leviathan, Bk. I, Ch. 14, pp.190-94).

One person must be able to make decisions on behalf of the community, that person, even if he/she does not enjoy unanimous support, becomes the sovereign. The social status of the sovereign is secondary in importance to the percentage of the population that supports them. Hobbes' concept of authority and power, then, stems from the belief that people have leaders because such people are necessary to maintain the unification of society and thus maintain the protection of the people from the wild. Niccolo Machiavelli had a slightly different idea as to the justification and origin of power and authority.

Machiavelli concurs with Hobbes that a sovereign is necessary for the unification of the society. But, rather than being the arbitrary selection of a society, the Machiavellian sovereign is, by necessity, a member of an established and influential family, a man with long blood-lines to other rulers who, by nature of his heredity, has less cause to offend others and thus rules effectively through his urbane nature. (The Prince, Chap II, pp. 8) It is the purpose of this paper to examine Hobbes and Machiavelli's conception, definition, and justification of power and authority in a community.

Thomas Hobbes marked the transition from medieval to the modern political thinking in Britain. His Leviathan developed a philosophical vocabulary for the English language by using Anglicized versions of the technical vocabulary employed by Greek and Latin authors. Through careful use of words that signified common ideas in the mind, Hobbes maintained that he avoided the difficulties to which human reasoning is most easily prone and this made possible the articulation of a clear conception of reality (Leviathan, Bk.I, Ch. 4, pp. 100).

For Hobbes, the idea of reality is bound to be materialistic, meaning that physical matter and its motion explain all phenomena in the universe and construct the only reality that human beings can experience. The materialists believed that the natural universe could be explained through a study of the motion of bodies and matter through space and time. It was their contention that the entire process of the universe, its meaning, could be derived from such study. (Leviathan, Bk. I, Ch. 1, pp. 85-88).

In his observations of the materialist nature of Man, Hobbes concluded that specific desires, defined as appetites, occur in the human body and are then experienced as discomforts or pains, defined as aversions, which must be conquered. Thus, each of us is motivated to act in ways that we believe most likely to relieve our discomfort and therefore to preserve and promote our own well-being. (Leviathan, Bk. I, Ch. 6, pp. 119-121) Everything we elect to do is determined by this natural proclivity to relieve the physical pressures that encroach upon our bodies.

Human preference is only the determination of the will by the strongest present desire. One of the strongest of those desires is to avoid a state of active conflict with others. (Leviathan, Bk. I, Ch. 6, pp. 127) To secure ourselves, Hobbes asserts, people band together and join under contracts with each other to offer mutual respect of body and property while assuring mutual protection from others ? thus voluntarily giving up some of our individual interests and freedoms to achieve the advantages of security that only life in a society can provide (Leviathan, Bk. I, Ch. 14, pp. 191).

Large affiliations of contracting social groups join together to create a community which is, in essence, a complex network of associated contracts; that provides for the pinnacle of social organization. The success and longevity of the network (commonwealth) is the responsibility of a person (the Leviathan) in whom all responsibilities for the maintenance of the public welfare and social order is entrusted (Leviathan, Bk. II, Ch. 17, pp. 227-28). This person must make decisions on behalf of the social group as a whole and in so doing, takes on a global view that characterizes the sovereign.

In the Hobbesean view, the Sovereign is granted powers only through the needs of the commonwealth because of the necessity of a unifying figurehead, not through some form of divine right. He demonstrates this by observing that the decisions of the sovereign are entirely arbitrary and, as such, it matters very little as to where they originate (i. e. any citizen can fill the role of sovereign). Hobbes establishes that the Leviathan may be a single person or a body of any given size, but that it must both in actuality and symbolically reflect the needs of the society. (Leviathan, Bk. II, Ch. 19, pp.239-41).

He also concluded that it is the responsibility of the incumbent Sovereign, be it group or individual, to choose their successor; this is so as to reduce the likelihood of internal conflicts through campaigns for power. (Leviathan, Bk. II, Ch. 19, pp. 247) Authority and power are closely linked, if not identical in Hobbes' mind; both are vested solely in the Sovereign. They are the product of the social contract and are necessary for the enforcement of said contract. That power is derived from the absolute necessity to completely submit to the power of the state in order to preserve peace.

While disagreement may occur and popular consensus may be difficult to reach, when all people within the commonwealth agree to absolutely follow the decisions of the sovereign, all remain unified in their primary purpose ? that being to secure themselves against the wild and their removal from the State of Nature (Leviathan, Bk. II, Ch. 26, pp. 334). Hobbes certainly believed in the necessity of a powerful sovereign, but he also understood that there are times, exceptions, when such rule may actually harm a society and thus be rendered ineffective.

If the sovereign maintains too little power, is unable to remain free of the laws it dictates, or allows its power to be split or divided, most certainly problems will arise. Also, if non-sovereign individuals begin to make decisions of conscious, become overly religious, or acquire property such that they no longer have much need for the protections of society, the state and health of the commonwealth will suffer. This fear, if examined closely, is a recipe for a closed society in which the only freedoms a person may enjoy is the maintenance of their life and protection from external aggression.

(Leviathan, Bk. II, Ch. 29, pp. 263-76) Machiavelli did not begin his argument for the justification of power held by sovereigns at the beginning of the human experience. Rather, he took the position that as all states had, throughout history been ruled by a Prince or as a Republic, debating the origins and purpose of either was a moot point. In fact, he, at the very beginning of The Prince, clearly spells out that he is not concerned with the functions of the Republic as, "I have written of them at length, and will address myself only to principalities" (The Prince, Chap II, pp.7).

Like Hobbes, Machiavelli perceived the necessity of a singular, hereditary head of state, the "Prince" (which is an encompassing title to include Ceasar, King, etc). Machiavelli justifies his preference toward a hereditary prince because, the hereditary prince has less cause and less necessity to offend; hence, it happens that he will be more loved; and unless extraordinary vices cause him to be hated, it is reasonable to expect that his subjects will be naturally well disposed towards him . (The Prince, Chap II, pp.8).

The Prince was written with the express purpose to ingratiate himself with the current Italian ruling family, the Medicis. After being expelled from the political arena due to unfavorable prose, Machiavelli was so desperate to regain his political standings that he wrote a primer that he felt would please them. (The Prince, Letter, pp. 3-4) The Prince describes a very real and quite possible totalitarian society, one bent entirely towards the furthering of the state, one without individualism ? where life is devoted and subordinate in all ways to the state.

A Prince, as described by Machiavelli, is a iron-handed ruler, for whom the end always justifies the means (which gives excuse for all sorts of horrors to be visited upon the people for the purpose of preserving the state). (The Prince, Chap XVII, pp. 53) Machiavelli spoke of a society of born evil-doers (an extrapolation of Catholic thought that man is inherently a sinner). Based on that conclusion, it takes the iron fist of a Prince to keep them in line, and a state which, by definition, must use its resources to command and control the people to the furtherance of its goals.

This conception of the basis of the state and, thus, the justification of the sovereign's power is quite different from that of Hobbes. Power, to Machiavelli, centers on the necessity of the Prince to secure the borders and integrity of the state at all costs (both external and internal). The state, to Machiavelli, is not the coalition of mutually interested groups and contracts; it is a physical, geographical entity that asserts itself upon others and defends itself against similar action. (The Prince, Chap X, pp. 36).

Power and the authority placed in the Prince, is justified only as a means of preserving the Prince's authority ?making such justification quite circular. Perhaps, if we take this point of view into consideration, it is possible to see that the Machiavellian skepticism about human nature being based upon a foundation of sin, and the Hobbsean belief that men must be induced to behave by contract and force , demonstrate the necessity of a powerful authority ? if for nothing else than to keep people from destroying themselves. Hobbes is, at his core, a humanist who develops an understanding in his readers that society exists to serve the needs of the individuals who have agreed to give up some of their freedoms as animals in exchange for their security.

In this view, the justification of the sovereign is an easy thing to understand. The leader exists to create and enforce the laws by which our lives are best secured (Leviathan,Bk. II,Ch. 21,pp. 264-65). Machiavelli, however, identified the sovereign's power as being a necessity to maintain the integrity of the principality. This is a very different view than Hobbes, because Machiavelli's The Prince centers its argument on the idea that the preservation of the state is the preservation of the government, culture, and territory of only the state and that the citizenry matters very little other than as a supplier to the Prince.

(The Prince, Chap X, pp. 37) Although both Hobbes and Machiavelli stress the need for authority to maintain peace among citizens who have selfish natures, Hobbes articulates that the existence of the Sovereign is for the good of the people. Its power is derived from the consent of the people and for their protection. Whereas, Machiavelli emphasizes the Princes need to use power in order to preserve that state, risking the potential loss to the people.

Works Cited:

  • Hobbes, Thomas. Leviathan. New York, NY: Penguin Books, 1985.
  • Machiavelli, Niccolo. The Prince. New York, NY:Penguin Books, 2003.