Machiavelli and hobbes share a similar analysis of political power
Machiavelli and Hobbes Political Power 1
Machiavelli and Hobbes share a similar Analysis of Political Power. Discuss
Professor and Head of Department, Political Science and
Director, Gandhian Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies,
University of Jammu, Jammu, Jammu and Kashmir, India.
Machiavelli in his Prince is primarily a practical observer and diplomat analyst
prescribing numerous ethical and political instructions to Cesar Borgia for, as it were,
pyramidical maintenance, sustenance and enhancement of political power at various stages of
capturing, nurturing, preserving and augmenting power and absolute power at the helm of the
Hobbes’s aim in his Leviathan is similar to that of Machiavelli’s Prince. Both are equally
concerned for bringing about order out of chaotic civil war like situation in England and
arbitrary rule of the Papal State in Italy respectively. Hobbes is making an all out effort to
create an edifice and basis of scientific foundation for the need of a sovereign power through
his so called scientific materialism. That is why he discusses at length human nature, psyche
and need for sociological order in society. Hobbes places the Sovereign – all powerful
political ruler -- at the apex of all other aspects and activities of life.
There must be absolute ruthlessness in capturing, sustaining and enhancing political power
by the ruler for Machiavelli. Even the slightest sign of departure from this act must be
crushed for good. However for preservation of political power, Machiavelli forewarns his
prince or king or ruler alongwith advising murder and all type of brutalities. An example of
such ideas is to be seen in the following theme or suggestion that runs through three chapters
of The Prince:
A man may forget the murder of his father but not the confiscation
of his patrimony and woman.1
In Machiavelli’s time, as Sabine also says, absolutism was emerging as a powerful force in
different ways while demolishing the medieval yardsticks of order and monarchies.
Absolute monarchy overturned feudal constitutionalism and the free
city-states, on which medieval civilization had largely depended, just
as nationalism later overturned the dynastic legitimacy to which
absolute monarchy gave rise. The church itself, the most
characteristic of all medieval institutions, fell a prey to it, or to social
forces upon which it depended. Weak and rich -- a fatal combination
in an age of blood and iron -- the monasteries were expropriated by
Protestant and Catholic monarchies alike, to provide the wealth of a
new middle class which was the main strength of the monarchy.
Machiavelli and Hobbes Political Power 2
Ecclesiastical rulers were everywhere subjected more and more to
royal control, and in the end the church's legal authority disappeared.
The sacerdotium vanished as a power, and the church became --
what it had never before been for Christian thought -- either a
voluntary association or a partner of national government.2
Machiavelli does not care to show his analysis to be having a scientific basis while Hobbes
appears to be bothered about this from the very beginning of his Leviathan. Machiavelli is a
sharp observer and a practitioner of mundane diplomacy and politics. Hobbes is basically a
philosopher finding support in erecting an apparent scientific basis for his fictional social
contract. Yet, what Sabine says is indeed true about Machiavelli and Hobbes – especially
about the point where their analysis of political power becomes similar:
Hence his cynical remark that a man more readily forgives the murder
of his father than the confiscation of his patrimony. The prudent ruler
may kill but he will not plunder. When completed by a systematic
psychology to explain and justify it, this phase of Machiavelli became
the political philosophy of Hobbes.3
Despite such sharing of the concept of political power in Machiavelli and Hobbes, there is
vast difference in their methodology, approach and thematic emphasis anent the major
perspectives and elements relating to successful and brutal kingly rule and establishment of
an all powerful sovereign ruler respectively. For Machiavelli, in The Prince, an individual
seldom emerges as important component of the entire statecraft and ‘princely’ rule. While,
for Hobbes, it is the individual writ large despite creation of his authoritarian sovereign after,
indeed, every individual in the state of nature enters into a contract one with one another for
surrendering their rights to the absolute ruler. This appears to be an interesting divergence in
the otherwise shared concept of political power in Machiavelli and Hobbes.4
Hobbes’s concept of political power is more systematic than Machiavelli. Sabine also
supports this view when he says, “It is notable chiefly for the logical clarity of the argument
and the consistency with which it carried through the presumptions from which it started. It
was in no sense a product of realistic political observation [of Machiavelli].”5
It is indeed surprising to see how both Hobbes and Machiavelli have come up with similar
concept of political power despite having different methods. Hobbes’s psychology, sociology
and political understanding in his Leviathan were not based on his observation of human
beings while Machiavelli was past master in this context. Maybe their social and political
context and purpose behind writing Prince and Leviathan were similar.
In reaching his concept of political power, Hobbes’s method was geometrical – moving
from simple to complex, i.e., from individual’s utilitarian need for security and comfort to a
Machiavelli and Hobbes Political Power 3
political order with government and law under the Sovereign ruler. Machiavelli’s method is
different and much ahead of his own time. Observation and empiricism is his method. For
him like Hobbes, good laws and armies are most important for uniting Italy and making it a
very powerful country. Hobbes however does not discuss the factor of army in his concept of
There is yet another difference in the concept of political power of both thinkers.
Machiavelli is a strategist and a writer in statecraft or a practical advisor in matters of state
administration while Hobbes is a system builder and a philosopher.7
Machiavelli advises and
prescribes his concepts while Hobbes builds his philosophy of political power.
What Hobbes builds in his Leviathan? For him, there is apparently a state of nature where
man or human beings are sad, nasty, brutish and selfish living almost in a state of war of
every individual against each individual. These beings – out of sheer mutual disgust and
sadness – decide to enter into a social contract and repose their natural laws and rights by
virtue of natural reason into a Sovereign person for the purpose of security of life and order in
society through a leviathan Sovereign. Hence, Hobbes is hypothetically studying human
nature, psychology, need for society, sociological foundations and the quest for a political
order and political system in his own unique way or the geometrical method. Hobbes as such
knits his web of scientific materialism leading to near complete submission of every
individual to a Sovereign of course with certain qualifying limitations on the sovereign
power. As long as the Sovereign is able to protect the life of his subjects, he remains a
Sovereign. Otherwise, implicitly, the state of nature will emerge again. In Hobbes’s own
First, because they Covenant, it is to be understood, they are not
obliged by former Covenant to anything repugnant hereunto. And
Consequently they that have already Instituted a Common-wealth,
being thereby bound by Covenant, to own the Actions, and
Judgements of one, cannot lawfully make a new Covenant, amongst
themselves, to be obedient to any other, in anything whatsoever,
without his permission. And therefore, they that are subjects to a
Monarch, cannot without his leave cast off Monarchy, and return to
the confusion of a disunited Multitude; nor transferred their Person
from him that bears it, to another Man, or other Assembly of men: for
they are bound, every man to every man, to Own, and be reputed
Author of all, that he that already is their Sovereign, shall do, and
judge fit to be done: so that any one man dissenting, all the rest
should break their Covenant made to that man, which is injustice: and
they have also every man given the Sovereignty to him that bears
Machiavelli and Hobbes Political Power 4
their Person; and therefore if they depose him, they take from which
is his own, and so again it is injustice.8
Machiavelli does not engage in such Hobbesian labyrinthine act of establishing the link of
human felicity of Reason between two hitherto fore mutually opposite nuances and concepts
of natural laws and natural rights. Hobbes is trying to knit a fabric of a social science if not
exact science behind his concept of political power.
Machiavelli is an observer, historian and an empiricist going towards becoming strategist
and an expert in statecraft and administration.
In both the thinkers, concept of political power goes for establishing an absolutist ruler
who at best can otherwise be an authoritarian king and sovereign. Sovereignty by definition is
also indivisible and absolute in nature. No one can be above a sovereign.
Both are quite ethical in explaining their concept of political power inasmuch as they both
put certain limitations upon the conduct of their all powerful rulers. Machiavelli does not
allow his brutal and ruthless rulers to touch the property and women of their subjects. His
ruler may mercilessly murder and kill but not plunder. For Machiavelli, glory and power are
needed for a ruler to be really successful and long lasting.
For both, a strong ruler and powerful political order in society was needed. Their approach
in this matter is highly objective, secular and singular with their aim of having an ordered
united country for the prosperity and security of citizens and ever augmenting power of their
political rulers and the sovereign.
Machiavelli’s political power is however required for ever increasing power. Power for the
sake of power is needed here. Other things will follow suit. Hobbes’s position is again in this
context. Hobbes is not Machiavellian though he may be an authoritarian in nature.
Machiavelli is crude and brutal in his Prince. Hobbes is not like Machiavelli in terms of
ruthlessness and brutality of the Sovereign.9
Machiavelli’s concept of political power is such that no one can match his genius even in
the present age of the most inhuman destructive nuclear technology. Machiavelli’s Prince
does not need Max Lerner’s age of overkill for killing and murdering mercilessly.
Machiavelli’s boldness makes him the first modern political thinker. Hobbes’s concept of
political power is at best a more systematic extension of the Machiavellian enunciation.
Even otherwise, there are authors who do not regard Hobbes’s idea of political power as
his original contribution vis-a-vis Machiavelli. Leo Strauss and others see that perhaps
Machiavelli and Hobbes Political Power 5
Hobbes was inspired by Aristotle, Thucydides and Machiavelli in evolving his concept of
political power and what Machiavelli often refers to as “glory”.10
Whoever might have inspired Hobbes in his ideas on political power, it appears
undoubtedly clear that Machiavelli and Hobbes have contributed very meaningfully in
expanding the horizons of understanding and knowledge concerning political power. They
both have been much ahead of their own time. The political realism of the modern age indeed
owes a lot to the modern tradition of realist political analytical perspectives laid by Hobbes
While comparing the concept of political power of Machiavelli and Hobbes, it emerges
clearly that Hobbes is a little lesser of a realist than Machiavelli while Machiavelli is not as
much of an idealist as Hobbes is despite being a progenitor of the concept of political power.
Who among these two is a more ruthless proponent of gaining political power upon political
power endlessly? The answer is obvious – none other than Machiavelli.
Machiavelli and Hobbes Political Power 6
Machiavelli, Niccolo, The Prince, London: Plain Label Books, 1952, Chapters – VII to IX, pp. 33-85.
Sabine, George H., A History of Political Theory, New York: Holt Rinehart and Winston, 1961, pp. 333-334.
Ibid. pp. 343. Emphasis added.
Ibid. pp. 473-475.
Ibid. p. 474.
Skinner, Quentin, Machiavelli: A Very Short Introduction, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2000, pp. 33-36.
Femia, Joseph V. Machiavelli Revisited, Cardiff, Wales: Universal Publication, 2004, pp. 30-32.
Hobbes, Thomas. Leviathan: Or, the Matter, Form and Power of a Commonwealth, Ecclesiastical and Civil,
Editor, A. R. Waller, Cambridge: CUP, 1904, p. 120-121.
Ibid. Hobbes, Thomas. p. 120.
Slomp, Gabriella. Thomas Hobbes and the Political Philosophy of Glory, Houndmills: Macmillan, 2000, pp. 49-