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Comparison of Locke, Machiavelli, Hobbes and Rousseau
The philosophies of Machiavelli, Hobbes, Locke, and Rousseau encompass a spectrum of thought on how a state should be governed.
At one end is the cynicism of Machiavelli and, to some extent, Hobbes. Their ideas are countered by the democratic optimism of Locke and Rousseau. At the heart of each of these essays is each philosopher's assessment of the fundamental character of people and how much they can be trusted to govern themselves.
How we live is so far removed from how we ought to live, that he who abandons what is done for what ought to be done, will rather learn to bring about his own ruin than his preservation," wrote Machiavelli in The Prince. (Santoni 116).
Machiavelli is writing in the context of giving advice to a prince, or head of state, on how to govern. His statement demonstrates his skepticism about the role morals play in political life. According to Machiavelli, because most people are amoral, they will not accept or follow a leader who tries to rule with principles. By making a "profession of goodness" (Santoni 116), a leader will probably bring about his own demise.
In fact, Machiavelli's advice for a novice prince is to learn how "not to be good" (Santoni 116) and to apply that knowledge to each situation. Consequently, the prince that Machiavelli envisions needs to walk something of a moral tightrope. He needs to learn which vices to avoid and which vices to embrace. Indeed, Machiavelli believes that practicing some vices is necessary to successful government. " He [prince] must not mind incurring the scandal of those vices without which it would be difficult to save the state." (Santoni 117).
Machiavelli even elaborates on the types of vices that are necessary, such as being a miser or being cruel to subjects.
Throughout The Prince moral codes seem irrelevant to the business of running a state. The survival of the sovereign is the highest priority. At times Machiavelli seems to be writing guidelines for tyrants. According to him, a prince is safer if he is feared rather than loved. It is easier, Machiavelli maintains, for people to offend, or betray, someone they love than someone they fear. How is that fear instilled?
Fear is maintained by a dread of punishment which never fails." (Santoni 120).
In Leviathan, Hobbes, like Machiavelli, stresses the importance of a powerful sovereign, however his philosophy of government seems less tyrannical than that of Machiavelli. "During the time when men live without a common power to keep them all in awe, they are in that condition which is called war, and such a war as is of every man against every man." (Santoni 143).
Hobbes believes that people can live in an ordered society only with this awesome, God-like power and that power could be a sovereign, or ruler, or an assembly of men. According to Hobbes, without this power men cannot be trusted to act justly toward each other. "For if we could suppose a great multitude of men to consent in the observation of justice and other laws of nature... there neither would be need to be any civil government or commonwealth at all." (Santoni 149).
When Hobbes says that men are in this state of war, it is not in the sense of physically attacking each other, but in a climate of war. Without the framework of a sovereign power, the only security for men, for their self preservation, is what they can do to protect themselves through individual strength and ingenuity. That state of mind is a state of war. With the establishment of a sovereign, security and protection is provided for the constituents and they no longer have to be in this state or climate of war.
A society without a sovereign would be amoral and one without industry, farming, arts, or letters according to Hobbes. He compares such a society to seventeenth century America: "in America... except the government of small families [they] have no government at all and live at this day in that brutish manner." (Santoni 144).
Hobbes' perception of the power of the sovereign is one of considerable authority. He perceives the sovereign as the multitude of people's will united into one person or one group of people becoming one entity. Consequently, the sovereign has ultimate power and authority because his subjects, or the people of that state, for whom he exercises a collective will, gave him that authority. "He that does anything by the authority of another, he is acting by their authority." (Santoni 152).
In Locke's discourse, "An Essay Concerning the True Original Extent and End of Civil Government," the focus of power shifts from a sovereign power to the people who comprise the state. When he wrote, "no one can be... subjected to the political power of another without his own consent" (Santoni 178), he is laying the groundwork for a democratic government. In Locke's view men are by nature free and equal. The state or the community they create is through their will and determination. Consequently, the power of that community is in its people.
Where Hobbes, and particularly Machiavelli, are cynical in their estimation of people, Locke is optimistic. Where Hobbes sees man in a natural state (without government), as savage and brutish, Locke sees civilized, if unsophisticated, attempts to live lawfully. Unlike Hobbes, Locke accepts the fact, without much alarm, that there are places in America, "where there is no government. They have no Kings but choose their captains as they please." (Santoni 181).
Locke embraces the idea that power can be trusted to a multitude of people because he believes that people are innately moral and will govern fairly. The government that Locke proposes is always accountable to the community, and the community has the power to change or displace the legislative and executive powers.
This concentration of power would have been discomforting, if not frightening, to Hobbes and Machiavelli, even a direct route to revolution. Locke dismisses that type of fear with his faith in human nature: "People are not so easily got out of their old forms. Revolutions don't happen upon every mismanagement in public affairs - only if there are a long line of abuses that make the design visible to the people." (Santoni 200).
Rousseau's views are sympathetic to Locke's ideas. When Rousseau wrote, "The laws are but the acts of the general will" (Santoni 231), he is referring to his concept of a moral and collective body that serves as the general will of the constituents of a state. In Rousseau's view, this collective body is able to legislate objectively and fairly because it acts for the general will, not the private interests of select portions of society.
Rousseau's ideas are based on his principle of a "social contract."
He developed his social contract in response to the dilemma of how people can remain free as individuals and still find a form of association, or government, that can operate as a common force. "Each of us places in common his person and all his power under the supreme direction of the general will; and as one body we all receive each member as an indivisible part of the whole." (Santoni 214).
At the instant that this social contract is formed, individuals must commit themselves to the collective will. "The total alienation of each associate and all his rights to the whole community; for in the first place as every individual gives himself up entirely the condition of every person is alike." (Santoni 213).
By giving oneself to this collective, objectivity in government ensured. Personal interests are set aside for the collective community. Situations can be viewed abstractly and collectively. "When the whole people determines for the whole…[continue]
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