Views and Conceptions of Aristotle Hobbes Machiavelli and Bellah Essay

Excerpt from Essay :

Aristotle, Hobbes, Machiavelli and Bellah

What are the different conceptions of knowledge that inform Hobbes's and Aristotle's respective accounts of politics? Be specific about questions of individualism, virtue, and justice. In Bellah's terms, what kind of politics would they support? How are they related to Bellah's views on the relationship between social science and social life?

Aristotle stated repeatedly that the needs of the state and society overrode individual pleasures, desires and happiness, while Hobbes regarded unchecked individualism as a menace to public peace and good order. Public virtue and justice for Aristotle were not based on purely individual feelings, desires or personal happiness, for "which it is satisfactory to acquire and preserve the good even for an individual, it is finer and more divine to acquire and preserve it for a people and for cities" (Aristotle 2). Virtue is the chief end of political life, but only the vulgar and uneducated believed that it could be based on hedonism and a "life of gratification" (Aristotle 4). It does not come from money, appearance or good fortune, but from training citizens to become "good people who do fine actions" (Aristotle 12). Hobbes had a purely skeptical attitude toward individual virtue and morality, which were purely subjective so that "whatsoever is the object of any man's appetite or desire; that is it, which he for his part calleth Good" (Hobbes, p. 29). In this State of Nature in which individuals acted purely on their own interests and desires, a war of all against all ensued that threatened the survival of everyone. This is why they contracted together to form governments, so that their own lives and property would be protected by the state. According to Robert Bellah, "we Americans take it for granted that "democracy is a good thing, indeed, politically, the best thing, and whatever opposes it is a very bad thing," but this was definitely not the view of Hobbes, Plato, Aristotle or Machiavelli (Bellah vii).

Like most political philosophers before modern times, they assumed that democracy would mean the rule of mob and the impoverished, illiterate masses of peasants, servants and laborers. Machiavelli preferred the rule of a monarch, dictator or military strongman while Hobbes thought that government chosen by the citizens could be a monarchy or a republic run by an assembly, and Aristotle favored a republic with a large middle class over aristocracy, oligarchy, monarchy or dictatorship. So did the founders of the American republic for that matter, although some like Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin were democrats. For most of history, however, democracy had a very bad reputation as an unstable government by the lower orders that almost never survived over the long run. Even Alexis de Tocqueville and John Stuart Mill feared the tyranny of the majority, although for Bellah a much greater cause for concern was the threat of oligarchy and control by the rich and big business over the political process, which had made the U.S. The most unequal society in the Western world. As Tocqueville noted, the unrestrained individualism in America could lead to a culture of greed, selfishness and withdrawal from public life. If the individual and his desires are paramount, then "the rest of his fellow citizens, they are nothing" (Bellah ix). Hobbes, Aristotle and Machiavelli all opposed this type of unrestrained individualism as highly detrimental to the state and society. Of course, they were all writing at a time when capitalism was in its infancy or in the case of Aristotle hardly existed at all. Their world was still based on agriculture and household economies, with the great aristocrats owning most of the land. They simply did not imagine that all citizens could be equal or have the same individual rights, or that they would even be allowed to vote and participate in government at all. Certainly they could not have regarded women, peasants and slaves as their equals, which is a purely modern concept.

2. What are Hobbes's and Aristotle's respective views of human nature? How do they view the relationship between reason and passion? What is the function of the political system in managing that relationship?

Aristotle had a more sunny and optimistic view of human nature than Hobbes, who was a crude materialist and atheist who thought that most human beings were motivated by greed, egoism and fear. Indeed, Hobbes explicitly rejection any of Aristotle's thought or philosophy in favor of the new science of the 17th Century, holding that humans were purely material beings who learned about nature and the external world through the perceptions of their senses (Hobbes 13). He regarded the art of rhetoric as a toll to manipulate the masses and religion as a mechanism to control them, even while being personally indifferent to Christian ideas about religion and morality. Indeed, the sovereign should just make up any religion necessary that will keep peace and good order in society, or agree to tolerate all religions if that would serve the same purpose better. Much of his book Leviathan that is completely ignored today actually concerned the refutation of popular superstitions about ghosts, witches, demons, hell and evil spirits, which he did not believe existed at all, just as he refuted the concept of an absolute monarchy put into power by divine right. For the educated elites, at least, all these superstitions would be swept aside in favor of reason and science. Hobbes had lived through many religious wars and civil wars during his lifetime in England, France and Germany during the Thirty Years War, and he thought that only a powerful, centralized state could prevent these.

For Aristotle, the idea that human beings should be enslaved to passions instead of reason was immoral, since that made them no better than slaves or horses, cattle and other animals in the fields. He did not find much distinction between the nature of a slave and an animal, if fact, since both of which were beats of burden who cared only about fulfilling their lowest physical needs and desires. Although he rejected Plato's Idealism of the Good as being an eternal, unchanging Truth from God, he insisted that the souls of all citizens had to be educated in the civic and moral virtues. A virtuous person would always have the same noble character regardless of wealth, reversals of fortune, poor health or old age, and even in personal distress "what is fine shines through" (Aristotle 14). Virtue always came about through the action of the soul, not the body, but like the body, it must be trained and taught to exercise these virtues. Wealth was not the measure of any person's real worth, as the supporters of oligarchy maintained, but the democrats were also wrong in regarding all persons as equals when the clearly did not -- and could not -- possess the same degree of virtues (Aristotle 71).

3. What are Hobbes's and Aristotle's respective accounts of the relationship between the citizen and the political system? Between one citizen and the next? What kinds of behavior does each believe the political system should encourage or cultivate? Hint: think about Hobbes's account of the Laws of Nature and Aristotle's account of virtue.

Aristotle always maintained that virtuous conduct could be learned, at that it was usually found at the mean between the extremes, while Hobbes was far less concerned with virtue than maintaining order and discipline. For Hobbes, citizens motivated by self-interest or survival would come together to end the state of nature and form a government, and "appoint one man, or an assembly of men, to bear their person." In other words, they would surrender part of the individual powers to a sovereign state that "shall act, or come to be acted, in those things which concern the common peace and safety" (Hobbes 120). On this one occasion at least, they give up their individual wills and desires to a sovereign, even though Hobbes did not permit them to chose another one later through regular elections. Only if the state failed to maintain order could the people overthrow and replace it with one that could. He did not care whether the sovereign was a monarchy or a republic, or what type of religion it practiced as long as the lives and well-being of citizens were protected.

For Aristotle and the classical republicans, however, no state could survive without a virtuous citizenry. This is certainly what the leaders of the French and American Revolutions believed in the 18th Century, by which they meant that the people would put the good of the republic ahead of purely private, narrow and egotistical self-interests. If they were unable to do so, then the republic would fail, as had so many others in history. Aristotle regarded temperance as a virtue, in which the character of an individual or a society was not "ruined by excess and deficiency" (Aristotle 20). An intemperate person was a hedonist, while the puritan who opposed all pleasure would be a boor. Bravery was…

Sources Used in Document:


Aristotle. Nicomachean Ethics. Hackett Publishing Company Inc., 1994.

Bellah, Robert N. Habits of the Heart: Individualism and Commitment in American Life. University of California Press, 2008.

Hobbes, Thomas. Leviathan, Revised Student Edition. Cambridge University Press, 1996.

Machiavelli, Niccolo. The Prince. Cambridge University Press, 1988.

Cite This Essay:

"Views And Conceptions Of Aristotle Hobbes Machiavelli And Bellah" (2011, April 30) Retrieved July 5, 2020, from

"Views And Conceptions Of Aristotle Hobbes Machiavelli And Bellah" 30 April 2011. Web.5 July. 2020. <>

"Views And Conceptions Of Aristotle Hobbes Machiavelli And Bellah", 30 April 2011, Accessed.5 July. 2020,