Machiavelli and Hobbes on Power and Accountability within Politics
The terms power and accountability both hold their own definitions within political context: power being one’s ability to exert influence or to act without question or challenge, and accountability being a political leaders responsibility to protect the state and the social contract ( failure to do so would then lead to their being held accountable by the people). This essay will go on to discuss power and accountability from the perspectives of well-known political theorists, Niccolo Machiavelli and Thomas Hobbes, and the extent to which their views parallel one another.
Machiavelli, above all else, was an Italian political theorist who lived from the late 15th to the early 16th century. He is most famously known for his book ‘The Prince’, which goes into great detail on what Machiavelli believed to be key in grasping and maintaining power. He would say that power is essential in maintaining a strong state, and that a ruler must maintain this by any means necessary. This allows a political leader to go against moral as long as there is just.
Hobbes, alive in the late 16th until the late 17th century, was an English philosopher who was thought to be one of the founding people of contemporary politics, as he ‘set a model for the understanding of the nature, purpose and justifications of government'(Rogers,2000) and is best known for his book ‘leviathan’, which goes into detail on the need for a social contract- this is likely due to Hobbes view of man, which was that they were almost feral, living ‘solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short’ (Hobbes,1651a) lives, unless, according to Hobbes, under sovereign govern of a powerful individual. He believed it necessary for man to give up their own power to said individual in trade for security- this was part of his social contract, which is still to this day very popular.
There are many issues regarding power which Machiavelli and Hobbes agree upon, though they do not fully agree. It should be taken into consideration however, that the two were alive at different times and in different places, as machiavelli lived in Italy, and Hobbes lived in Great Britain. This would mean that bot would have rather different political influences throughout their lives.
Machiavelli and Hobbes seem to agree that it is essential that one man holds power over the decisions which are made on society’s behalf, as both would seem to have a rather low view on man, however Machiavelli does not regard man as being incapable, he suggests that he regarded them as being manipulative and selfish, thereby would make corrupt decisions if given the power to make their own political choices (Machiavelli,1532a). This view of man may be down to the time Machiavelli was alive, which, according to historian Sydney Anglo, was during a ‘period of constant European war and territorial fragmentation dominated by rulers bent on aggrandisement.'(Anglo,1970).This may have contributed Machiavelli’s somewhat sinister view upon what is necessary to hold power.
They also share the belief that there is an extent to which a leader must be feared, although they differ in the extent to which they believe a political leader can or must be feared before it becomes surfeit. Machiavelli would say that in a utopia, a great leader would be feared and loved, however he was a realist, and so believed one must value being feared over being loved if they are to maintain their power, as he wished ‘not to waste time with a discussion of an imaginary world’ or how man ‘ought to behave’ (Machiavelli,1532b).It seems to be Hobbes’ view that a good leader is feared, respected and loved all to the same standard, and believes the extent to which a leader must be feared to be lower than Machiavelli.
As previously stated, Machiavelli holds moral in a low regard when compared to protecting the state, and would say that power is acquired by placing being feared over loved, and in being prudent(Machiavelli,1532c). Contrary to this, it is implied that Hobbes believes that some moral should be demonstrated by a political leader when making decisions on behalf of their people, as ‘without a common power to keep them all in awe,they men are in that condition of war’ (Hobbes,1651,b), unless man is willing to let a sovereign make decisions on his own and other peoples behalves. Hobbes would have to use moral in order to stop man from going to lengths such as fighting and even murder for the sake of survival, and so may wish to set a better example. However it could also be argued that this could mean a lack of moral, as in a state so absolutely reigned by a sovereign, moral could be betrayed if the leader so desperately wished to exploit his position of power as such.
Machiavelli also disregards moral to a large extent when it comes to how he believes power over a state is maintained. He conveys throughout his book, ‘The Prince’, that decisions, where it can be helped, should be made in good faith, however where this is not possible, it can be assumed that deceit becomes justified. An example of an immoral tactic in maintaining power which Machiavelli suggests is finding weaker allies (Machiavelli,1532d), as this would allow for creating some form of protection, all while not having to consider the allies a threat,this may be because the weaker ally may be aware of their inferior status within the alliance, and thereby wouldn’t dare challenge their power.
Hobbes believed power was best maintained within a monarchy, as it leaves little room for agenda, unlike another political system, democracy for example, which he believed would give too much power to the individual, leading to them basing political decisions on self-interest- ‘The man that will…disobey the civil sovereign…or any of his officers in the execution of their places, that man shall die…which is clearly for the civil sovereignty’ (Hobbes,1651c); this could then lead to man regressing to their feral state.
Overall, Machiavelli and Hobbes share somewhat similar views on what power is and how it should be kept, and they also are alike in the sense that both inconspicuously imply that a leader is held accountable to an extent- for example, both believe there is a line within being feared which a leader must cross before being held accountable, though they may differ on how far out this line is drawn. Machiavelli would allow for more fear of a leader than Hobbes, so long as it did not become plain hatred for the leader (Machiavelli,1532e) Hobbes however believes accountability more so depends on how well a leader uses their power for the good of the state.
To expand on how Hobbes believes accountability is to be avoided, he believes that power is absolute as ‘we commit the government of ourselves, more willingly than to others.'(Hobbes,1651d), which would imply that a leader has failed to provide the security to his people as promised in exchange for their being subordinate as he has been given absolute power over his people in a political sense- this would lead to him being held accountable as he would likely be revolted by his people if man’s nature was as he’d said it to be. Machiavelli also believes that at the least an illusion of security must be maintained, however he also seems to believe that boundaries must be kept between a leader and his people, for example, he believed that one shouldn’t encroach on another mans property or women, and that one must never attack women or children (Machiavelli,1532f) as this may also enrage the people, potentially leading to their being held accountable.
Hobbes over all else is very clear that if a leader is to avoid being held accountable he must be sure to maintain the security of his people, as it is the breaking of this promise to do so, within the social contract, which Hobbes believes would absolutely lead to a leader being revolted against, or replaced. This is again potentially due to his view of man, as without security they may regress and struggle to create their own genuine security. Machiavelli however,as mentioned previously, was more clear on a leader’s need to maintain a ‘perception’. This means that a leader does not necessarily need to keep his word, as often, in Machiavelli’s view, this would not be realistic in the protection of the state by any means necessary.
To conclude, Machiavelli and Hobbes views on power and accountability parallel one another in the sense that both see ones absolute power over all others to be essential due to a similar view on man, both believe in the perception that people must have of their leader, and in that they are both realistic on what it takes to maintain power over one’s people. They both also imply some level of accountability, as both seem fixated on maintaining the social contract with the people. On the other hand, Machiavelli and Hobbes over-all only seem to agree on the structures which are to be kept, rather than the fine lines which entail these structures.