Home > philosophy > States of Nature III: Machaivelli

States of Nature III: Machaivelli

Despite my three publications concerning the philosophy of Niccolo Machiavelli, I have never been taught him in class. Somehow I have taken numerous political philosophy classes and history of philosophy classes but missed any lesson on Machiavelli. This wasn’t due to absence either, I am notoriously present in all of my classes. All of my interpretation is based on primary source material of the philosopher with some readings of biography and interpretation. I have also only been graded on a paper I have written on him once (which earned an A). This has led me to some anxiety in writing on him for two reasons: that I am untested and that I don’t want to be considered wrong on something that I have put so much time into. This is probably what led to the difficulty in writing this next section for my final in modern Philosophy.

3] Machiavelli and the State of Nature

            We leave the theories of English Doctors and Scholars and attend to the political theory of a politician. Machiavelli, like Hobbes[1], based his theory on observation. The analysis of political events, both ancient and contemporary, forms the basis of all of Machiavelli’s theories. This is especially important to note as Machiavelli, himself, was involved in politics in his role as both ambassador to the city of Florence and Secretary to the Ten of War (equal to the US Secretary of State).

Machiavelli’s political theory is not as concerned with this origin, but more about the maintenance and conduct of government. He does however deal with this founding. The difficulty in establishing a theory of the origin of a state in Machiavelli’s writings is that he presupposes the existence of political bodies centralized in cities. In The Discourses on Titus Livy Machiavelli discusses the origin of cities, which may seem to be outside the course of our discussion however for Machiavelli, these cities of Rome, Venice, Florence; represent not only physical cities in our modern definition but also centralized political states. For example, the Roman Empire is identified with its capital and any discussion of the founding of the city of Rome is also a discussion of the foundation of the state in general.

Like Hobbes, Machiavelli shares a dim view of the nature of humanity, that “men are more prone to evil than to good[2]” is assumed to be a given essential to Machiavelli’s theory. There is no explicit state of nature in Machiavelli but he paints a picture that is more reminiscent of Locke than it is of Hobbes. His claim is that a city is founded by one of two groups of people: either natives of an area or foreigners coming to an area.[3] It is on the former that he more vividly analyzes.

There is a common thread of necessity in Machiavelli, and that this necessity is what drives the development of the state into a theory that will show some similarities to both Hobbes and Locke. In the beginning of the world he claims that because there were fewer people those people lived “scattered like the beasts.[4]” These randomly spread out people eventually came together in conjunction with “the multiplication of their offspring…in order the better to be able to defend themselves.[5]  This gives us a peaceful picture of numerous communities living across an area in peace with one another. This existence is then shattered by the onslaught of an invader of which poses a mutual threat to all of the communities. This threat causes the varied communities to realize that “they cannot enjoy security since no one community of itself, owing to its position and to the smallness of its numbers, is strong enough to resist the onslaught of an invader.[6] 

This ever present and existential threat forces the communities’ hand so that “to escape these dangers, either of their own accord or at the suggestion of someone of greater authority among them, such communities undertake to live together in some place chosen.[7]” While the theory does stress the development of a place in which these communities are to live, it is in the mutual agreement that these communities centralize an authority for the purpose of common defense, which is also the motivation for the individual communities to form in the first place. This he claims is the founding of the states of Athens and Venice. Venice, is the more pertinent example, as the decline of Rome allowed the Gothic invasions which caused people to flee into the “islets at the top of the Adriatic Sea.[8]

What Machiavelli’s theory is a hybridization between both Locke and Hobbes. To the former we have communities of people living together in what we can assume is relative peace, identifying themselves as being members of a group but having no official law, although they may recognize one who possesses some sort of leadership role indicated in the phrase, “someone of greater authority among them.[9]” This person’s authority is not derived from the law, as we have no law as of yet, but authority is given this person through their character by the fellow members of the community who, “look about for a man stronger and more courageous than the rest, made him their head, and obeyed him.[10]

As to the latter we recognize a Hobbesian state of war with the foreign group. It is assumed as a given that this new element is coming for purposes of hostility. The authority given to the state in this instance is for protection and that protection requires power as, “security for man is impossible unless it be conjoined with power.[11]

We can also see the humanist element in Machiavelli who claims that law, is not derived from any law of nature but based solely in pragmatism. If the leader, and thus the state, is to be considered a benefactor, those who transgress the edicts from it were considered to be ungrateful which spurred the enmity of the fellow citizens. Those citizens were also aware that if a person could break a rule once they could do it again perhaps against themselves, so they “took to making laws and to assigning punishments to those who contravened them. The notion of justice thus came into being.[12]” Originally all states existed for the protection of the members of the state, the ruler (or rulers as Machiavelli believes in republican government) in conjunction with the people set up laws in order to protect the state and its leader.


[1] Pg. 296 Glover

[2] Pg. 132 The Discourses

[3] Pg. 100, 101 ibid

[4] Pg. 107 ibid

[5] Pg. 107 ibid

[6] Pg. 100 ibid

[7] Pg. 100,101 ibid

[8] Pg. 101 ibid

[9] Peter Constantine translates it as, “one among them who is prominent in authority.” The difference in translation is subtle but further lends credence to the idea presented that this person may be an informal leader or someone who is seizing an opportunity. Pg. 109, The Essential Writing of Machiavelli, trans. Peter Constantine, ©2007 Random House.

[10] Pg. 107 The Discourses

[11] Pg. 102 The Discourses

[12] Pg. 107 The Discourses

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