Both Machiavelli and Hobbes seem skeptical about human nature, claiming that people lie and deceive. What conclusions does this lead them to about the role of the state in politics?

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davmor1973 eNotes educator| Certified Educator

The role of the state for Machiavelli is conceived primarily in terms of national defense. This is not surprising when one considers his fundamentally cynical view of human nature, especially in relation to the political realm. Machiavelli lived during a time of great turmoil in Italy, in which wars between competing states were depressingly common. To make matters worse, the attitude of Machiavelli's native Florence toward military matters was notorious for being unimaginative and tight-fisted. The city's rulers were intensely suspicious of anything that could be used to establish tyranny, leading them to hire mercenaries instead of paying for a standing army. Mercenaries also had the advantage that they were much cheaper than regular soldiers. For the commercially-minded elite of Florence, this was an important consideration.

In The Prince, Machiavelli argues forcibly against the use of mercenaries, considering them to be chronically unreliable and prone to desertion. His idea of a republic was clearly at odds with that of many Florentine citizens; it stipulated a much greater role for the state in terms of providing men and materiel. For a time, however, Machiavelli managed to put his ideas into action, organizing a city militia consisting of regular soldiers. The new arrangement appeared to work quite well, but in due course the narrow-mindedness and lack of foresight of Florence's ruling elite eventually reasserted itself. Machiavelli's big idea was abandoned, and the city returned to relying on mercenaries to fight its battles.

For Hobbes, the state is everything. It needs to be if the fundamental selfishness of men is to be kept in check. Without the state's all-encompassing power, everyone would be at each other's throats. There would be anarchy and chaos; a state of perpetual civil war would exist. The country would go to wrack and ruin, without any possibility of establishing commerce, trade, art or science, as no one or their property would ever be safe from attack.

For Hobbes, the state has the sole right to legal violence, and it must control other aspects of civic life which, in today's Western world, are regarded as independent of government control. Hobbes lived in a completely different era, a time when bitter religious differences often led to long and bloody conflict. The only way to stop this, Hobbes thought, was to give the sovereign complete control over the outward expression of people's religious convictions. For example, public worship was tightly regulated by the state; preachers would be told what they could and could not preach; all religious books, including the Bible, were published according to strict censorship laws. This way, Hobbes believed, some measure of social peace could finally be achieved.

There was no question of anyone having any rights in Hobbes's ideal state. If people had rights independent of the sovereign, then the sovereign would not have the absolute power necessary to carry out its overriding duty to protect the populace and maintain peace and security. Hobbes believed that the sovereign was a composite of everyone's will; his power had been conferred upon him by the people themselves, coming together to give up their individual rights in exchange for peace, order, and stability. Therefore, any insistence upon rights independent of the sovereign would constitute the destruction of the original contract which gave rise to the state's existence.