History and Context: Hobbes, Machiavelli and The Godfather


Thomas Hobbes of Malmesbury (1588-1679) was an empiricist, like Locke, Berkeley, and Hume, but unlike them, he was an admirer of mathematical method. He was a man suspected of atheism and he is described by Russell, in A History of Western Philosophy, as an ‘out-and-out nominalist’.

Hobbes lived in a time of constitutional and environmental crisis with the presence of:

– The English Civil War (1642–1651);

– The execution of Charles I (30 January 1649);

– The Plague (1665-1666);

– The Great Fire of London (September 1666); and then shortly after his death

– The Glorious Revolution. (1688–1689)

This background emphasised for Hobbes the notion of peace which is the most central concept in Leviathan.

After the Plague and the Great Fire, the House of Commons appointed a committee to inquire into atheistical writings, specially mentioning those of Hobbes. From this time onwards, he could not print anything in England on controversial subjects. This included his history of the Long Parliament, which he called Behemoth, and though it set forth the most orthodox doctrine, it had to he printed abroad (1668).


Leviathan was originally a biblical monster of unstoppable power. One of the reasons Hobbes may have chosen such a creature to represent his ideals surrounded the idea that a ruler must have the power to enforce the law: ‘covenants, without the sword, are but words’.

Hobbes’s 1651 book Leviathan established the foundation for most of Western political philosophy from the perspective of social contract theory, and the political opinions expressed in the Leviathan were Royalist in the extreme. With the coming of the Civil War, his convictions were strengthened and his fears were realised.

Hobbes believed that life was nothing but a motion of the limbs, and therefore automata have an artificial life. The commonwealth, which he calls Leviathan, is a creation of art, and is in fact an artificial man and the sovereignty is an artificial soul.

The first part of Leviathan deals with man as an individual. Sensations are caused by the pressure of objects; colours, sounds, etc. and are not in the objects. The qualities in objects that correspond to our sensations are motions.

There is, he says, nothing universal but names, and without words we could not conceive any general ideas. Without language, there would be no truth or falsehood, for “true” and “false” are attributes of speech. When it is objected that God is an incorporeal substance, Hobbes has two answers: first, that God is not an object of philosophy; second, that many philosophers have thought God corporeal.

As against Plato, Hobbes holds that reason is not innate but is developed by industry. (Previous notes on Plato: https://brackenstockley.wordpress.com/2012/11/05/history-and-context-classical-theory-of-state/).

Hobbes believes that all men are naturally equal. In a state of nature, before there is any government, every man desires to preserve his own liberty, but to acquire dominion over others; both these desires are dictated by the impulse to self-preservation. From their conflict arises a war of all against all, which makes life “nasty, brutish, and short.” In a state of nature, there is no property, no justice or injustice; there is only war, and “force, and fraud, are in war the two cardinal virtues.”

The second part of Leviathan tells how men escape from these evils by combining into communities each subject to a central authority. This is represented by means of a social contract. The people agree to be represented by a sovereign and thus agree to hand over their power to this one entity – the Leviathan. The state is considered explicitly as a war machine, organised for war against subjects who resist and organised for war against rival states. The ‘Leviathan’ is thus a mortal god and not the authoritarian man. The part of the people, in Hobbes’s system, ends completely with the first choice of a sovereign. He admits, however, one limitation on the duty of submission to sovereigns: the right of self-preservation. This, he regards as absolute, and subjects have the right of self-defence, even against monarchs.

Hobbes had the hope that some sovereign would read the Leviathan and make himself absolute – what Russell describes as a “less chimerical hope” than Plato’s – that some king would turn philosopher.

Russell points out in A History of Western Philosophy that, in politics, there are two different questions:

– one as to the best form of the State;

– the other as to its powers.

In Hobbes’s mind, community is faced with two dangers: anarchy and despotism. The Puritans, especially the Independents, were most impressed by the danger of despotism. Hobbes, on the contrary was obsessed by the fear of anarchy. The reason that Hobbes gives for supporting the State is that he believes it is the only alternative to anarchy.

In contrast was John Locke’s optimist view of humanity. Locke’s treatise on government ‘moral laws’ was similar to Aristotle’s idea of humanity being fulfilled in society. Both believed in the right to life, liberty and property and the constitution and pursuit of happiness. It can be thus argued that Locke’s ideas played some influence in the American Declaration of Independence as America was influenced by similar ideas, including the right of revolution. Whereas Hobbes’s contract theory prepares for a complete collapse of society, Locke’s theory is that of a collaborative state and a state of freedom (as opposed to Hobbes’s state of nature).


Russell describes Machiavelli as “much more limited” than Hobbes, but he is still described as a supreme eminence in political philosophy. Machiavelli’s political philosophy is scientific and empirical. He argued for a more humanist world view and was in favour of Protagoras’ idea that “man is the measure of all things”.

Niccolò Machiavelli (1469 –1527) lived during the time of the Renaissance. This was the beginning of political science and the Renaissance sprouted a rebirth of classical thought and art and a self-conscious rejection of tradition and scholasticism. Up until this point man/body was seen as a ‘fallen creature’– wicked and in need of salvation.

Machiavelli obtained a minor post in the Florentine government in 1498. He remained in its service until the restoration of the Medici in 1512; then, having always opposed them, he was arrested, but acquitted, and allowed to live in retirement in the country near Florence.

The Prince

It is said that Machiavelli became an author for want of other occupation. His most famous work, The Prince was written in 1513, and dedicated to Lorenzo the Second, since he hoped to win the favour of the Medici. His longer work, the Discourses which he was writing at the same time, is more republican and more liberal. He says at the beginning of The Prince that he will not speak of republics in this book, since he has dealt with them elsewhere.

Machiavelli lived in retirement until the year of his death, which was that of the sack of Rome by the troops of Charles V. It is argued that it was in this year in which the Italian Renaissance died.

Russell describes that The Prince is concerned to discover, from history and from contemporary events, how principalities are won, how they are held, and how they are lost.

Machiavelli remarks that principles of religion, rather than governments, rule ecclesiastical principalities, so the prince does not even need to govern. Ecclesiastical principalities do not need to be defended, and their subjects require no administration. Nonetheless, these states are always secure and happy. Since these principalities are “upheld by higher causes which the human mind cannot attain to.” They are “exalted and maintained by God,” and “it would be the work of a presumptuous and foolish man to discuss them.”

Machiavelli places eminent men in an ethical hierarchy:

(1) The best, he says, are the founders of religions; then

(2) the founders of monarchies or republics; and finally

(3)  literary men.

Those who establish tyrannies are considered by Machiavelli as wicked, including Julius Caesar; on the other hand, Brutus was good. He holds that religion should have a prominent place in the State, not on the ground of its truth, but as a ‘social cement’.

Machiavelli had two main criticisms of the Church:

  • that by its evil conduct it has undermined religious belief, and
  • that the temporal power of the popes, with the policy that it inspires, prevents the unification of Italy.

The Prince ends with an appeal to the Medici to liberate Italy from the “barbarians” (the French and Spaniards), whose domination “stinks.”  He is very explicit in repudiating received morality where the conduct of rulers is concerned.

Major points in Machiavelli’s, The Prince:

  • A ruler will perish if he is always good; he must be as cunning as a fox and as fierce as a lion.
  • Power is for those who have the skill to seize it in a free competition. (His preference for popular government is not derived from any idea of “rights,” but from the observation that popular governments are less cruel, unscrupulous, and inconstant than tyrannies).
  • Civilised men are almost certain to be unscrupulous egoists; and
  • Above all, a prince should seem to be religious.

There are certain political goods, of which three are specially important: national independence, security, and a well-ordered constitution.

Bertrand Russell remarks that it would be “amusing, and not wholly false, to interpret Machiavelli as a disappointed romantic”. This could be in relation to one of Machiavelli’s famous quotes “how we live is so far removed from how we ought to live”.

The Prince, written for the Medici rulers of Florence, was in its simplest form a how to guide for rulers and demonstrated a new attitude of humanism. The book suggests a different moral code – that one must be effective and that it is necessary to be evil sometimes.

In a conflict he believed that it was better to support the weaker side so that you could be the dominant power.

Perhaps the most memorable quote from The Prince was that it was: “better to be feared than loved”.

The Godfather

In our fourth HCJ lecture, we watched a screening of the 1972 film, The Godfather. This is not only worth watching as an iconic American film, but it demonstrates similarities with the ideas of Machiavelli.

Machiavelli’s The Prince is ultimately a book about how to be the best possible leader. He says that in order to be a successful prince you must not let your morals or personal life get in the way of your decision making. In this way I believe that Machiavelli would approve of the themes in The Godfather, as the lead character Vito Corleone (Marlon Brando) is a good prince in the way in which he doesn’t let family get in the way of business, and he doesn’t base his decisions on morals; “It’s just business.”

About brackenstockley

Contributor to the JusticeGap and WINOL. Currently studying journalism at the University of Winchester (Year Three).
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