Friday, January 17, 2014
Machiavelli & the State of Nature
Ms. Flint, as is her habit, asked a provocative question in reply to my last post on Machiavelli. I suspect she already knows the answer, but it is worth commenting on here. My post ended with this:
Machiavelli [in contrast to Aristotle]… does not believe in any order that emerges from nature. He supposes that all order is imposed by human will. That, ultimately, is what he means by virtue. Whereas the ancients had supposed that virtue lay in the perfection of natural human propensities, Machiavelli supposes that it lies in certain human characters that enable their possessors to impose their will on their surroundings.
There is then a state of nature theory implied here. The state of nature is all disorder and chaos. Order and hence justice and the common good can be achieved by conquering fortune.
Ms. Flint then asks:
But is Machiavelli really proposing something different from the state of nature, then? As I understand it (and perhaps my understanding is wrong) in the state of nature, "might makes right". If that is what naturally happens, what is Machiavelli proposing that is different?
This is a very good question. If the prince (or the republic) must act without any moral restraint in order to preserve law and order, can the state of civil society that results be said to be different from a state of nature? I submit that Machiavelli would say “yes, and no”.
What makes it possible for two human beings to genuinely trust one another? Perhaps the only thing that can do that is fear of a higher power. That would explain the ancient customs of swearing an oath before the gods, putting one’s hands on a Bible before testimony, or retreating into a temple for sanctuary.
Interestingly, evolutionary psychology has done a lot of work on this. Many ancient religions involve what are called signaling costs. Sacrifices to the gods, painful rituals (circumcision comes to mind) have a profound social function: they demonstrate to others that you genuinely fear the invisible powers. That makes you look like a trustworthy candidate for partnerships. It is possible that one can only leave the state of nature by means of accepting a state of grace, or to put it less poetically but more precisely, if everyone believes that transgressions will be punished by divine sanction.
Machiavelli does not believe in invisible powers and he does not believe that belief in such powers is enough to render men civil. All law and order are imposed by the ruthless power of some prince and it is maintained in the same way. Machiavellian virtú is the capacity, present in some human beings, to impose dominion on human beings. So it is true to say that “might makes right” for Machiavelli, in the sense that human might alone can literally generate right or justice and so necessarily comes before and is not restrained by justice. However, the virtue of princes is not the same as the virtue of subjects and citizens. The prince must frequently act without faith, charity, pity, or religion, but he must seem to observe all of these things for he wants his subjects to observe them. He wants to impose the king’s peace on the people, for a law abiding and prosperous society is a source of his wealth and power.
Machiavelli’s disciple, Thomas Hobbes, set out to legalize Machiavelli’s thought. Hobbes held that the state of nature and likewise the state of civil society are nothing more than relationships between two or more human beings. If you and I have fear nothing of gods nor princes, we can get away with anything we might do to one another. Thus we have to fear one another, and that is the state of nature. If we can trust one another, it is only because there is a prince standing over us who can hurt either of us if we step out of line. That is a state of civil society.
It follows that whenever two human beings are under the authority of a prince, then they are in a state of civil society vis-à-vis one another. That state of civil society is indeed different from the state of nature. However, each of us remains in a state of nature vis-à-vis the prince. There is no higher power keeping him in line. Likewise, all princes are in a state of nature vis-à-vis one another. They cannot but mistrust one another and are always in a state of war, hot or cold.
Hobbes anticipates Miranda’s question and offers an answer. He believed that all government was by definition absolute, since moral restraint was possible only by people under such a power. Both Hobbes and Machiavelli believed that human beings are by nature amoral. Morality and justice are necessarily artificial, imposed by a ruthless will.
They got it wrong. Locke got it right. Human beings are moral animals. Our sense of justice is just as much a part of our nature as our capacity for language. We have a natural inclination to recognize and punish transgressions. I think that modern biopolitical theory backs up Locke. All human government requires violent power; however, that power works precisely because of human nature and not against it. The origin of government lies not (or not merely) in mutual fear and desire for dominion; it lies in our capacity for righteous indignation.
I think that this explains why Locke’s political thought is more decent, more productive of genuine civility, than that of his predecessors. I will have more on this later.