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. 


  1. If I knew an answer to the question, it was certainly not such a thorough one. I find your discussion of signaling costs particularly interesting, because I have been reading Paul Johnson’s History of the Jews, and have been reading about various massacres of different Jewish groups, some committed by foreign invaders, some by other Jews sects. The willingness of those who were slaughtered to maintain their religious rituals and beliefs must have been a powerful sign of sincerity. But I see a number of problems with reducing these down to mere signals showing fitness for partnership. For one, some of the signals put off, rather than increased instances of partnership. The Greeks despised the Jews, largely because they believed that circumcision was barbaric. For another, adherence to these signals often seems to have left those who issued the signals dead - not an ideal condition to start a partnership in. And finally, the fact that someone might make a sacrifice to a God, say, Apollo, might signal that he has some reverence for Apollo, but I’m not sure that it means he has any respect for the other individuals around him.
    I was surprised at your reading of Hobbes. I always thought he meant what he said and that he believed in God as he suggested he did. I will have to go back and re-read him.
    On the bigger picture, however, I hope you and Locke are right. I am looking forward to any upcoming Locke posts.
    Thank you for your reply and patience!

  2. Miranda: Hobbes is worth rereading. I think that Hobbes' argument leaves very little room for anything more than the most nominal belief, but I will save that for another post.

    To the point, first a word about "reducing down" ritual to "mere signals." I think I will do another post on this topic, but I say here that no one is reducing anything down, nor does the word "mere" belong to the theory. Renaissance art would never have happened if rich folks did not have money to spend and artists did not have a living to make. That doesn't mean the art is reducible to mere work for pay. The art is transcendent; however, that requires something to transcend. The economics are one dimension of the work.

    Likewise, the fact that religious rituals (including, especially painful ones) have a social function doesn't mean that they are reducible to that function. Christians have argued for a long time that one lives a better life if one practices charity. That seems to me to be very true; it doesn't mean that charity is reducible to self-interest.

    Signaling cost theory holds that animals sometimes engage in costly displays in order to send a signal to others. An antelope leaps repeatedly when it observes a predator. This is a calculated risk (the calculation being made by natural selection). It wastes precious energy that the animal will need if the predator doesn’t take the hint. The hint is: I am way too vigorous for you to catch! A male peacock invests enormous resources in his tail. Look at me! I am so vigorous and strong, I can afford this damn thing. Religious observation sends the signal that I fear the gods so I will be an honest partner.

  3. I loved Johnson's History of the Jews. I think it supports my interpretation of rituals as signaling costs. Yes, the rituals of the Jews made enemies of other peoples. Their reputation for honesty also made them useful to other people, hence the phrase “Court Jew”. More importantly, the costly dietary laws and other rituals functioned as a set of signals that the Jews could trust one another. That has sustained a society since the tomb of Abraham was laid down. The Greeks may have despised the Jews, as did the Romans and the Assyrians. Where are those ancient Greeks now? Where are the Romans and the Assyrians? The Jews are still in Hebron.

    You write: “adherence to these signals often seems to have left those who issued the signals dead - not an ideal condition to start a partnership in.”

    Signaling costs, as mentioned above, involve a calculate risk. Yes, religious observance when it is costly may sometimes cost too much. The observer dies without issue. That cost is precisely the signal. The question is whether, on balance, the signal is worth the cost. For all of human history, people have been dependent upon membership in some community for protection and sustenance. Securing membership and status in some community has been essential, though it almost always makes you an enemy of some group of outsiders. Observing a ritual that involves pain or risk of death (some rituals are quite brutal and dangerous) is a cost that must often be borne if one is to be a member of the gang. Another cost is risking one’s life in defense of the clan, or polis, or nation.

    You write: “the fact that someone might make a sacrifice to a God, say, Apollo, might signal that he has some reverence for Apollo, but I’m not sure that it means he has any respect for the other individuals around him.”

    Plato’s dialogues sparkle with such phrases as “by Zeus,” or “by the God”, or even “by the Dog God of the Egyptians”. I think that last one was ironic. But when Socrates said “by the God” he meant Apollo. When some Greek fellow used this language, he expected his listener to understand that they could trust his word because of his oath. This was the heart of the Greek polis. To be an Athenian citizen was to be a member of the cult of Athena Nike. Moreover, virtually all gods seem to require some special regard for other human beings.

    It seems clear to me that costly religious rituals have a social function. Again, this doesn’t mean that the rituals are reducible to that function. They may well serve a transcendent purpose that is greater and more comprehensive than the original impulse. The social function does explain how human beings came to be the kind of animals who could pursue such a higher purpose. Evolutionary history does not determine our course; it does, however, make that course possible and perhaps direct us toward certain ends.

  4. Dr. Blanchard: Thanks again for taking the time to reply. I think this is probably another case of me being trigger-happy. You wrote “a profound social function” and I took it to mean “the main function”. I see my error and apologize for that objection.

    I’m not sure I agree with your suggestion that participating in rituals like sacrifice and circumcision is a calculated risk - calculated by natural selection. I think that these things contradict each other. If we are dealing with natural selection, then there is no calculation. By definition, calculation is “to determine or ascertain by mathematical methods” or to “determine by reasoning, common sense, or practical experience”. I don’t think nature does these things. A god or a man might.

    If we are really looking at natural selection, I still maintain that the signals had the opposite effect – at least for the Jews. Over and over, their devotion to their rituals leads others to persecute them. The Greeks, the Romans, the Christians, the Germans. The signals they sent through sacrifice and circumcision were disadvantages in terms of survival. The Jews did have other, less painful traditions and traits that would have made them attractive partners for trade and commerce - Reading and writing, for instance, but these things would not send the signals of adherence to God’s laws that you spoke of earlier.

    True, as you and Johnson point out, there are still Jews in Hebron! However, you ask where the Ancient Greeks are. Good question. The Ancient Greeks had signals too (as you observe above). So did the Romans. So did the Assyrians. They are all gone. Are we sure, then, that such signals can really be credited for Jewish resilience?

    Regarding my use of the word “mere”:
    First you tell me that no one is reducing anything and then, in the same paragraph you reduce the number of the words I am allowed to use! If “mere” does not belong in a discussion of theory, at least I can argue that it does belong in a discussion of philosophy. Plato uses it in sections 373a, 454a, 549a, 559b and 586b of the second edition of Allan Bloom’s translation of The Republic. Can I use it if I say it in Greek?

  5. P.S. I am revisiting "Leviathan" so that next time I comment, I will (hopefully!) have a better idea of what I'm talking about. Thanks for the recommendation.

  6. Miranda: I did not mean to object to the use of the word "mere" in general. I only thought that it did not apply to this application of this theory. To say that religious rituals have a social function does not imply that they are merely functional; it means only that they are at least functional. I will address the other issues in a separate post.

  7. Thanks, Dr. Blanchard. I now understand your point and agree with you.

  8. Never was anything great achieved without danger.
    Niccolo Machiavelli