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Political Thought in the New Times

Niccolo Machiavelli (1469-1527) was the major contributor to political thought in the period of the Renaissance. Machiavelli lived in Italy when it was divided into five parts which often fought against each other. Weakened by this strife Italy attracted foreign invaders such as France and Spain, which had centralized political systems and, consequently, powerful armies. Being a patriot, Machiavelli wanted Italy to have a capable leader, who could unite the country. These considerations led him to writing a classical book on political science, The Prince (1532).

Machiavelli occupied an important state post in Florence republic for 14 years. In 1512 he was accused of conspiracy and exiled to his country estate. This exile made him famous as it provided the politician with an opportunity to use his acquired practical experience for writing The Prince (some famous books in human history were written in prisons or in exile). In this book Machiavelli describes the methods by which a ruler (prince) can acquire and maintain political power.

In Machiavelli’s views, human nature is profoundly aggressive and greedy. People in general want to keep what they have and to acquire more. Hence his cynical remark that a man more readily forgives the murder of his father than the confiscation of his property.[5] Thus, a wise ruler may kill but should not plunder. A ruler should understand that the commoners admire a strong leader. Coercion and fear are the best means to keep people obedient. To control his subjects a ruler can use any means, including immoral. If a ruler is kind, he will perish. To survive he must be cunning and cruel. He can promise whatever he thinks is necessary for the moment. He should not fulfill his promises if the circumstances are changed. A wise ruler must fool his subjects but at the same time he must pretend that he is a good person. He also should pretend to be a pious man, but to use religion with a cool head to achieve his purposes. Machiavelli thought that politics had its own laws that were not depended on religion or morality. The aim of politics, according to him, was the growth of state power. All means are “moral” (even killing innocent people) if they are aimed at achieving that goal. Hence Machiavelli is widely known as the originator of the slogan “the aim justifies the means.” The word “Machiavellianism” is generally understood as a highly manipulative and cynical political activity with a selfish nature.

The publication of the Prince caused shock and sensation all around Europe. Church leaders even proclaimed that the real author of the Prince was devil himself, who used Machiavelli as mediator for transmitting his thoughts. But such statements turned out to be counterproductive to their aims. They aroused a lot of curiosity about the book and eventually contributed to Machiavelli’s fame. Machiavelli’s adherents try to justify him by claiming that he only described the world of politics as it really is, without embellishing it.

In general, however, Machiavelli preferred a republic to a monarchy. He advocated an absolutist monarchy as a temporary means, for transitional period. When a wise ruler creates a quite workable state, it can be transformed into a republic in which the rule of law is applied. Despotic violence is a powerful political medicine, needed in corrupt and unstable states, but still a poison which must be used with greatest caution, stressed Machiavelli. The Prince was one of the most popular books with many dictators, including Mussolini, Hitler, and Stalin.

Machiavelli’s famous sayings:

“The aim justifies the means.”

“Power spoils people.”

“The fate decides only part of your life. It gives you chances and it is up to you whether to use these chances or not.”


Thomas More (1478-1535), a lawyer and statesman, was a major figure of English Renaissance. His reputation as a political thinker rests primarily on a brief work, Utopia (from Greek ou-topos “no place”), published in Latin in 1516, which describes an ideal society on an imaginary island.

More believed that weak human nature could not resist temptations. Thus, on this island, all aspects of the people’s life are strictly regulated to help the inhabitants keep morality. More thought that private property was the main cause of all evils, especially greed and pride. Thus private property was abolished in Utopia. All people wear similar clothes and live in similar houses without locks. Besides, every ten years they have to change houses not to develop the feeling of private property. Gold is despised; it is used for making chamber pots and chains for prisoners.

On this island the interests of the individual are subordinate to those of society, all people must do some work (6 hours a day),[6] universal education and religious toleration are practiced, and all land is owned in common.

All officials, including the supreme ruler, are elected by the people. The supreme ruler is chosen for life, but he can be deposed if he attempts to establish a tyranny. The most important officials were to be chosen from scholars.

Families in Utopia are patriarchal: everyone must be obedient to the father, who is the head of the family. Before marriage men and women are shown to each other naked to avoid disillusionment after marriage. Adultery is punished by divorce; the guilty does not have the right to remarry. Divorce is also allowed if both sides do not want to live together anymore. Sexual life without marriage was banned in Utopia.

Slaves do dirty work and also kill animals for food (to protect Utopians from seeing cruelty). Hunting for the sake of pleasure is prohibited. Capital punishment is not allowed. If a Utopian had some incurable disease he had the right (even was advised) to commit suicide; if he refused, the community looked after him until his death.[7]

More’s collectivistic principles of social life organization such as abolishing of private property, public organization of production and distribution, compulsory work, detailed regulation of public and individual life, underestimation of the individual’s rights and freedoms were later implemented in a number of communist states.


Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679) is perhaps the most famous English political theorist. His whole political theory is deeply influenced by the English Civil War. In his famous book Leviathan (1651), he tried to describe a social system which would be stable and minimize the dangers of anarchy and lawlessness.

Hobbes is one of the founders of the so-called social contract theory of the origin of the state. Hobbes thought that in early days people lived in disorder and were always at war with each other. Such a life was intolerable and some rational people decided to do something. They made a contract in which one individual was selected to rule over the rest. The contract was rather one-way. That means the people were to obey the ruler in all cases. Hobbes in effect said that people created the state, under an authoritarian ruler, in a social contract. They did so because they had no choice. Fear of violence was the major motivation for creating the state. In exchange for submission the people got protection and stability. The people did not have the right to rebel against their ruler.

Hobbes wrote that the monarch’s power should be unlimited and should not be controlled by the people. The monarch is above the law. His will is the highest law, which is compulsory for everybody. The monarch himself issues laws, appoints all highest officials, declares wars and concludes peace treaties. Hobbes thought that people should not have political rights and freedoms. If people do not have political rights and freedoms it is better for them because in such conditions they will not be involved into political struggle and could focus all their energy on economic activity. Hobbes believed that a state without political freedoms is more stable and has more chances for swift economic development. With this aim in mind Hobbes also advocated establishing strict censorship in the press and literature.

Famous expressions by Hobbes:

“Those who do not like monarchy call it tyranny; those who do not like aristocracy call it oligarchy; those who do not like democracy call it anarchy.”

“He who will do anything for his pleasure should also be prepared to suffer from all the pains attached to it.”

Hobbes’ last words: “I am about to take my last voyage, a great leap in the dark.”


Another famous English thinker, John Locke (1632-1704), is considered the founder of liberalism. He placed the interests of the individual above the interests of the state. Man from birth is given his natural rights (of life, freedom, property, etc), which cannot be abolished by anybody. According to Locke, the aim of the state is to protect people’s natural rights.

Locke’s social contract theory was close to that one of Hobbes. But the contract was a two-way. The people must obey the monarch, keep the law, pay their taxes, etc. On the other hand, the monarch owed his people protection for their lives, their liberties, and their property. Thus, the contract called for obligations on the part of both the monarch and the people. Another important part of Locke’s idea was that “the king is for the people, not vice versa.” If the monarch “breaks” the contract, the people have the right to depose him. By saying this Locke justified the execution of King Charles I by Parliament during the English Civil War. Locke’s theories became the foundation for the bourgeoisie revolutions all around the world. Americans used Locke’s ideas in their War of Independence (1776-1783). When Britain’s King George III “broke the contract” Americans used their right to establish a new government. King of France Louis XVI was executed during the French Revolution (1789-99) on the ground that he had violated the rights of his subjects (that also meant his breaking the social contract).

In contrast to Hobbes, who thought that economic growth was possible only under strict limitation of political freedoms, Locke considered political freedoms as necessary preconditions for positive economic development. In his opinion people without political rights are easy preys for confiscations on the part of an absolutist government. To produce good economic results people must be sure that their property will always remain in their own hands and will not be expropriated by an absolutist ruler. Hence, people must have political rights which will protect their lives and property.

Many of Locke’s political ideas, such as those relating to natural rights, property rights, and the rule of a majority, were later embodied in many constitutions. Locke considered constitutional monarchy (where parliament has priority over the king) the best form of government.

Famous expressions by John Locke:

“Government has no other aim but the preservation of property.”

“A sound mind in a sound body.”

“New opinions are always suspected, and usually opposed, without any other reason but because they are not common yet.”


The French nobleman Charles-Louis de Montesquieu (1689-1755) is often seen, along with Machiavelli, as one of the founding fathers of modern political science. Montesquieu believed that people possessing state power are prone to abuse it. To prevent it the power should be divided into independent branches. Montesquieu laid the foundation for the classical separation of state power in democratic countries into three branches: executive, legislative, and judicial. All these branches should be independent from each other and have the power to check each other’s actions. If a single leader or a group controls all branches, the country lives under despotism, claimed Montesquieu. If a person or a group combine in their hands legislative and executive powers they will be able to issue tyrannical laws and implement them. If the judicial branch is united with the executive branch, the judge will be able to be an oppressor.

Montesquieu also developed a theory which gave an “environmental” explanation of different types of political systems. In his opinion, climate and geographical location can have a major influence on the character of a people. For instance, hot climate contributes to the establishment of despotic regimes. Cool climate urges people to gain political freedom. In mountains people usually have proud and independent spirit. Inhabitants of flat countries are usually prone to submission to powerful foreigners.

Montesquieu, similar to Locke, considered constitutional monarchy the best form of government. Montesquieu also had a profound influence on the writers of the American Constitution and other democratic constitutions.

Famous expressions by Montesquieu

“Liberty is the right to do everything the laws allow.”

“What orators lack in depth they make up in length.”

“Sometimes silence speaks lauder than many words.”


Jean Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778) was the leading French political thinker of the 18th century. His teachings are believed to have inspired the French Revolution. One of his most interesting and influential teachings was that one of the general will (needs) of a people.

Rousseau believed that every nation has some needs, but it cannot understand these needs. Only the leaders of the nation can in some mystical way understand the needs of the people. He also believed that each individual should sacrifice his own needs for the sake of the general will (common good) of the people. In fact, Rousseau, similar to Plato, placed the interests of the community above the interests of the individual.

Unfortunately Rousseau ideas about the general will were often applied by leaders to their own advantage. During the French Revolution (1789-1799), Robespierre established the reign of terror and proclaimed that this terror was the general will of the people for that moment. Political leaders often used the idea of the general will for the justification of repressive measures against their own people and other peoples as well (Soviet communists, German and Italian fascists, OUN leaders in Ukraine, nationalist leaders in Eastern and Central Europe in the 1930s, etc). In nations that experienced violent revolutions, such as the Soviet Union, abstract ideas about the common good prevailed over the concrete needs and basic rights of individuals. The Communist party in the Soviet Union often justified its rule by proclaiming that it knew exactly what the Soviet people needed. Thus, according to Rousseau’s theory, the party embodied the general will of the Soviet people.

The danger of that theory is that it gives ‘the few’ responsibility for defining the interests of ‘the many.’ Hence, ‘the few’ may rule in their own interests, and only in the name of ‘the many.’

Famous expressions by Rousseau:

“Do not judge, and you’ll never be mistaken.”

“As long as there are rich people in the world, they will desire to distinguish themselves from the poor.”

“When a woman complains about inequality she is wrong. Nature has given different tasks to men and women.”

“Those who know little speak much; those who know much speak little.”

“If one sees injustice and remains silent, he takes part in that injustice.”

“Who is cautious about making promises, usually is more prone to fulfill them.”



[1] Irrigation projects required coordinated effort on a large scale, which led to the development of a group of “managers.” That is how a centralized bureaucratic system was born.


[2] The Catholic Church put this idea into practice.

[3] Though Plato did not deny women full rights (including the right to be warriors or philosopher-rulers), he generally considered them ‘weaker in everything’ compared with men.

[4] In present-day democracies the rights of the individual have priorities over the rights of the state. It is done to protect the individual from the ‘tyranny’ of state officials, who can abuse their powers.

[5] In Machiavelli’s time the relations between children and parents were usually not as close as in our days. Families had many children, half of them died in their early age. So, parents got used to seeing their children dying and they were usually not as emotionally attached to their children as parents of our time.

[6] People must work to avoid idleness since idleness is a source of many evils.

[7] Euthanasia is allowed nowadays only in Belgium, Switzerland, Holland, and the state of Oregon (USA).

Date: 2015-01-29; view: 658

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