Introduction to Political Philosophy, Midterm 2

Looks like I didn’t lose the questions this time. Machiavelli was awesome. By this point in the semester I wasn’t doing all the assigned reading though — especially for Hobbes, which was a 700+ page book we were supposed to read in 8 days or something. And so I liked the second half of the class a lot less than the first half.

1. Discuss Machiavelli’s understanding of the political importance of religion.

In Machiavelli’s mind, religion is a part of the new order that the very greatest princes create, and it is another means of acquiring glory than establishing a state. Machiavelli considers Moses (and, implicitly, Jesus) to be one of the very greatest princes, having established a religious order that persists and glorifies him even today, thousands of years after his death. Not all princes are great enough to start a new religion, however, and for these princes religion is both a tool and an obstacle. Religion is an opportunity, because as in the case of Ferdinand of Aragon, a prince may turn religion to his own ends to justify his wars for power and to energize his people in unity beneath him. Religion is an obstacle, because as in the case of Agathocles, a prince who is publicly without religion cannot be considered an excellent man and is instead vilified – though he may still acquire an empire, it does not last, nor does his glory. Indeed, a prince who does not found his own religion must at all times appear religious or he will never be glorified long. Actually being religious is of course foolhardy, as actual religion (by design, in Machiavelli’s mind) impedes action and use of power.

More than just an obstacle and an opportunity, however, religion is another path to glory even for those who cannot found a religion themselves. For religious leaders have the opportunity to influence the men of many different states, and thus to be glorified by more men than a single prince can (as is the case for a Pope). More than this, a religious leader, because he is a part of religion, can scarcely be dethroned – “All difficulties about them come before they are possessed, because they are acquired either by virtue or by fortune and are maintained without the one or the other…”

Throughout this discussion, though, it must be remembered that in Machiavelli’s mind, the very greatest princes would found a worldly state in conjunction with a religion, and both would last long after his death.

2. Discuss Hobbes’ understanding of war.

In Hobbes’ mind, war “consisteth not in Battell onely, or the act of fighting; but in a tract of time, wherein the Will to contend by Battell is sufficiently known…the nature of War, consisteth not in actuall fighting; but in the known disposition thereto, during all the time there is no assurance to the contrary.” This means that the state of nature is a state (or even equivalent to the state) of war, for when every man can do what he judges best and there is no higher authority, they either have the “Will to contend by Battell” or perish. Moreover, in war there cannot be injustice, because the quality of justice springs forth from society and the laws men make about how they will interact with others within their society (under a single sovereign). Lastly, war is not a desirable state; it is in fact “miserable” and men, because they desire peace and security, do all they can to get out of it.

On only a cursory reading, this description of war seems to have very little to do with what one normally thinks of as “war:” two nations fighting for control of resources or power. But Hobbes considers a nation to be an “Artificiall Man” and so, in fact, everything he says applies to war between nations. More interesting yet, because the state of nature and the state of war are equivalent, in Hobbes’ view nations are at all times in a state of war. This has no small consequence: it is impossible for nations to be unjust in their dealings with one another. Nonetheless, it is not desirable for nations to be at war with one another, as it inflicts damage on both sides and this is antithetical to the purpose of a nation: to protect the individuals who make it up.

Today, the parallels under this scheme between men and nations are even more pronounced – while nations will go to war with one another, they are governed by laws even then (the Geneva Conventions, etc). While there is not necessarily a higher power over both, there often is (i.e., during the Yugoslav wars the United States or “the West” was stronger than all parties and held all sides to account), and if one side breaks the laws of war and nations, they will certainly be held accountable if they lose. Even as Hobbes says that men will enter into nations for greater security, nations will themselves enter into compacts and treaty groups to achieve greater security for themselves.