Human Nature, Conflict and the Fathers of Realism : Machiavelli vs Hobbes.

Both Niccolo Machiavelli and Thomas Hobbes, political philosophers during times of upheaval and advocates of the odorous nature of the human psyche, have, like many reflected upon the repugnant ability of a man to kill another in cold blood, a repeated feature of human relationships anywhere since the dawn of time. Machiavelli, a statesman during the renaissance, a Florentine senior official and diplomat, and a devoted advocate and observer of Realpolitik, was exiled and tortured by the Medici regime in 1512 due to accusations of conspiring against the regime. Born into tumultuous times, this no doubt exposed Machiavelli to the worst aspects of the human. Similarly, Hobbes observed the nature of man through the English Civil War. During a self-induced exile to Paris in 1640, Hobbes wrote his work Leviathan, much like Machiavelli did, highlighting the nature of man hidden below the guise of civility. Despite their common belief, they differed quite considerably on the more particular features of the human psyche, offering different conclusions. Machiavelli generally fell upon the view that the human condition was fundamentally corrupt, amoral and spiteful. Hobbes on the other hand approached the situation more carefully it seemed, considering the human in a more systematic fashion, which is perhaps more effective. (Freyberg-Inan, 2003 – 59)In this essay I will confront the various arguments of either character, assessing their similarities and differences, and offer an argument for the superior position.

Steven Forde presents the view that, like the most traditional of realists, such as Thucydides, Machiavelli argues the need to dominate is the fundamental cause of conflict. (Forde, 1992 – 377) Such an animalistic remnant of former species thus, rather than seeking to dominate for ambition alone, is a combination of ambition, fear and the security dilemma, for ‘war may not be avoided but it deferred to the advantage of others.’ Therefore, for Machiavelli the primary cause of war is that humans are untrustworthy, fearful, rapacious, and essentially animalistic. Any chance at dominance they get, they will take, as animus dominandi is the strongest of urges. Combined with this, they are inherently fearful. As a result, conflict is inevitable, as every human is equally fearful of the next, leading to a continual cycle of Thucydides’ trap, humans being at once, fearful of being dominated, and intent on dominating for fear and ambition, leading to aggressive military and political strategies, that in most world orders, bipolar, multipolar or even unipolar, leads to conflict. Indeed Machiavelli speaks of the Roman strategy of dominance and pre-emptive attack regularly. Forde points to this realist strategy, speaking of how the successful state recognises the formation of continual, unforeseen, imminent threats, and ‘as a good doctor recognises tumours when they are small and excise them early, the Roman’s forestalled threats before they became too powerful.’ The chances of conflict are especially increased given the absence of real moral quality. (The Prince, 12-13) Machiavelli argues ‘necessity is the agent that overcomes moral obligation’ (Forde, 387), residing in both structured politics and human nature. Machiavelli believes that the human condition denies moral principles altogether, they being simply a social convention that is broken at the first sign of adversity. ‘while you do them good, they are all yours…when need is far off, but when it draws near, they revolt…’ (Discourses, Book 2, Ch 8) Machiavelli’s opinion on the human is that he is fundamentally amoral. ‘Moral values not only do not apply, the illusion that they do is destructive…’ (Freyberg-Inan, 59). Thus, Machiavelli argues that the key cause of conflict is mankind’s animalistic nature, creating the will to dominate for glory, which in turn creates fear, furthering the will to dominate due to lack of trust. Such a viscous circle is worsened by the entirely subjective nature of morality, creating an environment where warfare is inevitable.

In comparison, Hobbes approaches the issue in a more structured manner. Both Machiavelli and Hobbes considered their thesis somewhat scientific, Machiavelli regularly referencing medicinal practices to draw parallels with statecraft, while Hobbes considered the human condition in a ‘mechanistic’ manner, a similarity between the theorists. (Freyberg-Inan, 2003 – 60) The common ground Machiavelli and Hobbes posses, coming to a consensus on the general malevolent nature of human kind, motivated primarily by fear, self interest and pride for example, begins to thin here. While there are similarities in the extent to which they consider human nature uniform, with conflict often being predictable due to certain characteristics that present themselves, Hobbes stretches this further. In the eyes of Hobbes, the fundamental, repeated catalyst for conflict is the corrupt human condition, set against the backdrop of limited resources and a lack of absolute government. (Freyberg-Inan, 2003 – 60) Such a lack of authority, thus will result in ‘even purely benign individuals’ without authority to protect them, engaging in pre-emptive attacks due to fear of death (Abizadeh, 2011 – 299), while the finite nature of resources in the light of no overarching government will inevitably result in clashes due to competing claims. ‘the condition of man, is a condition of war of everyone against everyone… as long as the natural right of every man to everything endureth, there can be no security to any man.’ (Hobbes, 80) Thus, the state of nature is one of constant conflict due to the inherently equal design of man in intelligence and strength, and the desire to strive for power ‘that ceaseth only in death.'(Hobbes, 61) Hobbes though was not a psychological reductionist, and accepted the importance of (despite being relative) moral teachings and specific social and societal norms. Thus, for Hobbes, conflict was not simply human nature expressing itself in the desire for material incentives under conditions of anarchy. A central concept to Hobbes’ thesis of psychology is the place of passions and technicalities in conflict, and not just glory, the motivating passion is dependent on circumstances, social customs and one’s education. Richard Tuck (1989) argues that war’s cause lies with the lack of common moral language, and thus a leviathan would have to enforce a moral language for social interaction. Indeed Hobbes argues religion can be a cause of conflict, leading to what Stephen Holmes in an introduction to Behemoth (1990) called, when reflecting upon Hobbes’ thought, ‘stupid indifference to self-preservation.’ Thus Hobbes integrates the social, systematic-structural and individual psychological aspects into his account of the causes of conflict.

Thus, while Machiavelli and Hobbes are in agreement on such features of reality as human nature, their basic motives and the resulting likeliness of conflict, the uniform nature of their actions, the role of fear in motivating conflict, and the subjective nature of morality, Machiavelli’s account remains ideological. In comparison, Hobbes’s account reaches a ‘paradigmatic’ (Freyberg-Inan, 61) level, due to his more inductive, specific, structured, subtle and scientific approach to the matter of the causes of conflict. While Machiavelli attempts to portray a scientific angle to his conclusion, and succeeds to the extent that he concludes on the uniform nature of human behaviour, Hobbes transcends this entirely.

Thus, when considering the quality of accounts, I argue that Hobbes provides a more stable, inductive account. Despite his subtlety, the explicit conclusions regarding the human condition are no less ‘realistic’, while Hobbes is successful in working according to the confines of positivism (Freyberg-Inan, 61), in an a posteriori fashion, which proves most fitting given the task at hand, presenting Hobbes as the real father of realism. I also argue that, perhaps Machiavelli’s failure to do so was the result of personal grudges held towards human nature. Given the situation, his exile and loss of position, before being tortured, I argue that Machiavelli reflected upon human nature in an extremely negative light, blinding him of the perhaps scarce but present, good aspects of human nature, along with the various complications that would have created a more scientific, applicable theory of realism. Mary Dietz argues, in contrast that Machiavelli’s motives behind ‘The Prince’ were of a Republican nature, giving Lorenzo Di Medici advice that would lead to the undoing of the regime. (Dietz, 1986) Thus, given the contention around actual motive of the work, it is perhaps best approach the theory with caution.

To conclude, both Machiavelli and Hobbes agree on the basic nature of the human race, but when considering the specific causes of conflict, Hobbes’ description stretches further than that of Machiavelli’s, creating specific set circumstances that are conducive to conflict, while Machiavelli’s description remains loose and unspecific, speaking of the more general nature of the causes of war. Thus, Hobbes realistically emerges as the father of realism, providing a detailed account of the psychological, structural and social causes of war. Therefore, I argue that Hobbes’ account is superior, as it provides a more detailed, useful account to the reader. I also argue that perhaps Machiavelli’s account is more personal due to the specific circumstances in which it was written, therefore clouding his response, making it less useful.


ABIZADEH, ARASH. “Hobbes on the Causes of War: A Disagreement Theory.” The American Political Science Review 105, no. 2 (2011): 298-315.

Dietz, Mary G. “Trapping The Prince: Machiavelli and the Politics of Deception.” The American Political Science Review 80, no. 3 (1986): 777-99.

Forde, Steven. “Varieties of Realism: Thucydides and Machiavelli.” The Journal of Politics 54, no. 2 (1992): 372-93.

Freyberg-Inan, Anette (2003), What Moves Man: The Realist Theory of International Relations and Its Judgement on Human Nature. (State University of New York Press, New York.)

Hobbes (1990), Behemoth, or, The Long Parliament, University of Chicago Press, Chicago.

MACHIAVELLI, N., MANSFIELD, H. C., & TARCOV, N. (1996). Discourses on Livy. Chicago, University of Chicago Press.

MACHIAVELLI, N., & WOOTTON, D. (1995). The prince. Indianapolis, Hackett Pub. Co.


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