Human Agency and the Political in Machiavelli and Hobbes

The Encroachment of Negative Liberty on Republican Virtue


To this day, the definitions of the concepts of human agency and the political are continuously revised, debated and argued over. If, according to W.B. Gallie (1955), concepts are essentially contestable this paper seeks to contest these concepts through the comparison of their interpretations by arguably two of the greatest political theorists of all time: Machiavelli and Hobbes. Isaiah Berlin (1979) suggests that Machiavelli’s rejection of the Christian-classical epistemic framework liberated the spheres of politics and human agency from previous (Christian) behavioural patterns and moral attitudes. This act of liberation allowed for a plurality of different value systems to answer the age old question of “how should men live together?” thereby actively challenging Christian hegemony over the proper articulation of authority and sovereignty. About a century later, and after the Reformation had successfully broken Catholic dominance over spiritual thought and temporal behaviour, Thomas Hobbes published Leviathan, in which he gave a particular account of the limits of human agency and proposed specific definitions of liberty and freedom. My concern is that if Machiavelli liberated the concept of freedom from the yoke of antiquity, Hobbes proceeded to assimilate it within the nascent theory of liberal individual liberty based on natural law. If Machiavelli’s a-moral realism “opened up” the space in which political concepts and ideas could be contested, Hobbes’s principle of self-preservation began to saturate that space by sowing the seeds for what was to eventually blossom into a negative interpretation of liberty.

It is therefore necessary to take a brief look into both Machiavelli and Hobbes’s understandings of human agency and by extension their notions of liberty and freedom. I will use the terms liberty and freedom quite interchangeably as both authors don’t seem to make clear cut definitions between them (Skinner 1998, p17). Therefore, in the first two sections the concepts of virtù, necessità and fortuna will be analysed alongside Hobbes’s causal understanding of human agency, his definition of liberty and the principle of self preservation as presented by Quentin Skinner. Successively, I will analyse Isaiah Berlin’s essay The Originality of Machiavelli (1979) thereby discussing the Florentine’s conception of the political and conclude by comparing it with Hobbes’s. By the political I intend the space in which human agency (and by extension political action) can be exercised and contested, a terrain which is inherently antagonistic (Mouffe 2000). I want to be clear here, I do not want to assert that Hobbes is the “grandfather” of negative liberty. Nor do I want to state, as Leo Strauss (1965) and C.B. Macpherson (1965) suggested, that Hobbes’s theory is the basis of liberalism or of the bourgeois man. Rather that the roots of negative liberty can be clearly discerned within Hobbes’s ambiguous account of liberty.

Virtù as Human Agency

The Machiavellian principality and republic exhibit what Quentin Skinner terms a neo-roman interpretation of liberty. Neo-roman liberty is concerned primarily with the relationship between the subject and the state and how freedom and authority are articulated within a polity (Skinner 1998, p17). Freedom is therefore a strictly political issue, and thus very different from the liberal notion of freedom which is based on natural or God given rights. Machiavelli’s vivere civile e libero (free and civil living) refers to a polity which is governed by good arms and good laws, or what Machiavelli calls the ordini, which are drafted and enforced by the prince or the leaders of the republic (Baron 1961). In order to ensure liberty within a polity good laws and good arms are required to be instituted so that the citizens and the city retain their virtue. But it is virtù itself the primary quality needed by leaders to ensure domestic tranquillity and prosperity. Both Romulus of Discourses and Cesare Borgia of The Prince exhibit decisiveness, courage and cunning, but above all they are able to shape the world around them according to their desires and political ends. It is here where virtue becomes the ultimate vehicle of human agency. Virtù, understood as the reliance on one’s own capacities (Wood 1972), is necessary for the institution of good arms and good laws, and is required to react boldly to both necessità and fortuna. Let us take a look at these terms more closely.

The concept of necessità arises in response to particular events which occur in a state of emergency. Machiavelli’s Italy was one in which power was continually contested, where invading armies were beating at the city gates and where citizens rebelled and princes crushed uprisings (Parks 2009). The leader must react to the necessities and events which emerge from a turbulent world prone to violence. Success lies in the ability to achieve stability in times of perpetual disorder by whatever means necessary (Mansfield 1972).

Fortuna, on the other hand, represents unforeseeable circumstances. These can be positive or negative: finding a pot of gold or getting hit on the head by a falling brick; being given the region of Emilia Romagna from your father the Pope, or losing it because of an incurable and unforeseeable sickness. “All the same, and so not to give up on free will, I reckon it may be true that luck decides the half of what we do, but it leaves the other half, more or less, to us.” (Prince, XXV) Even within the concept of fortuna, Machiavelli leaves ample space for human agency, however we must point out that “Machiavelli…promises only that we can increase our chances against Fortune, not that we can eliminate her effects entirely.”(Flanagan 1972, p. 141)

Finally, virtù is the primary quality of the prince and of the republic’s citizens. Virtù is shrewdness and astuteness; it is the reliance on one’s own arms, audacity, and at times calculated cruelty to achieve one’s ends (Plamenatz 1972). Virtù is what is necessary to react successfully to necessità. Machiavelli goes in so far as to say, in an oft quoted and scandalously sexist passage of the Prince (Ch. XXV), that virtù (intended as virility) must be able to tame and ride fortuna (intended as femininity).

Thus virtù is not only the attribute required to navigate the troubled seas of power politics and military confrontations (necessità), but, if properly wielded, it can also master unpredictable circumstances (fortuna) (Wood 1972). Understood in these terms, virtù represents the highest embodiment of human agency which can be exercised within a conception of liberty which is thoroughly positive.

Reason as Human Agency


In Thomas Hobbes on the Proper Signification of Liberty (1990), Quentin Skinner argues against the criticism that Hobbes was advocating a conception of freedom akin to the theory of negative liberty. For Skinner, Hobbes’s distinction between the spheres of the state of nature and that of the commonwealth is crucial in this respect. In the state of nature their reigns a condition of absolute freedom, one where “every man has a Right to every thing; even to one another’s body” (Leviathan Ch. XIX). Here, a free man is he who is not hindered in his will to do what he wishes; therefore liberty is defined as the absence of impediment (Leviathan Ch. XXI).  On the other hand, Hobbes makes it clear that when men form a commonwealth civil law curbs their liberty and their freedom to act: “but Civill Law is an Obligation; and takes away from us the Liberty which the Law of Nature gave us”(Leviathan Ch.XXVI). The step in between the state of nature and the commonwealth is determined by fear, as it is fear of the state of war, and by extension the innate drive towards self-preservation, which forces us to renounce our natural rights in order to secure our person and our beloved. However, Skinner (1990) asserts that “even in those cases where the liberty of the state of nature is undoubtedly abridged by our obligation to obey the civil laws, this does nothing to limit our liberty in the proper signification of the word.” At this point, one could draw the conclusion that Hobbes’s notion of liberty is wholly determined by fear. Yet, Skinner denies this, as he states that Hobbes’s principle of self-preservation is dictated by reason and not by fear . Thus, Hobbes’s fear coincides with reason, as the forfeit of natural rights and the entering in a commonwealth is a voluntary and rational act: it is in the person’s own interest (Skinner 1990). According to this understanding the agent’s freedom to act as he deems fit is not impeded in any way: liberty, therefore is not understood ex-negativo.

Skinner’s account seems to fend off the critique of Hobbes’s liberty being a forerunner of negative liberty. However it does force us to look deeper inside what reason meant for Hobbes. In chapter V of Leviathan, Hobbes states that the use and end of reason does not reside in discerning the ultimate truth of an assertion (he was a sceptic after all); rather, in the following of its consequences. Hence, human reason is strictly causal (Tuck 1996 p.xxiv). Thus, if Hobbes’s notion of liberty, as presented by Skinner, hinges on the fact that entering in a commonwealth is determined by reason, and if reason is solely the calculation of cause and effect, is the covenant a product of voluntary free will or is it necessitated? And where does this account leave human agency? It is useful to complement the definition of reason in Leviathan with the definition of a voluntary action in Hobbes’s Of Liberty and Necessity. In the latter, Hobbes states that actions depend on a person’s deliberation between the positive and negative outcomes of his/her actions. Therefore, “voluntary actions have all of them necessary causes, and are therefore necessitated” (Hobbes Selections p.206).

Skinner’s conflation of fear and reason, in my view, does not exempt Hobbes’s theory of liberty from being negative, as it allows no space for human agency. The principle of self preservation, coupled with Hobbes’s causal understanding of voluntary actions and reason, impose very strong delimitations on human agency and by extension to liberty and freedom. In turn, these have serious implications on the limits and scope of political participation and civic activism. Moreover, if we do accept Skinner’s assumption that liberty is ensured by the use of our reason, then, for example, an act of patriotic sacrifice (which contradicts the principle of self preservation) would be by definition un-reasonable because it would go against one’s own interest. Therefore, human deliberation is not exempt from fear as Skinner suggests, but is influenced by the drive towards self preservation and more so by natural law. Here I must agree with Macpherson’s point (1962, p27)  that Hobbes’s subject in the abstract state of nature is not in fact exempt from the passions of society (in our case fear of confrontation and death). Strauss as well raises the issue of fear as the constituent feature firstly of Hobbes’s natural law (1953) and  secondly of his teleology: “death takes the place of the telos” (1965). Yet, I would like to add that it is not fear per se which is the determinant of reason and agency; rather, it is the denial of the political brought about by Hobbes’s understanding of natural law which limits liberty.

The Political According to Machiavelli

According to Isaiah Berlin in his essay “The Originality of Machiavelli”, Machiavelli’s chief contribution does not lie in the rejection of Christian and Aristotelian teleologies for an interpretation of politics based on a-moral realism and pragmatism. Most scholars, chiefly those following Benedetto Croce, believe that Machiavelli’s radical innovation lies in his separation of the purely political dimension of statecraft from that of Christian and Greco-roman morals. In such a way, Machiavelli does not necessarily reject morals and ethics, yet, if they come in between the Prince or the Republic’s interests then they are overridden, often with brutal violence (Parks 2009).

This interpretation is not accepted by Berlin. Berlin believes that Machiavelli did in fact possess a very specific set of morals which he never relinquished, these being those of civic-republicanism. For Berlin, Machiavelli’s morality is thoroughly classical, humanist and patriotic. He is looking for “energy, boldness, practical skill, imagination, vitality, self-discipline, shrewdness, public spirit, good fortune, antique virtus, virtù – firmness in adversity, strength of character.” (Berlin 1979 p. 60) And he seeks these qualities not only in the prince, but in the citizens too.

“The central strain which runs through both [The Prince and Discourses] is one and the same. The vision – the dream – typical of many writers who see themselves as tough-minded realists – of the strong, united, effective, morally regenerated, splendid and victorious patria, whether it is saved by the virtù of one man or many – remains central and constant.” (Berlin 1979 p.57)

Machiavelli’s values are therefore not instrumental but are an end to themselves, requiring sacrifice and political commitment in order to have a splendid, strong, vigorous and above all virtuous principality or republic. Thus Berlin’s point is that Machiavelli did not merely “deconstruct” the Christian-classical epistemological framework which fused moral and political duties into a particular teleology. Machiavelli did not separate Christian morality from the political endeavour of state-building: he did not emancipate what was to become the basis of modern politics from the shackles of moralist antiquity. For Berlin the paramount importance of Machiavelli lies in that he made a conscious choice between a moral Christian value system and a civic-republican one.

Berlin thus asserts that Machiavelli inflicted a terrible wound to a basic assumption underlying western civilization’s teleology: the idea that the world and humans are part of a single intelligible whole which will one day mature into a just and harmonious society. For Berlin, every western religion and ideology has embedded within it the promise of a glorious future in which all differences will be harmonized. Machiavelli explodes this preconception by demonstrating two paramount facts: firstly that there are different conceptualizations of how to achieve this end (that there exist different value systems); and secondly, those different value systems are in most cases simply irreconcilable. There is no way that a prince or republic can be ethical in the Christian sense and be successful in the civic-republican one. Private property simply cannot be governed the same way under liberalism as under socialism. In other words, there is no one-way to achieve a “just and harmonious society”.

“This unifying monistic pattern is at the very heart of traditional rationalism, religious and aesthetic, metaphysical and scientific, transcendental and naturalistic, that has been characteristic of western civilisation. It is the rock, upon which western beliefs and lives had been founded, that Machiavelli seems, in effect, to have split open.” (Berlin 1979, p.68)


Berlin’s assessment of Machiavelli effectively “opens up” the realm of political contestation to virtually any ideology or value system. However, I would not go insofar as deducing from Berlin’s argument that Machiavelli consciously pointed towards an inherent antagonism present in politics; nor would I assert that, in this way, Machiavelli is a some sort of postmodernist advocating equality amongst different value systems, far from this. Yet, it is clear that for Berlin’s Machiavelli, politics and statecraft is “up for grabs”: no single value system has a legitimate a priori claim to politics. Only virtù, and not a moral teleology, can assure success in politics; and it is here, I believe, that we find the pulsing heart of Machiavelli’s notion of human agency and by extension of the significance of the political. Here, for me, lies true freedom: an open field without obstacles in which Machiavelli’s Principe Virtuoso and Hobbes’s Absolute Sovereign can clash in the titanic struggle to define the very concepts and limits of human agency, liberty and freedom. It is a thoroughly political sphere saturated with power relations and clashing pre-conceptions.

In conclusion, Hobbes’s state of nature, and the subject inhabiting it, is conditioned by the limits of a causal understanding of freedom, which is in turn influenced by fear. Hobbes’s subject is fearful and does not seek the Machiavellian glories of public activism and patriotic sacrifice. Moreover, Hobbes’s subject is not inclined to participate politically, and this is what places his account of freedom squarely as the forerunner of the theory of negative liberty. This is because Hobbes has trapped him within the a priori logical stronghold of natural law – defying natural law would mean the subject is un-reasonable and thus not human. Machiavelli’s world, on the other hand, has no intrinsic rules: natural law and natural rights are for Machiavelli thoroughly political constructs devised by the prince or the republic to achieve success in a world fraught with antagonism. Ultimately, Hobbes positions the state of nature as existing prior to politics, Machiavelli’s world, on the other hand, is politics.


Baron, H. 1969 “Machiavelli: the Republican Citizen and the Author of the Prince” The English Historical Review, Vol. 76, No. 299 pp. 217-253 Available from: JSTOR [05/11/2010]

Berlin, I. “The originality of Machiavelli” in Hardy, H. (ed) 1979 Against the Current: Essays in the History of Ideas, Pimlico, London

Flanagan, T. “The Concept of Fortuna in Machiavelli” in Parel, H. (ed) 1972 The Political Calculus: Essays on Machiavelli’s Philosophy, University of Toronto Press, Toronto

Gallie, W. B. 1955 “Essentially Contested Concepts” Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society, New Series, Vol. 56, pp. 167-198 Available from: JSTOR [04/11/2010]

Hobbes, T. 1996 Leviathan, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge

Machiavelli, N. 2009 The Prince, Penguin Group, New York

Macpherson, C.B. “Hobbes’s Bourgeois Man” in Brown, K.C (ed) 1965, Hobbes Studies, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Mass.

Macpherson, C.B. 1962 The Political Theory of Possessive Individualism: Hobbes to Locke, Oxford University Press, Oxford

Mansfield, H. Jr. “Necessity in the Beginning of Cities” in Parel, H. (ed) 1972 The Political Calculus: Essays on Machiavelli’s Philosophy, University of Toronto Press, Toronto

Mouffe, C. 2000 The Democratic Paradox, Verso, London

Parks, T. “Introduction” in Machiavelli, N. 2009 The Prince, Penguin Group, New York

Plamenatz, J. “In search of Machiavellian Virtù” in Parel, H. (ed) 1972 The Political Calculus: Essays on Machiavelli’s Philosophy, University of Toronto Press, Toronto

Skinner, Q. 1990 “Thomas Hobbes on the Proper Signification of Liberty” Transactions of the Royal Historical Society, Fifth Series, Vol. 40 (1990), pp. 121-151 Available from: JSTOR [04/11/2010]

Skinner, Q. 1998 Liberty Before Liberalism, Cambridge University press, Cambridge

Strauss, L. “The Spirit of Hobbes’s Political Philosophy” in Brown, K.C (ed) 1965, Hobbes Studies, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Mass.

Strauss, L. 1953 Natural Right and History, Chicago University Press, Chicago

Tuck, R. “Introduction” in Hobbes, T. 1996 Leviathan, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge

Wood, N. “Machiavelli’s Humanism of Action” in Parel, H. (ed) 1972 The Political Calculus: Essays on Machiavelli’s Philosophy, University of Toronto Press, Toronto


1 Comment

Filed under Liberty, political philosophy, political theory, Thomas Hobbes

One response to “Human Agency and the Political in Machiavelli and Hobbes

  1. Pingback: What can Machiavelli teach us about democracy? | The Genealogy of Consent

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s