Early Modern Philosophers

Niccolò Machiavelli (1469-1527)

“Whoever desires to found a state and give it laws, must start with assuming that all men are bad and ever ready to display their vicious nature, whenever they may find occasion for it,”[1] states Machiavelli, the Italian historian, statesman and political philosopher, whose highly influential political ideas have converted his name into a synonym of cunning and deceit. Machiavelli was born in 1469 in Florence. He served as an administrator and a diplomat in the Florentine Republic, and knew many political leaders, including the great Cesare Borgia, thought to be the model for The Prince. Machiavelli’s political career ended after fifteen years when the Medici returned to power. After his dismissal, he retired to his farm in the country, and wrote The Prince and Discourse upon the First Ten Books of Livy in peace.

The Prince is Machiavelli’s most important work and is often described as a ‘handbook for dictators’. It outlines the methods by which a prince can obtain and sustain political power. The only end to be achieved is the success in political actions and all ethical and moral rules are meaningless in the procurement of this end. Hence, Machiavelli’s prince is bare of all moral principles, though he may appear to be a virtuous man in the public. “A prince never lacks legitimate reasons to break his promise.” Machiavelli maintained that public success and private morality are entirely separate; the issue is not what makes a good human being, but what makes a good prince. “Politics has no relation to morals,” is Machiavelli’s most precious axiom. However, it is to be noted that Machiavelli is not advocating immorality. He is just declaring politics independent from it. There is ample evidence to believe that Machiavelli himself was a moral man in his day to day life.

In public life only the praise and blame of fellow human beings really matters to the prince. Thus, Machiavelli supposed, the ruler needs to acquire a good reputation while actually doing whatever wrong seems necessary in the circumstances. The prince must be aware of how to increase and maintain his fame among the people. For this, he should be as hypociritcal as necessary. Gaining the support of the populace is an important objective for the prince. For this reason, if he has to commit any cruelties, they should be committed all at once, while benefits should granted little by little, so that they may be remembered for a longer time.

Machiavelli devotes great attention to the careful use of military forces, and greatly stresses the importance of state being armed. “Before all else, be armed,” Machiavelli emphatically exhorts. “Hence it comes about that all armed Prophets have been victorious, and all unarmed Prophets have been destroyed.”[2] Although it is desirable to be both loved and feared by one’s subjects, it is far safer to be feared. Since a state is much too complex to be handled by a single man, the prince would inevitably need advisers to assist in governance. For such matters, competent and honest men should be selected, who would carry out orders regardless of their own interest. Their loyalty should be strengthened by due rewards and honors. The prince should avoid flatterers; a prince who is surrounded by such flatterers is an inefficient prince.

Mahiavelli is prominent among political philosophers in the sense that he doesn’t give an account of how state of affairs ‘ought’ to be. ‘Ought’ is an ethical consideration and success in politics is independent of ethics. In other words, the political imperative is independent of the ethical imperative. Using his own experience, Machiavelli considers how people really ‘do’ behave, and how can they be effectively governed. By doing so, he has only portrayed the real nature of the human politics, immoral though it may be. Even though The Prince was written five centuries ago, its philosphy is still important and influential because the issues it deals with are an eternal part of politics. Perhaps, Machiavelli was right when he wrote, “Of mankind we may say in general they are fickle, hypocritical, and greedy of gain.”

There would be no doubt about Machiavelli’s status as shrewd political thinker, but his status as a philosopher is a different matter, because Machiavelli makes little attempt to consider and answer the fundamental questions of political philosophy such as what should be the best form of government? Why is a state or a prince required in the first place? Can’t humans live in the state of anarchy[3]? As Daniel Donno writes, “It is important to remember that Machiavelli was not a systematic thinker. He was not concerned with the problem of rationalizing a complete and coherent political theory… he didn’t even pause to define the nature of the state[4] or to develop what its relation to the society living under its laws should be.”[5] Machiavelli himself writes in the The Prince, “I deem it best to stick to the practical truth of things rather than to fancies. Many men have imagined republics and principalities that never really existed at all. Yet the way men live is so far removed from the way they ought to live that anyone who abandons what is for what should be pursues his downfall rather than his preservation.”[6]

[1] Discourse upon the First Ten Books of Livy
[2] The Prince
[3] Anarchy: Absence of any political authority
[4] It is a misconception to believe that Machiavelli advocated monarchy. Even though The Prince is about monarchy, his Discourses reveal that he preferred a Republic over Monarchy.
[5] Daniel Donno’s Introduction to The Prince, Bantam Books, page 7-8
[6] Machiavelli, The Prince, translated by Daniel Donno, Bantam Books, page 56

Francis Bacon (1561-1626)

Sir Francis Bacon was an English lawyer, statesman, essayist, historian, intellectual reformer, philosopher, and champion of modern science. Indeed, such broad is his area of interest that he claimed “all knowledge as his province”. Francis Bacon is in many ways the first great spokesman of the modern philosophy. He didn’t create any philosophical system of his own, but he proposed a method of developing philosophy. He is credited with contributing a technique of inductive reasoning in logic known as ampliative inference. In his works, Bacon is secular in approach, empirical in attitude and rational in thought. He was the herald of a new age of science and attempted to systematize the whole scientific procedure. He was among the first to realize the importance of science in human lives; the prevalence of scientific outlook owes a great deal to him. In this respect, he is a very influential person. Bacon’s approach can be classified as belonging to empirical philosophy.

He is important in philosophy owing to his great emphasis on Induction in logical reasoning. His explains this in his book Novum Organum (The New Instrument). Induction is the process of deriving general principles from particular facts or instances. [For example, you observe that bacteria, fungi, plants and animals reproduce; and bacteria, fungi, plants and animals are all living organisms, so you induce the conclusion ‘All living organisms reproduce.’] Bacon’s own method of induction involved collection and observation of data, and utilization of these to form general laws, initially of lowest degree. From these laws, laws of second degree of generality were to be arrived at, and so on. Each axiom – each step up “the ladder of intellect” – is thoroughly tested by observation and experimentation before the next step is taken. This method itself is not very satisfactory since it leads to over-emphasis on collection and tabulation of data, and does not specify at which particular point the induction is to be made: after a dozen observations? A hundred? A thousand? So, although this method has not been used by scientists, but the spirit of scientific reasoning has been employed by scientists ever since. It is a weak point of Bacon’s philosophy that he did not try to find any philosophical basis to show the validity of induction, which, as we shall see in the chapter on Hume, is a difficult problem. Bacon also greatly underestimates the role of creative imagination in the formation of hypothesis. Hypothesis cannot, in most cases, be formed by the mere collection of data. In fact, the amount of data is sometimes so huge that a scientist has to have a hypothesis in mind to collect the relevant information; otherwise little could be inferred apart from the chaotic mass of collected data. And the value of Induction will be further dealt with in the chapter on Popper, where we shall see that according to Popper science in reality uses very little of the Inductive method.
Bacon’s book The New Atlantis is a work standing in the great tradition of the utopian-philosophic novels that stretches from Plato (Republic) and More (Utopia) to Huxley (Brave New World). It describes a fictional island, and the community living there is leading a prosperous and flourishing life, using the Baconian methods of scientific research.

Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679)

Thomas Hobbes was an English political philosopher, and one of the firsts to explain a state in purely secular terms. Leviathan is the most important of his works. Hobbes advocated a strictly materialistic point of view; he thought of humans as nothing more than sophisticated machines, whose functions and activities could be explained in mechanistic terms. In fact, Hobbes is such a full-fledged materialist that he defines Ethics as dealing with movements within the nervous system and Politics as dealing with the effects of one nervous system on another or group of nervous systems! Life is for him nothing but a motion of limbs. He believed that the succession of our thoughts is not arbitrary and random, but determined by laws: All humans act in such a way as to relieve their discomfort and to maintain and enhance their own well-being and welfare. Hence, good is nothing but an object of appetite (desire), while bad is just an object of aversion. This point of view was an important early influence on the ethical philosophy of utilitarianism[1].

In Hobbes’s view, man is inclined to live independently, acting on the sole motive of self-interest without any regard for others. This naturally leads to a state of war with everyone against everyone or "war of all against all" (bellum omnium contra omnes). Life in such a state is "solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short". But man wishes to end this state of war; the only solution is to enter into a social contract — a mutually beneficial agreement to surrender the individual interests by choosing a sovereign, or a sovereign body, which will exercise authority over them and put an end to the state of universal conflict. This social contract is not to be viewed as a definite historical event but as an ‘explanatory myth’, justifying the formation of a state. The state is seen as a new, artificial person (Leviathan), who is responsible for social order and public welfare.

The sovereign has unlimited power in Hobbes’s philosophy. It is realised that the sovereign may be tyrannical but Hobbes believes that the worst despotism is a better alternative than anarchy. The only right which Hobbes gives to the individual is the right of self-preservation, since it was for this very motive the social contract was made. Hence, State is not allowed to harm the preservation of the individual.
Hobbes defines liberty very precisely; it is the absence of any external hindrance or obstruction to motion. This represents the mechanistic philosophy of Hobbes. Water, when its motion is not blocked, moves from higher height to lower height, and in this sense, it is ‘free’. When a man has freedom to do what he wills, he is free, although he has as much choice as water has of moving downhill.


[1] The doctrine that what is useful is good