A review of Machiavelli, Hobbes, and the Formation of a Liberal Republicanism in England, by Vickie B. Sullivan

In this ambitious and interesting book, Vickie Sullivan challenges the conventional interpretation of Machiavelli and his influence on the English republican tradition. The prevailing interpretation, long associated with the writings of Quentin Skinner and J.G.A. Pocock, among others, contrasted Machiavelli's supposedly classical and even noble politics of self-sacrifice with the stunted individualism of nascent liberalism. These scholars saw Machiavelli's old-fashioned republicanism locked in a running battle with Hobbesian and later Lockean modernity. Sullivan, an associate professor and chair of the political science department at Tufts University, describes instead a gradual synthesis of modernized republican means with liberal ends.

Although Machiavelli and Hobbes would have rejected such a combination, Sullivan insists that "each offered essential components" for an actual synthesis. Machiavelli's denunciation of prior political thought's aristocratic bias enabled later English synthesizers to argue on behalf of popular participation and a tumultuous public square. Hobbes too, for Sullivan, supported the people's desire for security against the aristocratic quest for glory while rejecting popular participation as contrary to peace. Hobbes, therefore, was no liberal, but his notion that equal and essentially self-interested individuals can never renounce their right to self-preservation gave birth to the idea of limited government. This led, in turn, to the development of commercial republicanism, in which Machiavellian passions are channeled to protect and promote individual well-being.

This is a plausible argument, and Sullivan defends it vigorously, but in highlighting an unduly neglected aspect of English republican thought, she obscures important distinctions between Hobbesianism and Machiavellianism that explain the conventional interpretation's broad and lasting appeal.

Sullivan begins by focusing on Machiavelli and Hobbes in order to establish the common ground between modern republicanism and nascent liberalism. She shows how both theorists elevate the passions, denigrate reason, and reject divine and natural standards for moral and political life. While accurate in most respects, her interpretation ignores or minimizes important differences. For instance, she treats Hobbes's critique of pride as more or less equivalent to Machiavelli's wariness towards ambitious aristocrats, but Hobbes is far less concerned with social classes than with universal human character traits. His constant biblical references— including the title of his masterpiece—may be as phony as Machiavelli's appeals to ancient history, but given such disparate tastes in window dressing, can the underlying intention really be so similar? Even an atheist might take the story of Adam's disobedience, or the Israelites' rejection of Samuel, as perfectly valid representations of problems at the root of political life. But however our atheist interprets these biblical stories, he would be unlikely to draw the same lessons from Machiavelli's naughty examples of Roman plebs and patricians.

For Sullivan, though, the differences between Machiavelli and Hobbes turn out to be less important than the similarities, and are reducible to a single point of contention: Whereas Machiavelli is a cynical democrat, who advocates political inclusion of the people only because the people will support military expansion, Hobbes is a closet democrat, who is so devoted to the people's desire for peace and security (and opposed to the aristocrats' hunger for war) that he wishes to empty the public square of all potential combatants, nobles and commoners alike.

Given this foundation, a would-be synthesizer only needs to substitute Hobbes's goal of peace, security, and comfort for Machiavelli's goal of military expansion to insure the desired outcome. The people will now be included in politics not to supply imperial cheerleaders or even cannon fodder, but rather to defend their individual interests by maintaining a jealous watch over their rulers. At the same time, the thirst for glory which once would have led to war is now harmlessly vented in the competitive but peaceful pursuit of commerce and industry.

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Sullivan attempts to make her case by turning to six thinkers in the English republican tradition. She begins with Marchmont Nedham, a journalist best known for his multiple shifts of allegiance during and after the English Civil War. When Nedham proposes bringing the people into government, he shows Machiavelli's influence, but when he says that the goal of government is the protection of personal liberties rather than glory or conquest, Sullivan sees Hobbes as the dominant influence. And by extending Hobbes's right of self-preservation to cover liberty and property, as well as life, Nedham anticipates Locke's theory of limited government and the right of resistance.

James Harrington, Sullivan's next example, would seem to contradict the author's thesis, and indeed she acknowledges that later republican writers would have to overcome Oceana's influence before they could fully assimilate liberal premises. Harrington, after all, shares Machiavelli's admiration for the martial exploits of ancient republics and is perfectly willing to sacrifice the people's desire for security to the goal of national conquest. But to Sullivan, Harrington is swept along by that current of English intellectual history flowing inexorably towards a liberal-republican synthesis. If he refused to follow Nedham's precocious lead, he was still "an early but prime exemplar of the modern impulse to… channel interests so that they are checked against other interests."

Sullivan sees Henry Neville, Harrington's protégé, as a more subtle Machiavellian. Like the Florentine, Neville disguises radical innovations behind traditional political forms, but he shuns violence and denies the need for a lone founder. Unlike Harrington, he explicitly adopts the Hobbesian doctrine of an original violent state of nature, with consensual government as the only possible solution. Neville's republican proposals therefore rest on "an individualistic understanding of the place of politics in human life."

Algernon Sidney, in Sullivan's view, anticipates Locke, while secretly admiring Machiavelli. In fact, Sidney is more Machiavellian than even Harrington because he accepts the need for a vindictive populace, willing to undertake civil war to defend lives, liberty, and property. Moreover, like Locke, and not Hobbes, Sidney argues that natural liberty is a gift rather than a burden, and therefore constitutes a standard against which governments can be measured. In the end, only his Machiavellian scorn for commercial republics prevents Sidney from completing the pattern of intellectual development Sullivan detects in his immediate predecessors.

Finally, Sullivan turns to Cato's Letters, in which John Trenchard and Thomas Gordon openly cite Machiavelli as they excoriate those involved in the 1720 financial crisis known as the South Sea Bubble. In the conventional interpretation of English republicanism, the letters are expressions of nostalgia for a lost world of civic virtue, but in Sullivan's view, they are "the final synthesis of Machiavellian republicanism with Lockean liberalism." Cato is "a thoroughly modern thinker," who follows Hobbes and Locke rather than Aristotle by asserting that human beings are controlled by their passions and that they establish governments to fulfill individual needs. Cato recommends political participation, not because it is consistent with human nature or necessary for the attainment of happiness, but simply to secure individual rights against government. Self-interest is not to be overcome, but "enlarged and educated."

Clearly, Cato's example best supports Sullivan's critique of the prevailing scholarship. Yet her argument that English republicans were not upholding a truly classical standard does little to dispel the fact that Machiavellian republicanism is still radically different from social contract liberalism. Granted, Machiavelli is no mere conduit of ancient political thought, but whatever clarity is to be gained from drawing sharper distinctions between ancients and moderns is squandered if the moderns are considered fungible, or at any rate complementary.

To say that Hobbes chooses peace and prosperity, and thus favors the people over the aristocracy, is to read his theory through Machiavellian lenses. For Hobbes, peace and prosperity are the inevitable outcome of a correct understanding and institutional accommodation of universal human capacities and limitations. Leviathan is artificial, not manipulative.

Even as she argues that Hobbes and Machiavelli share a reliance on the passions, Sullivan must admit that Machiavelli's celebration of the people "originates from his own pursuits, not from theirs." Moreover, Machiavelli's formula for a perpetual republic demands universal activism and at least occasional willingness to violate the most sacred taboos. Hobbes's emphasis on natural right runs in the opposite direction. He is not concerned with encouraging political action, but with fostering obedience, and he does so not by threats or promises, but by encouraging individuals to consider what would happen if everyone's natural inclinations were simultaneously realized.

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Sullivan's analysis is all the more troubling for its substantial accuracy. Cato may indeed represent the culmination of a process of blending modern theories, rather than a reaction against them. But this is not to say that Cato correctly understands the ingredients being mixed. And, if the ingredients are misunderstood, the question remains: Is it possible simultaneously and coherently to promote liberal as well as republican political agendas?

At the end of Leviathan, Hobbes praises his late friend Sidney Godolphin as a man whose life proved that it was possible to combine seemingly contradictory traits such as a readiness to forgive personal affronts and an eagerness to risk death in defense of the state. The key to Godolphin's reconciliation, Hobbes suggests, is a profound respect for the sometimes fragile distinction between public and private life. The man who stands his ground in defense of the state is the very same man who overlooks a personal insult, yet the circumstances are different: law and obligation govern the former, while self-interest and charity compete for control of the latter.

Machiavelli's protagonists, of course, respect no such institutionalized distinction. Indeed, for the sake of founding and renewing the state, they deny its very possibility. This is what makes the English republican synthesis such a dubious proposition. As Sullivan describes Cato's ideal, it seems to require attitudes of obedience and ambition, a love of security and an eagerness for self-assertion, to coexist in every citizen. One strains to imagine what such a citizen would resemble, if not some creature, part-worker, part-rebel, part-hero, and entirely mythological.