The Mortal God: A Comparative Analysis

April 3, 2019 by Essay Writer

The leadership of the Leviathan, or, the ‘mortal god’, is a central theme in Thomas Hobbes’ theoretical masterpiece, The Leviathan. Literally, the word Leviathan comes from the Hebrew word livyathan, which etymologically denotes “to wind, turn, twist”[1]. In biblical tradition, it refers to the “dragon, serpent, huge sea animal”[2] in the book of Job. Leviathan, a text written in the 17th century CE, proposes a conceptual political structure designed to achieve an ideal authority that best fits human nature. Through his famous notion of the hypothetical human State of Nature, Hobbes rationally constructs that the best government rules like a mortal god. Other political theorists, such as Aristotle (4th century BCE) and Machiavelli (15th and 16th century CE), have developed their own conceptions of human nature and the ideal political realm suitable for it. Particularly, the views of Aristotle in Politics, and Machiavelli in The Prince and The Discourses compare and contrast with Hobbes’ proposed political project. Although there are some commonalities in their understandings of human nature and political authority, Machiavelli and Aristotle’s proposed authorities mainly conflict with Hobbes’ conceptual Leviathan, because of the differing goals each theorist means to achieve through their respective sovereigns. This comparative analysis will explore the views of Hobbes, Machiavelli and Aristotle on the human nature, the powers of the governing sovereign, the use of religion in politics, and the overall goals that each philosopher means to achieve.

In order to hypothetically establish the hegemonic leadership of one sovereign with unmatched power, Hobbes first discusses human nature in the Leviathan. The purpose of an all-powerful authority is attain “peace and common defence” (Leviathan, part 2, ch. 17), and only through understanding the desires and aggressions of man is the establishment of peace possible. An aspect of human nature that is essential to Hobbes in establishing a Leviathan is equality – humans are, more or less, equally vulnerable and equally dangerous – as he explains, “Nature hath made men so equal in the faculties of body and mind as that, though there be found one man sometimes manifestly stronger in body or of quicker mind than another… the weakest has strength enough to kill the strongest, either by secret machination or by confederacy with others that are in the same danger with himself” (Leviathan, part 1, ch. 13). Thus, humans are roughly equal in their potential danger to one another, rendering characteristics such as age, gender, and race irrelevant in Hobbes’ State of Nature.

Later in the Leviathan, Hobbes argues that because of this equality, all men in the hypothetical State of Nature must unvaryingly submit to the conditions of peace with each other, as he concludes, “If nature therefore have made men equal, that equality is to be acknowledged: or if nature have made men unequal, yet because men that think themselves equal will not enter into conditions of peace, but upon equal terms, such equality must be admitted … every man acknowledge another for his equal by nature” (Leviathan, part 1, ch. 15). Only through entering on peaceful terms equally can a community exit the relentless State of Nature and move towards the establishment of a Leviathan. Therefore, through this reasoning, Hobbes believes that the equality of man in nature is vital in establishing the sovereign.

Aristotle, however, does not believe that mankind is equal by nature. Initially, it is important to understand that Aristotle views humans as political creatures intended for city life, but there is a difference in status in the Aristotelian conception of society. Instead of deducing his argument through the vulnerabilities of man on the communal scale like Hobbes’ State of Nature, Aristotle in Politics establishes a system of authority within the most basic societal unit: the household. The household is a fundamental component of the polis, as Aristotle explains, “we must consider the management of the household; for every city is composed of household” (Politics, Book 1, Part B, 1253b1). Without insuring the proper management of animate and inanimate property, a man’s active participation in the political life is not possible, because a man’s household must first be in relative order. Here, Aristotle creates the hierarchy of the complete household, which “consists of slaves and freemen” (Politics, Book 1, Part B, 1253b1), each of which naturally incline towards slavery or mastery. Politics argues that nature selects one or the other into slavery, “It is nature’s intention also to erect a physical difference between the bodies of freemen and those of the slaves, giving the latter strength for the menial duties of life, but making the former upright in carriage and… useful for the various purposes of civic life” (Politics, Book 1, Part B, 1254b27). Consequently, Aristotle believes that nature pushes slaves to pursue physical tasks in maintenance of the household’s property, and freeborn masters are naturally inclined to have a political life and manage their affairs affectively.

Moreover, he views freeborn males as superior to freeborn females, as he states, “the relation of male to female is naturally that of the superior to the inferior, of the ruling to the ruled. This general principle must similarly hold good of all human beings generally” (Politics, Book 1, Part B, 1254b13). His reasoning behind the inferiority of females is their alleged natural lack of forethought and prudence, making women unable to enter the political life, despite their mental faculty of deliberation (Politics, Book 1, Part B, 1260a12). In this process, however, Aristotle erects a female freeborn master in the household to rule over children and slaves when the freeborn male is not present. Therefore, it is correct to say that Aristotle views humans in a hierarchy that nature intends and inclines mankind towards, and disagrees with Hobbes’ simple equality of all humanity.

Interestingly, Hobbes responds in disagreement to Aristotle’s separation of freeborn men and slaves. He writes, “Aristotle in the first book of his Politics, for a foundation of his doctrine, maketh men by nature, some worthy to command… others to serve… as master and servant were not introduced by consent of men, but by difference of wit, which is not only against reason, but also against experience. For there are very few so foolish that had not rather govern themselves than be governed by others” (Leviathan, part 1, chapter 15). Here, Hobbes explains that though Aristotle argues that freeborn men and slaves are different by nature, the idea that slaves would submit to masters by their own consent is “foolish” and unrealistic. The Leviathan contends that humans are self-interested, and thus, would naturally fight to serve themselves rather than succumb to other men.

Machiavelli’s views on human nature somewhat agree with Hobbes’, but they still have unique differences. Machiavelli, too, argues in the Prince that humans are self-interested creatures, by stating “For one can generally say this about men: that they are ungrateful, fickle, simulators and deceivers, avoiders of danger, greedy for gain… when it [danger] comes nearer to you, they turn away.” (The Prince, ch. 17, pp. 131) Here, he explains that although it is ideal for a Prince to be loved and feared by his subjects, men are ultimately selfish and self-interested, and will go against the Prince when he is endangered. However, Machiavelli views human civilizations as one that is constantly in a cycle, where societies ultimately change and evolve throughout time, both positively or negatively (The Discourses, ch. 2, pp. 179) – thus, human society is capable of progressing or degrading as the cycle continues, and is not permanently frozen, nor completely open-ended.

A vital keystone, moreover, in Machiavellian theory is the role of Fortune (sometimes translated as ‘Fortuna’) in one’s political life. Fortune is a hypothetical goddess Machiavelli introduces in the Prince who has the ability cause the rise and fall of leaders by her will. She favours young, aggressive risk-takers in the political realm, as the Prince explains “she more often allows herself to be taken over by men who are impetuous than by those who make cold advances; and then, being a woman, she is always the friend of young men, for they are less cautious, more aggressive” (The Prince, chapter 25, pp. 162). Accordingly, Fortune gives power to those who interest her through hasty, bold courage. Her power over men is inordinate, as she “is the arbiter of one half of our actions” (The Prince, chapter 25, pp. 159); but her actions are not wholly random, as she allows men to beat her into submission and command her with audacity if she allows it (The Prince, chapter 25, pp. 162). An extensive example Machiavelli gives to demonstrate the power of Fortune is found in the life of Castruccio Castracani of Lucca, who was guided to become a conqueror and achieve glory in a great military project. By chance (or Fortune), Castruccio’s life was saved several times and his success grew, until Fortune chose to cause him to fail at the end of his life. “But Fortune, hostile to his glory, took his life away from him instead of giving it to him – it interrupted those plans that Castruccio had intended to carry out for a long time, plans that only death could have prevented him from carrying out” (The Life of Castruccio Castracani, pp. 539). Swiftly, Castruccio was killed by a cold chill and high fever at the height of his military success, rendering his plans only to dismay. This element, therefore, demonstrates that Fortune plays a major role in Machiavelli’s human nature and the rise and fall of leaders; an element that is nonexistent in the works of Hobbes.

By establishing a standard for human nature and the general equality of man, Hobbes is able to launch his Leviathan: a single sovereign that rules like a mortal god. Because of the relentlessness of the State of Nature, Hobbes explains, the only way for a community to end the war of all against all is by mutual consent – through disarming weapons and erecting natural laws – to not harm one another. They do this out of “foresight of their own preservation” (The Leviathan, part 2, ch. 17), because without common accord, the State of Nature would simply continue never endingly. Thus, the people surrender some of their liberties to a sovereign to insure mutual peace for the greater good, as Hobbes explains “The only way to erect such a common power, as may be able to defend them from the invasion of foreigners, and the injuries of one another… to confer all their power and strength upon one man, or upon one assembly of men, that may reduce all their wills, by plurality of voices, unto one will” (The Leviathan, part 2, ch. 17). This excerpt is significant, because it demonstrates how men are to give their liberties to one sovereign, preferably one man, to protect a community from itself and others. Like so, Hobbes’ mortal god is created, as equitably precarious men equally confer powers to establish the Leviathan naturally, for the purpose of creating order. The manufactured strength of this sovereign is unchallenged, as Hobbes continues, “one person, of whose acts a great multitude… to the end he may use the strength and means of them all as he shall think expedient for their peace and common defence” (The Leviathan, part 2, ch. 17). Therefore, the sovereign focuses the power of all into a singular authority responsible for maintaining peace.

The concept of a sovereign as one man, or a body of men, is not peculiar to Aristotle in his Politics. In his famous typology, Aristotle identifies that a constitutional polis can be ruled by either three valid authorities, or the corrupted versions these three respectively. “The civic body in every city is the sovereign; and the sovereign must necessarily be either One, or Few, or Many … [if they] rule with a view to the common interest, the constitutions under which they do so must necessarily be right constitutions” (Politics, Book 3, Part 7, 1279a25). Here, he argues that a polis can be governed either by an individual, a group of individuals, or the many – either way, if the sovereign governs in the interest of the community, then the city’s constitution is inherently good. In this respect, Aristotle agrees with The Leviathan’s mortal god, as the Hobbesian authority rules by the consent of the many for the sake of peace; a quality that is in the community’s best self-interest for safety and longevity. A Leviathan, then, is not a tyrant, but rather, he is a king. Aristotle goes on to say that although a singular monarchy, which The Leviathan inclines towards but does not necessitate, can be an ideal form of governance, it is not the most suitable form of government in a densely populated city; “it is possible for one man, or a few, to be of outstanding excellence; but when it comes to a large number, we can hardly expect precision in all the varieties of excellence.” (Politics, Book 3, Part 7, 1279a25) In context, Aristotle purports that it is difficult for one or few men to be outstanding in all qualities in the midst of a large group of men. Aristotle also argues that a singular monarchy is a primitive power not found in modern politics, as he says, “Kingships do not occur nowadays and any government of that type which emerges today is a personal government or tyranny.” (Politics, Book 5, Part 11, 1312b38). Therefore, he views kingship as a governmental form best fit for smaller or pre-modern societies, while Hobbes’ State of Nature does not specify a size for that community, nor time period, and thus, a singular sovereign is preferred for all communities in Hobbesian theory.

Aristotle does present his own models of epitome authorities for the polis described in his Politics. The best form of government, he says, is an aristocracy, “among forms of government by a few people (but more than one) it is called Aristocracy – the name being given to this species either because the best are the rulers, or because its object is what is best for the city and its members” (Politics, Book 3, Part 7, 1279a25). Hence, as Aristotle exclaims, aristocracy is best when ruled by those with freedom, property, and merit (Politics, Book 3, Part 9, 12781a2), as it is the governance of the best (aristoi). The most applicable authority, though, according to Aristotle, is polity, also known as the mixed regime, as it the most practical system. Polity is the rule of the middle class of citizens, who ideally would form the majority of a large polis, as Aristotle explains, “the best form of political association is one where power is vested in the middle class, and, secondly, that good government is attainable in those cities where there is a large middle class … enough to be stronger than either of them singly… [it] will prevent either of the opposing extremes from becoming dominant.” (Politics, Book 4, 1295b34) Meaning, the middle class’ judgment would be the least extreme in comparison to the contentious rich and poor, while still including a majority or significant minority of the polis in the ruling process. This superiority of the middle class is preferred by Aristotle, because of his belief that the “over-wealthy” and “over-poor” are arrogant and petty respectively (Politics, Book 4, 1294a34).

This is relevant to consider when comparing Aristotle to Hobbes on the subject of authoritarian rule, because Aristotle’s theory contains both a societal hierarchy and a division of classes, while in Hobbes’ State of Nature, these dissections do not exist. A complete parallel, then, between the two concepts of authority is not possible. However, as it has been established above, the sovereign in Aristotle’s polis (whether it be a king, aristocracy, or polity) has complete authority when serving the common good, much like Hobbes’ mortal god. Therefore, the two theorists have points of similarity and points of contrast. Machiavelli, on the other hand, believes that a single Prince is best for a nation in need of unity and direction. He argues that all political authorities can be divided into two major categories: principalities, which entail the leadership of a single sovereign, and republics, which entails rule by citizens.

The Prince is dedicated to Prince Lorenzo, and thus, the focus of the work is on principalities, and how they are to succeed (The Prince, ch. 2 pp. 79). At a period of friction between a nation’s peoples, like Italy at Machiavelli’s time, or at a time of foreign domination, a Prince is necessary in seizing power and establishing a principality, as per the examples of Moses, Cyrus, Romulus, and Theseus throughout the Prince, who, if they had been unarmed, they “could not have made their institutions long respected” (The Prince, ch. 6, pp. 95). Specifically, a Prince must be proficient in the use of violence, as Machiavelli explains, “if they are forced to beg or are able to use power in conducting affairs… In the first case, they always end up badly and never accomplish anything; but when they lean on their own resources and can use power, then only seldom do they find themselves in peril. From this comes the fact that all armed prophets were victorious and the unarmed came to ruin” (The Prince, ch. 6, pp. 94-95). Meaning, all who try to seize authority through solely peaceful means and prayer have failed, and therefore, a Prince must use violence when it is necessary.

In relation to Hobbes, Machiavelli’s Prince has supreme authority (like a mortal god) once he seizes it, but there is a difference in how the sovereign attains this power. It is not at the peaceful consent of the people, but instead, through coercion and good Fortune. However, principality for Machiavelli is a means for the eventual establishment of a republic, and he expands on this idea in The Discourses. The singular Prince is successful only if he plans to fulfill the political project of creating law-abiding and law-creating citizens, and therefore, a republic: “one man alone… a prudent founder of a republic, one whose intention it is to govern for the common good and not in his own interest, not for his heirs but for the sake of the fatherland, should try to have the authority all to himself; nor will a wise mind ever reproach anyone for some extraordinary action performed in order to found a kingdom or to institute a republic.” (The Discourses, ch. 9, pp. 200) This vital passage elucidates that although the Prince is an individual with extraordinary power, the ideal purpose of his rule is to found a republic, for the good of his nation, rather than be succeeded hereditarily. In the same chapter, Hobbes cites Romulus’ killing of his brother Remus, and his ally Tatius, and justifies, “It is, indeed, fitting that while the action accuses him, the result excuses him; and when this result is good, as it was with Romulus, it will always excuse him” (The Discourses, ch. 9, pp. 200-201). Thus, the killing off of other leaders in the principalities was necessary in the establishment of one sovereign, and later, the Roman republic. Therefore, although the Prince and the Leviathan both hold unmatched authority and rule like mortal gods, the purpose of the Prince’s power in Machiavelli is to establish republican rule, while Hobbes’ Leviathan exists to insure peace.

In establishing his Leviathan, Hobbes extensively addresses the issues revolving religion, its difficulties, and its usages, as he argues that religion can be a vital pawn of a sovereign. Hobbes sees religion as something unique to mankind, and believes that an eminent degree of religiosity cannot be found in other creatures (The Leviathan, part 1, ch. 7). Firstly, he is clear in saying that one does not, in full actuality, know what the true religion is, as he writes “men not knowing that such apparitions are nothing else but creatures of the fancy, think to be real and external substances, and therefore call them ghosts… the opinion that such spirits were incorporeal, or immaterial, could never enter into the mind of any man by nature” (The Leviathan, part 1, ch. 7). Thus, Hobbes explains that communication with the spiritual realm is contradictory, because spirits themselves (such as God) are infinite, and therefore, incomprehensible to one’s understanding.

Secondly, the Leviathan argues that religion has been used to mobilize leadership and perpetuate loyalties. He says, “But both sorts have done it with a purpose to make those men that relied on them the more apt to obedience, laws, peace, charity, and civil society. So that the religion of the former sort is a part of human politics; and teacheth part of the duty which earthly kings require of their subjects.” (The Leviathan, part 1, ch. 7) Meaning, both “true” and “false” religions have made men more submissive to a human spiritual authority believed to be a representative of gods, nymphs, or spirits. Finally, Hobbes argues that the use of religion had been vital in the creation of Commonwealths, as he contends, “And by these, and such other institutions, they obtained in order to their end, which was the peace of the Commonwealth, that the common … were the less apt to mutiny against their governors”. Therefore, through the institutions of religion, that Hobbes says Numa, the founder of Peru, and Mahomet had used, peace had been achieved, and threat of rebellion against religious sovereigns had been minimized.

Consequently, Hobbes believes that while religion has its dangers and superstitions, it can be a vital keystone in the creation of a Leviathan with solid authority through religious institution. Aristotle’s view on religion is not an instrumental element to his political theory, but nonetheless, he recognizes the role of religion in the city, as well as its misuse as a political tool. In Book 6 of his Politics, Aristotle produces a list of six essential offices required for a functional city, and they include “the functions connected with public worship, military matters, revenue and expenditure, the market-place, the city centre, the harbours, and the countryside” (Politics, Book 6, Part 8, 1322b29). The religion of the city, then, becomes one of its vital offices set up for the spiritual life of the citizens. He repeats the relevancy of establishing a religious body in the polis again in Book 7, as he writes, “The fifth (but really first) is an establishment for the service of the gods, or, as it is called, public worship.” (Politics, Book 7, Part 8, 1328b2) However, contrary to Hobbes, Aristotle does not necessitate the use of religion for the sovereign body of the polis in Politics, despite its function in the city. Instead, he famously identifies the use of religion as a means for tyrants to maintain power, “He should always show a particular zeal in the cult of the gods. People are less afraid of being treated unjustly by those of this sort, that is if they think that the ruler is god-fearing and pays some regard to the gods; and they are less ready to conspire against him, if they feel that the gods themselves are his friends.” (Politics, Book 5, Part 11, 1314b35) Hence, in tyranny, Aristotle’s negative form of singular rule, religion is used as a tool for the sovereign to appear godly, and prevent insurrection against his corrupt rule. Therefore, both Aristotle and Hobbes are in agreement that religion can be used to mould communal loyalty to a sovereign, but disagree on the legitimacy of this tactic.

In Machiavelli’s Prince and Discourses, a sovereign’s use of religion is vital for the success of his community. Of Machiavelli’s four most excellent men, Moses was the first mentioned, as the lawgiver in Judeo-Christian canon. He explains, “It was necessary, therefore, to Moses that he should find the people of Israel in Egypt enslaved and oppressed by the Egyptians, in order that they should be disposed to follow him and escape this servitude… These opportunities, therefore, made these men successful, and their outstanding ingenuity made that opportunity known to them, whereby their nations were ennobled and became prosperous” (The Prince, ch. 6, pp. 93) The biblical Moses had led the Israelite exodus from Egypt, created a system of laws and rituals, and sown the seeds of a free people, all in the name of religion, and Machiavelli here acknowledges that. Contrary to priestly religious figures, Moses had utilized violence and coercion, and successfully built a nation and religion – such are vital qualities for Machiavelli’s Prince. Moreover, in his Discourses, Machiavelli gives the example of Numa Pompilius, the successor to Romulus, selected by the Roman republic. Interestingly, Numa was also the founder of the Roman republic’s religion, one with glaring similarities to Greek mythology. The Discourses continue, “Numa found the Roman people most undisciplined, and since he wanted to bring them to civil obedience by means of the arts of peace, he turned to religion as an absolutely necessary institution for the maintenance of a civic government… for many centuries never was there more fear of God than in that republic” (The Discourses, ch. 11, pp. 207). Accordingly, Machiavelli praises Numa for taming the unruly (and potentially dangerous, pp.208) behaviour of his people through the institution of religion, and for that reason, he argued that Rome was more indebted to Numa (The Discourses, ch. 11, pp. 208). Even in the Prince, Machiavelli argues that a sovereign must appear to be religious rather than against religion (The Prince, ch. 18, pp. 135). Therefore, Machiavelli is in agreement with the Hobbesian perspective that the sovereign mortal god would use religion to control and guide the people into order.

Finally, the differing goals Hobbes, Aristotle, and Machiavelli impose on their sovereigns are important to consider, as they shed their arguments analyzed above. For Hobbes, the underlying purpose of his Leviathan is the establishment of peace. Through the equal and common consent of all humans in the State of Nature, a Leviathan is created, as Hobbes famously states, “This is the generation of that great LEVIATHAN, or rather, to speak more reverently, of that mortal god to which we owe, under the immortal God, our peace and defence” (The Leviathan, part 2, ch. 17). Thus, a human mortal, who is empowered by the people, rules with the power of a divine god, for their protection and the maintenance of peace. As soon as the Leviathan’s interest secedes from that of the Commonwealth, he is to be replaced. On the other hand, the purpose of Aristotle’s ideal government, whether it is the preferred aristocracy or the practical polity, is to accentuate and maximize the human potential (telos). He argues that just as an acorn has the telos to become an oak tree, human beings, who are naturally political creatures, can live the good life as citizens. “The purpose of the city is the good life, and these institutions are means to that end. A city is constituted by the association of families and villages in a perfect and self-sufficing existence; and such an existence, on our definition, consists in living a happy and truly valuable life.” (Politics, Book 3, Part 9, 1280b29) Therefore, the purpose of the city and the leadership thereof is to progress citizens and rule in their best interest.

Lastly, the goal of Machiavelli’s Prince is to achieve political immortality and glory. It is the job of future generations to bestow glory on a Prince, and therefore, slaves must become citizens, and principalities must become republics, as Machiavelli explains, to achieve immortality: “God does not wish to do everything, in order not to take from us our free will and that part of the glory which is ours” (The Prince, ch. 26, pp. 163). Henceforth, the differing goal of each political theorist creates differing views on the sovereign and his purpose: Hobbes vouches for peace, Aristotle for the good life, and Machiavelli for glory. In conclusion, it has become apparent that through their respective views on human nature, the power of the sovereign, the use of religion, and the goals intended for each authority, Aristotle and Machiavelli would both respectively agree with some of Hobbes’ conclusions, and disagree with others. Overall, the leadership of Hobbes’ Leviathan, a man or assembly of men the rules like a mortal god, is one that is unique to The Leviathan, as the three political theorists write with their own intentions, interests, and in their own eras. Although they all agree on the proposed existence of a powerful sovereign, there is disagreement on the means, ends, and goals. Surely, the quest to find the most ideal society is one that has been pursued for centuries in the past, and this quest is very likely to continue for many more years to come.

[1] Online Etymology Dictionary, [2] Ibid

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