Machiavelli Locke Plato and the Power of the Individual

John Locke and Niccoló Machiavelli are political philosophers writing in two different lands and two different times. Locke’s 17th century England was on the verge of civil war and Machiavelli’s 15th century Italy was on the verge of invasion. Yet, students and political philosophers still enthusiastically read and debate their works today. What is it that draws readers to these works? Why, after three hundred years, do we still read Two Treatises on Government, Discourses on Livy, and The Prince?

The answer to those questions lies in each text itself, and careful review will produce discourses on those questions and many others. The focus of this discourse is to examine the treatment of “the people” by both authors, to discover what Machiavelli and Locke write about the people’s role in their different structures of government. In particular, this paper seeks to understand that role in regards to the political power each author yields to, or withholds from, the people. In addition, these treatments of power and the people will be compared to the writings of another timeless political philosopher, Plato. By juxtaposing Two Treatises on Government, Discourses on Livy, The Prince, and The Republic against one another, this paper will show how writers from three very different centuries all agreed upon an identical notion of the relationship between the power of the people and their role in government.

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This theory is not readily apparent upon initial reading of these authors. Indeed, most political philosophers would argue that each author has a very distinct notion of what role the people play in government. Therefore, an ideal place to start is in the differences of each author’s portrayal of the people and the political power they wield.

Machiavelli, the most pessimistic of the three writers in regards to humans and human nature, writes that all men can be accused of “that defect” which Livy calls vanity and inconsistency (The Discourses on Livy, 115). He continues by writing: “…people [are] nothing other than a brute animal that, although of a ferocious and feral nature, has always been nourished in prison and in servitude” (Discourses on Livy, 44). Animals, that are by their nature ferocious, become scared and confused when released from captivity. Without the shelter and food they had come to expect when “domesticated,” they are more susceptible to future attempts at captivity. Man also becomes scared and confused in freedom after living under the government of others. Machiavelli writes that these men lack understanding of “public defense or public offense,” and quickly return “beneath the yoke that is most often heavier than the one it had removed from its neck a little before” (Discourses on Livy, 44). Men are docile like domesticated dogs or cattle, according to this description, and have a role in government of little political power.

With Plato, there is a continuation of the same theme started by Machiavelli. The people primarily play a subservient role in Plato’s structure of government under the rule of monarchs, aristocrats, or philosopher-kings. When discussing with Adeimantus the virtue and reason behind a regime instituted by philosophers, Plato does not paint a picture of men much greater than Machiavelli’s animalistic comparison above. Indeed, he portrays them as easily swayed and ill-informed by those “from outside who don’t belong and have burst in like drunken revelers, abusing one another and indulging a taste for quarreling” (The Republic, 179). For Plato, the largest majority of men constitute unknowledgeable masses that persecute the very group that can best lead them, the philosophers. Even in a democratic regime, a regime based on the will of the people, Plato does not give us a particularly optimistic view of men. This regime is composed of three types of men according to Plato; the multitude; the oligarchic; and the “men most orderly by nature” (The Republic, 243). The oligarchic rule the city through the license of the multitude, and the orderly rule in business through the disadvantage of the multitude.

Thus, Machiavelli sees the people as subjugated and Plato sees the people as fatuous, both doomed to political ineptitude. With Locke, however, the character of the people is redeemed. The people, for Locke, represent a political power akin to force. Indeed, the people are the ultimate source of power for Locke’s government, whether that government is a legislative body or a prince.

In the closing chapter of his second treatise, Locke details the ways that government can dissipate when rulers misuse their power. The third way a prince may dissolve the government is when he arbitrarily alters the electors or the ways of election, “…without the consent, and contrary to the common interest of the people” (Two Treatises, 409). Locke makes the actions and behavior of the sovereign subordinate to the interests shared by all men, and limits his actions within the confines of public consent. Locke frames the essential question when he asks, “…who shall be judge whether the Prince or Legislative act contrary to [the people’s] Trust?” The answer, according to Locke, is that “The people shall be judge” (Two Treatises, 426).

Machiavelli echoes this answer, albeit in a subtler manner, in his writings of the Civil Principality, Chapter IX, in The Prince by stating that the people exert an influence over the formation of a principality. According to Machiavelli, “…the people neither desire to be commanded nor oppressed by the great” (The Prince, 39). In this sense, the people constitute a “humor” of the city, the opposing “humor” being the desire of the “great” to command and oppress the people. A man should be wary of becoming prince with the support of the great instead of the support of the people. Without their support, the prince is doomed to govern either a territory filled with an unmanageable “great” or a large body of unruly people. Indeed, Machiavelli echoes this in a later chapter by stating “… a prince should have two fears: one within, on account of his subjects; the other outside, on account of external powers” (The Prince, 72). In both this text and Locke’s Two Treatises, the authors yield an incredible amount of power to the people: the power to both influence the creation of and bring about the destruction of governments. For Machiavelli, the people are a large body of people, viewed as more formidable, and, therefore, more influential, than the great aristocrats in principality building. For Locke, the people exert a similar influence over the building of a commonwealth, since it is from the people that the power of the prince or legislature originates. Moreover, the people can decide to bring about the end of a particular regime of government if they feel that it no longer adheres to its responsibilities. Thus, the people, in both Machiavelli and Locke, appear to share a similar amount of power both in the formation of government and in its oversight: namely, that of adjudication.

In the Discourses, Machiavelli writes of a cyclical succession of governments, one after another, each one rising to prominence only to fall to licentiousness. It is through this cycle that Machiavelli demonstrates the power of the people to adjudicate, and he argues that it is this adjudication that perpetuates the cycle. Kings rise to prominence based upon character, until the monarchy becomes hereditary and degenerates into “sumptuousness and lasciviousness” (Discourses on Livy, 12). The people then, with the guidance of a leader, overturn this form of government and institute first an aristocracy, and then popular government. As with the principality, these modes of government also become licentious. So the cycle continues anew, with a principality following this popular form of government. Likewise, the same reasons each form of government declines, namely licentiousness, sumptuousness, and lasciviousness, also leads to the decline of each the second time, and so on, and so on. The power of the people acts as impetus for reform, and reiterates their role as adjudicators.

In conflicts between the prince or legislative and the people, Locke argues that the law should hold the power of final and resolute arbiter. But in cases where “the law is silent, or doubtful, and the thing be of great Consequence,” Locke argues that the power of judgement falls to the people, and that they should be the jury for the actions of the prince or legislature. For since the power of the prince or legislature derives from the will and consent of the people, they are the proper judges of the limits to which that power can extend. This should not be understood, however, to indicate that more than this power exists in the hands of the people, or that they may exercise this power arbitrarily. Locke argues that it is incumbent upon the Legislative to govern the people, and that this legislative power “can never revert to the people whilst that government lasts” (Two Treatises, 428). Men in Locke’s commonwealth have given up their rights to the political power that the legislative executes, and, therefore, removed themselves wielding political power. Moreover, this accedence of power to the legislative is binding due to the permanent nature of the contract. It is important, however, to note that the one power which Locke never says the people should give up is the power to judge the government and the power to revolt should that government violate its contract.

Turning to Plato, it is essential remember that he wrote a democratic regime is composed of three types of men; the multitude; the oligarchic; and the “men most orderly by nature” (The Republic, 243). It is in his description of the multitude, however, that Plato reveals the true role and political power of the people. His description from section 565a reads: “And the people would be the third class, all those who do their own work, don’t meddle in affairs, and don’t possess very much. Whenever they assemble, they constitute the most numerous and most sovereign class in a democracy” (The Republic, 243). Like Machiavelli, Plato apportions a large amount of power to the people based on their numerous populaces. This population, as Adeimantus points out, is not willing to assemble very frequently unless they get “some share of the honey.” Plato replies by stating that the leaders take care to assure that the people have enough to keep them from becoming unruly, a tactic that implies the power of adjudication, once again, to the people. If the body of people feel that the ruler is favoring the privileged class too much, then they can mobilize their large numbers against the ruler. Therefore, it appears that in Plato as well as in Machiavelli and Locke, the power of sheer numbers is secondary to the chief role of the people; namely, that of umpire and as judges of the behavior and actions of the ruler.

Thus, it appears that even among these three different writers, each of whom wrote the texts analyzed above, there is an agreed upon notion of the role of people in the various governments that each author describes. Moreover, each author defines this role in the context of the power people are afforded. Plato and John Locke may not have agreed with each other in regards to an ideal form of government, and Machiavelli may not have agreed with himself from one text to the next in regards to the same subject. Each author, though, dealt with that unruly multitude, the people, in their works. And by juxtaposing Two Treatises on Government, Discourses on Livy, The Prince, and The Republic against one another, it appears that these writers from three very different centuries all agreed upon an identical notion of the relationship between the power of the people and their role in government.

Works Cited

Locke, John. Two Treatises of Government. Peter Laslett, ed. Cambridge University Press: Cambridge. 1997.

Machiavelli, Niccolo. The Prince. Translated by Harvey C. Mansfield. 2nd Ed. University of Chicago Press: Chicago & London. 1998.

Machiavelli, Niccolo. Discourses on Livy. Translated by Harvey C. Mansfield & Nathan Tarcov. University of Chicago Press: Chicago & London. 1996.

Plato. The Republic. Allan Bloom, ed.

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