Relationship Between the Sovereign and the Subjects in More’s Utopia, Machiavelli’s The Discourses, and Hobbes’ The Leviathan
Thomas More, Niccolo Machiavelli, and Thomas Hobbes offer models for the relationship between the sovereign and the people in their works Utopia, The Discourses, and The Leviathan. Each argues that ensuring the common good of the people should be the primary goal of the sovereign. However, they differ in the specifics of their descriptions of this relationship and in their explanations of the sovereign’s motivation for valuing the prosperity of the people. An examination of the specified passages in each of these works will clarify the comparison of their models for this relationship.
More’s discussion of the sovereign occurs in the context of the discussion of a monarch as the trustee of the welfare of the people. The king is a common citizen who has been invested with the authority or “majesty” of sovereignty. He is then distinguished from the rest of the population by the responsibilities he has to them and the powers that are inherent in these responsibilities. He is bound to fulfill these responsibilities and not to abuse the privileges by the threat of rebellion from the poor and, therefore, discontented people that would result from incompetent or misused sovereignty.
He is also constrained by his own natural desire for prestige, and his prestige is dependent on his subjects’ wealth and well being. To desire this kind of prestige, he must be a virtuous man. Without this virtue, his vices of pride and laziness are likely to reduce him to taking his subjects’ property in order to serve his greed and to attempt their pacification by reducing them to abject poverty. If his own prid…
…larly influenced by the monarch’s level of incompetence or corruption.
All three sovereigns rely upon “virtu,” that is, effectiveness in ensuring the common good of their subjects; however, all three have different definitions of what constitutes “virtu.” In More’s sovereignty, it is controlling human nature and channeling it into promoting the general prosperity. For Machiavelli’s sovereignty, it is the result of the pursuit of self-interested goals, both on the part of the ruler and the ruled. In Hobbes’ sovereignty, it is the logical result of fear and of human, peace seeking, nature.
Hobbes, Thomas. Leviathan, ed. Edwin Curley (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, 1994.
More, Thomas. Utopia. Trans. Clarence H. Miller. 2nd ed. Yale University Press. 2001
Walker, Leslie J. The Discourses of Niccolo Machiavelli Routledge, 2013