A Genealogy of Self-Interest: Machiavelli and Hobbes

This is the third post in my series where I appropriate Jerry Muller’s lecture series “Thinking About Capitalism” to bring socioeconomics and intellectual history to Jonathan Haidt’s social-psychological account of political differences. Briefly, on the right is a very rough, graphical depiction of Haidt’s tripartite political taxonomy. On the left is my taxonomy which is (with huge caveats that I won’t elaborate upon here) the vertical mirror image of Haidt’s:


Paternalism = Theocratic Chiefdom (Traditional Segmentation)
Abs. = Absolute Monarchy
Const. = Constitutional Monarchy
Individualism = Libertarianism (Classical Liberalism)
Welf. = Welfare State Liberalism
Soc. = Socialism
Fraternalism = Anarchism (“Utopian” Communism)
Mult. = Multi-Cultural Humanism
Civ. = Civic Republicanism (Aristocratic Humanism)
Nat. = Nationalism

To be sure, no 2-dimensional political spectrum could ever include every nuance or exception to every rule.  As such, these circles and boundaries are suggestive, high-level generalizations intended to function as entry points and primers rather than the definitive, last word on any such position.

Review of Civic Republicanism

In the last post, I discussed Civic Republicanism (Arist.) and the ways in which medieval Christendom approximated many of its ideals. Within this tradition, citizenship was limited to landed aristocrats who were not free to sell their land. For this reason, they were quite literally free from both economic want (since they had a reliable source of subsistence) and the profit motive (since they could not sell that source). The “broad-minded” citizen thus stood in stark opposition to the “narrow-minded” merchant who was denied citizenship. The Fraternalist traditions, in my taxonomy, can thus be seen as a quest to make everybody into an aristocratic citizen, while the Individualist traditions can be seen as is a quest to make everybody into a merchant.

Following Muller’s third lecture, this post will frame Machiavelli and Hobbes as major points in the modern transvaluation that elevated narrow-minded self-interest into a virtue at the expense of aristocratic broadminded-ness.

Machiavelli’s Split Personality

Machiavelli’s The Prince is notorious for its defense of strong-arm Realpolitik and Absolutism.  To accept such a view of Machiavelli as a whole, however, is not wrong so much as incomplete and one-sided.  Machiavelli’s other great work, Discourses on Livy, was very much written in the Civic Republican tradition of Aristotle. By this, I mean that it was a normative treatise that described how the virtuous citizenship should live within the idealized polis.  Like most Renaissance writers, Machiavelli actually preferred Civic Republicanism to all other forms of government.  The problem, however, is that he also thought this form of government was somewhat unstable.

Machiavelli’s solution to the instability of the republic was the Absolutist principality where the virtues of Civic Humanism were replaced by the efficacy of Absolutism. (It is worth pointing out that the scriptures never describe the Lord’s people in republican terms.  Rather, they always speak of principalities, thrones, dominions, kingdoms, etc.) Whereas Plato had argued for rule by the virtuous, and Aristotle had argued for rule conducive to virtue, The Prince rejected both such ideals by actively lowering, if not dropping the standards of virtue altogether.  It is a book that was very much written as an instruction manual for how political power, stripped of all moral ideals, actually worked in real life.

James Burnham even goes so far as to argue that Machiavelli’s specific goal in writing The Prince was to teach the Medici family how to overcome the divisions within the larger, Italian nation by unifying its various republican city-states within a single, unified nation-state – something that did not actually happen until 1871.  Thus, Machiavelli was concerned with how a more universal ruler could wield control over the nobler but particularistic virtues around which the republican city-states were organized.  To this end, the Absolutist approach notoriously elides the classical distinction between monarchy and tyranny: Princely rulers are to be judged in terms of their observable efficacy, not some ideal of righteousness or virtue.

This correlation between normative treatises and Civic Republicanism, on the one hand, and objectivistic treatises and Absolutism, on the other, was not a coincidence.  To expect an individualistic, means/ends, instrumental guide to each reader’s life within Civic Republicanism would be to miss the point entirely, since individualistic means/ends reasoning was exactly the type of narrow-minded corruption that this tradition was trying to steer the reader away from.  Consequently, rather than giving the reader accurate information that might be useful to accomplish his own, individualistic ends, such normative treatises instead provided prescriptive ideals regarding how the virtuous citizen ought to act.

This normative approach, however, was never intended to accurately describe any citizen’s general behavior, but only the terms in which the citizen both actually judged and actually was judged by other citizens.  It was precisely by instructing the reader as to what behaviors were morally praised/condemned, that normative treatises within the Civic Republican tradition provided their collective readership with the means best suited to their virtuous and collective ends. Normative treatises were thus a kind of collectivist means/ends reasoning and were actually quite scientific when seen in this unfamiliar light.

The Prince, by contrast, was explicitly an attempt at individualistic means/ends reasoning from the perspective of the Absolutist ruler. It was openly aimed at providing accurate information that the would-be prince would find useful to his individual ends.  It thus attempted to objectify and instrumentalize moral judgment in a way that places the prince above and in control of such judgments.  Morality and virtue thus become mere tools to his own ends as ruler.  The Civic Republican tradition, by contrast, taught its reader to morally evaluate others while still keeping that reader under the rule of those same evaluations.  The former tells the individual reader how to control the people without also being controlled by them, while the latter teaches the citizen how to morally channel one’s fellow citizens while at the same time being morally channeled by them in return.

The Prince thus created a fact/value distinction that was very well adapted to an individualistic means/ends reasoning that was totally foreign to the collectivist means/ends reasoning of Civic Republicanism.  Whereas the latter purchased virtue while sacrificing universality, the former purchased universality while sacrificing virtue.  (Alasdair MacIntyre’s After Virtue greatly elaborates on this point.)

Hobbes’ Rejection of Virtue

Hobbes took these distinctions within Machiavelli’s thought, on the one hand, and the civil and religious wars of his own context (he lived through the Puritan Revolution in England then left for Paris where he then lived through the Fronde), on the other, and argued that virtue was the problem in politics rather than the solution that the Civic Republicans thought it to be.  To be clear, Hobbes did not merely seek the separation of church and state that we moderns are today quite familiar with.  Rather, he sought a much more radical separation of virtue and state.

Hobbes agreed that Civic Republicanism worked well enough when everybody in the polis agreed on a single definition of virtue.  Problems immediately emerge, however, if there were conflicting definitions of virtue/righteousness and if people became convinced that a virtuous death was better than a corrupt life. Such a combination led irrevocably to strife and bloodshed.

Whereas Civic Republicanism had sought 1) protection from outside invaders through the citizens’ obligation and right to virtuously bear arms and 2) protection from dictators through the citizens’ obligation and right to virtuous political participation, Hobbes rejects both sets of virtues.  Only the sovereign, he argued, had the right and obligation to these activities and even then, not in any sense that we could call “virtue”.  In other words, Hobbes not only thought that civil war was a much greater threat than dictatorships, he thought that the latter was actually the cure to the former.  (The historical record shows that he isn’t entirely wrong.)

This was the main thesis of his classic work Leviathan which was written in Paris during the Fronde with each chapter being translated into French as soon as it was finished.  In this work, Hobbes took the instrumental individualism that Machiavelli had advocated both in and for The Prince and universalized it to and for all people.  Three, inter-related transvaluations of the Civic Republican tradition can thus be found in Leviathan:

  1. Objectivism: Normative instructions for how to judge and be judged by others was actively replaced with useful descriptions of “how men really are” (his words) regardless of how they were morally evaluated by others.
  2. Universalism: Parochial virtues and traditions of praise/condemnation were actively replaced with isolated individuals that could all be subsumed under the universal laws of pleasure/pain.
  3. Self-interest: The centrality of broadminded participation within the polis was transformed into a negotiated contract among self-interested individuals that was enforced by an all-powerful and amoral sovereign.

Each of these transformations was specifically aimed at keeping virtue/religion out of the political process.  Since virtue and religion were both parochial and could not be proven to universal satisfaction, Hobbes thought that they would always lead to division and civil war.  Political consensus, then, should only be based in that which was universal to each individual: a preference for pleasure over pain.  Whereas republican politics had been based in how each person both influenced and was influenced by others through praise/condemnation, Hobbes wanted to instead base it in what we all individually seek/avoid for ourselves without any regard for the praise/condemnation that others might have for it. For this reason, the sovereign was supposed to be an all-powerful enforcer of the social contract rather than a virtuous evaluator of it as in the Civic Republican tradition.

Despite his pretensions to value-natural objectivity, however, much of what Hobbes claimed was, by all appearances, false.  He argued that, since all people could not agree on what was best, they could at least agree on what was worst: a violent and bloody death – it being the sole purpose of the sovereign to protect them from such.  The whole point of the religious wars, however, was that many people did, indeed, seem to prefer a violent death to the loss of virtue/religion.  Pleasure and pain were quite obviously not the only things, maybe not even the primary things that motivated human action.  Nevertheless, he vigorously defended a moral skepticism for the specific purpose of replacing the reader’s trust in such “higher ideals” as effective organizing principles with a vivid fear of their own, painful death.

Hobbes also insisted that such civil wars were wars of “all against all” within an utterly disorganized state of nature.  This too was transparently false since the civil and religious wars were, like all wars, a conflict between groups that were organized around their own differing principles of virtue/religion.  (John Locke would later make a similar criticism of Hobbes.)  He thus sought to convince each individual reader that they were totally isolated from everybody else in order to draw attention to their own self-preservation and self-interest.  Hobbes thus sought to universally subsume virtue/religion under each individual’s self-interest in the exact same way that The Prince had only done for the sovereign.

Hobbes’ Leviathan, then, was a radical transvaluation in terms of how we go about justifying our own actions and that of others.  Whereas the Civic Republican tradition had thought that self-interested behavior was the very definition of narrow-minded corruption, Hobbes’ social contract insisted instead that self-interest is not only a valid justification (this in itself was quite radical), but was actually the only valid justification for the state.  Since pain and pleasure were the only universal motivators of human action, these alone could provide the universal consensus necessary to prevent division and civil war. The problem, of course, is that the fact that everybody prefers pleasure to pain does not entail that nobody or, indeed, anybody does not prefer pain to anything else at all.

While Hobbes’ was certainly not a political liberal (his was an argument for the Absolutist protection from pain, not the liberal permission to pleasure), nearly all liberals would later build their own political systems upon the conceptual foundations laid by him. Whereas virtue/religion had previously stood in judgement of self-interest, nearly the entire West would later follow Hobbes in allowing self-interest to judge virtue/religion as it would any other contract: in terms of how well each individual’s interests are protected.


Machiavelli liked Civic Republicanism, but he thought it was unstable. His more stable alternative was a combination of Absolutism and Nationalism that was ambivalent about Civic Virtue. Hobbes totally rejected Civic Republicanism since it inevitably led to division. His solution was an Absolutism that was ambivalent about its Paternalism.

Religious Affirmations of the Virtue of Self-Interest

While Hobbes’ attempt at replacing aristocratic virtue with self-interest was certainly the most influential, it was not the only such attempt in the 17th and 18th centuries.  Interestingly enough, many of these transvaluations were actually religious in nature. Such religious transvaluations of self-interest were radical indeed since, prior to the modern era, religious leaders had always condemned the pursuit of individual happiness as an obstacle to the pursuit of virtue.  (The right to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” was a quite radical departure from what had come before.)

Joost Hengstmengel argues in his Divine Economy (ch. 6) that the early-modern endorsement by religious authorities of self-interest was completely unprecedented:

[T]hat God has a hand in the regulation of self-interest, is peculiar to the early-modern period… [I]nstead of being derived from classical antiquity … this idea seems to be first voiced in the [early-modern] period itself… related as it was to the legitimacy and benefits of self-interested behaviour.

This is not to say, however, that similar ideas had not preceded this very modern claim.  Both Augustine and Aquinas had believed that God was able to put the evil doings of sinners to His own righteous ends.  Judas Iscariot and Pilate or Adam and Eve were the most obvious examples of God using the corrupt or fallen behavior mortals to His own, higher and righteous purposes.  This belief was thus the historical precursor to the idea that an “invisible hand” was able to steer “private vices” toward “public benefits” (Mandeville, 1705).

Pre- and pro-moderns, however, took diametrically opposed stances toward this claim.  The modern mind was inclined to think that the beneficial ends towards which the apparently vicious behavior led were actually a justification for that behavior.  Pre-moderns, by contrast, thought no such thing and totally rejected such consequentialist thinking. To them, a sin was a sin regardless of what consequences God later wrought from it.

The second way in which early-modern religious thinkers transformed self-interest into a virtue was through an appeal to “natural law”:

The gradual affirmation of self-love and self-interest [during the seventeenth and eighteenth century] … was truly revolutionary… The all-pervasive self-interest [came to be] seen not as a sin but as natural fact which somehow embodies a higher aim of the Creator.

Whereas earlier Christians had condemned man as he actually was – fallen and in desperate need of grace and redemption – modern Christians came to see man and the world in general as being far less fallen, and much more capable of its own redemption.  Such modern ideas later found popular expression under the names of natural theology and deism.

The final way in which Christians paved the path for self-interest to become a virtue came from the Jansenists.  This very influential Catholic order sought to explain how Protestants who, by very definition, could not have God’s grace in them were able to behave in a manner that only appeared to be charitable.  Their answer was that such behavior, although it appeared to be selfless and charitable was actually the self-interested pursuit of public recognition and approval from mortal men.  A leading Jansenist thus asserted:

‘Although nothing is more opposed to charity – which relates everything to God – than self-love – which revolves entirely around the self – yet there is nothing more similar to the effects of charity than those of self-love.’

Later secular thinkers would pick up this point and run with it: If there was no great empirical difference between self-interested and the grace-infused behavior of charity, then why not dispose with grace-infused charity altogether and treat everybody as self-interested? These naturalistic thinkers thus sought to turn ‘charity’ into a meaningless concept to be disposed with altogether, to the extent that this was possible.

To recapitulate: Christian thinkers of the 17th and 18th centuries made three claims that furthered the transvaluation of self-interest:

  1. Self-interested, seemingly evil acts often produce good outcomes.
  2. Self-interest is part of the human nature that God gave us all.
  3. There is often no observable difference between self-interest and charity.

Both the earlier Christians and Civic Republicans strongly disagreed with all three of these points.  Such disagreements would greatly influence later debates surrounding the legitimacy of capitalism.


  1. Very enlightening read. I also found your visualisation very informative. To me, the visualisation seems to invite the observer to see our human, divine, and collective natures as an organic whole, with three different poles held in tension with each other. It suggests that there might be an ideal balance between paternalism, individualism, and fraternalism, which looks like it could be something close to where you place Nationalism. Would you agree that some kind of balance between these poles could be pursued as an ideal, or do you insist that paternalism is the only true expression of God’s will for mankind?

    Comment by Nate — September 19, 2016 @ 12:11 pm

  2. I’m just not too sure about that. You assume that the middle is a peak rather than a trough. Another problem is that three extremes largely define themselves in opposition to the state while nationalism just is state power, whatever end that power is put to. When we get to Hegel we’ll start exploring the middle area a bit more.

    Comment by Jeff G — September 19, 2016 @ 9:30 pm

  3. I like what you say about Hobbes, which makes a lot of sense to me:

    “Since virtue and religion were both parochial and could not be proven to universal satisfaction, Hobbes thought that they would always lead to division and civil war.”

    This is particularly true when those virtues include doctrines like “kill them to save them.” It seems to me that Hobbes self-interested polis is actually the best protection for religion against itself. It is what makes religious freedom possible, and ultimately allows a vital, morally rich society like the United States to exist. If religion is parochial in nature, doesn’t that mean that it was never meant to be part of the “polis” in the first place? Isn’t trying to legislate through “praise/blame” the same thing as “unrighteous dominion,” since by definition, a divine priesthood should exercise no “control or dominion” but only through persuasion, gentleness, and love?

    Comment by Nate — September 20, 2016 @ 5:36 am

  4. I think left unsaid is unpacking what is meant by self-interest. Typically people are equivocating over this term. That’s especially true in discussion of capitalism. But I assume you’ll get to that in a future post.

    Comment by Clark — September 20, 2016 @ 8:30 am

  5. Nate,

    Well, I’m not sure that Hobbes’ scheme is best for religion or peace. After all, self-interested is also parochial unless we follow Hobbes in making sure that everybody cares about nothing other than protection from violence. But no person will ever be like this. Self-interest is the cause of both dictatorship (which is exactly what Hobbes is praising) and foreign conquest, which Hobbes’ completely ignores.

    It should also be pointed out that he is not advocating a lesser, more peaceful form of organized religion. Rather, he wants all religion to be totally privatized, individual experience. As soon as religion organizes, this just is the organized virtue that he is trying to overthrow.


    If you’re waiting for an analysis of “what self-interest really means” you will be disappointed. The main point of the discussion is that the concept is a contested one. Some what to say that all human action is, by very definition, self-interested, but this is an ideologically motivated definition that was not invented until, again, the 17th-18th centuries.

    The used to be one between reciprocal gift giving vs exchange as a way of organizing a community. In the reciprocal gift giving community, what a person ought to or actually gets is largely determined by other people, whereas in an exchange society each person makes this decision for themselves (which is the whole point of the exchange). Thus, whereas what one got used to be largely ascribed by other people, exchange societies are very much based in whatever an individual can achieve for him/herself.

    This is the meaning of self-interest that modern thinkers did their best to obscure – very much with the help of the Jansenists. When we get to the debate between Voltaire and Rousseau, this tension will be made a little more explicit.

    Comment by Jeff G — September 20, 2016 @ 10:12 am

  6. Actually that’s more or less what I think. I don’t think there is or could be a single notion of self. BTW – you really should read Taylor since he’s tracing a lot of similar ground.

    Comment by Clark — September 20, 2016 @ 10:44 am

  7. I know, people keep telling me to do so. I just keep getting turned off to his writing for some reason.


    I think all Mormons can (or at least should) agree that kill them to save their souls is totally off limits. Things get a bit stickier when the argument is “kill them to save our own souls” (I’m thinking of Laban, or maybe Mountain Meadows).

    A big part of what is at issue is that if the contrast is whether I myself or somebody else decides myself what I ought to get, the big issue is that another person might value my mortal life quite a bit less than I do. They also might value my salvation more than I do. It’s very much for this reason that Hobbes wants each person to seek their own survival over (1) the salvation of others and (2) their own salvation. Mormons totally agree with (1). I don’t think its so cut and dry when it comes to (2) (the law of consecration just is the commitment to value the kingdom of God over one’s own life).

    I think a lot of this will lie at the heart of Voltaire’s argument that capitalism produces peace and tolerance (coming soon).

    Comment by Jeff G — September 21, 2016 @ 10:23 am

  8. Nate again,

    Hobbes’ argument is very much based in the claim that diversity inevitably leads to division and war. It is for this reason that all religion, virtue and disagreement in general were to be kept utterly private and out of the public sphere.

    I can’t help but assume that I find more truth in this argument than you do, since an LDS version of this would basically say that all blogging about our differences with the church are very dangerous and thus strictly forbidden.

    Comment by Jeff G — September 21, 2016 @ 12:10 pm

  9. Jeff I had exactly the same problem. It was only when I did the audible version I got far – and that was with pressure for the T&S. Even after years of people telling me to read it once I got the Kindle version it was still more years before I got far.

    Comment by Clark — September 21, 2016 @ 5:35 pm

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