State Absolutism and Moral Agency in the Political Philosophy of Thomas Hobbes and Niccolò Machiavelli: Implications for Eritrea

Abstract

In the progression of Western political philosophy from Aristotle to the Enlightenment, even the most statist thinkers such as Hobbes and Machiavelli, who saw organized society as a necessary evil, never accepted the notion of absolutism that sucks man’s free development. Central to Hobbes’ conceptualization of the state is that an artificially created sovereign is owed the total submission of his subjects who are faced with an immanent existential threat. Subjects, nonetheless, exist as individual moral agents whose values of justice and liberty—the products of social thought and common conviction—are realized in civil society of the Commonwealth. With Machiavelli’s principality, by contrast, while the success and survival of the state is closely tied together with that of the prince and his subjects, the political community could still be judged in terms of moral committal to the civic virtues of prudence, legitimacy, and order, constituting a venerated political and social force contributing consequentially to individual development. This article entails a comparative study of moral agency in light of Hobbes’ Leviathan and Machiavelli’s The Prince and examines its implications for Eritrea against the backdrop of its downward spiral into totalitarianism. It argues that both proponents of absolutism offer a critique of the state particularly pertinent to Eritrea where individual development is embedded on a single supreme moral authority. While notions of real or imagined existential threats, which affords regimes to roll state-society into one, enabled Eritrea to maintain a semblance of national unity, its flip side, the exercise and preservation of personal power through sheer repression, has subjected the state to idiosyncratic political attributes that militate against free agency: a nihilistic image to which neither Hobbes’ sovereign nor Machiavelli’s prince would wish to subscribe.

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Petros B. Ogbazghi is a former lecturer in the Department of Public Administration, University of Asmara, Eritrea. He holds a PhD in Politics & Administration from Tilburg University and a Master’s Degree in Public Policy & Administration. His research interests include; state-society relations in Eritrea; politics and governance in the developing world; urban regimes and local government in Western Europe.