Machiavelli, Hobbes, and Animal Farm

UnknownGeorge Orwell’s famous allegory Animal Farm tells the tale of a group of farmland animals that, upon overthrowing their human rulers, establish their own government. A classic story about the inevitable corruption of power in politics, Orwell’s story clearly did its research on political philosophy. While Napoleon the pig’s rise to power and ultimate corruption may seem like a generic and immoral procedure, it is, in fact, a more accurate syncretism of the political philosophies laid down by Niccolo Machiavelli and Thomas Hobbes. As we watch Napoleon plunge deeper into the abusage of absolute power, we may heed the famous and often criticized political theorists’ cynical remarks about the claim to and maintenance of power.

Napoleon is a tyrant, to say the least. The most powerful of the animals in terms of leadership over individuals and their economic production, Napoleon, his successful claim to the throne, and his subsequent reign is tainted by a lack of mercy and the usage of agitprop against his enemies. We see this stereotypical dictator constantly throughout history, and one particular philosopher went into great depth to analyze this type of ruler: Niccolo Machiavelli (1469-1527). By comparing the ruthless despotism of Napoleon with the ruthless theories of Machiavelli, I am sure we can arrive at the conclusion that Napoleon is indeed a Machiavellian ruler. Niccolo was a politician who had a prolonged dedication to politics. After serving the Medici’s and eventually being tortured, Machiavelli became cynical. In his famous book The Prince, Machiavelli lays out the foundations for the ideal prince. For Machiavelli, a successful ruler must be feared by his people—but not despised—and do what is best for his state, regardless of moral boundaries. Although he is incorrectly credited with the maxim “the ends justify the means,” it would be false to say he did not agree with it. The state was of the utmost importance and should be the first concern of the ruler, according to Machiavelli. The ruler, Machiavelli defended, should be ready to do anything if it meant saving the state. This meant that even the most immoral acts, if they were for the best, were acceptable. We see this clearly in Animal Farm when Napoleon and Snowball, the former’s co-consul, strictly prohibit every animal that is not a pig from receiving an education or even mere apples and milk. In the words of Squealer the spokespig, “You do not imagine, I hope, that we pigs are doing this in a spirit of selfishness and privilege?”,”The whole management and organization of this farm relies on us [the pigs]”,”It is for your sake that we drink that milk and eat those apples.”[1] Ah, so the pigs are doing it for the rest of the animal’s sakes, so it is to the best of their interests! One of Machiavelli’s most shocking quotes is as follows: “Men are ungrateful, fickle, false, cowards, covetous and as long as you succeed they are yours entirely.”[2] It is known that the biggest influence on The Prince was Cesare Borgia, a licentious and merciless prince who happened to be acquainted with Niccolo; Machiavelli admired Cesare. In one known instance, the Duke publicly executed several of his enemies. Niccolo lauded Cesare for this act, adding onto his philosophy that a ruler should elicit fear and respect from his people. Fear, Machiavelli said, was more reliable than love, for it conditioned the people and threatened them with punishment; however, he also argued that the ruler should be admired to a certain point, not despised, as this made him unpopular. Napoleon does exactly this when he crushes a rebellion and then kills several traitors whom supposedly colluded with the now-banished Snowball in front of the other animals. Orwell even notes the ambivalence of the animals just as the people experienced with Cesare, describing a great love for Napoleon contrasted with an immense uneasiness with him. Machiavelli also detailed economic advice for the ruler. Again, the ruler must do whatever it takes to advance the state. Economic relations should be established and cultivated between principalities. The leader of Animal Farm, Napoleon, and the leader of Pinchfield, Mr. Frederick, demonstrate this when they trade. It has been clearly stated that Animal Farm should have no contact with Pinchfield farm, but Napoleon trades with him anyway, as he requires machinery for the farm’s windmill. While this may invite public uproar, he is, like a good ruler, doing it for the state.

After overthrowing Mr. Jones, owner of Manor Farm, the animals set up their own government, placing the pigs at its head. This can be interpreted as an oligarchy, perhaps even an aristocracy (the pigs claim they are the smartest). Another view, however, sees this government as a commonwealth, a “Leviathan.” Englishman Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679) was another political philosopher best known for his work The Leviathan. In this work, Hobbes, like Machiavelli, writes of the perfect governing body. As the title suggests, the Leviathan is a powerful being that advocates the idea that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. Hobbes took a cynical approach similar to that of his Italian predecessor. When writing about humankind, he develops the idea of a “state of nature.” This is the pre-government period when Man fights amongst himself in a bellum omnium contra omnes. He borrows directly from Machiavelli when he says humans are selfish and vicious. To sum up this state, Hobbes notoriously wrote, “[And] The life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short,”[3] the last three words being the most referenced. I am not sure if Orwell purposely parodied this quote or if he wrote it unknowingly in the following statement said by Old Major: “Our lives are miserable, laborious, and short”[4] (As you can see, the pattern is the same and the last word is ‘short’). In the world of the animals, it is dog-eat-dog, though not literally. The animals are reduced to hard and tiring work, and come their obsolescence, it is goodbye world for them. Man is in complete disarray, fighting for his own safety out of fear, states Hobbes. Likewise, the animals have no real higher power besides Mr. Jones; they too live out of fear. There is a solution to this, though. A certain first “natural law” commands Man’s psyche: the pursuit of peace. To do this, another natural law, the renunciation of one’s freedom to a higher law, must be carried out. This second law is a social contract, one that links all of the individuals’ wills in an absolute governing body. Hobbes called this aggregate the “Leviathan,” a sovereign that rules according to the general consensus. Using the example of peace as an example, let us say that each and every animal of the farm wants peace. In exchange for this peace, the animals will give up their freedom to the Leviathan. So what is this Leviathan for the animals then? The pigs. The pigs, specifically Napoleon and Snowball, are the ones that take the animals’ best interests at heart. After all, without the two Mr. Jones would come back, and we do not want that. There is thus a transition from the state of nature characterized by Mr. Jones to a state of civility characterized by Napoleon and Snowball. At this point, Hobbes introduces a third law, which states that individuals should stay true to their agreements, referred to as covenants by Hobbes. This is where morality and law come into play. To quote Hobbes, “But what is good law? By good law, I mean not a just law: for no law can be unjust.”[5] Samuel Enoch Stumpf clarifies this broad claim explaining that one, law precedes justice, and two, it is the will of the people. To expound further, we first begin by instating laws. We then construct our sense of justice according to these laws. As Sartre said, “Existence precedes essence”; hence, we cannot judge a law as unjust, for the value of justice is based on the law, otherwise it would create a circular argument. And two, since we created the law, it would be hypocritical to go against it, as it is our doing. When the seven commandments of Animalism are indited on the barn’s wall we see this in action. None of the seven laws can be considered unjust. It is unjust, however, when Squealer—because of Napoleon’s hypocrisy and abuse of power—revises the laws to fit the sovereign’s immoral actions. Here we see the contract between the people and the state being violated. The contract was signed on the conditions that the monarchy (or any other form of government for that matter) should rule in the people’s will. Napoleon creating his own laws is a direct breach and easily qualifies him as—even in Hobbes’ standards—a tyrant. The monarch and the prince should do what is best for the state, but creating laws without the consent of the people makes way for corruption. Lord Acton warned in his celebrated quote, “Absolute power corrupts absolutely.” While Hobbes may have supported absolutism in a monarchy, it should be noted that there is such thing as too much power.

Written during World War II, George Orwell’s Animal Farm provides brilliant insights into the Renaissance and British world of political philosophy. The prominent theme of tyranny, which has been covered by thinkers such as Niccolo Machiavelli and Thomas Hobbes, is manifested in the form of an allegory told from a group of animals. Truly a western classic, Animal Farm entertains and educates. And as George Santayana said, “Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” Do not be a tyrant.


[1] Orwell, Animal Farm, pg. 23
[2] Machiavelli, The Prince, pg. 76
[3] Stumpf, Socrates to Sartre, pg. 225
[4] Orwell, Animal Farm, pg. 3
[5] Stumpf, Socrates to Sartre, pg. 226

For further reading: 
Socrates to Sartre: A History of Philosophy by Samuel Enoch Stumpf (1982)
The Story of Philosophy by James Garvey and Jeremy Stangroom (2012)
The Oxford Companion to Philosophy edited by Ted Honderich (1995)
1001 Ideas That Changed the Way We Think by Robert Arp (2013)
The History of Western Philosophy by Bertrand Russell (1972)
The Prince by Niccolo Machiavelli (1992)
Animal Farm by George Orwell (1993)


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