ISIS, Machiavelli, and the State of Nature

Warning: some links contain graphic content

Whether looking at a newspaper, checking the internet, or listening to the radio, it is impossible to avoid encountering various instances of weak government and, as a result, total chaos. One such instance of mayhem, is the advancement of the Islamic State (ISIS)–a radical Islamic group seeking to establish a Muslim caliphate across the middle east and eventually the world. ISIS has garnered considerable media attention amid their recent success, having secured large regions of Syria and Iraq. They are now now threatening to advance into Lebanon. However, what distinguished ISIS from other extremist groups is their highly (and frighteningly) effective use of social media to broadcast their message and recruit Westerners into their ranks. Media attention has only heightened recently amid the capturing and public execution of several Western journalists, including American James Wright Foley (pictured bellow). Many connections can be drawn between the thinkers we have studied and the Islamic State.


ISIS serves as a prototypical example of Machiavellian principals in action. ISIS has, as expressed my Machiavelli in Chapter VIII of The Prince, “examine[d] closely into all those injuries which it is necessary for [them] to inflict” in order to seize and maintain power, publicly murdering and enslaving inordinate amounts of people in order to ensure both the moral and military destruction of their enemy. Moreover, due to their expansionist desires, ISIS has wholeheartedly accepted Machiavelli’s claim in Chapter XIV that rulers ought to always be preparing for war. Observing the success of of suicide bombing in the past, ISIS niccolo_machiavelli_statue-2has read history like a playbook for future battles, employing similar tactics in their own war. Most significantly,they have made no attempt to be loved. Instead, as encouraged by Machiavelli in Chapter XVII, ISIS has terrorized its own people, hosting public executions and torture sessions in order to instill fear. Much to the West’s dismay, Machiavellian political principals have been applied with great success by ISIS, enabling them to steadily increase popularity while simultaneously maintaining power over the people and areas they already control.

To be ruled by ISIS is unlike being ruled by a normal governing body due to the lack of a social contract between ISIS and its people. As a citizen of the United States, we enter into a social contract with our government; we allow ourselves to be subjected to the government’s rules, in exchange for safety, education, infrastructure, and other benefits. Even if we do not explicitly condone our government, we offer, in the words of John Locke, tacit consent to be governed by simply living on United States territory. With ISIS, however, people are forced to abide by Sharia law. Thus, though a governing structure exists, it is not one of social contracts but rather one imposed upon the people by force. Moreover, ISIS is more concerned with preserving and imposing their ideology across the world than governing their own people. I believe this situation–where governance is weak and bloodshed is rampant–resembles the state of nature as described by Hobbes (as a state of constant war). ISIS thus serves as a counterexample to Rousseau’s conception of the state ofnature as where people are peaceful.

Though ISIS represents something close to the state of nature, it does not serve as a perfect example. Society under ISIS control is fundamentally ordered, as ISIS imposes a strict ideology, that of radical Islam, unto its people. Moreover, people under ISIS are driven by the necessity of their dire situation, not by their own intentions. Regardless of the degree of similaritybetween ISIS and the state of nature, there are many connections to be made with Machiavelli, Locke, Hobbes, and Rousseau.


2 thoughts on “ISIS, Machiavelli, and the State of Nature

  1. Pingback: A reflection on blogging | Honors Blog

  2. I am not particularly well-versed in the ISIS conflict, but I think this blog post raises some interesting points, especially in terms of social contracts. It seems fairly clear that Machiavellian principles are alive within ISIS: using fear, preparing for war, no need to be loved, etc. However, it seems very interesting to me that ISIS seems to be acting as if in the state of nature, but its people live in with a very strict social contract. ISIS acts with a complete and total freedom, operating only for their self-interest, which correlates with Hobbes’s social contract theory. However, citizens in ISIS territory live within a very restrictive social contract; many of their rights have been shirked and ignored, which, interestingly, directly contradicts Rousseau’s theories. I think this relationship is very thought-provoking.


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