Plato, Hobbes, and Machiavelli all describe the organization of a totalitarian government. Plato and Hobbes indicate that their state is the ideal one, while Machiavelli assumes a despotic regime in The Prince (he discusses democratic governments elsewhere). But despite the seeming similarity between the three, they offer radically different views of the nature of the state, stemming from their differing epistemological and ethical philosophies.
Plato’s Republic is to be a rigid caste-based society, governed by philosophers (the highest, or gold caste), protected by soldiers (the second, or silver caste), and fed and clothed by everyone else (the lowest, or iron and brass caste). The question which Plato is trying to answer is "What is Justice?" -- the question quickly metastasizes into "What are right relationships between people?" and thus Plato begins to discuss the ideal city-state. This chain of events is fundamental to understanding Plato’s view of the state. Unlike later political theorists, Plato views the state itself as fundamentally important, because only a just state can fulfill the form of justice. Plato’s allegiance is not to citizens, or even to rulers -- but to the ideal recognized only by philosophers. Plato’s state is organic, by which I mean it is an organism itself. The state may be comprised of citizens, but they serve the state, the state does not serve them. This view is also stated explicitly by Socrates in the Crito, when he conjured up the laws of the city of Athens -- Socrates owes Athens itself allegiance, even though he believes the charges against him to be false, he must still abide the verdict of the court and forfeit his life.
Hobbes’s Leviathan is also an absolute ruler, with a few key changes. Hobbes envisions an absolute monarchy, exercising both civil and religious power. His argument is so forthright and frightening that its real significance is sometimes lost. Hobbes does not share Plato’s mysticism, or any notions of eternal truth and values. His ethics are fundamentally prudential. His government then, instead of seeking a perfect form, is merely an agreement between rational persons. The rights in the state of nature that Hobbes describes are not "rights" in the sense that we understand them, but instead are descriptions of what individuals can and will do to survive. The problem with the state of nature, for Hobbes, is that other individuals have a nasty tendency to try and kill you. In order to escape this problem, individuals must cede most of their rights to the state, which will then ensure their safety. Note that because of this origin, the state can never take away the life of an individual -- or rather, an individual is never obligated to willingly forfeit his life (the state may judge that it has an overwhelming interest in killing you, but you never give up your right to self-defense). This view of the state as a prudent arrangement between rational individuals treats the state like an instrument, rather than an organism.
Where then, does Machiavelli fall between these two conceptions of government? The type of government that he describes does not seem to be drawing upon some sort of metaphysical justification (like Plato’s organic view), nor does he seem to be particularly interested in benefiting the governed (like Hobbes’s instrumentalist view). The answer is as clear as the title of the book -- while The Republic and The Leviathan describe types of states, Machiavelli is focused on the ruler himself. Machiavelli also views the state as an instrument, but an instrument for the benefit of the ruler, and his/her quest for power. Plato’s final cause is Justice. Hobbes's is peace. Machiavelli makes no ethical judgments at all, aside from assuming that whomever he is writing to wants to rule. Considering his audience was composed of various members of the Medici family, this does appear to be a safe assumption.
The first immediate objection that springs to mind regarding these explanations of Plato and Hobbes is the fear that we are being duped. The Prince was directed at, well, princes. The Republic and The Leviathan were composed for broader audiences, and as such could be viewed as pieces of political propaganda intended to convince potentially rebellious populations to submit.
On the face of it, this objection seems fairly plausible. Especially in the Republic, where the concept of a "noble lie" is advanced, it would seem that political propaganda is an integral part of his conception of the state. True as this may be, it seems that the balance of the evidence indicates that Plato really was obsessed with discovering truth, and aligning kings with philosophy (or vice versa). His dialogues span a range of topics, and even though the class bias of an Athenian aristocrat often seeps into them, it does appear that he believed that he only wanted to truly love wisdom. Reading The Republic following the Apology and the Crito, one can see Plato making an additional argument for Justice: a just society would never have murdered Socrates. Socrates was murdered by a democracy. Ergo, a democracy can never be a just society. Furthermore, we know from his Seventh Letter that Plato, later in life, did attempt to foster a just society in Syracuse. But rather than attempting to force an oligarchy on a democracy, he attempted to educate a pre-existing tyrant. These would seem to be the actions of a man concerned with justice, and not a mere apologist for the aristocracy.
The case for Hobbes is even more convincing. The idea that the life of man in the state of nature is "solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short" strikes us as fundamentally pessimistic and wrong. Therefore the extreme measures Hobbes advocates to avoid the state of nature seem unpalatable. But Hobbes was writing during the bloody English civil war, and the idea of a supreme sovereign who would prevent the future horrors of civil war begins to look attractive after a while. While Hobbes was a royalist, this too seems to be an honest political opinion arrived at through the philosophy outlined in The Leviathan, and not mere political hackery.
Another objection that one might make is regarding the value of attempting to understand these political philosophers. No matter how well-formulated their arguments would appear, I sincerely doubt than any modern American would choose to live in any of these "ideal" societies. But there are lessons to be learned, even from despots. Plato can teach us the dangerous pitfall of elevating a theory so high without considering practical implications. More usefully, the story of Socrates reminds us why our democracy must be a nation of "laws and not of men", because of the danger of mob rule. Machiavelli illustrates, perhaps fiendishly, that Politics is not usually logical argumentation; victory is often achieved not by the wise, but by the clever. But most useful to us, by far, is Thomas Hobbes’s construction of the state as a covenant -- an instrument by which men agree to be governed. Later, by applying the same principle, but with a better view of humankind, John Locke will set down the optimistic political philosophy that formed the core of early American democracy.