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Machiavelli, Plato, Aristotle Essay

Machiavelli in his book “The Prince” seems to sap the very foundations of morality and stops at nothing short of capsizing the entire edifice of religion. His thoughts resonate with a loathing of true virtue and propagate corrupted politics. Actually, today the term Machiavellianism is used to refer to the use of deceitfulness to advance one’s goals or desires. In ‘The Prince”, Machiavelli breaks from the classical view of virtue as represented by his philosophic predecessors Plato and Aristotle. Whereas his predecessors held virtue in an ideal environment (idealism), Machiavelli defined virtue in a real environment where one is judged by his actions and not by the way his actions ought to be (realism).

According to Plato and Aristotle good life only exists in total virtue where a person will be most happy. Plato places emphasis on the extinction of personal desires through love so that one can achieve happiness (Barker, 1959). Aristotle on the other hand believes that an ideal or perfect state brings out the virtue in all men. A person will gain happiness when all their actions and goals are virtuous. This implies that according to Aristotle happiness is a group goal and not an individual goal (Barker, 1959). Plato equally in bringing out the essence of love which must be shared among people suggests that happiness is a group goal.

However, virtue in the Machiavellian sense seems to lack a moral tone. By virtue, he alludes to personal qualities needed for the achievement of one’s own ends (Machiavelli, 1998). His view seems to be directed at self interests and not a common goal. In pursuing personal interests, one is not careful about the means by which he does so and therefore is not bound by a moral imperative.

In “The Prince” Machiavelli describes two types of principalities. One is hereditary and the other is acquired. He observes that though no virtue is required to attain a hereditary principality, it takes virtue to acquire and maintain a new principality. The basis of his views does not entirely contradict the classical view on morality, however, he goes on further to illustrate and make allowances for evil, and this is what brings about the contradiction. For example Machiavelli states, “When a new territory does not share the same language and culture as the prince’s original territory, the prince must have the wisdom and ability to assimilate the new territory” (Machiavelli, 1998). This view wholly concurs with Plato’s on the need for wisdom as a virtue. On ability however, Machiavelli alludes to the use of force or violent means which defies views on classical morality. In the same chapter, he goes on to say that a prince ought to protect his weaker neighbors and prevent the powerful ones from gaining more power. The virtue of courage here echoes the principle virtues as outlined by Plato, courage being one of them. However, Machiavelli encourages the prince not to hesitate in using force to enforce this (Machiavelli, 1998). This goes against the grain of conventional virtue as it encourages people in power to use whatever means, even ruthless, to preserve their power.

Machiavelli suggests two ways by which a private citizen can become a prince, either by fortune or by ability. Among those who became princes through ability, Machiavelli cites Moses, Cyrus, Romulus, and Francesco Sforza among others. He gives the example of Borgia who inherited power and later lost it to dissuade princes from depending on fortune but rather to use their abilities to attain success. He makes it clear that virtue or ability is more related to statecraft and less related to morality. In undermining morality, he allows for the use of force to gain and preserve power. He says “A prince who comes to power by evil means is said to have neither fortune nor ability. Such a prince may gain power, but not glory” (Machiavelli, 1998). By “evil means,” he refers to the use cruelty in proper and improper ways. He explains that if cruelty is utilized to achieve a necessary goal, then it is proper. However, if it is used to achieve no purpose but to instill fear into the citizens, it is improper. Consequently, the proper use of force according to Machiavelli is a virtue. This contradicts the virtue of moderation as outlined by Plato which puts restrictions on the use of extreme means such as the use of force to achieve goals. One can infer that Plato would advocate for diplomacy rather than force if a prince aimed at achieving allegiance from his subjects.

According to Plato, good life is only attained through perfect love which comes about by a submersion of personal desire. According to Machiavelli, “a prince does not have to be loved by the people, though still he must not be hated” (Machiavelli, 1998). He goes further to explain that history has revealed that men who were not loved but feared were more effective leaders. A ruler who brings mayhem to his state because of his imprudent kindness should not be considered a good leader. For Machiavelli, the virtue a prince should pursue is “fear from his subjects and not love (Machiavelli, 1998). Such a prince, he explains, will be able to sustain the morale of his subjects, which takes both wisdom and courage. Therefore according to Machiavelli the prince is better of being feared than loved which contradicts the earlier views of Plato, who placed a great emphasis on the pursuit of love as a major virtue.

In chapter eighteen of “The Prince” Machiavelli argues that total honesty is only practical in an ideal world. However, since the world is characterized by dishonest men, a prince cannot be expected to keep all his pledges. Therefore he should endeavor to use deception to his benefit. Machiavelli uses the analogy of the fox and the lion to encourage the prince to be both cunning and courageous. He explains that whereas “the fox can recognize snares but cannot drive away wolves, the lion can drive away wolves but cannot recognize snares” (Machiavelli, 1998).In this he means that a prince does not need to possess good qualities but should just appear to possess them, since subjects are only interested in outward appearances if they lead to a favorable end. It is from this view that the term ‘Machiavellianism” has been coined to in today’s usage to mean the use of cunningness to achieve undue advantage over one’s subjects. In comparison to the classical view of virtue, Machiavelli’s view lacks a moral sense.

Machiavelli’s work on the prince has received wide criticism from a large front including the Catholic Church. As the devil’s advocate, he seems to break away from the conventional virtues of his predecessors Plato and Aristotle openly deriding the church and its fundamentals. Whereas Plato and Aristotle relate living virtuously to godliness, Machiavelli’s virtue involves lying and subordinating atrocious means to practical ends.

Realism, which Machiavelli subscribed to, has been defined as a cynical view to politics devoted to furthering personal interests with no regard to moral or religious structures (Schaub, 1998). This view implies that a prince can be at odds with the moral virtue, a contradiction to the classical concept of virtue postulated by both Plato and Aristotle.

At a glance of Machiavelli’s “The Prince”, we largely infer that he goes all out to ill advice the prince against the classical virtues of his predecessors. He seems to herald the triumph of evil over good. However, taking a critical look at the work, one cannot help but notice gaps and disjunctions in the text. For example the characters he picks to illustrate his case. In showing the proper and effective use of cruelty in chapter seventeen, he uses Hannibal and compares him to Scipio as compassionate and therefore ineffective. This is violently at odds with the truth and is ironic at the same time because Scipio accused of compassion defeats Hannibal at the battle of Zama (Machiavelli, 1998).

Also, Machiavelli writes in Italian and not Latin, the language of the scholars of whom the princes are. This leaves the question as to who exactly was his target audience. Was he really advising the princes who already knew how to be cruel or was it the subjects, and if the subjects then for what purpose. Therefore, just as much as we have illustrated how Machiavelli strays from the classical virtue, it rests upon the attentive reader to ingest and make a personal judgment as to what Machiavelli really intended to put across.


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