Virtue of Aquinas and Machiavelli

The author’s goal in this essay is to evaluate the definition of virtue according to Aquinas and compare/contrast that with Machiavellian virtue. Following this evaluation the author will attempt to discredit Machiavellian virtue as being shallow and impossible. Relying on question 55 from the Summa Theologiae and various chapters from The Prince, the author hopes to lay a solid and concrete argument against Machiavelli. It is insufficient to write of Aquinas without first mentioning Aristotle and the relationship Thomas Aquinas had with his work.

Aristotle writes at great length of the human good. The good for man, according to Aristotle, is an active use of those faculties which separate man from the rest of nature, namely reason and will, which are distinct from lower faculties such as feeling or reaction. One principle that deeply influenced Aquinas was Aristotle’s theory that the moral virtues are each an average of two opposing human traits (which is how the average person gauges morals today whether they are conscious of it or not).

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Courage is found between cowardice and rashness, generosity between stinginess and prodigality.

The highest good for Aristotle is found in the contemplation of truth, he believed this was the highest part of man’s nature; that it was so because of its reliance on man’s intellect and reason. Thomas Aquinas took the contemplation of truth a magnificent step further by postulating man, through seeking his ultimate end, as participating in the very nature of God. For Aquinas this participation is the state of Grace.

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A person in the state of Grace possesses certain powers, these are referred to as virtues.

More specifically they are infused virtues that can be separated into two distinct kinds: Theological virtues and Moral (or Cardinal) virtues. Before delving too deeply into the specifics of these virtues it is important to establish some ground work. Thomas Aquinas defines virtue as “a good habit bearing on activity”. We can also relate this definition to a good faculty, namely habit. Intrinsic to the concept of virtue is habit. Habit according to Thomas can be within the natural order or elevated to the Divine by Grace. Habits are seen as “stable dispositions”, or qualities, that guide the faculties to act a certain way.

Habits can be infused or acquired depending on the faculty. Of course not every habit is a virtue but only one that guides a faculty, through the use of reason, toward the good; the good being the Ultimate end or the Beatific Vision which awaits us when our life here on earth is over. Aquinas makes a key point about virtues. The key point made is between what Aquinas refers to as the infused virtues (those which are God given and work in us without interference from the faculties of man) and the acquired habits. When these acquired good habits become regular practice for us we call them our “second nature”.

Our second nature leads our actions to perfection. Elemental and absolutely necessary for the development of our second nature are reason and will, our intellect. The infused virtues, on the other hand, are a gift from God and are thus called supernatural because they transcend reason and will; they are gifts which we can not freely acquire or operate. Among these infused gift virtues are two kinds: the first are the Theological virtues (Faith, Hope, and Charity) which are concerned directly with God and our ultimate end, which are unaided by reason. The theological virtues supply man with the love of God and teach us His will.

The second and lesser of the infused virtues are the moral virtues. The moral virtues are concerned with human action and not with God himself. More specifically they are concerned with human conduct. The four moral virtues (which are also called Cardinal virtues) are Prudence, Fortitude, Temperance, and Justice. Where the Theological virtues are tied into the supernatural, the Cardinal virtues are associated with the natural world. Among the four Prudence is the highest because it is linked with reason. The principle act of Prudence is the execution of right or good reason, Prudence guides our reason.

Examples of this are good judgment and the ability to deal with the unexpected in a good way. Fortitude is concerned with the ability to deal with what is painful or unpleasant. Temperance is associated with the urges and cravings for what is pleasurable and finally Justice towards the will of people. Emphasis must be made on the fundamental difference between the two types of virtues. Theological virtues (dealing with the supernatural) and Cardinal virtues (concerned with the natural). A moral virtue by definition avoids extremes by way of the use of human reason, the theological virtues transcend reason.

The supernatural and natural virtues are interconnected as Aquinas explains: “Grace (the supernatural) does not destroy but builds upon nature”. Ultimately mortal man’s faculties can be described as having reason which is enlightened by faith; this elevates man into infinitely higher plains than other creatures. After sufficient discourse and explanation about Aquinas and virtue we come to a crossroads. Some four hundred years later a new thought emerges with the deep and fractured (some would say deeply fractured) mind of Machiavelli, a man who continues to offer so much too so many slimey politicians across the globe.

Machiavelli and his view on the human condition and more specifically human virtue in terms of the political man is the second section of our investigation. Prior to Machiavelli the view of a political leader (or Prince, as referred to by Machiavelli) was much different than his own interpretation. A Prince and his roles in regards to political authority were viewed as rightful only if the exercising ruler had a strong moral character and was a virtuous person. A ruler was viewed as doing well only when he sought the good. Rulers had to earn the right to be obeyed and respected.

This view of a ruler is called a “moralistic authority” and is precisely what Machiavelli criticizes in his work titled The Prince. In writing The Prince, Machiavelli sought to extinguish then current views (or at least introduce a radically different view) of political authority. Machiavelli preached that there is no moral basis on which to judge the difference between correct or illegitimate uses of power. Rather, whoever has power has the right to command; since goodness does not ensure power and the good person has no more authority simply because he is good.

Goodness or morality is ineffectual in the acquisition and maintenance of power. Obviously this view is in stark conflict with the ideas of a moralistic political ideal. For Machiavelli the only real concern of the political ruler is the acquisition and maintenance of power alone and not the common good of the community. Virtue, as had been taught by the philosophers predating Machiavelli, is very often incompatible with his notion of effective use of power. This is so because those who are willing to use tactics without any moral backing are sure to oust he who acts according to his virtue and is unwilling to employ other, immoral tactics.

According to Machiavelli the only assurance that a prince can overcome the strains of politics is if he is willing and ready to go against virtue when necessary. This sort of ruler must not be abject to using tactics such as murder, deception, bribery, manipulation, and any other mode of immoral conduct he sees fit if certain situations require it in order to maintain (or gain) power. For Machiavelli it is exactly this approach to ruling that he sees as the “virtues” of leadership. The use of any mode necessary to obtain and maintain power is virtue.

Through this bold approach to ruling we are given an entirely new take on virtue and arguably mankind itself. With this new vision of political rule, purged of any moral influences, we are given a totally new approach to the exercise of power. It is now rooted in the foundations of de-moralized politics. This new and brazen approach to “power politics” is precisely what Machiavelli calls virtue. Machiavelli employs this new concept of virtue to refer to a range of qualities a prince will find necessary to acquire, in order to “maintain his state” and to “achieve great things”, the two essentials of power for him.

This makes brutally clear that there is no similarity between conventional Christian virtue and Machiavellian virtue. One can thus summarize Machiavelli’s view of what it is to be a virtuous person as such: A prince above all else must acquire a “flexible disposition”. A ruler must be capable of shifting his/her actions from good to evil and back again “as fortune and circumstances dictate”. Exactly how does Machiavellian virtue affect the exercise of power? In order to answer this question we must examine another key principle of his virtue.

Thus enters the concept of Fortune. As discussed in Chapter 25 of The Prince, Machiavelli teaches the reader that fortune shows itself where virtue and wisdom are lacking. Fortune according to Machiavelli is a threat to the security of the state and must be fought against as such. Fortune is a force outside of reason that is completely unpredictable which brings misery and disaster to mankind. As Machiavelli states: “it is better to be impetuous than cautious, because Fortuna is a woman and it is necessary, in order to keep her under, to beat and maul her”.

Fortune is thus viewed as a source of violence which must be answered with violence if one hopes to control it. Virtue is the only preparation one has against fortune. Virtue provides the ability to respond to fortune whenever and however necessary. Machiavellian virtue affects the exercise of power in everyway. Machiavelli’s concept of virtue is completely integrated with the exercise of power. The effective and useful exercise of power is virtue, for Machiavelli. The tools and methods a Prince utilizes to exact his command and ensure his position are his virtues.

Machiavellian virtue is so fundamentally different than true virtue, (virtue as defined by Aquinas) that an alternate word would suffice to define it. When examining the two philosophers the differences between them are quite obvious, but one must look deeper than what is given at face value in order to find the true consequences of Machiavellian virtue. Once a person has a basic understanding and knowledge of Machiavelli and his works one can then enter into reflective thought on him and find a deeper consequence to living a Machiavellian virtuous life.

What is man if all that has traditionally defined him has been reduced to mere tools which help him to achieve an end? What is the him of the man? If virtue does not define the person, what does? The greatest flaw in Machiavellian virtue is that man loses his identity and his character. Virtue has been redefined from that which develops morals and character to that which helps to secure power. Emphasis is now on the power and not the person. With Machiavelli virtue covers only one aspect of the person. Man as leader and power monger.

What is left of the man, if there are no longer any defining traits, if man no longer has an identity? Without any formal identity man is no longer viewed as being “like God”, the supernatural aspect of man is gone, that which is our true identity. We have learned from Thomas Aquinas that virtue is developed through habit; these habits become who you are. If we remove that, what of the rest of the man? Man is reduced to something of a servant to “power”. Aquinas elevates man to the supernatural, as beings created in the likeness and image of God, made to share in the Divinity of God.

Aquinas’ virtue covers the whole person. Thomas lists the fundamental virtues which guide all the aspects of human life, from Prudence to Charity and Temperance to Faith. By developing these virtues we become virtuous people, the virtues that we cultivate shape who we are and order our desires in line with the will of God. For Aquinas virtue leads us to God and our ultimate end which Beatific Vision. For Machiavelli virtue is simply the means of performing a task, instruments that can and should be employed to reach an end which is only of this earth; namely the securing and expanding of power.

For Machiavelli all that matters is what is of this world. Man is reduced to nothing more than animal with intellect, nothing supernatural and no life here after. As I have previously stated above, the greatest flaw in Machiavellian virtue is that man loses his identity and character. One other obvious and striking limitation to Machiavelli’s view of virtue, and thus man himself, is that he speaks only of man as ruler, not man as peasant, or servant, or man in the familial sense. If man were to define himself exactly as Machiavelli proposes, he would truly lose his identity.

If virtue is redefined than it would seem that man too is redefined. Either Machiavelli missed something so foundational and necessary, such as the other roles people play in society, or his objective was, in defining virtue, to only redefine the ruler. Machiavelli must have realized his view of man was limited and flawed; his true intention was to change society from the top down. Resulting would be a society that sought only selfish desires and the acquisition of power. Machiavelli had no interesting understanding man only to enact his ideas and become a Prince.

Man in adapting these new ideas is doing nothing less than deceiving himself. Virtue is a very broad topic which deserves evaluation. If we are to better understand ourselves and our civil society it is imperative that we learn what we can about those people who have, are currently, and will shape our thoughts concerning ourselves, God, and nature. What I have attempted is to address two very different views on virtue. Aquinas continues to be the root source of our understanding of virtue. Many attempts have been made by many people to redefine man; Machiavelli is only one of many.

Machiavelli holds the title as the first philosopher to whole-heartedly attempt to reconstruct man in his own likeness and image and to eliminate God. As foolish and impossible as that seems from a Christian perspective, he succeeded and continues to succeed in winning over new (non)believers. By the very nature of turning away from God we deceive and are deceived, all of his bold new tactics amount to little more than deception. Deception laced with insights and distorted images of man. Man as viewed as not fallen from Grace but rather ignorant to his “true” capability and purpose. Machiavelli offers us another apple.

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Virtue of Aquinas and Machiavelli. (2016, Dec 13). Retrieved from

Virtue of Aquinas and Machiavelli

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