A Comparision of Machiavellianism to the theories of Plato, and Aristotle.


Machiavelli was a man whose work profoundly shaped politics and the art of governing to this day. He had beliefs about how a government should be run and his views on that are what have come to shape today's political atmosphere. He is often called a political realist but for all of his political realism, his views advocated certain courses of action. The question is whether the actions that a prince should take are more compatible with the views of Plato or of Aristotle. The question can not be answered, however, without first analyzing the core tenants of Machiavelli, Plato, and Aristotle.

Machiavelli in fact has two sides, the two sides are what a prince should do in war and in peace. The work detailing how a prince at war should conduct himself is called The Prince. It is by far the more famous of his two major works and it is the one more often quoted. That is not to say that he intended it as his main peace. That, however, is beside the point. In The Prince, Machiavelli states several things. He begins first by talking about how the two types of monarchies but quickly moves into how a ruler should retain a rebel territory that has been reconquered. The prince, he says, must have "good fortune as well as great industry to retain them." The prince must therefore apply himself to a task at hand. If good luck is needed as well as good effort than certainly the reverse is true in that good effort is needed just as much as good luck. Now once the lands have been pacified, Machiavelli goes on to explain how a prince must in fact rule those people. People used to liberty are tough to rule, he says. He tells of three ways to rule a city used to its independence and liberty. A prince must either destroy them, live with them, or leave them alone. He debunks his own rational for the first and third and states that freedom can only be conquered by destroying it. "The Romans, in order to hold Capua, Carthage, and Numantia, ravaged them, but did not lose them." That is because the republic harbors a vengeful attitude that lasts longer than in a monarchy. Machiavelli believes that if a criminal is too take power, he must act ruthlessly and with great haste. That ruler must make follow the rule that "Benefits should be granted little by little, so as they may be better enjoyed." The benefits that a ruler has are what he can use to sway their collective opinion of him. A prince who takes power through nonviolent means must follow a different code. Depending on whether the ruler was supported by the populace or by the people, then that ruler is either at the mercy of the general populace or to the nobility. The general populace is likely to support the ruler because of their self-interest while the nobility will attempt to rally against this "new kid on the block." Thus the nobility is a bigger threat to the peaceful ruler while the populace is a bigger threat to the criminal ruler. A ruler, Machiavelli contends, "must maintain its (the general populace) friendship, which he will find easy, the people asking nothing but not to be oppressed." Thus, the populace wants nothing more than to be left alone under Machiavelli's system. Machiavelli then turns to answer a large question. Is it better to be loved or feared? His short answer is "feared." The rationale for this is rather simple, "Men love at their own free will, but fear at the will of the prince," and with that rationale he sums up his answer. By being feared the ruler controls the people. That is not to say that a ruler should go kill anyone who looks at him in the wrong light. A ruler must be feared, but not hated. That is a fine line but one that Machiavelli explains how to walk with great ability. In order to do that a prince must stay out of the direct lives of those below him. He must avoid "being rapacious, and usurping the property and women of his subjects." He must let his subjects live their lives. Thus the ruler who does that can ensure that he will not be despised, and thus will have a stable reign. Now that was Machiavelli's view of what a ruler who is at war or who just wishes to further strengthen his throne must do to secure his power base. There is another side of Machiavelli, the polar opposite to the Machiavelli who preaches that the ends justify the means. That is the side of the Machiavelli of the republic.

Discourses on Livy was the counterweight to The Prince. In this work, Machiavelli explains his belief that the republic, and namely the Roman Republic is the best and most noble form of government. He starts out by explaining the different types of republics and the pros and cons of each one. From there he explains how the three good governments can degenerate into the three corresponding bad governments. Machiavelli then explains the reasons for the establishment of a monarchy in almost the exact terms he warned against in The Prince. "The Prince consequently draws upon himself the general hatred." Machiavelli warned against just that in The Prince and here he uses that as part of how a monarchy will be overthrown and turned into a republic. The republic's life cycle is then spelled out. The republic's founders will eventually pass on to people who were not alive at the time of the injustices that the republicans overthrew and eventually they will go corrupt and return to prince only to be overthrown. However, most republics do not survive the constant upheaval, he says, and therefore "do not come back to the original form of government." Machiavelli now explains the Roman Republic's success. Since it "found herself lacking all those institutions that are most essential to liberty," Rome had to create them, and create them it did. Rome then grew and prospered under the good rulers while suffering under the bad ones. When Rome became an Empire it became more polarized in that the good rulers, such as Nerva, Trajan, and Hadrian, were praised far more than the good consuls. Likewise, the bad emperors were reviled far more than the bad consuls. Machiavelli says that this is because princes (and their equivalent positions) are far more famous. The effect of this is that the good emperors were the one who followed the laws and the bad ones were those who drew "upon himself the general hatred." Under the good emperors Rome prospered, but Italy was lead to ruin because of the bad emperors. The virtue that was Rome was stripped away because the bad emperors ignored the laws that made Rome the virtuous place that it was. Machiavelli concluded by saying that the ruler who leaves his government in good shape will "live securely and insure him glory after death, and the the other that will make his life one of constant anxiety and after death consigns him to eternal infamy." Thus Machiavelli ends Discourses on Livy with a warning, that rulers must be good to their constituents and not to follow the examples of Nero and Claudius in being evil to their people. Now that the views of Machiavelli have been established, his beliefs can be compared to Plato or Aristotle and Plato will be analyzed first.

Plato lived in Athens during the time after the Peloponnesian War. His views were shaped by that war, is teacher Socrates, and the political atmosphere of the post-Peloponnesian Athens. While Plato was a prolific writer, and most of his writing survive today, only The Republic will be compared to Machiavelli. This is because The Republic deals with government and justice. The Republic uses Socrates as a sort of narrator. In it, Plato, through Socrates, makes several statements about government and justice. He first asserts that justice is in the interest of the beholder and that he who is just will consequently lead a better life than he who is not just. Socrates is then questioned about whether justice is followed for the rewards of justice or for the rewards that being just leads to. After a lengthy debate, Plato, still through Socrates, then describes the perfect state, the utopia if you will. The basis of this is that the state is a place for people to benefit each other as a result of their different abilities and skills. Thus once you have a city that does that, it needs to be organized so as to provide for everyone. In order to do that a city needs to be divided into three classes on the basis of ability. The upper class is the most able to rule, they guard the city and hence are the guardians. The second class, auxiliaries are slightly less able, and the third class, the farmers and artisans, are the least able. The state should educate the top two classes so as to ensure that the rulers are able to make informed decisions. Most details of life, education, marriage, sex, children, and property rights, are all strictly regulated by the government. There is no such concept as privacy. The reasoning is that by controlling those, the government can ensure virtue and a virtuous city, just as having justice is better than not having justice, is a better city than a non-virtuous city. The virtuous city is then made up of four virtues. They are courage, justice, temperance, and wisdom. Wisdom comes from the top Guardians, courage from the Auxiliaries, and temperance from the Farmers and Artisans. Justice is then the collaboration of the three other virtues in harmony with each other. Socrates explains all that to get back to answering whether justice is followed for justice's sake or for the material benefits of justice. His answer is summed up in the following statement, "Each one of us likewise will be a just person, fulfilling his proper function, only if the several parts of our nature fulfill theirs." Since Socrates (and Plato) believe that a state must be virtuous, and virtue cannot be brought about without justice, the state must then make certain that the body is just. Therefore, the state must take upon itself the moral responsibility to regulate people's actions and to make certain that live just lives in accordance with the greater good of the polis. Thus Plato, through Socrates makes his views on government clear. With this information the question "Is Machiavelli compatible with Plato?" finally able to be answered.

Machiavelli would see many things that he liked in Plato. In The Prince he made clear that a ruler must know what to do and must be able to do what is needed. Plato's Guardians also are the most able to rule and the most fit to govern. They know how to make the tough decisions and they are willing to make the necessary sacrifices because it is for the good of the polis. A strong, enlightened, ruler is something Machiavelli would support. Likewise, the fact that the ruler would have complete power in both Machiavelli and Plato is something they both realized was necessary. For Plato the rational was because nobody else is fit to rule except those who do, therefore they should have the power. For Machiavelli it is because the ruler acts in the interest of the people via himself. Furthermore, Machiavelli and Plato agree that virtue is needed to create a good civilization. Without virtue, each and every civilization, whether it be Rome or Athens, Carthage or Egypt, will fall if its rulers are unjust and do not follow the laws of the land.

However, there are some key differences between Plato and Machiavelli. The most glaring is Machiavelli's assertion that the people should generally be left alone so as to facilitate the ruler's continued support from the people. Plato, of course, believes that a government needs to directly interfere with people so as to make their lives more virtuous. Another glaring point of contrast is that in The Prince Machiavelli's ruler is concerned with nothing but his maintenance of power. Plato's ruler is virtuous and cares for his people, not his own power. Furthermore, Discourses on Livy makes several arguments for a Republic. Machiavelli made several strong claims for the virtues of the Roman Republic. Plato on the other hands, supported a dictatorship, albeit an enlightened dictatorship, that had absolute power. So there are several clear differences between Plato and Machiavelli. These differences are rather glaring and so would seem to suggest that their respective political theories are incompatible. However, before an answer to the question at hand can be given, Aristotle must be examined for his compatibility to Machiavelli's theories.

Aristotle was the student of Plato and turned out to be a rather rotten pupil. His theories were practically the diametric opposite of Plato's. His theories on government were described in many of his books which, like Plato, mostly survived to this day. The primary sources for Aristotle's political theories are Nicomachean Ethics and Politics. Nicomachean Ethics established his theories and Politics expounded upon them. In Nicomachean Ethics Aristotle first establishes his ideas about the common good. The first thing that Aristotle states is that he disagrees with Plato about ethics and the Idea of the Good. Aristotle presents many arguments but the key one is a simple practically issue. If ethics is purely theoretical than it does no good to the practical world we live in. Therefore ethics must be treated in a practical way. Aristotle now agrees with Plato in that a virtuous world is a world is a happy world. Aristotle then defines virtue in many different ways. The most important definition is that virtue is the average for a person. That means they don't starve themselves or deprive themselves as Plato would have his citizens do. Neither does it mean that the citizens should then become hedonists and gorge. What it means is that a person should take the average of those two. That is also not to say that the average is the same for everybody. This is where the saying "treat equals equally and unequals unequally," comes from. Virtue then is taking the middle-road, the average, for all circumstances. Now that Aristotle has his premise established, looking at Politics makes far more sense. It begins with Aristotle making clear his beliefs about man. "All men do all their acts with a view to achieving something which is, in their view, good." That one statement sums up most of Aristotle, from the beginning. He is practical. All men can convince themselves of their own goodness and rationality. Therefore all men want good things and it should be that all men can have a good, virtuous, life. That is where Aristotle says:

"When we come to the final and perfect association, formed from a number of villages, we have already reached the polis-an association which may be said to have reached the height of full self-sufficiency; or rather we may say that while it grows for the sake of mere life, it exists for the sake of a good life."

Thus, the polis, being made up of people who all want good things should give its people a good life. Furthermore, since a good life is a virtuous life, the state should be virtuous and to be virtuous means to be average. That average can be accomplished by not limiting the people, by letting them be who they are, and by letting the diversity of goods, that which is different in everybody, be what it is. Plato's views on the three types of governments are reiterated by Aristotle and he explains each one. His preferred form is "Constitutional Democracy," or more appropriately, representative government. Furthermore, the power should be "vested in the middle class." Thus unlike Plato, Aristotle does not want an aristocracy running the government. He wants the middle class, the real heart of the polis, to rule. Having established what the government should do, and what kind of government should do what he says, Aristotle then moves on to discuss economics. Here Aristotle defends slavery and attacks interest on loans (usury). First, Aristotle observes that slaves are natural and that they belong, naturally, to their owner. He does note that in an unjust war, slaves taken by the victor are unjust spoils. He also states that they are needed since man-made tools cannot do what slaves can. That point has been passed into obsolescence. Finally, Aristotle makes a few brief mentioning about wealth and usury. He states that wealth is all right as is the accumulation of wealth but that usury is unnatural, and thus unvirtuous. Therefore it is the worst way to make money, that would end up sticking with Europe well into the Renaissance. Now that Aristotle has been analyzed, the comparison between Aristotle and Machiavelli can be compared.

Machiavelli and Aristotle agreed that there were three forms of government and that they could each degenerate into an equivalent corrupt form of government. In Discourses on Livy Machiavelli defended good rulers who put their people first, rulers who defended the law, and who, in essence, were ideal rulers. Aristotle would have agreed with that because for Aristotle, a ruler was a servant to his people. A ruler had to protect the diversity of goods for the common good of all. That could not be accomplished with a ruler who was only concerned with his own power. Again Aristotle and Machiavelli agree on an issue. This time the issue is the individual lives of the people who are ruled. Machiavelli in the The Prince made clear that a ruler who wishes to remain in power should leave his people alone. Aristotle, directly contrary to Plato, agrees with that assessment. That is because it is necessary to protect the common good and trying to mandate what people can and cannot do in their lives is simply going to prevent the common good from being disrupted. Finally, the most basic similarity is that both Aristotle and Machiavelli were pragmatists. They saw the world as it was and the addressed it as they believed it needed to be addressed.

Aristotle and Machiavelli do disagree on several things. Firstly, Aristotle believed that the middle-class was the most able group of people to rule a country. Machiavelli believed that in any form of government the ruler should be a single ruler. The examples that Machiavelli gave of good rulers, were all monarchical figures. Furthermore, while Machiavelli stated that a government should leave his people alone, that was simply a means to protecting the power of the ruler while for Aristotle it was to protect the common good. Aristotle would not have accepted the principle that it is better to be feared because for an entire polis to fear their ruler would both be unhappy and thus unvirtuous but would also run contrary to the diversity of goods in that it would inhibit people from expressing the diversity of goods. That all being said, Aristotle and Machiavelli do seem very similar.

After considering the similarities and the differences of Aristotle and Plato when compared to Machiavelli, it must be concluded that would Machiavelli have ruled a society strictly according to his books, Aristotle would be more at home. The reasons have previously been mentioned and there is no doubt that while they do not line up perfectly, Aristotle and Machiavelli are more compatible in their political beliefs than Plato and Machiavelli would be.