The conflict between the ideal and the reality has long been the center of the debate in the history of political philosophy. Many famous philosophers have constructed an imaginary world upon which their entire theories are based. They believe an ideal model of the state, which serves as the final goal of human society, can guide people on a correct way to achieve the goal. Therefore investigation of this final goal is more important than any other topic. However, there are still some thinkers, such as Machiavelli, who doubt the feasibility of such ideal states. They believe that without developing reliable methods of achieving the goal from our daily experience, the end is unattainable and thus useless. Practical methodology, rather than the ideal model, is what we can control and experiment on. It is interesting to compare different roads that Aristotle and Machiavelli undertake to achieve what they believe is the most important thing through their political thoughts.
Among these practical thinkers, Machiavelli has the greatest influence on later generations. He believes that people do not follow philosophers’ prescriptive instructions on what they should do, but act according to their own interests. He says in The Prince that “the gap between how people actually behave and how they ought to behave is so great that anyone who ignores everyday reality in order to live up to an ideal will soon discover he has been taught how to destroy himself, not how to preserve himself” (48). This quote arises from his belief that men in nature are selfish and strive only for their own interest. Life is a process of pursuing one’s own desires; once one stops pursuing, his life comes to an end. He bitterly satirizes men’s nature that “men are quicker to forget the death of their father than the loss of their inheritance” (52). People will not forget the wrongs they suffered from you even when you are doing good to them (38). Men are less nervous of offending someone who makes himself lovable, than someone who makes himself frightening (52). He thinks that what people want is, on the condition that they are safe, to preserve their own property and acquire more things that people “are ungrateful, fickle, deceptive and deceiving, avoiders of danger, eager to gain” (52). Machiavelli concludes that men’s desire for power and property is infinite, while actual power and property are limited by natural conditions; therefore, people are always in a condition of competition. To some extent, individual interest is the highest value in the society he lived; everything other than the end interest of his extreme individualism is meaningless. Machiavelli’s political philosophy and policies are all based on the premise that men in nature are selfish and wicked. This view also lays one of the foundations of Hobbes’ philosophy system that the right of nature is “the liberty each man hath, to use his own power, as he will himself, for the preservation of his own nature” (Chap XIV, 1) and the state of nature is the state of war.
In contrast to Machiavelli’s theory of human nature, Aristotle states “a human being is by nature a political animal” (1253a2-3), meaning an animal with an innate propensity to develop complex communities. He also thinks “a human being is more of a political animal than a bee” (1253a8-9) because they are naturally equipped for life in a type of community that is itself “more quintessentially political” than a beehive, namely, a household or city-state (Politics, xlviii). What enables human beings to live in such communities is the ability for rational speech, which is peculiar to human beings. For rational speech “is for making clear what is beneficial or harmful, and hence also what is just or unjust… and it is community in these that makes a household and a city-state” (1253a16-7). Also in The Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle suggests that the defining character of human beings is rationality, as he states “the function of man is an activity of soul which follows or implies a rational principle” (1098a2-4).
As a political animal, man thrives in his rationality—most fully in the making of laws and traditions, which means sacrifice one’s own interest to help others. Aristotle points out that people naturally form a city-state in order to achieve self-sufficiency and live well. In a community, individuals must care about others and sometime even lay down his own rights for the good of the community. It is rationality that tells one to make such altruistic sacrifice since one knows he depends on the community. This sacrifice, which arises from self interest and develops beyond self interest, forms the most primitive and innate goodness of human nature in Aristotelian theory.
It is worth noting that Machiavelli thinks that the power of rulers is given by election of his subjects, and later becomes hereditary. There is no divine right of kings. He gets rid of Augustine and Aquinas’ political theory of divine power, expelling the Catholic philosophy out of the regime of politics. He applies his theory of human nature to find out the natural order of states through rational deduction and empirical evidence. Throughout The Prince, he uses over 78 different examples to prove his political theory, ranging from Carthage to Turkey, from ancient Greece to modern Italy, from small military leader to Roman Emperors. Moreover, in each of his claims, he starts from analysis to certain situation and develops his theory by applying psychoanalysis. Sometimes he even applies game theory when discussing the behavior of two opposing sides, due to his assumption that people act on their own interest and care about their preservation. When he talks about why rulers do not need to fear assassination of their conspirators, he applies game theory to the issue of whether a conspirator’s associate should betray him and whether the people will turn on him even if the conspiracy succeeds. He abandons the incomplete induction and harangue without logic of Aquinas and Augustine in favor of strictly scientific process of reasoning. This is one of the reasons why Machiavelli’s theory is so popular.
Behind the difference of Aristotle and Machiavelli’s human nature theory lies a more fundamental conflict. Machiavelli’s political philosophy is based on his own experience of affairs, concerned to set forth the means to assigned ends. He believes that we should be concerned more about the means rather than ends, since it is futile to pursue a political purpose by methods that are bound to fail; “if the end is held good, we must choose means adequate to its achievement” (Russell, 510). Moreover, the question of means can be treated in a purely scientific manner, with little regard to the goodness or badness of the ends. In Chapter Seven of The Prince, Machiavelli describes in detail how Cesare Borgia comes to power and carefully examines every step that Cesare Borgia has undertaken. From the passage, we can tell Machiavelli acknowledge that the Duke is bloody and harsh, but he still praises him unrestrainedly that he “cannot think of any better example [he] could offer a new ruler than that of [Cesare Borgia’s] actions” (22). It must be supposed that Machiavelli’s admiration of Cesare Borgia was only for his skill, not for his purposes. The stories of Agathocles and Oliverotto also exemplify Machiavelli’s admiration of skillful means to acquire power, though he regards their means as “wicked actions” (27). Machiavelli feels that as long as the end is justified, one can choose whatever means to achieve the goal. On the other hand, whatever means that can help achieve the end are justified. He comments on political conspiracy and violence positively and proves any means, however ferocious, brutal and wicked, can be used to acquire and preserve power. He depicts the pope Alexander VI thusly “now look at how this honorable pope pays his debts: he simply cancelled them all” (37) and suggests that nobody thinks the pope’s action is despicable. He also shows that ruling is a kind of art and that in order to unite Italy, one has to rely on power to overcome the obstacles.
As a teleologist, Aristotle was concerned more about ends instead of means. Politics begins by pointing out the importance of city-state, the highest kind of community aimed at the highest good. To him, every form of community and government aims for some good. Aristotle in Book III Chapter Nine claims: “households and families live well as a community whose end is a complete and self-sufficient life” (1280b33-4) and “the city-state must be concerned with virtue” (1280b6-7). Aristotle further shows the end of virtue in Book VII Chapter Eight that “happiness is the best thing, however, and it is some sort of activation or complete exercise of virtue” (1328a36-7). Happiness, or eudaimonia, is regarded by Aristotle as “final and self-sufficient, and is the end of action” in The Nicomachean Ethics (1097b20-1) and politics is the science of the good for man to achieve eudaimonia as in Politics, “the greatest and best good is the end of the science or craft that has the most authority of all of them, and this is the science of statesmanship; but the political good is justice, and justice is the common benefit” (1282b14-7). It’s not hard to see that Aristotle’s politics for virtue has several meanings. First, in ethics, politics is the science to attain happiness for the majority, which is opposite to violent and evil rule Machiavelli suggests. Next, in ideal, politics strives for justice, which is the sole measure of the government, rather than the acquisition of power for Machiavelli.
In addition, Machiavelli believes situationalism, which is opposed to Aristotle’s theory of moral character. Machiavelli thinks that people react to situations where they find they are in, rather than to some internal state. He is always prudent not to give general conclusions, but to discuss each possible situation and analyze its outcome. When talking about how to avoid hatred and contempt, he divides the situations into whether one is a new ruler or has inherited power, whether the soldiers are more stronger or the populace, and whether one has a large territory or not. He is careful that political policies are determined by many factors and one should “adapt himself to changing circumstances” (75). However, Aristotle thinks people’s actions are not random. People habituate themselves and become virtuous by doing virtuous actions, as in The Nicomachean Ethics, he says “to virtue belongs virtuous activity” (1098b31-2). Thus he believes it is people’s moral character that determines their behavior rather than inconstant external situations.
Nevertheless, the two great philosophers hold something in common, partly because Machiavelli, especially his Discourses, was largely influenced by Aristotle. First, their methodologies are both scientific and concerned with reasoning. Second, Machiavelli seems to agree upon some ends that are worth pursuing—national independence, security, and a well-ordered constitution. The two things, love of skill and patriotic desire for Italian unity, existed side by side in his mind, which can be seen from the final exhortation to unite Italy in The Prince.
Aristotle also differs from his teacher Plato in that he is more concerned with the feasibility of a political theory. In Politics, he emphasizes that “what is the best constitution, and what is the best life for most city-states and most human beings, judging not by a kind of education that requires natural gifts and resources that depend on luck, nor by the ideal constitution, but by a life that most people can share and a constitution in which most city-states can participate” (1295a25-30). This is totally different from Plato’s utopia designed for “philosophy kings”. In this sense, Aristotle can be called the founder of practical and realistic political philosophy and a critical heir of his teacher’s rational and idealistic political philosophy.
Having examined all these similarities and differences of the two philosophers, it is time to discuss the question raised in the beginning of this essay about whether political philosophy should care more about reality or ideal models. Aristotle and Machiavelli’s divergence on the ends or the means also derives from this question. In Machiavelli’s view, the means pave the road towards the end and its consequences are foreseeable. However, since we can only conduct thought experiment on the ideal model of states, we cannot apply scientific methodology to examine its correctness; thus it is rather risky to follow the guide of an ideal model. Therefore he gradually neglects the transcendental moral requirements behind the political theory and emphasizes the procedural justice of government, rather than substantial justice, cutting off the relationship between politics and ethics. This moral indifference leads astray modern politics into pettiness. In this sense, it is essential to recover the transcendental role of virtue in politics. To Aristotle, only the concept of virtue can give a republic substantial justice in addition to procedural justice and free individual human rights from the political interests. Compared to Machiavelli, Aristotle’s political philosophy is between ideal and reality. His political ideal was quite at one with Plato’s in setting up an ethical purpose as the chief end of the city-state, but Aristotle suggests that the ideal need be embodied in practice to be valid. He is trying to reconcile the discrepancy between ideal and reality in order to find a political philosophy that can truly guide the Greeks.
It is surprising to see Aristotle and Machiavelli have developed different paths of their philosophy noticing that Renaissance Italy is so much like the classical Greece both with warring principalities and cities. Thus the Greek philosophers owe their theoretical education to the wars of petty states just as Machiavelli learned his lesson in the ceaseless conflicts among the five States of Italy and foreign powers. Among the many reasons Machiavelli and Aristotle differ in their political philosophy while sharing similar political environment, the most important one is due to the influence of the Renaissance. With the diminishing authority of the Church, and the increasing authority of science, Machiavelli’s scientific and empirical political philosophy earns its fame. In Machiavelli’s time, there was a growing cynicism, which makes men forgive anything if it pays money to them. The Italian Renaissance awakens the bright side of humanity as well as the dark side as “people tend to become unscrupulous egoists” (Sabine 321). “Admiration of skill, and of the actions that lead to fame, was very great at the time of the Renaissance” (Russell, 507). The universal egoism of that period resulted in Machiavelli’s moral indifference.
Machiavelli, The Prince, Hackett, 1995
Aristotle, Politics, Hackett, 1998
Aristotle, The Nicomachean Ethics, Oxford, 1998
Hobbes, Leviathan, Oxford, 1996
Sabine & Thorson, A History of Political Theory, Dryden Press, 1973
Russell, A History of Western Philosophy, Simon & Schuster, 1972
To export a reference to this article please select a referencing style below: