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Lao-Tzu Vs. Machiavelli: What Makes a Great Leader?

Jennifer Wilber is an author and freelance writer from Ohio. She holds a B.A. in creative writing and English.

According to Machiavelli, what makes a good leader? What about Lao-Tzu?

According to Machiavelli, what makes a good leader? What about Lao-Tzu?

Lao-Tzu and Machiavelli

Lao-Tzu and Machiavelli each had their own distinct views on how a leader should govern. Lao-Tzu had a more laid-back view and believed that if people had more freedoms, society would function better, whereas Machiavelli believed that the leader must have more control over the people to prevent chaos. While they did agree on some things, most of their ideas were vastly different.

Lao-Tzu’s Views on War

Lao-Tzu’s views on war and defense greatly differed from those of Machiavelli. Lao-Tzu believed that war is usually unnecessary and that there is no need for weapons. He believed that “[w]eapons are the tools of violence; all decent men detest them” and that if a war must be fought, it must be entered “... gravely, with sorrow and with great compassion, as if ... attending a funeral” (Lao-Tzu 25). Lao-Tzu also thought that you should not even attempt to protect yourself, stating that there is “no greater wrong than preparing to defend yourself” (Lao-Tzu 26). He sees no reason to defend yourself, as “humility means trusting the Tao, thus never needing to be defensive” (Lao-Tzu 29). Lao-Tzu felt that war is unnecessary and immoral.

Statue of Lao Tzu  in Quanzhou

Statue of Lao Tzu in Quanzhou

Machiavelli’s Views on War

Machiavelli, on the other hand, felt that a leader’s first concern should be war. “A prince ... must not have any other object, nor any other thought, nor must he take anything as his profession but war, and its discipline; because that is the only profession which befits one who commands” (Machiavelli 37-8). A good leader must always be armed, according to Machiavelli, least he appear to be weak and thus become hated. “[B]eing disarmed makes you despised” (Machiavelli 38). A good leader must understand military matters, for “a prince who does not understand military matters ... cannot be esteemed by his own soldiers, nor can he trust them” (Machiavelli 38). In order to be a good leader, Machiavelli believed that being prepared for war and being able to defend yourself were the most important things for a leader to concern himself with.

Niccolò Machiavelli

Niccolò Machiavelli

Lao-Tzu’s Views on Morality

Lao-Tzu also had different ideas on morality than did Machiavelli. Lao-Tzu believed that if there are fewer rules, people will ultimately be moral. “Throw away morality and justice, and people will do the right thing” (Lao-Tzu 23). Lao-Tzu is trying to say that the more the government tries to force the people to behave a certain way, the more the people will want to rebel. “The more prohibitions you have, the less virtuous people will be” (Lao-Tzu 27). If people are left on their own, they will have no reason to rebel and will act morally.

Machiavelli’s Views on Morality

Machiavelli, however, believed that people need laws and a fear of punishment to force them into being moral. In his view, if there are no laws, and no repercussions for breaking the laws, people cannot be trusted to act morally. “On the part of the conspirator there is nothing but fear, jealousy, and the thought of punishment that terrifies him” (Machiavelli 49). In other words, the only thing keeping anyone from conspiring against the leader is the fear of punishment. If there were no laws and no punishment to fear, the leader would quickly lose his power.

Should a Great Leader Be Loved or Feared?

Lao-Tzu’s ideas on how to be a great leader were also somewhat different from those of Machiavelli, though they did share some ideas. Lao-Tzu believed that the best leader is one “who is loved. Next is one who is feared. The worst is one who is despised” (Lao-Tzu 22). Machiavelli, on the other hand, believed that the best leader is one who is feared, but agrees that the worst leader is one who is despised. A leader must be feared, according to Machiavelli, so as to prevent chaos from arising. “[A] prince must not worry about the reproach of cruelty when it is a matter of keeping his subjects united and loyal,” Machiavelli stated to demonstrate that a leader must sometimes be cruel so that his subjects will fear him, for if a leader is not feared, the subjects will have no reason to obey him (Machiavelli 43). In contrast to Lao-Tzu, Machiavelli does not think that it is important to be loved, however. “A prince must nevertheless make himself feared in such a manner that he will avoid hatred, even if he does not acquire love; since to be feared and not to be hated can very well be combined” (Machiavelli 44). As long as a leader is feared and not despised, it does not matter if he is loved, according to Machiavelli.

Who Was the Greatest Leader?

While their ideas regarding how to govern were very different, Lao-Tzu and Machiavelli each had some valid points. Lao-Tzu’s idea that war is never the answer sounds ideal, though Machiavelli’s idea that you should always be prepared for war is necessary. A nation should be able to defend itself, but never seek to start a war. Lao-Tzu also had the right idea in thinking that people will be moral if there were fewer laws, as people tend to think that laws are meant to be broken, but at the same time, there must be some repercussions if someone does something wrong. Both Lao-Tzu and Machiavelli were correct in their view that a good leader is one who is not hated, for people will not obey someone they hate. Lao-Tzu and Machiavelli both had some valid, yet conflicting, ideas on how to govern. A leader would be most successful if both of these philosophies were to be combined.


Lao-Tzu. "Thoughts from the Tao-te Ching." A World of Ideas. By Lee A. Jacobus. 7th ed. Boston: Bedford/St. Martins, 2006. 19-33.

Machiavelli, Niccolo. "The Qualities of a Prince." A World of Ideas. By Lee A. Jacobus. 7th ed. Boston: Bedford/St. Martins, 2006. 35-51.

© 2018 Jennifer Wilber