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Contrasting Accounts of Political Life: Aristotle and Machiavelli

Updated on February 11, 2017

Two distinctly different accounts of political life are given by Aristotle and Machiavelli. At the essence of Aristotle’s account is the natural disposition of man to live life in forms of association, with the polis at the top of this hierarchy of associations as a good in itself. In contrast, Machiavelli gives an account of political life revolving around circumstance and fortune rather than being any necessary state. He viewed political life as a means to an end rather than an end in itself like Aristotle. This account then appears to have a greater understanding and/or appreciation of realpolitik and so is the more compelling account of political life.

Aristotle
Aristotle

Aristotle

For Aristotle, the polis was a natural association which springs from other such associations. The first of these is the household. In this association, like all others, there is a naturally ruling element and naturally ruled element; the husband rules the wife, the master-slave, and parent-child. The ruling element rules by virtue of intelligence and the ruled occupy their position by virtue of physical power. This balance is similar to that between body and soul, the soul rules the body by virtue of its rationality, and if two men are as different as body and soul, then it is to the benefit of both that the one most resembling the soul should rule.

These associations like the household and village occur naturally and in order to meet some need. The polis while occurring naturally and bringing people together out of need, goes further in it that it parts end up joined for the sake of the good life.

Not only is the polis natural, but it is also prior to the individual as “the whole is necessarily prior to the part.” This premise is unconvincing, though (and so the conclusion must be too), for concrete is prior to the road, as steel is to bridge. Unlike Aristotle’s suggestion that if the body is obliterated there can be no hand, if the bridge is obliterated, steel will remain, and so we cannot be certain of the rule that the whole is prior to the part.

The uncertainty of such a premise must cast doubt upon the soundness of Aristotle’s conclusions. His teleological argument by definition looks at the man and the polis regarding function and purpose but by arguably getting the premises wrong in assigning the polis as a purpose of man, then so the purpose of the polis itself may be wrongly identified. If so there would be no reason to believe the good life has any relationship to the polis at all.

The ramifications of the relationship between the ruling and ruled elements can be felt in political life. In this sphere, there is again a ruling and ruled element, with citizens ruling the noncitizens. A citizen is a citizen by virtue of birth, their status passed on like an inheritance from their parents. But also, to be a true citizen one must act like one and fulfill their obligations to the polis by sharing in political office. Applying this standard to the modern world would certainly be problematic. It would either require that vast sways of the populace were barred from citizenship due to the ratio of population to administrative positions, or it would require re-ordering the modern state into some form of local direct rule. This is another reason why Aristotle’s account of political life is less compelling: it fails to reflect existing conditions. Instead, it reflects the writers’ aspirations.

Talk of possibly re-ordering the state leads on then to how Aristotle thought that government should be ordered. He gives three classifications or true forms of governance; these are kingship, aristocracy, and polity. There are also three other possibilities, which are corresponding perversions of the forms. These are tyranny, oligarchy, and democracy. In the true forms there is rule with a view to the collective interest or common good, a view to the many. The perversions promote private interest rather than the public common good. It can be the interest of the tyrant, the rich in an oligarchy and the poor (by virtue of their numbers) in the democracy.

Returning to the true forms, the public interest that is best advanced by the middle class, the moderates endowed with rationality and not occupying a polar extreme. However, this is perhaps an idealistic view that in reality would only see the middle class do what he suggests the poor and rich will do, and that is further private interest, those interests of their own. We have no good reason to suppose this group will have any kind of enhanced rationality and so this position must be rejected, in the name of rationality itself, for nothing would be more irrational than to accept an argument without good grounds.

All of these groupings barring tyranny can claim to be at least partly just, so long as they establish “some proportion among claims to rule”. Tyranny is excluded as in it there is no regime in reality and the polis’ regime is an expression about the standards of political justice. So for Aristotle the Polis in one sense is an expression of the people’s idea of justice. To make such a judgement on a quality like justice is to attach an intrinsic value to that quality and so political life is to participate for an inherent value rather than a means/ends relationship.

Finally a discussion regarding the most famous phrase of Aristotle’s is required, this being that man is a political animal. By this some have taken it to mean that man works towards a common goal, which is the definition of “political animal” Aristotle appears to give when assigning the term to bees and ants in The History of Animals. However, Aristotle suggests that man is more political animal than a Bee and so political animal must have some other meaning, or caveat to it. This other quality is logos or reasoned speech. Furthermore, as the human capacity for a just and virtuous life can only be perfected in a community, a community dedicated to the good life must exist in nature. So whatever takes us from our reasoned speech to the polis must be like some kind of organic growth. Which is yet another extension of the biological analogy and continues the theme of natural occurrence and the necessary condition of man and the polis.

Machiavelli
Machiavelli

Machiavelli

In contrast to this Machiavelli argues that rather than there being fixed, natural, necessary conditions, that political life is a product of circumstance and fortuna. He also saw the classical theorists as having dreamt up fantasies regarding statehood and politics. They failed to acknowledge the reality of revolts, rebellion, and political positioning, instead of furthering their own idealized notions of politics. Machiavelli explicitly departs from this approach and implicitly introduces the world of realpolitik. The most blatant example of this is when he says “if a ruler wants to survive, he must learn to stop being good.” The reasoning for this is that to act good in a world where most are bad will be a leader’s downfall.

Already then, Machiavelli has succeeded in departing from the classical interpretations of political life, presenting a world of is as opposed to ought to be, This is personified in the success brought by ruthlessness in the recurring references to Cesare Borgia, unlike the good, rational and virtuous men that in effect represent an ought in Aristotle’s analysis.

This picture of ruthlessness and the call not to be good is not as clear cut as it seems, though. Machiavelli is not rejecting that man should be good, quite so much as he is re-defining by what it means to be good. He is rejecting the dominant view of the day, challenging a deontological ethics system and embracing consequentialism. So his suggestion is not really for a ruler not to be good, but that they must be prepared to do typically bad acts for the sake of good consequences. An example of this is his discussion of Hannibal who had great success keeping a united army, free of dissent. The judgment made being that Hannibal’s cruelty was justified by the outcome of it.

This is part of his discussion of whether it is better to be loved or feared. While a leader may wish to be loved, the Hannibal example shows that fear is more practical. Once again Borgia is also given as evidence, and Machiavelli even suggests that his cruelty showed greater compassion “than the Florentines whose reluctance to be thought cruel led to disaster.” So again there is a means/ends justification and embracing of consequentialism which manifests itself in political life as ruthlessness and cruelty.

In the post-Machiavelli era there has perhaps been none more feared but equally loved than Josef Stalin who was voted third best Russian, thus supporting the view that being labeled cruel for the sake of keeping a happy and united populace will, in the end, prove a leader to be more compassionate. Had Stalin not driven the fastest industrialization in history (with all the suffering that entailed) in order to defeat Nazism, the people of the USSR would have been bound to a life of servitude and slavery in the Greater-Germany's living space. Likewise, Winston Churchill was selected the Greatest Briton after authorizing bombings of civilians in Dresden and according to the BBC being “strongly in favour of using poisoned gas against uncivilized tribes.” While not wanting to excuse the deplorable racism of Churchill, what is clear is that Machiavelli’s analysis stands true today and that the cruel will be judged compassionate, the feared, if successful, will, in the end, be loved.

Another approach has been to say Machiavelli was rejecting Christian ethics and morals and accepting Pagan values. These values include “courage, vigour, fortitude in adversity” which are the kinds of manly virtu which Machiavelli saw leadership requiring.

These virtues alone are not the key to success but have to come to the fore in the correct environment when the appropriate circumstances are in place. A similar expression would later be made by Karl Marx:

"Men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past."

The virtue of Moses alone would not be enough to make history. Had Moses not found an enslaved Jewish population in Egypt in need of a leader then there would have been no one to follow him.

A final area in which there may actually be some sort of agreement between Aristotle and Machiavelli is with regards to promoting public interest. While at first it appears that Machiavelli supports a leader furthering their own interest at the expense of the common good, this like his view of good may be redefined in a way that shows Machiavelli supporting the advancement of public interest. This may be the case as Machiavelli’s main advice to leaders is with regards to staying in power, and to stay in power one must keep a united and happy populace, and if a united, happy populace is in place then that is in the interest of the public and so Machiavelli is, in fact, advocating the advancement of the public interest.

Barring this one area of roundabout agreement between Aristotle and Machiavelli, their theories are miles apart. The conclusion that can be drawn from this is that unlike Aristotle’s fixed, natural and necessary state, Machiavelli’s account of political life is one of circumstance and fortune, where a man is only the right man in the right place at the right time rather than by virtue of his birth and the natural order of things. Machiavelli’s account compels one to accept it by superior logical analysis and real life examples. Whereas Aristotle, like Plato before him seems to be guilty of presenting as Machiavelli suggests a world that ought to be (and even then it is unconvincing that his account is what actually ought to be) rather than one that is.

References

  • Aristotle., 1998. Politics. Translated by E.Barker. Oxford.
  • Berlin. I., 1981. The Originality of Machiavelli in N. Warburton., D. Matravers., J. Pike, ed. Reading Political Philosophy: Machiavelli to Mill. London: Routledge, 2000, pp. 43-57.
  • Cockburn, P. 2003. Britain’s Role In Shaping Iraq. Available at: http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/uk/2719939.stm [accessed 17 October 2009]
  • Machiavelli, N., 2009. The Prince. Translated by T.Parks. London.
  • Yack, B., 1985. Community and Conflict in Aristotle’s Political Philosophy. The Review of Politics, 47(1), pp.92-112.

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    • Comrade Joe profile image
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      Comrade Joe 5 years ago from Glasgow, United Kingdom

      I really do not know either way regarding that theory. I could only really give a guess I'm afraid, although I do tend to lean on the skeptical side also. What I do think, is that even if it were a satire showing the cruelty of regimes, the work is still valid. As even if Machiavelli was not really saying his work should be put into practice and emulated, he still provides useful insights into the workings of power.

    • Josak profile image

      Josak 5 years ago from variable

      Interesting essay, what do you think of the theory (gaining in popularity) that Machiavelli in fact wrote the The Prince as a piece of satire to sow the cynicism and evil of the rulers of the day (particularly those who had imprisoned him) either way I guess it need not change the conclusions of the essay but it is an interesting thought, having said that I am skeptical of the theory.