Nicolo Machiavelli and Aristotle: two men that were hardly ever alike
Nicolo Machiavelli’s The Prince and Aristotle’s Politics are (in essence) two very different texts. Although both works have been considered timeless for several generations, one should note that the first distinction lies in the era of production for The Prince and Politics. It is without a doubt that in between the period of Aristotle and Machiavelli’s lives, a duplicated amount of world history and policy study existed and ensued, which therefore established evident reasons for differences between the texts. However, a reader of these two texts will notice that a difference also lies in the nature of both authors’ theoretical interpretation about government and its citizens, a component that neither author overlooked. Essentially, the differences can be specifically called the nature of the state and the nature of political science (in its overview).
Regarding the nature of a state, both Machiavelli and Aristotle had conflicting opinions in theory. Aristotle believed that the state was a community which was ultimately founded on building blocks of friendship and trust. He believed that the state ultimately represented a partnership for common good, “a partnership of citizens in a constitution.” (Politics, 40) In Book III, Aristotle implies:
All must have the virtue of the good citizen; thus, and thus only, can the state be perfect. They will not have the virtue of a good man, unless we assume that in the good state all the citizens must be good. (Politics, 41)
Machiavelli, though, certainly thought otherwise about the citizens of a state “hav[ing] the virtue of the good citizen” (Politics, 41) as Aristotle depicts. Machiavelli supported the thought that a state was founded on the notion of fear for a prince. He believed that a state was a powerful and stable system of coercion and (when carried out correctly) a supreme system over others due to that use of control:
And you have to understand this, a prince, especially a new one, cannot observe all those things for which men are esteemed, being often forced, in order to maintain the state, to act contrary to fidelity, friendship, humanity, and religion. Therefore it is necessary for him to have a mind ready to turn itself accordingly as the winds and variations of fortune force it, yet, as I have said above, not to diverge from the good if he can avoid doing so, but, if compelled, then to know how to set about it. (The Prince, 36)
From these ideas, readers can gain a spectrum of three equally diverse categories which both authors could have believed best in exercising social organization and development. Both Machiavelli and Aristotle understood that social organization could function as:
a) a partnership, with its basis as the joint pursuit of common goals with the people. b) an ongoing negotiating period among the people with disparate goals, who would remain essentially in a state of belligerency. c) an authoritarian system, in which all dissent and opposition is ruthlessly suppressed.
For Aristotle’s favored idea about partnership, it is important to first consider the shared conviction pertaining to a scale of value that is universal and accessible for all. This belief functions with a citizen’s inclusion in this scale of value, participating in a common pursuit of justice and mutual respect: “Hence, as is evident, there are different kinds of citizens; and he is a citizen in the highest sense who shares in the honors of the state.” (Politics, 43) This Aristotelian conclusion depends closely on the acceptance of human nature as a basis for greater universal principles. It seems to allude directly to the notion that people (by nature) are social animals, whose happiness ultimately depends on genuine friendships and virtuous activity.(1) To contrast, Machiavelli rejects this conception about human nature and has chosen to adopt a more “authoritative approach” through his worldly interpretation of the fox and the lion, his opinion about the generality of men, and a genuine challenge to keeping the image of good.
Machiavelli states that men naturally “are ungrateful, fickle, false, cowardly, covetous, and as long as you succeed [men] are yours entirely; they will offer you their blood, property, life, and children, as is said above, when the need is far distant; but when it approaches they turn against you.” (The Prince, 34) This is entirely different to Aristotle’s account for common good being exercised and founded through citizens of the state. Both writers look to this subject of humanity very differently, and it is such a bold contrast to note. Perhaps this radicalism is established best by Machiavelli when he writes that a man is better to be feared than loved:
Men have less scruple in offending one who is beloved than one who is feared, for love is preserved by the link of obligation which, owing to the baseness of men, is broken at every opportunity for their advantage; but fear preserves you by a dread of punishment which never fails. (The Prince, 34)
A second lesser distinction between both texts lies in the understanding of political science to both philosophers. Although both authors consider the study of politics to be an experiential science, readers can sense an overall difference by the way these two works are composed in their entirety. Machiavelli models his comprehension of political science through logistics, conceiving that politics are concerned with what is, and not with what they ought to be. He is distinctive in noting these reasonable facts and values, giving insight to these conclusions by setting guidelines for a prince; in one example, Machiavelli demonstrates how and why an over-scrupulous leader is one that is likely to fail in his career. In Politics, Aristotle’s ideas conflict once again with Machiavelli’s as he models his writing and thinking in a “science project” sort of structure. Through several chapters in several different books, he carves an orderly and step-by-step model of political comprehension for a reader, with constant proof for any opinion. Also, considering Aristotle’s great contributions to the fields of biology and other life sciences, it is no surprise to see why he had decided to write Politics this way.(2)
By analyzing Machiavelli and Aristotle, an audience can find the constant conflict of ideas ever-present. In the end, if there is one quality that Aristotle and Machiavelli both share in common, it is the agreement that political science is an amorphous, changing science that ceases to be completely understood as time goes by. Their work is a tribute to the empirical study of political science: a science that has progressed from the time of Aristotle (with the justification of “good”) until the time of Machiavelli (with the justification “to be feared”). Both The Prince and Politics have proven something greater than the understanding that thought becomes developed through the generations of man: it is the fact that men are hardly ever exactly alike.
(1) Aristotle, in Book VII, makes an interesting note about human nature when writing about children in Politics, implying that “human nature should be early habituated to endure all which by habit it can be made to endure; but the process must be gradual.” (Politics, 135) This certainly acts well as a metaphor for his words in politics when paralleled to an understanding about the people.
(2) Aristotle often includes certain sections to organize (or classify) his writing through ideal types and final causes, for example.