Machiavelli and Plato

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Like other Western philosophers, Machiavelli was influenced by the early Greek philosophers, especially Plato. However, in many cases Machiavelli seems to be arguing against Platonic philosophy. Plato believed in just rulers, who ruled via moral virtue. Machiavelli believed in "Virtu'", whatever was best for the State was Virtu'. In Plato's time, man served the state. According to Monarch notes on The Republic: The basic idea referred to is the view that ethics and politics are the same, or at least co-terminous (overlapping in essential features). There was no distinction between private life and public life, as there is today. There was no such concept as the "invasion of privacy," perhaps because no Athenian felt that he had a private life that was to be kept distinct from his public life.


However, in Machiavelli's time, as it is today, the States whole reason for being was to serve the citizens, not vice versa. Machiavelli believed the only purpose for a ruler was to make war, and protect its citizens from attacks by other states. The ruler, therefore, is justified in doing whatever is necessary to maintain the country, even if it is unjust. Plato argues a ruler can never be unjust.


Plato argues against the type of ruler, who rules solely by might in The Republic. The argument stands as a defense against Machiavellian society: In practicing a skill, we do not aim to go beyond, but only to hit the right point. Virtue is a kind of skill, and this requires a knowledge of what is the right measure. The unjust man, therefore, is not exercising much of a skill, is he? Nor is the tyrant doing much of a job at ruling. One cannot claim to play a higher F-sharp than anyone else - since we all know that F-sharp is F-sharp, and there cannot be higher or lower F-sharp's. It is the just man who knows the proper note; it is the unjust man who exceeds it and goes out of tune in his life. It is injustice, then, that is the fool's game. It destroys individuals, as it destroys states.(Plato, The Republic. 349E, P. 35-36)


In spite of the fact, Machiavelli is greatly influenced by the Greek and Latin classics, and by the bible, he takes a critical stance in dealing with the idea of morality. A Prince's main duty is the preservation of his country and the protection of his subjects. "A Prince, therefore should have no care or thought but for war, and the regulations and training it requires, and should apply himself exclusively to this as his peculiar province; for war is the sole art looked for in one who rules" (Machiavelli, P. 70). This is not far from what we look for in Republican societies. Machiavelli believes a good leader's main responsibility is to preserve his country first. According to Salmon: Machiavelli says that rulers should be truthful, keep promises, and the like when doing so will not harm the state, and that they should generally appear to have the traditional virtues. But since the goal of the ruler is to conquer and preserve the state, he should not shrink from wrongdoing when the preservation of the state requires this. Thus, the classical concept of civic virtue, which is a moral code applicable to rulers and subjects alike, is critically transformed in Machiavelli's concept of virtu', which pertains to rulers of states and can be at odds with moral virtue. (Salmon, Merrilee H, "Landmarks in Critical Thinking Series: Machiavelli's The Prince" )


Machiavelli's idea of virtu' is not of moral character then, but of what is best or the utilitarian needs of the country. For Machiavelli virtu' out weighs virtue in times of need while Plato believes a just ruler must behave the same all the time. Salmon says: Machiavelli critically analyzes the crucial characteristics of successful rulers, distinguishing, for example, between standards of discipline appropriate for military campaigns and for rulers when they are not commanding armies. Similarly, when Machiavelli discusses the concepts of cruelty and mercy, he presents examples to show that actions which might seem at first glance to be cruel are merciful in the circumstances, and vice versa.


Machiavelli is naive, and in many ways promotes violence, if it justifies the ends to a means, "virtu". However, in so doing, he also exposes Monarchy as a fraud, and offers a way of separating morality or religion from politics. Politics is a cruel game, and sometimes politicians must lie in order to ensure the utilitarian good. Machiavelli warns that total honesty is not always what a good Prince needs to hear, but is a type of flattery that should be shunned. He writes: For there is no way to guard against flattery but by letting it be seen that you take no offence in hearing the truth: but when every one is free to tell you the truth, respect falls short. Wherefore a prudent Prince should follow a middle course, by choosing certain discreet men from among his subjects, and allowing them alone free leave to speak their minds on any matter on which he asks their opinion, and on none other. But he ought to ask their opinion on everything, and after hearing what they have to say, should reflect and judge for himself. (Machiavelli, The Prince. The Rennaissance Man, Edited by Daniel Fader, Gorlier: New York P. 113)

Machiavelli greatly admires the works of Plato and other sophists.


Machiavelli employs the conditional patterns of argumentation developed by the Stoic logicians. He frequently uses the dilemma form since this is useful for presenting alternative courses of action along with their consequences. He skillfully avoids being caught in false dilemmas, however. For example, when considering whether it is better to be loved or feared, he first points out that it is desirable--though not easy--to be both loved and feared. Plato believed that the ruler without moral virtue was unjust. A true ruler was just regardless of the circumstances. By doing evil to those evil men, are we not adding to their evil, making them more evil? It follows that justice involves the actual creation of evil.

Yet no art can deliberately aim at a negative result. The death of a patient is not a triumph of medicine but a failure. The creation of evil is not an accomplishment of justice, but a failure of justice. (335 D, P. 15-16)

Therefore, according to Plato, a just ruler should not seek war, because war is unjust. War is evil, and "The creation of evil is not an accomplishment of justice, but a failure of justice." For Plato, a just ruler, an ideal ruler would be just. He does address war, and feels the Republic should have a standing Army of trained soldiers in order to defend the Republic. Machiavelli believes the state exists to make war, and a good ruler exists for only one purpose to make war, this is his only concern.


Machiavelli are writing in two different eras. In Plato's era, man based philosophy on utopian ideals and principles. They were concerned with how things should be, not how they were. If we all behave this way, we will have a perfect society.


 Machiavelli, however, was a realist. He was concerned with how things were in reality, not how things could be if the world was perfect. He was greatly influenced by his failures in public life. He had served as head of the second chancery of the Florentine republic, but was dismissed after it fell in 1512. The Medici family was again ruling Florence, and a Medici also sat on the papal throne in Rome. The Prince was an attempt to prevent form those failures being repeated in the future. Machiavelli tried unsuccessfully to use this treatise to gain an advisory appointment either to the papacy or the court of the Duke. He was not concerned with moral virtue, if it meant the destruction and defeat of his state