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Machiavelli vs Aristotle on 'Virtue'

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Political Science
POLS 2900
Stephen Newman

Machiavelli and Aristotle on virtue: The contrast between the two thinkers on the question of virtue and vice is quite stark. We get a sense of this by comparing especially Machiavelli‟s account of “those things for which men and especially princes are praised or blamed” in ch.15-19 of the Prince. There Machiavelli makes clear to his intelligent readers, i.e. „those who understand‟ not simply the occasional necessity for vice in politics, but a radical overturning of the Aristotelian conception of virtue. For Machiavelli virtue becomes a means to the highest goal of politics: peace (understood more narrowly as safety) and prosperity. This is quite contrary to Aristotle‟s original understanding of virtue as the goal of politics (i.e. the narrow goals of safety and prosperity are in the service of a kind of politics which ultimately aims at the development and exercise of virtue in its citizens). While it is true that Aristotle discusses virtue more fully in the Ethics than in the Politics, it is also true that the goal of politics in the Politics remains the good life, which requires virtue. In fact, Aristotle‟s discussion of the best regime as well as his polity are all informed by a concern with the promotion of virtue. Hence, there is a connection here between the two works. In the Ethics Aristotle begins by looking for the final goal for which all other actions of human beings are done. This goal is happiness. While there is a lot of disagreement about what exactly is happiness, however, Aristotle does not claim (as thinkers like Locke, Hobbes, or Kant explicitly do, and as Machiavelli implicitly does) that happiness is simply subjective and outside of the concerns of politics. He turns to the nature of human beings in order to give an universal account of happiness, for he finds that there is in fact quite a bit of agreement on this question (though his argument does not rest finally on men‟s opinions). He claims that men are by nature rational beings, meaning that their soul possesses both a reasoning part and one which obeys it. The development and exercise of the virtues associated with each of these parts, namely intellectual and moral virtue, is integral to human happiness. The fact that man is by nature a political animal is also related to this account of the soul, for that which makes man a political animal is his possession of reason (logos, or speech). Intellectual virtue, the virtue associated with the reasoning part of the soul does not occur naturally in men (i.e. originally at birth) but men have, to a greater or lesser extent, the potential for acquiring it through study. The virtue of the part of the soul which obeys the reasoning part does not occur in men naturally either (i.e. originally at birth), but must be acquired through habituation - i.e. through performing those actions deemed morally good. This is moral virtue, or virtue of character. It requires not only that one perform morally good actions, but that one‟s passions be entirely in harmony with one‟s action. In other words, the best character is the one in which reason and the passions (trained through habit) all point in the same direction: towards the morally good act. Naturally at birth men posses one or another extreme of moral virtue. They are either too cowardly or too spirited, too extravagant or too stingy, for example. Moral virtue is the mean between these two extremes which are deemed „vices‟ (in the preceding cases virtue would be courage and liberality, respectively). In deciding upon the right (or „mean‟) course of action in a particular situation the moral man is guided by prudence, which is part of the reasoning part of the soul (i.e. an intellectual virtue, but with a practical aim). Prudence, however, is not free to decide its own aims. Rather, it simply calculates with respect to the aims prescribed a priori by morality. It is in the service of moral virtue, in other words. Since the city is the best form of natural association, therefore, the city must be concerned with virtue. The city is not natural because found in nature (in fact Aristotle claims that the city must be founded), but because it represents the best association capable of fulfilling man‟s natural end - the exercise of virtue, and the happy life. It is naive to claim that Aristotle did not fully understand the requirements of political life, and was more of an idealist than the realist Machiavelli. Aristotle clearly understood that outside of law man is the worst of the animals, for example. Moreover, he also understood that the city often rests upon unjust foundations (note that his best regime will include a class of slaves, who are nonetheless not natural slaves, as the fact that they can later be freed clearly shows). The requirements of virtue are quite dire and most likely will not be entirely fulfilled in actual cities. Virtue requires „equipment„, a host of external goods without which it cannot exist (the virtue-promoting class must have leisure, wealth, and so on, all of which rest upon not entirely legitimate foundations). Yet, Aristotle insists that all cities which seek to legitimate themselves by the standard of naturalness must aim at this natural goal - the promotion and exercise of virtue. Even th
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