Machiavelli’s Critique of Aristotle
In his book, Machiavelli and Empire, Mikael Hornqvist notices the following: “The Prince 16, which on a superficial level seemed to reiterate a conventional theme from the mirror-of-princes genre, has on closer examination proved to contain a direct assault on the very foundation of this traditional moralist genre, the ethical teaching of Aristotle. Through this radical move, Machiavelli opens up a new form of political discourse…..” [p. 179]
This radical move may be described as follows. Whereas traditionally the mirror-of-princes genre was based on the idea that there were certain virtues that princes – and of course others – should practice because, well, because they were virtues and choice worthy. It followed from this that princes should then embrace a kind of politics that was consistent with or based upon these virtues. Because liberality was a virtue, princes should practice liberal politics. Thus, being liberal points to a certain kind of politics, say, a generous politics.
Machiavelli turns this reasoning on its head. That is, for Machiavelli, princes - or anyone seeking success for that matter - should adopt the kind of politics that makes liberality possible or safe. As Machiavelli makes plain, being liberal does not guarantee one’s success and, in fact, can breed failure by creating resentment, say, at being heavily taxed to support liberal or generous policies. Eventually, Machiavelli turns the question, “What virtues should princes practice?” into the question, “What kind of politics need princes practice to ensure that liberality is successful?” And the answer is, it would seem: To be liberal, one must be “acquisitive” or imperialistic, because that allows a prince to be generous without burdening his subjects to pay for his generosity.
It is important to notice how Machiavelli’s question changes political discourse. Whereas traditionally it was asked, what virtues should a prince practice, it is now asked, how should princes behave to be deemed virtuous? For Machiavelli, seeming replaces being, and seeming virtuous replaces being virtuous. And, of course, once this kind of thinking is embraced, manipulation, concealment, and deceit – in a word, “appearances” or “credibility” as we would say today – become all-important. A politics of smoke and mirrors is only a very short step away.
Successful rule replaces virtuous rule as the standard around which political discourse revolves. Success is that which striven for and, when achieved, often confused with virtue. But, in fact, success is virtue’s replacement, a fact that Machiavelli conceals beneath his appeals to restore “ancient virtue.” In fact, “ancient virtue” is so far from being the remedy that it is the problem. And that which rules in the political arena will also rule in the social arena, with “Be Successful” replacing “Be Virtuous” as the polestar for human behavior. And when success becomes confused with virtue, we should not be surprised as that was the goal all along.
That Machiavelli thought in this way is evident, at least intermittently, throughout his writings. For example, in the Discourses, II, 13, in a chapter entitled “That One Comes from Base to Great Fortune More through Fraud Than through Force,” Machiavelli says upfront: “I esteem it to be a very true thing that it rarely or never happens that men of small fortune come to great ranks without force and without fraud….Nor do I believe that force alone is ever found to be enough, but fraud alone will be found to be quite enough…..”
Leaving aside the question that Machiavelli obviously wants us to debate, which is more important for success, force or fraud? and notice that he has reduced the possible explanations for success to two, force and/or fraud. He has left out, apparently, two other possibilities, virtue or chance, although he does mention inheritance, which might be a kind of chance. “Great fortune” or success is achieved, when not inherited, by force and/or fraud, leaving virtue out of the equation altogether. And, of course, if one uses force, it would be good to disguise this fact in order to make people think that your success did not have to be seized but was well deserved, was a reward at it were for one’s virtues. So even when force is used to achieve success, fraud is necessary and beneficial.
But note should be taken as well at how Machiavelli reduces the world, at it were. That is, in Machiavelli’s world, virtue plays a very small role therein. Machiavelli’s world is a world of “movers and shakers,” of human beings “on the make;” it is not a world of imaginers, of poets, of saints, of caregivers, of the inquisitive as opposed to the acquisitive. One might say that the “inspired,” in Machiavelli’s world, are consigned to the margins of society, even banished as it were from “respectable society” as the poets were banished in Plato’s Republic. Not just imaginary republics but imagination generally will play a very small part in Machiavelli’s world. Modern realism, to be pragmatic, shrinks “real reality” and, therewith perhaps, shrinks humanity itself.
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