Moral Virtue, Aristotle, and Machiavelli
I have said that, for Aristotle, the alternative to greatness isn’t goodness. It’s hedonism. This has something to do with the status of moral virtue, as we’ll see.
For Machiavelli, the alternative to greatness isn’t goodness because there is no real alternative to greatness. Humans, as he says in The Prince, have to learn to be able not to be good in order to succeed. For Machiavelli, goodness may be said to be “socially constructed.” The moral virtues aren’t real, they aren’t natural, as are the moral vices.
Hedonism isn’t an option for Machiavelli because in a world that is simply material, matter in motion, hedonism is indistinguishable from [self] indulgence. In a material world, indulgence must mean indulging in bodies or matter of some kind – human bodies, food, drink, drugs, etc. Hedonism understood as not being self-indulgence requires a world that is receptive to longings that are not material, desires for things not simply matter or material like love or art or truth.
There is some agreement between Aristotle and Machiavelli regarding moral virtue. For Aristotle, the peak of moral virtue is magnanimity, which is a kind of greatness, “the great souled man.” So those craving to be morally virtuous are craving, ultimately, greatness. Moral virtue at its peak is indistinguishable from a kind of vanity, which is of course a vice. This helps explain why Aristotle did not think that goodness was an alternative, a viable alternative to greatness.
For Machiavelli, the moral virtues are actually vices, splendid vices sometimes but still vices. For example, to be liberal requires wealth, possessions, property, but wealth, possessions, and property must be acquired. And, of courses, in the world acquisition requires rapaciousness, taking, either from the world or from others. To be liberal requires rapaciousness. The moral virtue of liberality rests on the vice of rapaciousness.
So humans are compelled to embrace vice, even to be virtuous. Men are compelled to be bad just as they are, according to Christianity, compelled to sin. That is, men are compelled to embrace vice even to be morally virtuous and certainly they are compelled to embrace vice in order to succeed.
The peak of humanity for Machiavelli, the greatest success, is greatness. Greatness is what the best human beings seek or crave, in part because moral virtue isn’t “real.” Men are taught to be good so as to be controlled; they are taught to desire to be good but this is a desire they can never fulfill given the unreality of moral virtue. That humans continually fail to be virtuous isn’t their or even a fault. It could be said that Machiavelli thought that “men are bad,” but that would be misleading. For Machiavelli, humans are humans, controlled ultimately by passions, by desires like greed, lust, etc. because in a material world our passions have to seek matter of some kind. This is just a fact; this is just, as Machiavelli said in The Prince, “the effectual truth.” Ignore it at your peril.