Soulcraft and Politics
Machiavelli treats human beings as infinitely malleable; that is, not as ensouled. The status of the soul is the key, but oddly soulcraft isn’t what politics should be about because the political life corrupts the soul. Even in a way then moral virtue corrupts or enervates the soul, because moral virtue is the result of habituation and habituation flattens the soul.
On the other hand, intellectual virtue doesn’t corrupt the soul, but the political life and intellectual virtue don’t fit together, at least not easily. Moderation isn’t an intellectual virtue but moderation is crucial politically and with regard to the moral virtues. Insofar as the peak of intellectual virtue is philosophy moderation isn’t such a virtue as philosophy is characterized by what might be called extremism, and not by moderation. In Plato’s Republic, Thrasymachus at the outset is an extremist, much like Callicles in another Platonic dialogue. But neither of them was a philosopher, although they might be called potential tyrants. Tyrants and potential tyrants, like philosophers, embrace extremism and are, as are philosophers dangerous , but in a different way. The most dangerous tyrants are those who pretend to be or are morally virtuous, their tyranny serving the cause of moral virtue, e.g., in the form of racial purity or racial supremacy.
Both Machiavelli and the ancients reject the idea that politics is or should be about soulcraft, but for different reasons. Machiavelli not only rejects the idea that politics should be about soulcraft; he also rejects the idea that any human endeavor should be about soulcraft because humans are not ensouled. The soul is an illusion, so the best humans can hope for is to acquire fame, which is a kind of immortality, and the acquisition of fame requires that humans learn how to be able not to be good, as he said in The Prince.
It is pretty clear that the ancients would agree with Machiavelli regarding the way fame, human greatness is acquired. They would disagree, however, that this is the best humans can do. Because they are ensouled, humans can attain happiness when their souls flourish. And what causes souls to flourish are pleasures, both bodily and spiritual. There is a hierarchy of pleasures, the lowest being the bodily pleasures and the highest being contemplation of the highest things. In between, there are phenomena like play, that is, activities that are engaged in because they are pleasant and not for any ulterior motive, like fitness or wealth. When humans play, as when they contemplate the higher things like art or love, they are indulging their souls, not for the sake of improvement or re-creation, but for the sake of pleasure. Pleasure causes souls to flourish and perhaps the pleasant is the pleasant because our souls flourish as a result.
Although for very different reasons then, Machiavelli and the ancients agree that the political life isn’t about soulcraft. For Machiavelli, soulcraft is as illusionary as is the soul. For the ancients, the best to be hoped for is to live in political order that is open to, not opposed to soulcraft, understood as the flourishing of souls. The fate of Socrates should remind us that it is no mean task to create a political order open to “making our souls the best possible.”