What If: Aristotle and Machiavelli
An interesting passage from Strauss’s Thoughts on Machiavelli. Speaking about the men of supreme virtue that Machiavelli considers the best of humans and their dependence on chance, Strauss wrote:
“Still, the man of supreme virtue can create his opportunity to some extent. Contrary to Aristotle’s view according to which multitudes have a natural fitness either for being subject to a despot or for a life of political freedom, fitness for either form can be artificially produced if a man of rare ‘brain’ applies the required degree of force to the multitude in question; compulsion can bring about ‘a change of nature.’ No ‘defect of nature’ can account for the unwarlike character of a nation; a prince of sufficient ability can transform any nation however pampered by climate into a nation of warriors. We may express Machiavelli’s thought by saying that Aristotle did not realize to what extent man is malleable, and in particular malleable by man.” [252-53]
But what if Aristotle did realize precisely what Machiavelli realized, viz., that human beings are to a large extent malleable and even malleable by other men? If so, then perhaps Aristotle had his reasons for downplaying this fact, and one of his reasons might be indicated by Strauss’s statement that any nation, any people can be transformed “into a nation of warriors.” That is, the transformations that are possible, man’s malleability point in the direction of being warriors, not being made into “peaceniks,” for example. So, what if Aristotle, recognizing the malleability of humans, downplayed it, deflected from it to promote certain political ends, e.g., peace or humanity. That Aristotle contended that the best regime, although unlikely to ever exist, was possible is evidence that he, like Machiavelli, understood human beings to be quite malleable. And, of course, it is a question of some import to ask just what Aristotle thought it was that would lay way the best regime. To say the best regime is not likely to arise is not to say why this is the case. It might be that Aristotle thought that the best regime could easily become a nation of warriors, an outcome that Aristotle would be more likely to consider undesirable than would Machiavelli.