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principal means for differentiating man and beast is his faculty of speech. Speech, unfortunately, is often abused; a fine example is rhetorical devices that can be used to craft intentional misunderstanding. “Virtue”, the term, in its various translations in the human language is as ambiguous and misleading as any. Machiavelli, in The Prince, and Aristotle, in Nicomachean Ethics, both had their own interpretation of this word, its meaning, and its ultimate goal. The underlying threads in each work are in stark contrast with one another, and yet in the end they are at least slightly reconcilable. Never in The Prince does Machiavelli explicitly mention that he is mentioning virtue. The translators often uses the terms strength, cunning, power interchangeably with the Latin word for virtue, virtu. In general the term virtue was most nearly associated is maintaining and bettering (which is often just a method of maintenance) ones position of power. A typical example is just as follows. Machiavelli illustrates a folly and then proceeds to explain why it is not virtuous. “He who is the cause of someone else’s becoming powerful is the agent of his own destruction…” (Machiavelli 14) One of Aristotle’s most cardinal virtues are used by Machiavelli in the pursuit of power, that ancient virtue is “prudence.” “But the scanty wisdom of man, on entering into an affair which looks well at first, cannot discern the poison that is hidden in it, as I have said above of hectic fevers. Therefore, if he who rules a principality cannot recognize evils until they are upon him, he is not truly wise; and this insight is given to few.” (Machiavelli 45)
Rusyniak 2 His path with Aristotle quickly diverges when he states that it matters not whether or not you are truly virtuous, truly generous, or truly brave, so long as you have that reputation and continue to appear that way. “Therefore it is unnecessary for a prince to have all the good qualities I have enumerated, but it is very necessary to appear to have them. And I shall dare to say this also, that to have them and always to observe them is injurious, and that to appear to have them is useful; to appear merciful, faithful, humane, religious, upright, and to be so, but with a mind so framed that should you require not to be so, you may be able and know how to change to the opposite.” (Machiavelli 54) Machiavelli is quick to state that success is not entirely subordinate to chance, rather, circumstance can be manipulated in order to attain this success. “I compare her to one of those raging rivers, which when in flood overflows the plains, sweeping away trees and buildings, bearing away the soil from place to place; everything flies before it, all yield to its violence, without being able in any way to withstand it; and yet, though its nature be such, it does not follow therefore that men, when the weather becomes fair, shall not make provision, both with defences and barriers, in such a manner that, rising again, the waters may pass away by canal, and their force be neither so unrestrained nor so dangerous. So it happens with fortune, who shows her power where valour has not prepared to resist her, and thither she turns her forces where she knows that barriers and defences have not been raised to constrain her.” “Machievelli 74) Once again virtue is the faculty to prevent chance from getting out of hand and being prepared for any circumstance. Whereas the interpretation of “virtue” in Machiavelli’s work is fairly loose and vague the Aristotle’s is much more simply demonstrated. “There are three kinds of disposition, then, two of them vices, involving excess and deficiency respectively, and one a virtue, viz. the mean, and
Rusyniak 3 all are in a sense opposed to all; for the extreme states are contrary both to the intermediate state and to each other, and the intermediate to the extremes; as the equal is greater relatively to the less, less relatively to the greater, so the middle states are excessive relatively to the deficiencies, deficient relatively to the excesses, both in passions and in actions” (Aristotle 48) The mean therefore is the virtue. Aristotle goes on to list a good amount of virtues and their extremes, one of the most notable being the virtue of courage. Courage is surrounded by the flaws, rashness and cowardice. There are several other characteristics that define a virtue, or virtuous behavior. It must be habitual as virtue can only be gained by experience. A once high-scoring lucky hand in poker does not make you a virtuoso card player if you lose every other time. To be virtuous one must habitually be prudent, not only appear to be prudent. Fundamentally the approaches to virtue are different because of their different aims and goals. Mutually dependant on their aims is the audience they cater to, the purpose for that audience, and the perspective they can offer. Aristotle’s aim was clearly to find happiness, he barely mentioned rulers nor did he make specific recommendations to them, he therefore could write an idealist work to suit that purpose, assuming humans are generally good. Quite literally on the opposite hand, Machiavelli was (officially) writing to a solitary ruler of Italy. He
therefore assumed the practical realist role, aiming to teach people to rule. For this he made the assumption that all people are innately evil and driven by vice. The chief difference is therefore capitulated by this idea in The Prince: “Hence it is necessary for a prince wishing to hold his own to know how to do wrong, and to make use of it or not according to necessity.” (Machiavelli 48) He alleges that the most horrific crime would be not committing an evil if it would benefit the state as a whole.
Rusyniak 4 Aristotle would easily dismiss the premise of Machiavelli’s work. He would condemn this author as one who indulges his appetite for power (which is not bad in it of itself) to the point where it has control of him. He would say that Machiavelli’s followers could never truly be happy because no matter how much they have they will perpetually want more in order to appease their appetite and secure themselves. In the study of philosophy, however, one cannot simply resign themselves to believing that to authors are hopelessly incompatible. One must reconcile them. Towards the end of his work it can be observed that although for perhaps the wrong reasons (which is strictly against Aristotle’s policy) The Prince recommends generally admirable (good) things. He advises: do not form factions, do not disrespect people who helped you get power, create a good reputation, give rather than receive, do not attempt to regulate economic activities of your subjects and do not confiscate their property, and much more. However, consider this: “If men were entirely good this precept would not hold, but because they are bad, and will not keep faith with you, you too are not bound to observe it with them. Nor will there ever be wanting to a prince legitimate reasons to excuse this nonobservance.” (Machiavelli 54) Truly, finding a more polar opposite in philosophy than Machiavelli and Aristotle would be difficult. Their analysis of virtue is barley similar and yet one would not get a whole picture of philosophy without reading and contemplating them both together. The ambiguity of that word is no doubt the key and manufactured to its survival so that it may live on through the changing world.
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