For both Aristotle and Machiavelli, virtue or virtu is crucial to politics.
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(For both Aristotle and Machiavelli, virtue or virtu is crucial to politics. Compare and contrast the views of these two thinkers on the subject of virtue/virtu in politics as found in The Nicomachean Ethics and Politics and in The Prince and the Discourses.
For both Aristotle and Machiavelli, virtue or virtu is crucial to politics
How to approach the question: The question in the first instance calls for definitions. As in any essay, clearly defining terms is the first step to formulating a successful (convincing) argument. It is helpful in an essay of this sort to quote from the text(s) to illustrate the terms you are defining. Because the questions ask you to explain the connection between virtue and politics (as seen by the two thinkers), you want to make sure you don’t simply define terms but also show just how Aristotle and Machiavelli connected virtue to the world of politics. Finally, because the question asks you to compare and contrast their views, you have to be prepared to talk about what is common (if anything) between their respective views of virtue and politics and what distinguishes their understanding of the matter.
For Aristotle, virtue or arete refers to the characteristic excellence of man (Aristotle assumes only men are capable of fully developed virtue). Virtue is displayed in actions that are seen to be noble or admirable. Such virtuous actions are described by Aristotle in The Nicomachean Ethics as consisting of a mean: “Virtue…is a state that decides, consisting in a mean, the mean relative to us, which is defined by reference to reason.” Acts that display courage or generosity or modesty are thus virtuous because they are said to lay between the extremes of excess and deficiency in behaviour. However, there is no single set of rules a person must follow to exhibit virtue according to Aristotle. Rather, virtue is something of a relative concept. Virtue is relative to the person who is acting, and to the circumstance in which he finds himself when performing particular acts. At the same time, it is not a wholly relative concept because Aristotle insists that the decision as to what is the appropriate act a person should commit to is something to be determined by practical reason—not what someone feels is right for him. Practical reason is gained through education and experience. Concretely, a person trains himself to become virtuous by continually performing virtuous acts so that the inclination to carry out such acts becomes part of one’s character. Thus, in the final analysis, virtue is a function of character—the predisposition to act virtuously.
Aristotle links virtue to politics through his observation that man is by nature a political animal. Men are naturally suited to live together in a polis, the purpose of which is to make possible the good life. For that reason, the type of political regime one lives in is crucial to whether or not virtuous characters can flourish. The regime best suited to a life of virtue is one where an aristocracy of virtuous men rule. If that is not possible, a second-best regime, a middle-class polity, is practically best, for even if men performing truly noble deeds will be rarer in such a regime, the fact that the majority enjoy only moderate wealth means that they tend to be free from the arrogance that characterizes the rich and the envy that characterizes the poor. Such a middle way is at least conducive to political stability and with political stability, ordinary virtue can still find a home.
Machiavelli’s concept of virtu departs significantly from the Aristotelian conception. Machiavelli talks about virtu in two different contexts: the virtu of a prince who is able to seize and maintain power and the virtu of citizens in a republic. In both cases, virtu is seen as a purely political quality. For a prince, virtu means force, skill, cunning—attributes necessary to succeed in a world where power is the only currency that everyone recognizes. A prince displaying virtu is one who knows how to adapt to necessity and how to use violence effectively and economically. A virtuous prince is one who must be prepared to abandon ordinary moral constraints in order to obtain his objectives. And he must be prepared to challenge whatever bad fortune he confronts. Virtu for a prince means being audacious.
When he speaks of citizen virtu, by contrast, Machiavelli refers primarily to their abiding love of liberty which conditions them to sacrifice their own immediate self-interest in favour of a common good—that common good being securing a political space free of tyranny.
In comparing Aristotle and Machiavelli on virtue, the one thing they hold in common is that both see virtue not as a set of rules but as something exhibited practically in response to concrete circumstances individuals find themselves in. But their differences are far greater. For Aristotle, living a life of virtue is part of living well. Virtue has an unmistakably moral connotation. For Machiavelli, by contrast, virtu is a purely political concept. It is used to describe the attributes needed for success in the world of power politics—success measured, on the one hand, by the ability of a prince to seize and maintain power, and, on the other hand, by the ability of the people to resist tyranny. In neither case does virtu resemble a moral quality of individuals, but rather it is that which allows one to succeed in politics.
On the face of it, the Aristotelian and Machiavellian conceptions of virtue in politics seem to converge when the former discusses the advantages of a polity (a mixed regime) and the latter extols a republic (an institutionalized balancing of the ambitions of the rich and poor). While their political prescriptions may be similar, they are offered for different reasons. Aristotle favours a polity because of the stability it provides which allows for the practice of ordinary virtue. Machiavelli is partial to republics because they are the grounding for liberty which he understands as a political rather than a moral value.)
Link for the book: <link is hidden> /> The questions the writer will be working on:
1. Readers of the Republic frequently complain that in their debate over the nature of justice, Thrasymachus gave up his argument with Socrates too easily. Write an essay on the respective views of Thrasymachus and Socrates on what justice entails. How would you continue Thrasymachus’ argument—that is, how would you advance his argument beyond the point he left it at the end of Book 1 of the dialogue?
2. In Book 2 of the Politics, Aristotle offers a critique of the communal life that Plato suggest the Guardian class must live if justice is to be realized in the ideal city. Write an essay analysing Aristotle’s critique of Plato’s political prescriptions. Do you think that Aristotle misunderstood Plato’s communalism?