Virtue Surmounts Deception
Several of the most famous stories told to young children were Aesop’s fables, creative stories designed to teach valuable life lessons. One of the most memorable to me was the fable about the lion that spared a mouse’s life and was later rescued by the mouse. Skeptical that this miniscule creature would ever be able to do something for him, the lion’s pride in his size and strength almost blinded him from displaying kindness. This tale particularly resonates in my mind because it teaches the moral that kindness and virtue are never wasted. Machiavelli’s controversial treatise, The Prince, offers a method of rule through fear. His cynical perspective of human nature causes him to lose faith and trust in others. He fails to acknowledge humans as relational beings, so his methods prove to be only temporarily effective. In contrast, understanding and exemplifying Aristotle’s definition of true virtue in his Nicomachean Ethics will bring reverence, love, and happiness to a leader. Therefore, the community will thrive when that individual believes in the common good and genuinely cares for others. Because love ultimately surpasses fear, in comparison to Machiavelli’s cynicism and skepticism, Aristotle’s beliefs about virtue would provide a better guide for achieving long term success. Firstly, I will discuss Machiavelli’s and Aristotle’s contrasting views of human nature and virtue. Next, I will argue for the effectiveness of Aristotle’s advice in comparison to Machiavelli’s fear tactics and provide hypothetical examples. Lastly, I will argue for how virtue brings long term success for both individuals and communities.
“If you have to destroy those who can or might hurt you, revamp old laws with new measures, be severe and indulgent, magnanimous and liberal, disband old armies and replace them with new, meanwhile managing your relations with other princes and kings in such a way that they will be glad to help you and cautious about harming you.” Throughout the treatise, Machiavelli demonstrates his cynicism and little faith in human nature. Because he believes that everyone possesses evil intentions, he distrusts and dislikes other, merely forming relationships that promote personal gain. Cynicism causes individuals to constantly feel insecure and anxious, possibly leading them to make rash decisions based on emotion. Because there is a constant fear of failure, people may act on every minor suspicion or doubt about a person’s loyalty. These types of people essentially cannot form meaningful relationships with others besides friendships of utility that are lost when services are no longer being provided. Obsession with power can consume the individual so that his or her most important goal is to maintain power instead of caring for those he or she is ruling over. Showing little control, these individuals may act on anger, causing something that may actually leads to their downfall. If people are willing to provide assistance to their neighbors out of pure selflessness instead of obligation, a well-functioning society can develop. This is because everyone can contribute their efforts to enhancing the standard of living. The polar opposite of Machiavelli, Aristotle believes humans can achieve true virtue as long as they possess a willing and open heart. Rather than believing that people always intend to commit evil, he views virtue is a cycle and “by abstaining from pleasures, we become self-controlled, and once we are self-controlled, we are best able to abstain from pleasures.” (36) One of the most key factors to a successful leader according to Machiavelli is cunningness, or the ability to deliberate well and choose best the means to what is evil but humanly attainable. Demonstrating his complete lack of sympathy for others, this informs leaders that methods are negligible as long as the end goal is achieved. However, Aristotle emphasizes the art of prudence, or deliberating well and choosing best the means to what is good and is humanly attainable. The people striving to do as much good as possible can become a source of light and hope for those who may never have experienced virtuous love or friendship. Spreading goodwill can induce gratuity in people so that a domino effect occurs and they become driven to help others. Additionally, people are not as inherently evil as Machiavelli believes, although they may sometimes lean towards evil because of temptations. By believing that people are and will always continue to be sinful and malevolent demonstrates a lack of hope in society. In contrast, if there is faith in human nature, communities can strive to better themselves and aid others. If people are willing to provide assistance to their neighbors out of pure selflessness instead of obligation, a well-functioning society can develop. This is because everyone can contribute their efforts to enhancing the standard of living.
“People are less concerned with offending a man who makes himself loved than one who makes himself feared: the reason is that love is a link of obligation which men, because they are rotten, will break any time they think doing so serves their advantage; but fear involves dread of punishment, from which they can never escape.” One of the most notable arguments in The Prince is Machiavelli’s discussion of utilizing cruelty and fear tactics to rule. Completely disregarding the long-term effects of deception and harm, he possesses a narrow-minded perspective about maintaining power. He only realizes the immediate effects of fear and does not consider any of the consequences of his suggestions. He is absolutely concerned with how people are instantly affected and disregards the important fact that fear breeds hatred. While his treatise may set an individual up for immediate success, that success will be interim and eventually there will be a loss of power. Fear seems effective at first because initially, no one possesses the courage to act. However, after people realize that everyone else bears the same sentiment, confidence becomes restored through numbers. This mutual defiance is extremely dangerous because those who are supposedly loyal may conspire against their leader and formulate plans for an uprising. Revolts are damaging to the state or whatever is being protested and the reputation of the leader is permanently stained. Punishing an individual with extreme cruelty is also ineffective because it only breeds more fear rather than loyalty. For example, consider a situation in which an employee in a large company fails to fulfill his or her duties or responsibilities to that company. Firing that employee to demonstrate that there is a “zero-tolerance” policy will only breed more resentment among the other employees and create an increasingly hostile environment. There is no admiration for the boss, and the employees are apathetic about their responsibilities. This means neither the company nor the boss is benefitted. The workers will be reluctant to work for the individual in charge or do anything that could benefit the company outside their immediate jobs. Only concerned for their own security, they would be willing to overthrow their boss if the opportunity is presented. Fear constantly needs to be renewed because the effects are temporary, but when a leader is loved, that love can grow with time. In complete contrast to deception and fear, love causes people to serve their leaders out of admiration. Becoming a figure of reverence, those around that individual will possess a willing heart for service and may genuinely desire to act in a way that benefits their leader. For example, good parenting requires teaching young children to exhibit virtue instead of deceit and cruel punishment through fear. It is crucial that evil is not ignored because children must be exposed to both sin and goodness. Additionally, it is the parents’ responsibility to emphasize virtue so the children will choose to do good. Parents must demonstrate love to their children so that they strive to please rather than disappoint their parents. Fear merely breeds resentment in the children so that they grow older to develop a rebellious nature. Teaching and instilling virtue into young minds also creates new generations of compassionate, cooperative, and effective communicators. Without this virtue, no one would believe in morality and the world would be chaotic due to self-indulgence. Hope for moral progress in society would be lost, thus increasing cynicism, which is never favorable.
“For fortune does not determine whether we fare well or ill, but is, as we said, merely an accessory to human life…the higher the virtuous activities, the more durable they are, because men who are supremely happy spend their lives in these activities most intensely and most continuously, and this seems to be the reason why such activities cannot be forgotten.” Machiavelli’s thirst for power is evident through his idea that power guarantees happiness. Claiming that a person’s innermost desires can be achieved through the acquisition of power, he believes love is overvalued and “men are quicker to forget the death of a father than the loss of a patrimony.” Believing that the effects of confiscating property exceeds those of losing a loved one, Machiavelli portrays his own sentiments towards relationships. He does not realize that people are capable of loving others for reasons other than the fortune or profit they may receive. This is the exact reason why he advocates the exploitation of men. Machiavelli emphasizes materialistic fulfillment that ultimately does not satisfy the void that is filled by human companionship. However, Aristotle’s advice can bring a genuine happiness, as his views lead to a life with much less regret. When an individual strives to do good for the community, he or she is more self-content. A life of hatred and deceit can cause a bitterness and constant dissatisfaction that ultimately can never be solved by any amount of material wealth. In contrast, virtue increases an individual’s capacity to love and spread this love to others. Virtue can induce an individual to serve the community because happiness, friendship, and kindness generates generosity and compassion. Similar to the cycle that leads to self-control, this, in turn, causes the community to feel a sense of adornment towards that individual. When the community demonstrates its appreciation towards that person, he or she becomes increasingly virtuous and content, so the cycle repeats. In the long run, people who are content will continue to be satisfied and possibly become increasingly happy as time passes. In addition, this virtue creates a sense of responsibility instead of an obsession with maintaining personal power. Individuals will feel that it is their duty to serve the interests of those they are ruling over and ensure that they are informed of everything that is occurring. This leads to active involvement in public events, which assures citizens of the considerate nature of their leader. When the people are aware that their problems are being attended to, trust is established and there is no desire for an uprising.
An extremely important aspect that Machiavelli failed to recognize in The Prince was that humans are relational beings that require love and companionship to thrive. The bonds we form with others establish a sense of belonging and acceptance. Sometimes sharing valuable memories and moments with others can help us discover our own identity and purpose in life. Humans are meant to live as a community instead of merely coexisting, so every encounter is valuable. Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics provides meaningful and insightful advice that can help us establish virtuous relationships with others. It is important that the friendships we create are those that allow the participants in the relationship to grow and mature. Strive to accomplish goals that serve the common good and be a bright light to a world that is noticeably forgetting the true meaning of virtue.
 Machiavelli, Niccolò, The Prince 2nd ed. Norton Critical Editions, translated and edited by Robert M. Adams (New York, NY: W. W. Norton & Company, Inc., 1992), 23.
 Harrington, Barbara, “Aristotle on Friendship” presented at the HON 101 lecture (Azusa, CA, Azusa Pacific University, October 10, 2016).
 Weeks, David, “The Art of Imprudence,” presented at the HON 101 lecture (Azusa, CA, Azusa Pacific University, October 3, 2016).
 Machiavelli, 46.
 Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, translated with an Introduction and Notes by Martin Oswald, Library of Liberal Arts (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1962), 25.
 Machiavelli, 46.
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