Comparative Analysis of Plato and Machiavelli: The Contradictory Visions based on Concordant Characterization of the Common People

Envious but loving, self-centered but courageous, indifferent but fair. The paradox of humanity has not only perplexed social scientists but also shaped the foundation of political theorists’ examination of political institutions and power dynamics. Plato and Niccolò Machiavelli, two of the most influential philosophers who held quite contradictory views are often labeled as a critic and a defender of the common people respectively. This binary concept of “critic” and “defender” implies that the two political theorists have either fundamentally different assessments of the nature of the common people or an antithetic moral framework regarding political affairs in which common people are active actors. Though at first glance one might see nothing in common between Plato’s adamant pursuit of moral goodness and Machiavelli’s blatant rationalization of using violence, a closer look reveals that the two agree on many qualities of the common people. However, their aims for political theorizing shaped by different moral frameworks result in conflicting models of the ideal political society. Plato contends the natural tendencies of the common people hinder the pursuit of justice and must be guided and molded to achieve the ideal city of harmony, slamming democracy as the precursor of anarchy and the origin of disorders. Although Machiavelli also warns against the danger of the democratic state consisting of corrupted members, he argues that the populace can become valuable assets to the establishment of a strong and sustainable state through princely guidance. 

Plato v. Machiavelli

Plato proposes that each individual soul consists of three competing parts: 1) the rational, 2) the spirited, and 3) the appetitive and passionate. Among the three, he asserts, rationality should dominate because it gets one closer to achieving true happiness than the other two. In effect, due to different personalities, experiences, and upbringing, most people are governed by the spirited and appetitive parts of the soul. The former fuels the desire for honor and reputation while the latter evokes greed for wealth and sensual pleasures (Plato, IV.439d-441e). When either of these two parts of the soul is in charge, people’s perception of goodness and happiness is distorted. They seek “pleasures of drink, sex, and food” (III.389d–e). When the masses mistake those delusions for true happiness, they feel insatiable and constantly compete to further indulge in those corruptive sensations. The way out, according to Plato is to let the rational part of the soul suppress the misleading emotions and corrupting passions. 

Machiavelli does not object to this categorization of the human soul. He points out that “men never do anything that is good except when forced to” (The Discourses, chapter 3, pp.93). The “good” refers to things that are beneficial to others without simultaneously benefitting the doer. In other words, Machiavelli believes that men are not natural philanthropists because people are motivated by passion and desire, which are innately biased and self-serving. Yet, this is not to say that people are beasts that only care about the most basic levels of pleasure. Rather, Machiavelli argues that “it is in men’s nature to feel as obliged by the good they do to others, as by the good others do to them” (The Prince, Chapter 10, pp.35). This demonstrates an innate sense of justice and moral responsibility to act in fairness. Machiavelli paints a picture of humans being capable of using brutal and violent means but also adhering to the moral obligation of reciprocating kindness and benefits. Recognizing both the feral, rapacious desires and moral senses of the people, Machiavelli agrees with Plato’s depiction of humanity. Though the latter expresses tangible despise towards passion while the former appears relatively neutral, both recognize that appetitive and rational characteristics shape human behaviors. 

If Plato and Machiavelli agree on this foundation of political theorizing, why are their perceptions of an ideal society so different? A possible answer rests in their contradictory aims for creating a political society based on characterizations of the citizenry. 

For Plato, the political society is a human construct aimed at purifying citizens of the corrupting and irrational parts of themselves so that they can realize and play their teleological role in a harmonious society. Let’s analyze this vision in two parts: First, individuals are to be placed in different classes and assigned to a job that corresponds to ultimate personal causes, also known as the telo. Plato categorizes individuals into bronze, silver, and gold. When one is “born with a mixture of iron or bronze,” the parents are obligated to “assign him an honor appropriate to his nature and drive him out to join the craftsmen or the farmers” (III.415b 6). Therefore, iron and bronze symbolize qualification for basic, menial labor tasks. When a “mixture of gold or silver” is found in a person, he or she will “join the guardians or the auxiliaries” (Plato, III.415 b6-c5) to take on greater responsibility because gold and silver correspond to physical and intellectual superiority. As such, a hierarchical system is constructed, where all citizens do what they are best at and live peacefully with each other. On the top of this pyramid is the philosopher king, who is made up of pure gold and is the most honorable. This power dynamic lays the foundation for the second part of Plato’s vision, which is that all sources of conflict are detrimental to the ideal city and must be eliminated.

To achieve this harmony, the elites and the common people live in a one-way repressive manner. Plato argues that all laws must serve the goal of “harmonizing the citizens together through persuasion or compulsion, and making them share with each other the benefit they can confer on the community” (Plato, VII.519e). The guardians and auxiliaries, who are considered elites, carry out the “persuasion or compulsion” by both protecting and restraining the common people by combating both internal and external threats. On one hand, when some members of society, either aspiring for wealth or frame or striving for a life beyond which their virtues qualify, they break the fundamental principle of the ideal city. Under the hierarchy, the common people must never challenge the guards and auxiliaries because their role as farmers and craftsman define all they should and can do. When one crosses the line, the guards intervene. On the other hand, when the people are attacked by foreign nations, the guardians take on arms and defend them from any attempts of invasion and usurpation. Yet, one must recognize that the guards are not freer than the common people in any sense. Both the common people and the guardians are raised under a beneficial and just form of coercion, namely education (Plato, II.377-379). Plato argues that people must be raised in an environment meticulously constructed to prevent them from developing false understanding and pursuit of happiness rooted in wealth and reputation and from developing a “very casual attitude to evil” (III.392a). In this effort to achieve a harmonious society, common people passively experience state censorship on publications and restrictions, if not appropriation, of private property (III.416-417). Through the hierarchy based on predetermined virtues, Plato positions the guards and the masses into an incompatible populace-versus-elite relation, in which the guards wield authority over the “bronze” population.

Machiavelli, in contrast, disagrees that finding one’s place in a harmonious society is the path to a better, happy life. The lack of acknowledgment of the Medieval model of peaceful and perfect social order demonstrates Machiavelli’s assumption that humans can never live together conflict-free. The inevitability of conflict is made clear when he claimed that the elites and the populace have “two irreconcilable ambitions”: the former’s temptation to oppress the populace and the latter’s resistance to such oppression and constraints on their liberty (The Prince, chapter 9, pp.31). The solution to managing the two irreconcilable groups is the exercise of prudence and virtù in statecrafts. According to Machiavelli, the art of princedom or any other form of political authority consists of the wise exercise of virtù, which is the strategic skills, courage, and vigor that allows one to maintain public support and keep a counterforce between the elites and common people (The Prince, chapter 6, pp.18). However, the inevitable conflicts do not bother Machiavelli because he perceives them as essential to the maintenance of a sustainable republic. He applauds the tension between the populace and the elites engendered by hostility and suspicion for two reasons. First, the oppression of the people reminds them to assert their political rights, so the masses influence the policymaking process to pass laws that protect liberty rather than serve private interests. Second, the conflicts invigorate the republican morale among the people as the struggles demonstrate the constantly lurking danger of exploitive oligarchy. Machiavelli sees the importance of establishing an institutional framework that keeps all parties of the state in check to resist the decay of human society. Conflicts, he believes, help ameliorate, if not prevent, the tendency of citizens to become corrupted and evil. Unlike Plato’s attempt to stifle the ambition of common people through censorship and sugarcoated, extensive coercion to prevent conflicts, Machiavelli recognizes and makes use of the populace’s active political and social involvement against the elites. 

The different dynamics between the elites and common people directly impact the regime that the two political theorists envision. The issue Plato has with tyranny stems from the condition in which tyranny emerges and sustains. Plato reasons that the most egregious tyranny arises in a city in which the majority of the people commit evils such as “steal, break into houses, snatch purses, steal clothes, rob temples, and kidnap people” and “bear false witness and accept bribes” (IX.575b). As they do so to fulfill their desire for wealth, pleasures, and honor, they willingly submit to the “most tyrannical” man and equip him with the greatest power. Therefore, the emergence and maintenance of tyranny mean the population let the appetitive part of the soul dominate the reason, which makes them incapable of realizing their rightful place in society. As the populace repeatedly inflicts harm on each other for their worldly goals, the city falls into a state of disorder and lawlessness. This is the farthest from the harmonious, just society Plato aims for.

For Machiavelli, to organize a huge population of people motivated by self-interests and who are not yet capable of making wise decisions, unconventional means that serve a moral cause are necessary and justifiable. In order to manage such a dynamic and intractable populace at the initial stage of the Republic to establish order in a state of chaos, one person must assemble sufficient power and authority because an assembly of people cannot act decisively or collectively (The Discourse, chapter 9, pp.108). This would be impossible through benign and civil means. Rather, a wise prince employing “well-used cruelty… in order to secure one’s power, and are then not repeated” will “ensure one’s subjects benefit in the long run” (The Prince, chapter 8, pp.30). Here, Machiavelli argues that cruelty and violence are necessary to secure power, but unfettered abuse should be avoided. He reasons that individuals can be driven by the thirst for power to rise as tyrants but simultaneously not fall prey to the temptation of recklessly exploiting the citizens and confiscating all private properties. Rather, the prince exercises prudence to tactically eradicate dangers to the formation of a state in an efficient manner to then establish a favorable image to the populace. Yes, he or she wants money, power, and reputation, but to keep those in one’s hand, the prince must obtain public support by helping the citizens achieve their personal pursuits in the long run. Contending that well-used cruelty by a single actor helps create a stable republic that makes all better off in their pursuit of personal goals, Machiavelli finds no reason to criticize a wise princely rule. Though the preservation of the state requires actors such as advisors and consultants in the political process, the one-man rule is justified during the emergence of a Republic (The Discourse, chapter 9, pp.108). In short, the use of cruelty for Machiavelli is an intermediate and temporary step toward a long-lasting state rather than an intrinsic, constant feature of tyranny that engenders destructive lawlessness envisioned by Plato; thereby, the rule by an individual through violent tactics is promoted by the former but rejected by the latter. 

One might perceive The Republic as a work of pessimistic idealism while deeming The Prince and The Discourses as deeply rooted in historical evidence and pragmatism. Yet, they are not so different when one examines their fundamental assumption of the common people, and their crucial role in the political system. Though sharing some basic understandings, Plato and Machiavelli developed contradictory moral frameworks and visions of the ideal human society shaped by their experiences of the specific period of civilization development and political turmoil. Thus, while studying Plato’s and Machiavelli’s inspiring takes on humanity and society, it is important to evaluate them in the historical context to better understand the formation of underlying assumptions and the arguments that derive from them.  

Works Cited

  • Plato, The Republic, transl. G.M.A. Grube (Hackett Publishing Company, 1997)
  • Machiavelli, The Prince Selections from The Discourses Letter to Vettori, transl. David Wootton, (Hackett Publishing, 1994)

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