Why the purpose of a polity is to

Why Strive for the
Ideal Society?

One of the focal points of
classical political philosophy is the search for the optimal political
constitution. A good constitution is not sought for its own sake, rather, a
polity is thought to be instrumental to the good of its citizens. In chapter
XV of The Prince, Machiavelli argues that
“since it is my intent to write something useful to whoever understands
it, it has appeared to me more fitting to go directly to the effectual truth of
things than to the imagination of it. And many have imagined republics and principalities that have never before been
seen”(The Prince, XV). In contrast, Plato and Aristotle argue that the
purpose of a polity is to lead to happiness or “the good life”, St. Augustine
believes it is to gain entrance into the City of God, Cicero’s aim is to
preserve the Republic and live dutifully. Where Machiavelli focuses on things
that can be seen, emphasizing overall success of the state and the attainment
of personal glory, the other philosophers focus on the unseen, with precedence
on the ideas of justice, happiness, and the good life. Thus, the ancient philosophers
would object to Machiavelli’s claim on the basis that he is promoting an
unjust, corrupt constitution lead by a tyrant.

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While obtaining and implementing the optimal
political constitution is not Machiavelli’s primary objective, maintaining a
stable political order and leading one’s country into greatness is a route to
personal glory (Politics 1389a5). Whichever other
characteristics it may or may not possess and whatever aim it serves to achieve
(virtue, happiness, freedom, equality, glory, self-sufficiency, love, reaching
heaven), a state needs to have political stability, and the search for the most
stable political order is precisely what the classical philosophical pursuits
for the best constitution have in common.

Despite the apparent commonalties, Machiavelli is quick to disassociate himself
from his predecessors. While Machiavelli argues in favor of an expedient
polity and the preservation of power, Plato, Aristotle, Cicero, and Augustine
focus on a normative polity, the ideal society, and the state which ought to
be. This is the principle point of tension between Machiavelli and other
philosophers, expediency vs justice and individual good vs the public good.

The primary issue Machiavelli
seems to take with his predecessors is their alleged lack of pragmatism. He was
writing a book for a prince and was thus interested with how one promotes the private
interests of a single individual, not how they would be in an ideal society. As
such Machiavelli discusses the only thing he is concerned with, the terms of
being a ruler and dismisses the ideas of his predecessors as impractical and injurious
for his intended audience. “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…For that reason, let a prince have
the credit of conquering and holding his state, the means will always be
considered honest, and he will be praised by everybody because the vulgar are
always taken by what a thing seems to be and by what comes of it; and in the
world there are only the vulgar, for the few find a place there only when the
many have no ground to rest on” (The Prince, XVIII).

There is no
mention of abstract notions of virtue and justice. Machiavelli views such questions
as unrelated and useless in the practical matters of politics and power relations
relating to a prince. To Machiavelli, all that ultimately matters is political
success which can be achieved equally well by just or unjust means, as acting
how one “ought to act” will lead to the downfall of the prince, and the ends justify
means. “How we live is so different from how we ought to live that he who
studies what ought to be done rather than what is done will learn the way to
his downfall rather than to his preservation” (The Prince XV).

The easiest
objection to Machiavelli’s claim that the cities described by his predecessors are
purely imagined comes from St. Augustine. For, Augustine the separation between
the visible and invisible, material and spiritual is purely religious and the
city of God he describes is the end towards which Christians journey in life. “For
He is the fountain of our happiness, He the end of all our desires… we tend
towards Him by love, that we may rest in Him, and find our blessedness by
attaining that end,” (City of God, X.3) Further, the corrupt constitution
of state and soul that Machiavelli advocates for is in conflict with Augustine’s
core beliefs. For Machiavelli, it is important for a ruler “to learn to be able
not to be good” (The Prince, XV), but for Augustine, “evil has no
positive nature; but the loss of good has received the name evil” (City
of God, XI.9). Augustine describes the devil himself as “good by God’s
creation, wicked by his own will” (City of God, XI.17). For St. Augustine,
the truest and most complete form of being exists only in the city of God; the
earthly city is a mere shadow of the city to come, as such he can claim that
his city of God is not imagined at all but the Christians in the earthly city
should not be concerned with power or pleasure in the present world; he or she
should only hope for the future full realization of the heavenly city.  This humility and hope for the things unseen
are marks of the Christian pilgrimage through the city of man to the city of
God. the time being, the heavenly city is intertwined with the earthly city
where it “calls citizens out of all nations” (City of God, XIX.17)

The principal distinction
pertinent to the accusation that the ideal societies imagined by Plato, Aristotle,
and Cicero, “have never before been seen” is that between public and private
good and the approximation of the ideal society to the current society. This
differentiation is one of the principal building blocks of ancient ethical and
political thought, as it exemplifies the difference between good (desirable,
justified, legitimate) and corrupt constitutions. In
Plato’s Republic book V, Socrates is tasked with
defining justice and creating the ideal society. While Machiavelli argues that focusing
on imagined republics that have never before been seen are a waste of time in
the real world, Plato would counter that in the long-term it is better to
imagine the ideal city and use that to serve as a model were it ever to come
into existence or not (Republic, 472a–472d). He notes that the
point of his ideal city is not necessarily something to strive for, but which
may be used to allow us to judge actual cities and persons based on how well
they approximate to it. (Republic, 472a–472d) Plato analogizes
Machiavelli’s criticism to that of a painter, he aims to show that just because
something appears impossible to attain in reality does not mean that it shouldn’t
be the goal we strive for and gives validity to unseen virtues. Further, Plato
notes that if the imagined city can be imagined then it can be shown how it
would most closely come to be, thus he has proven that the city can in fact
come to be and that all that is left is to determine what is currently preventing
the city from being. He would thus ask Machiavelli, without the ideal city how
are we to judge what form is good and what is bad?

“would he be any the less a good painter, who,
after portraying a pattern of the ideally beautiful man and omitting no touch
required for the perfection of the picture, should not be able to prove that it
is actually possible for such a man to exist…we must do our best to show how
most probably and in what respect these things would be most nearly realized. But
if we can discover how a state might be constituted most nearly answering to
our description, you must say that we have discovered that possibility of
realization which you demanded…Next, it seems, we must try to discover and
point out what it is that is now badly managed in our cities, and that prevents
them from being so governed” (Republic, 472e-473a).

After describing the just
city, Plato brings up the idea that the form of governance is the reason that
his imagined republic has not come to be. Because one of the central
topics of ancient political theory is the pursuit of political stability and
the most often sought solution is designing the optimal form of government, Plato would challenge Machiavelli in so much as
that the ruler of his principality (the prince himself) is the reason that his
imagine republic has never been.

one in any position of authority, to the extent that he is in authority, thinks
about or prescribes what is good for himself, but only what is good for the
person or thing under his authority – for whose benefit he himself exercises
his art or skill. Everything he says, and everything he does, is said or done
with this person or thing in mind, with a view to what is good an appropriate
for the person or thing under his authority (Republic, 342e).

Machiavelli would counter that the differentiation
between acting to one’s own sole benefit and acting with the benefit of others
in mind, is harmful to the well-being of the state, as he believes that there
is an inseparability between the public and private good and that the ends
justify the means (Discourses I, 9).

According to Plato
and Cicero, this is a false dilemma, as no good consequences can come to an
individual who ignores or violates the public good, thus the approximation of
current cities to the ideal city. Cicero believes that harmonious relationships
between social orders, acting dutifully, and their partnership in maintaining a
republic are the best way to promote wellbeing and the stability of the
state (On Duties, 104). Social harmony would prove extremely useful
to a Prince who according to Machiavelli is better off being feared by his
subjects, and would likely fear rebellion himself. (The Prince, XVII) In Cicero’s On Duties, he would further object to Machiavelli’s
belief that his the unseen is worthless in reality by arguing that it is wrong
to believe that any good can come out of an action that is done without honour.

Cicero posits that “what is beneficial can never compete with what is
honourable” and, more directly, that “all men should have this one object, that
the benefit of each individual and the benefit of all together should be the
same (On Duties, 104).  Further, Cicero would dismiss Machiavelli’s
argument for expediency over morality stating

 “The principle with which we are
now dealing is that one which is called Expediency. The usage of this word has
been corrupted and perverted and has gradually come to the point where,
separating moral rectitude from expediency, it is accepted that a thing may be
morally right without being expedient, and expedient without being morally
right. No more pernicious doctrine than this could be introduced into human
life” (On Duties, 178).

As Machiavelli advocates expedient
immoral deeds for the benefit of the Prince and his principality, Plato and Cicero
would claim that Machiavelli’s prince is a tyrant who may use the pretence of
acting expediently for the benefit of the public good to further his own agenda.

Thus, subjecting the public to a corrupt constitution, and that the Prince could
benefit from approximating his principality to the ideal city.

 The Platonist belief of tyranny is in the nature
of the tyrant, as a tyrant is seen as devoid of the very idea of state and man.

Plato and Cicero write of the unseen, they aim to create the most just society
for the benefit of the public. Machiavelli in contrast writes of reality and
expediency for the ruler and the state. “Cesare Borgia was considered a cruel
person; however, his cruelty had mended Romagna, put it together, reduced it to
a peaceful and faithful condition” (The Prince, XVII). For
Machiavelli, the goods a real statesman should pursue are unity of the state,
peace, and obedience inside the state, the recognition of his authority (The
Prince, XVII). In his eyes, rulers who attain these goods are not
“tyrants,” even if they are cruel and immoral. His cynical view of humanity is
similar to the lawless drones of the Republic, he justifies tyranny as
the most expedient, pragmatic manner to control the masses and unify a republic
in peace.

 Aristotle in Politics offers
a further distinction between correct and corrupted forms of government, based
on the same criterion as Plato. Aristotle, like Plato and Cicero would defend
himself from Machiavelli’s argument citing the corrupt constitution argued for
in The Prince. “It is evident, then, that those constitutions that look
to the common benefit turn out, according to what is unqualifiedly just, to be
correct, whereas those which look only to the benefit of the rulers are
mistaken?and are deviations
from the correct constitutions.” (Politics, 1279a15) Machiavelli
posits that the people only have the desire to not be oppressed, thus tyranny
is an accepted form of governance so long as the ruler achieves unity of state,
peace and obedience, so why should one waste their time striving for the
impossible? He believed that a Prince could rule by fear and that a
state was a powerful and stable system of coercion that ruled as a supreme
system over others due to the use of control obtained from fear
“And you have to
understand this, a prince, especially a new one, cannot observe all those
things for which men are esteemed, being often forced, in order to maintain the
state, to act contrary to fidelity, friendship, humanity, and religion. Therefore,
it is necessary for him to have a mind ready to turn itself accordingly as the
winds and variations of fortune force it, yet, as I have said above, not to
diverge from the good if he can avoid doing so, but, if compelled, then to know
how to set about it (The Prince, XVIII).”

In contrast, Aristotle believed
that the state was a community which was ultimately founded on building blocks
of friendship and trust. He believed that the state ultimately represented a
partnership for common good, “a partnership of citizens in a constitution” (Politics,
1276b). In Book III, Aristotle implies that “all must have the virtue of
the good citizen; thus, and thus only, can the state be perfect. They will not
have the virtue of a good man, unless we assume that in the good state all the
citizens must be good” (Politics, 1274b).

As such Aristotle,
Plato and Cicero would respond to Machiavelli’s claim that it is useless to
imagine republics that have never before been seen” as follows: When one thinks
and acts expediently in terms of what is pragmatic, but without considering
what is just, what will benefit the good of the public, and in turn acts
unjustly, the constitution of the state will become corrupt and the state will ultimately


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