Machiavelli, Aristotole, and Democratic Elitism
Aristotle, the Greek philosopher lived and wrote his discourse on ‘Politics’ around 350 B.C. while the Florentine Machiavelli’s ‘Discourses on Titus Livy’ was published posthumously in A.D. 1531. Aristotle enjoys an established position in the field of ethics, politics, metaphysics, and he ‘formulated the field of natural philosophy by summarising what the natural philosophers before him had considered relevant…. He is the creator of modern scientific terminology who founded and classified the various sciences extant today’ (Jayasinghe 2009). That Machiavelli’s reputation is somewhat more controversial can be ascertained from the dictionary definitions of the word ‘Machiavellian’. The Shorter Oxford Dictionary begins straightforwardly enough with the definition of ‘Machiavellian’ as a noun: ‘A person who adopts the principles recommended by Machiavelli in his treatise on statecraft’; and then, as an adjective: ‘of, pertaining to, or characteristic of Machiavelli or his principles, adopting unscrupulous methods; duplicitous, deceitful, cunning, scheming’. Our contention is that the latter explanation, although accepted over a along period of time by popular use, is a misconception of the valid and influential contributions that Machiavelli made to political theory and practice.
Although chronologically more recent than Aristotle, this essay purports to begin by discussing the impact of Machiavelli on political thought and statecraft, especially his contribution to the modern concept of ‘democratic elitism’ followed by a discussion of Aristotle’s contribution to the field, especially his central and influential concept of ‘polity’ as a precursor to democratic elitism.
Machiavelli gained a reputation and a following for his contributions to political theory, while he also contributed to the principles of warfare, literature, history and diplomacy. His negative reputation rests on his very first work, written in 1513 but published posthumously in 1532, ‘The Prince’. As a realist and pragmatist Machiavelli discounted the common view held by political philosophers that moral goodness was the basis for political power, giving legitimacy for the exercise of authority. From first hand experience as the Second Chancellor of the Republic of Florence before the Medici regained power in 1512, Machiavelli saw that the only real concern of a ruler was to acquire and maintain power with no regard to the moral dimension which he saw as completely irrelevant to statecraft.
For Machiavelli, force of arms is the only legitimising instrument and the foundation of a well-ordered political system. Political authority and legitimacy is built upon force or the threat of force and not always upon established principles to which all citizens pay homage to. Machiavelli described people in general as being ‘ungrateful, disloyal, insincere and deceitful, timid of danger and avid of profit’ (Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy, 2005; 2009). Subjects obey the laws of the state because of fear of the superior power of the state. He bases his arguments on the self-interest of the majority of individuals who do not, in practice, subscribe to moral injunctions unless forced by fear of consequences. Here we find the basis of Machiavelli’s idealisation of the ‘prince’ as against the passive, indolent and ignorant ‘people’.
What political thinkers who came after Machiavelli termed ‘democratic elitism’ (Bachrach 1967) had its origin directly in Machiavelli’s vision of the requirements for attaining and holding political power, although not everybody subscribes to this view. The concept he developed was termed ‘virtu’, not the same as the English word ‘virtue’ with connotations of moral uprightness. To Machiavelli, who held pagan beliefs, Christian virtues of humility, piety and submission to God’s will, were not the ideal, but heroism, manliness, force of character, and conquest, were. What Machiavelli means by ‘virtu’ is…’the range of personal qualities that the prince will find necessary to acquire in order to “maintain his state” and to “achieve great things,” the two standard markers of power for him’ (op.cit.). According to Machiavelli, the ruler must adopt a “flexible disposition” where he varies ‘her/his conduct from good to evil and back again “as fortune and circumstances dictate”(op.cit.). Machiavelli has also postulated another central concept in ‘Fortuna’, as the irrational, malevolent, ultimate threat to the safety and security of the state. However, if ‘virtu’ and wisdom of the ruler is equal to it, Fortuna may be mastered at least to some extent, if not totally. What Machiavelli means, according to some commentator, is that in times of trouble the ruler needs to take drastic, even violent action to restore stability.
‘Machiavelli lays claim to the mantle of the founder of “modern” political science, in contrast with Aristotle’s classical norm-laden vision of a political science of virtue’ (op.cit.). Those politicians who considered Machiavelli to be an ally expounded the doctrine of ‘reason of state’ for actions that strayed from accepted codes of right and wrong (Viroli 1992). This current view of Machiavelli is in sharp contrast to how he was denounced in the 16th century as ‘an apostle of the Devil’ (op. cit). However, Machiavelli never advocated evil for its own sake; it was to be merely an instrument of power, which was neutral as far as conventional morality was concerned. There was also another view originated by Rousseau that Machiavelli was a satirist and was merely exposing the immorality of most rulers. However, all things being equal, Machiavelli preferred conformity to moral virtue and not to its opposite.
The advocates of ‘reason of state’ who argue for state absolutism, argue that the good of the state takes precedence over all other considerations, but is not supported by Machiavelli himself. To him the state was a ‘personal patrimony’ almost synonymous with ‘private property’. Allied to the concept of ‘virtu’, which equates to individual initiative, skill, talent and strength of the ruler, this shows that the ‘reason of state’ idea cannot be directly attributed to Machiavelli. ‘Machiavelli is at best a transitional figure in the process by which the language of the state emerged in early modern Europe’. The idea of a stable constitutional regime that reflects the tenor of modern political thought (and practice) is nowhere seen in Machiavelli’s conception of princely government’ (Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy, 2005;2009).
Republicanism, to which Machiavelli attaches the most importance, dissociates politics from the religious and moral order. Machiavelli is said to be the first modern writer to point out that that there was no natural god-given framework to political life. Rather it was the task of politics to create order in the world. In the ‘Discourses’ Machiavelli refers to the French monarchy and the system of government approvingly. However, to him it was a minimal constitutional order in which people live securely (vivere sicuro), but not in freedom (vivere libero). The French government was strong, and held in check the aspirations of both the nobility and the common people. According to Machiavelli, the goal of political order is the freedom created by the active participation and contention between the nobility and the people. While the common people formed the democratic foundation by consent freely given, the nobility ruled, as is fitting for the elite. This then, was the foundation of the more modern concept of democratic elitism.
Machiavelli recognised the importance of laws and orders made by ‘Parlement’ in Paris, which provided the checks and balances that kept the monarch and the nobles from exercising arbitrary power. However, security alone was not enough, to truly guarantee freedom or liberty to the entire nation. Only in a republic would both aspects of political freedom take root. The French government, because it seeks security rather than liberty has needed to disarm the populace. Machiavelli believed that an armed citizen militia was the only guarantee against the tyranny from within, or from an external aggressor. Another facet that Machiavelli stressed in democratic elitism was that both the nobility and the ‘plebs’ take an active part in governing themselves. They may often clash, but this (‘the tumults’) is to be expected. In Machiavelli’s own words… ‘they do not realise that in every republic there are two different dispositions, that of the people and that of the great men, and that all legislation favouring liberty is brought about by their dissension’ (Machiavelli, 1965).
For Machiavelli, the elite are opinion-makers. He set great store in the ‘rhetorical’ character of his republicanism. Leaders are identified in open, public debate and this is a cornerstone in the concept of democratic elitism.
Aristotle’s ‘Politics’ is a polemic on political philosophy. To a certain extent he had been influenced by his teacher Plato, but whereas Plato was a grand theorist pure and simple, Aristotle’s writings reveal him to be of a more grounded and empirical turn of mind. Although influenced by his teacher to some degree Aristotle breaks new ground in his exploration of political philosophy.
Aristotle explores the concept of a political community (‘koinonia politike’). He deals with the organisation of the household with the male as the head and then women, children and slaves, in that order and their relationship to each other. The male, as husband, father and master, is the central political unit of the household. The ‘natural’ hierarchies in a state are thus recognised from the beginning. He then deals with ‘wealth-getting, outlining practices he calls natural and unnatural forms of trade. He expresses some views which may be seen as quite unacceptable in today’s world. ‘…the male is by nature superior, and the female inferior; and the one rules and the other is ruled; this principle of necessity extends to all mankind.’ It is clear, then, that some men are by nature free and others slaves, and for these latter slavery is both expedient and right’ (The Internet Classics Archive: Politics by Aristotle). However, his beneficent view of this ‘natural’ order of things is revealed in:
The abuse of this authority is injurious to both; for the interest of part and whole, of body and soul, are the same, and the slave is part of the master, a living but separated part of his bodily frame. Hence, where the relation of master and slave between them is natural they are friends and have a common interest, but where it rests on law and force the reverse is true.
Aristotle goes on to describe various forms of household management and various means of earning a livelihood. After discussing the moral virtues of slaves and freemen, Aristotle goes on to assert that a ruler must have ‘moral virtue to perfection, for his function taken absolutely, demands a master artificer, and rational principle is such an artificer…'(op. cit.). This is in marked opposition to the Machiavellian position.
The word ‘democracy’ carried negative connotations for Aristotle. His ideal form of constitutional government was the ‘Polity (politeia)’, an amalgamation of the best of aristocracy and democracy. While Plato advocated rule solely by the ‘philosopher king’, Aristotle explored several forms of rule extant in the real world. He discovered monarchy, with only one head of state, which could degenerate into tyranny. Aristocracy, rule by a few, is another viable constitutional form. This can degenerate into an oligarchy, a junta. A democracy could also degenerate into mob rule. Aristotle condemns an ‘extreme from of democracy’ where the assembled mass of people fall victim to the exhortations of a demagogue and sets themselves above the law with dire consequences. For Aristotle, ‘polity’ as a mixed and balanced form of government is exemplified by his advocacy of the ‘golden mean’ in all things. Polity was a healthy mixture of the elite and the masses in a mutually sustaining arrangement. This surely was a precursor of a sort, to the modern concept of democratic elitism. For Aristotle it didn’t really matter whether the city-state was governed by the one, the few, or the many, what he was concerned with was whether each of these forms of government ruled in the interest of the state, or of themselves.
Polity is defined as the rule of the constitutional majority under the law in the interest of the whole state. In keeping with his admiration for the ‘golden mean’ Aristotle also favoured the growth of the middle-classes who are neither very rich nor poor.
For this degree of wealth is the readiest to obey reason… Hence the latter class (the poor) do not know how to govern but know how to submit to government of a servile kind, while the former class (the rich) only know how to govern in the manner of a master. The result is a state consisting of slaves and masters, not of free men, and of one class envious and another contemptuous of their fellows….. But surely the ideal of the state is to consist as much as possible of persons that are equal and alike, and this similarity is found in the middle classes…
Aristotle recognised the best ‘law-givers’ as coming from the middle class. He cites Solon, who was called upon to frame laws and a constitution for Athens. He is said to have put an end to an oligarchy to establish the original Athenian democracy. Aristotle found Solon to have established in Athens a democracy which operated under constitutional law and the result of a good mixture of political elements. Whereas Plato and Socrates had bowed down to the expert opinion in all matters, Aristotle saw in Solon’s achievement the soundness of the judgment of the majority, at least in constitutional matters.
Among the practical recommendations that Aristotle made to balance the contribution of the rich, and the not so rich within the state, he advocated fines for the rich if they did not attend public meetings, or sit in courts of law, with payment to the poor, to enable them to attend the meetings and take part in legal proceedings. He specifies the ownership of property qualification should be high for the rich and moderate for the poor. A commentator concludes that Aristotle’s’ ideal was the ‘expression of finding the mean in political matters and thus creating a more durable political association capable of securing the means for the cultivation of ethical and intellectual virtues as applied to the good life of the citizen’.
With the emergence of China as an economic superpower, and the liberal democracies of the West struggling to make ends meet, questions are beginning to be asked whether, or what kind of, Machiavellian solution may bring stability to the current chaotic world order.