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A longstanding debate in human history is what to do with power and what is the best way to rule. Who should have power, how should one rule, and what its purpose should government serve have always been questions at the fore in civilization, and more than once have sparked controversy and conflict. The essential elements of rule have placed the human need for order and structure against the human desire for freedom, and compromising between the two has never been easy. It is a question that is still considered and argued to this day. However, the argument has not rested solely with military powers or politicians, but philosophers as well. Two prominent voices in this debate are Plato and Machiavelli, both of whom had very different ideas of government’s role in the lives of its people. For Plato, the essential service of government is to allow its citizens to live in their proper places and to do the things that they are best at. In short, Plato’s government reinforces the need for order while giving the illusion of freedom. On the other hand, Machiavelli proposes that government’s primary concern is to remain intact, thereby preserving stability for the people who live under it. The feature that both philosophers share is that they attempt to compromise between stability and freedom, and in the process admit that neither can be totally had.
Plato’s philosophy of government sees the State as a larger version of the individual, and the soul of an individual is comprised of three parts. Plato states that these three parts include the appetite, the spirit, and reason (167), and these parts have goals and desires that pertain only to them. For example, reason finds fulfillment in the study of the Forms, or ultimate beauty, which can only be understood through the intellect. The spirit finds expression in emotional terms, such as anger, joy, and sadness. The appetite is concerned with the pursuit of bodily pleasure. This aspect of the soul is satisfied only by the creature comforts such as food, sex, and drink (167). These three divisions are found in the individual, but in varying degrees. Some will lean more towards the appetite, while other are spirit-driven, and still others find greater fulfillment through the intellectual pursuits of reason (168). Plato clearly favors the reason in his three part soul, since it is with reason that one can grasp the Forms, which themselves are the ultimate in beauty and truth.
To this end, the State, like the individual, has three parts that correspond to the parts of the individual soul. The “lowest” of the parts is the appetite, which is comprised of the common people. These would be craftsmen, laborers, and farmers who perform the menial tasks essential to the functioning of the State. Those who make up this part of the State are best left to their own devices, to enjoy and pursue physical and material pleasures, because they are not capable of grasping the Forms. The second tier, the spirit, would be comprised of soldiers. It is the soldiers who have a slight understanding of the Forms, but not enough of one to allow reason to dictate their actions. Soldiers fight to the death to defend the State because of their emotional ties to it. In fact, Plato proposes that the government raise children, thereby making the State a common “mother” to all (78). Finally, reason comprises the highest part of the state, and it is from here that philosophers and rulers emerge. These are the individuals who are not interested in physical pleasures or emotional bonds. Rulers and philosophers are occupied with the study of the Forms because they can most readily grasp them. This understanding of the ultimate good allows for the existence of philosopher-kings and philosopher-queens, who can rule over the spirit and the appetite and ensure that the State remains in its proper working order.
Plato’s view of proper government contains divisions which can be seen a sort of classism. Each individual is born into a particular part, or class, within the State, and it is in that part that he or she will reside for life. To emphasize the point, Plato puts forth the story that humans are born with iron, bronze, silver, or gold within their souls. Gold is mixed into the souls of philosophers and rulers, silver in the souls of soldiers, and iron and bronze in the souls of farmers and craftsmen (79). To ensure that the lower class does not aspire to rule, or that the rulers are not lured into the physical/material pleasures of the appetite, Plato states in his story that the “most important command from the god to the rulers is that there is nothing that they must guard better or watch more carefully than the mixture of metals in the souls of the next generation” (79). If each person realizes what his or her place according to the metal in his or her soul, then there will be no revolution by the masses or takeover by the soldiers. All will know their proper places and be content in them, and the government will function in harmony.
Machiavelli proposes a philosophy of rule that is somewhat similar to Plato in spirit, but is very much different in action. His key concern is stability of the government. A stable government is one that has the best chance to endure, and to keep the populace happy. A stable government also serves the best interests of the people who live under it. To this end, he suggests that a ruler guards against being “generally hated” by her or his subjects (p. 453). In addition, Machiavelli deems it wise for a ruler to live among his or her subjects (p. 429), in essence to know who they are and what they want from their government. Where Machiavelli and Plato seem to agree is that if one keeps the general populace happy, then there will be no major problems or threats to the government. However, where Plato specified that only certain types of individuals were capable of becoming rulers, Machiavelli states that anyone with the drive to take power and the means can do it (p. 438).
One of the keys to acquiring power and keeping it is to have the support of those that one will be ruling. If a people are generally happy with their government, they will not be very likely to submit to a new mode of rule, or a new ruler. In this vein, Machiavelli suggests that those who “inherit” their power (as in the families that rule states over a long period) have a much easier time of keeping it. The memories that the population has of the ruler’s family will be favorable ones, provided that the ruling family has treated its subjects well in the past. This will obviously favor the newly crowned king or queen that is the “next in line” for rule, since he or she has no need to assert power through forceful action against the people (p. 423). Here is the effect of stable government, where the populace has no fear of a new or harsher ruler coming to power because they have familiarity with the ruling family. In instances where one comes to power through hostile force, though, the job of keeping power is much more difficult. The government has already been thrown into instability because it has been toppled, and the people who formerly lived under it will most likely be resistant to the change.
By no means does Machiavelli believe that government is never established through hostile means. In fact, he prescribes three methods by which a ruler who seizes power can maintain it after such actions. The ruler can 1) lay the city to waste; 2) live in the city and among the people he or she will be ruling; 3) create an elite class that will remain loyal to the ruler while allowing the populace to continue living under their old laws (p. 429). Once again, the underlying issue is the stability of the government. Machiavelli believes that people who remember the old ways of life and of government will be the most dangerous to a newly established form of rule. This is especially true of those who once lived in a state of liberty. In Machiavelli’s view, the only way to retain power in such situations is to destroy the city and scatter its original inhabitants. Another method is to create an elite class that is loyal to the ruler. This class will be a guard against threats to the ruler’s power because it was created by the ruler. If power changes hands, then those making up this class will lose their elite status, or even their lives. In the case of a people who had been ruled by a monarchy, the prescribed method for keeping power is different. One must eliminate the remnants of the former ruling class (i.e. the deposed royalty) and essentially live among the people (p. 429). Eventually the populace will forget about the previous ruler and submit to the new ruler’s authority, provided that the new ruler is careful about becoming a hated figure. But the establishment of stability in any government is the key to ensuring that one can retain power. The key to establishing stability in government, then, is to keep those who are being ruled happy.
One of the important distinctions between Machiavelli’s philosophy of government and Plato’s is the role of the populace. As has been stated, Plato wishes to keep the masses in their places and establish an order to the State through classism. On the other hand, Machiavelli has much less concern for order than he does for stability, and a happy populace is a stable one. He goes so far as to suggest that a ruler arm the people, for when a ruler does so, the people’s arms become the ruler’s own (p. 457). Furthermore, he states that a ruler who arms the people will invariably win their support and loyalty, and that the practice implies a kind of trust between ruler and subjects. Where Plato would establish only one specific class to be the armed protectors of the State, Machiavelli would create a fighting force where anyone who seems qualified to handle a weapon could do so (p. 457). Yet even more telling of the difference between these two philosophers is the fact that Machiavelli believes that anyone can rise to power. He states that a “citizen-ruler” can rise into prominence if either of two conditions are met. One condition is that the ruler has the backing of the populace, and this backing would most likely be due to the fact that the ruler is “one of them”. The other condition is that the ruler is elevated to such status by “the favor of the elite” (p. 438). However, the ruler placed in power by the elite faces a difficult task of holding that position. The elite who put a ruler in power often think of themselves as his or her equals, and will consequently not obey someone they see as being from the same mold. In addition, Machiavelli states that the goals of the elite, when compared to the populace, are more immoral because they wish to oppress. The populace does not wish to oppress, but rather seeks to avoid oppression. Thus a ruler who attempts to meet the goals of the elite will essentially have an unfavorable reputation, and find himself or herself surrounded by a populace that will not obey (p. 438).
In both Plato and Machiavelli, one can see a basic groundwork being established for an ideal government. Plato’s form of government relies on classism, on keeping people in their places and doing the jobs that are best suited to them. According to this philosophy, the people will be happy simply because they are doing what they do best. The common people are performing the hard labor and indulging in bodily pleasures, both of which are all they can hope to understand. The soldiers fight for their “motherland” because the State has become a kind of family or parent. They fight to preserve the attachment, and thus fight on emotion. The rulers of Plato’s State, the philosopher kings and queens, exercise their authority with the greatest understanding of the forms, and thus of ultimate truth, that is humanly possible. Machiavelli’s view of government is rooted far deeper in reality, however, and implies that stability is the key to an enduring system of rule. As long as the populace does not feel threatened (in terms of losing land, possessions, a well-known way of life, or even their lives), they will be willing to submit to their ruler. When people are allowed to go on with their lives without the worry of a new regime seizing power or trampling their rights and stealing their possessions, they can live in a state of contentment, and even happiness. As for the populace’s role in government, anyone can have an impact on the game of power if they know what to do and have the support to do it. Power is not restricted to one type of people or one class, but is “up for grabs” and waiting for the boldest to seize it. For Machiavelli, the people are more than just a mass to be divided and placed in a proper order, but a powerful force that must be considered and respected by the one who would rule over them. But for both Plato and Machiavelli, government seems to be a necessary and natural state under which humankind can operate and survive.
Morgan, Michael L., ed. Classics of Moral and Political Theory. 3rd Edition. Indianapolis. Hackett, 2001.