What Makes a Man Great: Machiavelli vs. Aristotle

In Nichomachean Ethics, Aristotle examines the “magnanimous,” or great-souled, man, who is by definition the superior representative of goodness. Centuries later, Niccolò Machiavelli counters Aristotle’s presentation of greatness with his advice for statesmen in The Prince.

Aristotle, based on his view of human life as ordered according to a hierarchy of goods, claims that the truly great man has achieved the pinnacle of virtue. Machiavelli, in contrast, argues that the existence of evil men would prevent the happiness of such a man. The truly great man must adopt virtue or vice as the situation demands to achieve his ends.

In Nichomachean Ethics, Aristotle articulates a system of ethics ordered towards happiness, or the complete actualization of man’s proper faculties. Aristotle examines virtues such as magnanimity to “get a better insight into happiness.” Magnanimity, although a particular virtue, must also achieve a certain pinnacle of all virtues, for “what is great in each virtue would seem to belong to someone who is great-souled.”

Hence, the magnanimous man provides the Nichomachean Ethics’ with a candidate for the perfect human being. Aristotle eventually reveals magnanimity as only the first step on a journey towards perfection that culminates in the wise man. In the meantime, the magnanimous man acts as the preliminary model for man in the quest for happiness.

Machiavelli’s prince represents a conscious departure from Aristotelian ethics. Whereas Aristotle contemplates theoretical extremes in order to arrive at an understanding of goodness and virtue, Machiavelli consults experience, history, and myth for the purpose of offering practical advice to political leaders.

Machiavelli intends to depart from the “many,” including Aristotle, who “have imagined republics and principates that have never been seen or known to be in truth.” In reality, Machiavelli insists, not only does fortune dictate much of life, but it resembles a “violent river” that forces everyone to yield before it. He proposes that men may contrive to direct fortune in order to safeguard their political power.

The magnanimous man concerns himself only with virtue, because nothing else is great enough to merit his attention. Aristotle depicts a man with peace of mind: unhurried by life and unconcerned with trivialities.

Aristotle takes care to distinguish the magnanimous man’s apparent slowness as a steady resolve, not apathy or lethargy. When an occasion worthy of his greatness arises, he does act, and he acts with alacrity. Otherwise, he does not waste his efforts. The magnanimous man’s sustained pace contrasts sharply with the ceaseless activity of Machiavelli’s prince.

Machiavelli advances a great man who cultivates readiness, rather than unconcern, on the grounds that a prince can only survive by living according to reality rather than by ideals. The magnanimous man might enjoy a peaceful life, but Machiavelli’s prince must immerse himself in the art of war to survive, even in peacetime.

Machiavelli extols spending time on hunts and strategy because a prince will lose his state if he cannot adapt to unpredictable circumstances in foreign terrain. The prince appears untiring, almost frenetic, and single-minded in his determination to master military tactics. He constantly exercises his mind and body to maintain his superiority over other men.

Whereas the magnanimous man is necessarily good, the prince considers goodness yet another resource at his disposal. Machiavelli presents goodness as a dichotomy between the extremes of virtue and vice. The realities of life prohibit men from being thoroughly virtuous, so the prince should “be so prudent” as to choose between virtue and vice as the situation demands.

Aristotle’s great man, in contrast, finds happiness in virtue, so prudence guides him to choose the average between opposing vices of excess and deficiency. Given the harsh reality of life, Machiavelli asserts such single-minded focus on virtue is impractical.

Machiavelli’s system of ethics acts as a watershed in Western philosophy. Unlike later philosophers who attempt to formulate a new understanding of ethics independently, he explicitly states his intention to depart from Aristotelian ethics and approach the idea of goodness from a practical rather than theoretical standpoint.

Like the prince who uses knowledge as a resource, Machiavelli seeks to explain reality in order for men to control it. His dismissal of contemplation and virtue marks a turn to the modern philosophy that pursues action as its own end.

Author: Kittie Helmick

Kittie Helmick studied Comparative Literature and Critical Translation at the University of Oxford, after serving with the Peace Corps in South Africa. Her desire to speak truth in grace led her to found Salt and Iron: Seasoned Writing and its predecessor GoodTrueBeautiful. She has also published critiques of pop culture on The Critic, The Federalist, and Patheos.

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