Contrasting and Comparing Platonic and Machiavellian Schools of Thought

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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...
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