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ECH2310 Spring 2015

First Essay

Answer ONE of these questions in 2000-2500 words:

1) Plato and Machiavelli present us with different visions of the meaning and

nature of politics, and of the relationship between justice and politics. Compare

and contrast the two thinkers and demonstrate why one of their visions is

superior to the other. 

2) Socrates suggests that knowing the good necessarily leads to acting justly.

Explain how he makes that argument, then outline whether you think Callicles

successfully challenges it. 

3) Explain what Machiavelli means by political virtue, then argue whether actually

captures the proper skills and motivations of strong politicians.

4) Compare and contrast how Plato and Machiavelli understand the roles of force

and violence in politics. Which one provides the strongest understanding in your







Subject Essay Writing Pages 9 Style APA


Question: 4 Compare and contrast how Plato and Machiavelli understand the roles of force and violence in politics. Which one provides the strongest understanding in your view?

During the twentieth and twenty first centuries, violence has seemingly grown in both frequency and intensity than witnessed in any other previous period of human history. Right from World War One to the current Global war on terror and the Arab spring, violence seem to be a defining characteristic of the modern man. Similarly, with the rising prevalence in violence, man has become more proficient both through technology and technique. It is therefore essential for any scholar of social science to investigate what violence is, why it is used and whether justly or unjustly to further the ambitions of individuals or states. This paper seeks to explore some aspects of violence for political purposes, and apply the theories of two influential thinkers, Niccolo Machiavelli and Plato, who have somehow influenced the way we think about, conduct and analyze violence. Through understanding the theoretical perception of violence, it is possible to better understand humanity and the organizations of states and politics.

Machiavelli has often evoked a lot of reactions with his assertion that it is better to be feared than loved. For him, so far as violence is part of politics it should therefore aim at stability, the maintenance of a ruler and the general benefit of the community. This however does not deny Machiavelli’s observance of many other illicit uses of political violence. By considering his writings regarding political violence it is possible to see that he makes strict practical and moral distinctions for the use of violence. Machiavelli wrote II Principe or The Prince which established the important aspects which are necessary for princely rule based off of a historical analysis of humankind (Vujadinovic, 2014). He concludes that all of human history, and indeed human nature, can be summarized as a pursuit of self interest and power and that it is necessary that princes utilize violence of action in whatever form in order to maintain power against the attempts of both internal and external forces (Erb, 2005). He suggests that it may also be necessary to be violent towards a territory of unruly people in order to establish a sense of fear. He sees aggression and war as something vital to the eventual success of any leadership. Although this seems for self serving purposes, he is none the less not suggesting that one should be cruel towards a nation just because the position of power might allow for it. Machiavelli uses the perfect example of Cesare Borgia to illustrate examples of the circumstances in which he would approve of the use of violence.

This calculations and opportune use of violence by Cesare Borgia is not only restricted to Machiavelli’s time but contemporary political leaders have also utilized the techniques of statecraft as advocated in The Prince to advance their individual and national power interests. For instance in the World War II, Germany utilized the weakness of Europe and weaknesses of other powers to increase their territories (Greco, 2014). The end of World War II saw United States and Soviet Union vie for power by dominating strategic nations either through diplomacy or force. After the end of the Cold War, the United States continued to wage strategic wars of choice, for example the invasion of Iraq, with the aim of promoting further development of a hegemonic status (Brzezinski 2011). Based on Machiavelli’s point of view, this violence of action in politics is naturally human and necessary. As much as Machiavelli’s arguments have often created deep discontent amongst many people, they have proven to be an accurate description of the conduct of current politicians and politics in general.

Plato on the other hand asserts that an ideal state, embodying the highest and best potential of human social life, can actually be achieved if the right people are put in charge of governance. Since the key to the success of the whole is the wisdom of the leaders who make important decisions for the entire city. Plato insists that the perfect society will only be achievable when kings become philosophers or alternatively, philosophers are made kings (Neu, 2012). He supposes that only those with a philosophical temperament are competent enough to judge between what appears to be the case and what really is, between the misleading appearance of objects that are sensible and the permanent reality of fixed abstract forms. 

It is important to note that even if we are convinced that Plato’s aristocracy is the ideal way to structure a state, the possibility that it will actually be implemented in a human society does not matter. What ought to be is more significant for Plato than what the reality is, moreover philosophers generally are more concerned with a truth that go beyond the facts of normal everyday life. Plato supposes that an ideal state is guided by the highest level of significant objects of knowledge such as true equality, beauty, truth and of course good itself. He uses the allegory of the cave and cave dwellers to illustrate his argument of the current state of the ordinary human existence (Lane, 2006).

Plato then explains different kinds of government ranked in order from the best to the worst, his main aim is to exhibit the relative degree of justice achieved by each government. A society organized in the ideally efficient way is said to have an aristocratic government or person. Such governments are thought to be the most authentic examples of true justice at the social and personal level. In an oligarchic government however, both classes of guardian have been pushed into the service of a ruling group made up of a few powerful and wealthy citizens whose actions are devoted to amassing greater wealth. Similarly, a democratic government which holds out the promise of equality for all its citizens but in fact delivers only the anarchy of rowdy mob each of whose individual members is only interested in pursuing private interests. Finally the tyrannical society where a single person has gained control over the mob, seemingly restoring order and in place of anarchy but serving only personal welfare at the expense of the interests of  the whole city. This government is the most perfectly unjust, even though they may likely appear to be well organized and very effective (Santas, 2010).

Interesting similarities between Plato and Machiavelli is that they both advocate for a strong, enlightened ruler. Likewise, the fact that the ruler would posses complete power in both Machiavelli and Plato is something they both realized was necessary for the smooth operation of their governments. For Plato the rationale was because nobody else was good enough to rule except those who did, the philosophers, and therefore they should have the complete power. For Machiavelli it was because the ruler acts in the interest of the people through himself. 

They both seem to agree on the fact that it is important to have the support of the people hence if one keeps the general populace happy, then there will be no major problems or threats to the existing government, and they will not be very likely to submit to a new mode of rule or a new ruler. However they differ when Plato specifies that only certain types of individuals were capable of becoming rulers, specifically philosophers. While Machiavelli states that anyone with the drive to take power and the means can do it. Most current states adopt the later kind of leadership because there are no limiting factors to taking up a leadership position leaders are appointed from any background.

Similarly, they both Machiavelli and Plato saw their state in crisis, culturally strong but waning in power and becoming vulnerable to outside force. Plato took the idealist path with the idea that a republic could be strong and virtuous and avoid the moral decay that could destroy it from within. Machiavelli on the other hand took the realist path with the idea that the most pragmatic way to be able to fend off both internal and external enemies and restore order and stability is by having a Prince, a leader who understands what it takes to be in control.

However, key differences exist between Machiavelli and Plato, for instance Machiavelli’s assertion that the people should be left alone in order to ease the rulers continued support from the people. Plato on the other hand believes that a government should directly interfere or get involved with the people so as to make their lives more virtuous. Another significant angle of contrast is that The Prince, Machiavelli’s ruler is concerned with nothing else except how to maintain himself in power by defeating all other opposing elements. Plato’s ruler on the other hand is more virtuous and cares for his people more than his own power.

Machiavelli affirms that rulers should be truthful, keep promises and generally appear to have the traditional virtues when doing so will not harm the state. This means that since the goal of the ruler is to conquer and preserve the state at all cost, he should therefore not shy away from doing wrong when the preservation of the state requires him to do so, thus the classical concept of civic virtue is critically transformed here. Machiavelli’s idea of virtue is not of moral character then, but rather of what is best for the immediate needs of the country. The ruler therefore is justified in doing anything that will be necessary to maintain the country, even if it is unjust. For Machiavelli, his idea of virtue is outweighed in times of need while Plato believes that a just ruler must behave the same and justly at all times.

Plato further clarifies that a just ruler should not seek war because war is unjust and evil, while the creation of evil is not an accomplishment of justice but rather a failure of justice. He does address war though by training soldiers and having a standing army that would defend the republic. Machiavelli refutes this by asserting that the state exists to make war and a good ruler’s sole purpose and concern is to make war. However in reality, current states will have to adopt both ideas in that a good leader should not seek war but should be prepared to face tough wars and defend the country like in the case of external terror.

According to Machiavelli, a person who chooses to act entirely up to his professions of virtue will soon meet with what destroys him among so much that is evil. This was in reference to works like those of Plato, who advanced an idealist view of a philosopher king ruling through virtue. From Machiavelli’s point of view that would be a dangerous fantasy, since it ignores the plain reality of the human condition, that humans are brutal, selfish and erratic (Donskis 2011).

Idealists on the other hand note that realist thought is so abstract and ignores the reality of human experience with the impact of war and violence. Power is valued and sought after by all means without putting into consideration how politics and violence impacts negatively on real people, destroying families, ruining lives while causing pain and suffering. Meanwhile, such things are acknowledged by realists simply as unfortunate byproducts of the nature of human beings.

Whereas Plato’s theory is based on good virtues to guide the society and make it the most ideal, Machiavelli’s theory is based on the notion that all societies are made up of selfish and brutal humans and therefore coercion and brutal force or violence has to be used in order to make them fearful of the authority and effectively control them hence creating stability. It is important to note that in Plato’s writings, man based philosophy on utopian kind of ideals and principles and that if man behaved that way then a perfect society is inevitable. Machiavelli on the other hand was influenced by his experience in public life and was more concerned with how things were in reality and not how things could be if the world was perfect.

In conclusion, Machiavelli eludes to the necessity of violence in politics but not to the supposed notion of whether it is generally good or bad to a society. It is simply necessary for the assurance of stability and safety of both those in power and those under it. While Plato supposes that an ideal state is guided by the highest level of significant knowledge such as true equality, beauty, truth and of course good, that can only be comprehended by a philosopher. Machiavelli’s ideas however, cannot be ignored because he captures an aspect of politics that existed in Italy in the sixteenth century, and still exists yet today. Clearly, more politicians in the world today are considered “Machiavellian” in every way and politicians who seem to put political expediency above moral concerns almost always come out on top. Similarly, almost all states are characterized by international affairs spying, deceit, disloyalty, dishonesty and ruthlessness, all these are justified by the say that this is how we have to act against an enemy to protect a country’s security. By examining the theory’s of such influential thinkers, we can hope to find not only commonalities in history of violence and politics, but also front questions as to what justifications can be given for their interconnectivity, and whether or not political violence should really be used (Prince, et al, 2012).




Brzenzinski, Zbigniew. “A tale of Two Wars: The Right War in Iraq and the Wrong One.” Foreign Affairs. 10 Oct 2011.

Donskis, L. (2011). Niccolo Machiavelli: History, Power, and Virtue. Value Inquiry Book series. Amsterdam: Brill Academic Publishers. eBook.

Erb, S. (2005). “Machiavelli and Power Politics.” Paper presented at the University of Maine at Farmington, October 26, 2005. Retrieved May 17, 2015. Reading Revolution.

Greco, A.F. (2014). America in the Post-Cold war World. In: Chomsky’s Challenge to American Power: A Guide for the Critical Reader. Nashville: Vanderbilt University Press Language: English Database: Project MUSE.

Lane, M.(2006).”Plato’s Political Philosophy.” In The Blackwell Companion to Ancient Philosophy, eds. M.L. Gill and P. Pellegrin (pp.170-91). Oxford: Blackwell.

Neu, Je. (2012). Plato’s Analogy of State and Individual: The Republic and the Organic Theory of the State. Essays in Moral Psychology. Oxford University Press Language: English Database: Oxford Scholarship Online.

Prince, T.L., McDowell, G.L., Liebert, H. (2012). Executive Power in Theory and Practice. Jepson Studies in Leadership. Edition: 1st ed. New York: Palgrave macmillan.

Santas, G.X. (2010). Understanding Plato’s Republic. Chichester, West Sussex : Wiley-Blackwell. eBook.

Vujadinovic, D. (2014). Machiavelli’s republican political theory.  Philosophy & Social Criticism; Jan2014, Vol 40 Issue 1, p43-68, 26p.






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