Long before Western Europe became the epicenter for canonical literature, men like Plato, Socrates, and Machiavelli were writing about the virtues and downfalls of being a righteous man in society.
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These men all had their own goals in mind in creating their work. For Machiavelli, it was a gift to an impending ruler, the new Medici prince, on whom Machiavelli wished to bestow all the knowledge he had on how to be a powerful and respected leader. Plato sought to celebrate the teachings of his great master Socrates, and develop his philosophical ponderings on the tenets of good citizenship. Both Plato and Machiavelli, in The Last Days of Socrates and The Prince respectively, present us with concepts about how to conduct oneself in accordance to the leadership, exhibiting evident similarities and differences that show us how a citizen should conduct one’s self under a Machiavellian type of leadership.
In The Apology, Socrates stands before a jury of his peers accused of “committing an injustice, in that he inquires into things below the earth and in the sky, and makes the weaker argument the stronger, and teaches others to follow his example” (Plato 35). Despite the connotations our modern-day language provides for the title, it is meant to be interpreted with its original meaning as a sort of explanation behind one’s actions. This is an important distinction to make because Plato does not depict Socrates asking for forgiveness, but rather proving his belief that he did nothing deserving of the death penalty. The Apology serves simply as an account of Socrates’ trial before his death at first glance, but the real contribution it makes to the image of the Socratic citizen is seen in the way Socrates responds to his charges. In an almost humorous way, Socrates explains that he could not be accused of being a sophist because they are wise and rich and he is unwise and poor, and later suggests that his punishment should be the equivalent of a few free meals. This behavior that Plato portrays in Socrates tells us that the Socratic citizen is defiant of authority by using logic. In a Machiavellian society where the ruler considers himself all-powerful, the Socratic citizen will use rationale to disprove erroneous charges that a Machiavellian ruler may throw out just to get rid of someone who is causing a problem.
A Socratic citizen will also pride honesty above all else, and will not demean his virtue by admitting to an accusation he believes is false even if it causes trouble.
Though Machiavelli believed that whatever steps were necessary between the prince’s current position and ultimate power were acceptable, he also mentions that a leader should be able to know the difference between right and wrong. “A prince must have the discernment to recognize the good or bad in what another says or does even though he has no acumen himself” (Machiavelli 211). By this Machiavelli means that a prince should be aware of the true nature of those he surrounds himself with, to be, in a sense, a step ahead of everyone else.
But in The Apology, we see that the jury does not have a true grasp on what is right and who is virtuous.
If we consider Socrates to be this type of man, then the jury’s prosecution of him is non-Machiavellian.
On the other hand, because Machiavelli promoted the idea of vanquishing any obstacle to ultimate power, disregarding Socrates’ innocence is perfectly acceptable.
The Crito dives even further into the connections between Plato’s work and Machiavelli’s.
In The Crito, Socrates’ rich friend attempts to convince the imprisoned philosopher to let him pay his way out of jail, and offer Socrates refuses, by stating that “neither injury nor retaliation nor warding off evil by evil is ever right”
(Plato 80). Here we learn that according to Socrates, the Socratic citizen will not commit wrongs just because he believes that he has been wronged initially. This is contradictory to Machiavelli’s view because he believes that the ends justify the means. This fundamental difference between the two authors can perhaps be chalked up to the fact that Plato deals with the acts of the citizen and Machiavelli with those of the leader. Machiavelli says that a true prince will be able to assume goodness only when it benefits him and to avoid it when it does not. “…It is necessary to a prince if he wants to maintain himself, to learn to be able not to be good, and to use this and not use it according to necessity” (Machiavelli 351). However, if Machiavelli acted as a Socratic citizen he would most likely still apply this theory, believing that a man should not sacrifice his life, especially if he is a great and capable man, simply because he does not want to commit a wrong. But in Plato’s view, the Socratic citizen will not value his freedom over his righteousness. “Good men and they are the only persons who are worth considering, will think of these things truly as they happened”, says Socrates (Plato 73). The Socratic citizen will resign himself to unfair punishment to maintain a record of never having committed a wrong for selfish reasons.
These works are imperative when considering the nature of right and wrong. They also give us insight into the beliefs of these canonical writers in regards to the way citizens should behave under their leaders. Through the pondering of these celebrated historical men, we can gain further understanding of virtue and righteousness, and when we must utilize our civil disobedience, and when we should not act out in wrongfulness for self-centered reasons. Plato and Machiavelli offer us seemingly opposing views of the righteous citizen, however, we learn from both that the use of logic and reason can determine the right choice of behavior in any situation.
Machiavelli, Niccolo. The Prince. 1910 Edition. P.F. Collier and Sons: New York. 397 pages.
Plato. The Last Days of Socrates: Euthyphro/ The Apology/ Crito/ Phaedo. 2003 Edition.
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Penguin Classics: New York. 256 pages.