In the history of political philosophy, a momentous shift in thought occurred during the middle ages when a man named Niccolò Machiavelli argued that the Greek and Christian notions about the universe, human nature, and the purpose of politics were completely wrong and dangerous for people in positions of power to hold. The conflict between the Socratic/Boethian views about unchanging ideas for all time and Machiavelli’s new anarchic universe, full of brutality, and chaos is what we generally call the Ancient-Modern debate.
The specific tenants of the Ancient–Modern debate between Boethius and Machiavelli are about the role of Morality in politics, the purpose of politics, and the nature of human beings. Boethius followed the same school of thought as Socrates, therefore he believed that morality was an essential part of politics. Rulers needed to be “philosopher kings” who did what was right and just for their people. Rulers needed to have knowledge of essential truths that were pure and timeless in order to rule well. Machiavelli on the other hand, completely disagreed with this way of thinking. He believed that morality should have no relationship to politics, in fact he went as far as saying, being moral was dangerous to rulers and their people, and that leaders needed to learn how to be bad in order to maintain power and protect the state. For example, if a ruler refuses to go to war against another nation out of honoring a treaty, but the other side decides to break the treaty and attack, the king who hesitated would die along with his people. So according to Machiavelli, breaking a treaty might sometimes be the right thing to do, even if it’s not “moral”.
Regarding the purpose of politics, Boethius and his Greek counterparts believed politics was natural to human beings and that we can use our reason to arrive at fair and just ways to govern the city. Machiavelli on the other hand believed that the goal of politics is the preservation of the state at all costs, if this means you lie, cheat, and sacrifice your people, then that is what a good leader must do to secure their state. To this end, Machiavelli viewed politics as a “technical activity” because the world was a chaotic and ruthless place, he believed rulers should master emerging scientific technologies in order to gain an edge over their enemies by using more effective weapons to kill their enemies.
In his view of human nature, Machiavelli did not believe humans were endowed with reason, inherent goodness, or a soul. He believed humans were selfish, opportunists driven by acquisitive ends, because Machiavelli rejected both Greek and Christian notions of Socrates’s “pure ideas” and the Christian idea of “God”. He did not believe that humans had any inherent goodness to them. He did believe that humans were acquisitive beings, meaning we try to acquire material things that help us live a comfortable life.
Boethius’s view of human nature is that we are rational and mortal. We are rational because we have reason, a faculty that is unique to human beings that cannot be taken away from us by Lady Fortune. If we properly hone this faculty of reason, we can use it to survive the emotional traumas that all human beings eventually face in life, and return to a state of contentment after the emotional storm has passed. Boethius also acknowledges that humans are mortal and will eventually die; we have no control over how, when, or where death will occur. Therefore, he believes we should remember to appreciate every moment we have to be alive, because it is a gift that can so easily be taken away. He warns us not to depend on the permanence of life, because it is not permanent, as Lady Philosophy tells Boethius, “Why behave like a stranger newly arrived on the stage of life? You know there is no consistency in human affairs, when a single swift hour can bring a man to nothing” (Boethius 28).
On the subject of Lady Fortune, Boethius teaches us Lady Fortune is arbitrary and plays no favorites with any man. She is constantly spinning the Wheel of Fortune, and sometimes we are at the top, and sometime we are at the bottom. She is also deaf to our suffering, when we are at the bottom of the wheel, and cannot be bargained with. As Lady Philosophy reminds Boethius of his own life, Boethius had tragedy strike him as a child when his parents died, but then he was adopted by a rich aristocratic family which granted him the opportunity to study the great thinkers of Greek Antiquity in his formal education and eventually become the adviser to a King. But, Fortune turned on him when he was accused of treason and ended up at death’s door.
In his conversation with Lady Philosophy, Boethius realizes that happiness or contentment, cannot be achieved by worldly things like money, riches, and political influence, because he had acquired all those things in his own life, but he ended up in a dark dungeon awaiting death. He classifies power, wealth, desire, and fame as avenues of false happiness, because all those things are on loan to us by Lady Fortune, which means they are not truly ours, they require the will of other people, which can change, or the presence of material things, which can be lost. As Lady Philosophy reminds Boethius, “Not one of those things which you count among your blessings is in fact any blessing of your own at all” (Boethius 35). We have no control over when they come and go. If we define ourselves by these things, when they leave, we will feel as if we have lost meaning and purpose in ourselves. So, true happiness, according to Boethius, comes from within. It comes from knowing who you are and having a strong core that is self-sufficient. Meaning you take part in all that life has to offer, but you understand that people and things are fleeting and impermanent, therefore you learn to be content with yourself even when you lose your relationships and acquisitions in the physical world.
In contrast to Boethius, Machiavelli does not believe that human beings are endowed with reason or a soul. He believes that humans have the sophisticated ability to solve problems as problems present themselves in life. He believes humans to be very smart animals, which is a stark contrast to the way humanity has viewed itself in the west for thousands of years before Machiavelli. The Greeks and The Christians had a strict separation between the animal kingdom and the human kingdom, but Machiavelli blurred those lines. He also viewed the universe as a place with no inherent meaning or order. He believed that human society was without inherent order as well, so someone needs to impose order upon it. Machiavelli also argued that all political and social institutions were man made, that they are artificial, therefore they can be destroyed and reshaped by rulers who had the will and power to do so.
Boethius’s architype for what a noble ruler should be was the “philosopher” or “the philosopher king”. Someone who has developed their reason and mastered self-sufficiency who can be rulers themselves or can advise rulers on the moral actions to take as they govern. Machiavelli on the other hand, believed that politics was an art and his architype was the virtuoso, a person who has mastered a certain craft, and is able to come up with creative new ways to wield that craft. When it comes to the art of politics, and what “The Prince” should do to obtain and maintain his power, Machiavelli suggests that rulers should take lessons from the Homeric Greeks, as he writes, “The writers of antiquity taught rulers this lesson allegorically when they told how Achilles and many other ancient princes were sent to be nurtured by Chiron the Centaur… Their having a creature half-man and half-beast as tutor only means that a prince must know how to use both, the one and the other nature, and that one without the other cannot endure” (Prince Ch.18, 68). What Machiavelli means by this is that if a ruler wants to maintain his power, he must get in touch with his animalistic nature. In order to be a successful leader, Machiavelli says, one must abandon the Socratic and Boethian ideas about reason and morality and instead go back to the ideas of the Pre-Socratic Homeric Greeks. According to Machiavelli, a good leader must be ferocious and guiltless like a lion and deceptive and a sharp problem solver like a fox. These two roles that leaders must play balances the violence with effective rule so the people fear the leader, but at the same time are thankful for his rule. If a ruler is too violent, then the people or even his own royal court may decide to dispatch him to the grave in the dead of night, and such a ruler would achieve no glory in his death, instead he would be remembered as a butcher. If a ruler is too kind and peaceful, he may be conquered easily by enemies or others vying for the throne, so a balance between ruthlessness and intelligent rule must be struck.
Machiavelli’s idea of fortune is the exact opposite of Boethius, unlike Boethius, Machiavelli believed that Lady Fortune can be influenced and seduced to do the bidding of the Virtuoso, if he operationalizes the Lion and Fox metaphors correctly. Machiavelli believed that good fortune was not random but it came to strong fearless men who took what they wanted no matter what the cost. This line of thinking is important because of the effect it has had in our modern predatory capitalist system. People on Wall-Street, for example, made billions of dollars gambling away depositors’ money to make personal profit for themselves. They didn’t think about the fact that some elderly man somewhere in America may lose his pension and end up poor and destitute due to their actions. They just did what they wanted to reap the financial benefits for themselves, and that is the kind of man that Machiavelli claims Lady Fortune is attracted to. By attraction he means that good fortune comes to those who have the courage to just take it. Machiavelli brought Lady Fortune down to Earth with his writing.
Machiavelli’s ideas have had a detrimental impact on our society as a whole. Specifically in regard to issues like economics and the environment. Capitalism has turned half the world into low wage slaves and the other half are barely hanging on, while a few rich people on top control most of the wealth on the planet. The CEOs of oil companies and related polluters are taking Machiavelli’s teachings about seducing Lady Fortune to heart by taking what they want with no thought to the long term consequences. Climate change induced by CO2 emission from the actions of the fossil fuel industry is literally going to destroy all life on this planet, even the mighty virtuosos are still subject to the laws of nature. No matter how rich or powerful “The Prince” may be, he is still a biological entity, just as any other animal on this planet and he will die as such. In the end, nature always wins.
- JAMES, H. R. (n.d.). CONSOLATION OF PHILOSOPHY BY BOETHIUS.