David J. Choi

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David J. Choi

November 17, 1997

Conversations of the West: Renaissance

TA: Joel Budd
1. Choose two of Saint Augustine, Machiavelli, and Socrates, and compare and contrast their interpretation of human corruption. What kind of corruption do they think that people suffer form, how do they think that people are corrupted, and how do they suggest that people may be improved?
Machiavelli and Socrates have widely different views concerning human nature. On one end, Socrates finds man to be ignorant by nature, one without absolute virtuosity and knowledge. Human corruption grows from man’s own ignorance, or more specifically, a false belief that he is wise when he is not. Therefore, it is the goal of man in his lifetime to achieve absolute virtuosity and knowledge, or attempt to achieve (for it is certainly an impossible task). Man is therefore generally good by nature. Machiavelli, on the other hand, views human nature to be corrupt and evil, with selfish goals. He does not trust man’s intent and therefore goes to such lengths in his work, The Prince, to explore how a prince may remain in power in spite of man’s nature.

Socrates' view of the nature of virtue and knowledge was that these required absolute definition, which was to be attained, if at all, only through exhaustive philosophical dialogue and debate - things beyond the reach of the average Athenian.

In Plato’s Apology, Plato gives an account of Socrates’ famed trial. The Athenians believed that Socrates was willingly corrupting the youth through his teachings. Believing this claim to be false, he points out that if he had intentionally been corrupting the youth, he would, as a result, be intentionally making them evil, as it was agreed at the trial, corruption makes people evil. No man would choose to live among evil people, because they in turn would do evil on others. Therefore, no man would purposely teach his fellow townsmen to be evil. Socrates would not intentionally teach the youth to be evil because he would then be placing himself in danger. It is apparent that no man would knowingly place himself in danger, therefore Socrates would not have intentionally corrupted the youth.

It is clear that Socrates chooses a path much different than Machiavelli’s; Socrates prefers a life of good, virtue, and truth. Socrates respects the state and it’s laws regardless of his views of them. When Crito attempts to persuade Socrates into escaping imprisonment (and ultimately death), Socrates deduces, after some contemplation, that escaping from an imposed prison sentence would be wrong and would jeopardize the principles for which he has stood. He agrees with Crito in that the laws are unjust, however, he replies that “You must either persuade it or obey its orders, and endure in silence whatever it instructs you to endure… one must obey the commands of one’s city and country” (Crito, 51b). In this sense, Socrates would be Machiavelli’s ideal subject. However, Machiavelli does not view man to be that way.

In The Prince, Machiavelli believes that men respect power, but they will take advantage of kindness. He believes that when given the opportunity one must destroy completely, because if one does not he will certainly be destroyed. A prince cannot consider whether his acts are moral or immoral, and he instead must act in an unbiased manner for the state. Also, it does not matter how the state achieves its goals, as long as these goals are achieved. “Corruption” or “immoral” behavior, (i.e. the use of cruelty) is a necessary evil in the many circumstances when governing a country. As long as it is used assiduously and for the betterment of the state, it is certainly allowable.

I believe that here it is a question of cruelty used well or badly. We can say that cruelty is used well (if it is permissible to talk in this way of what is evil) when it is employed once for all, and one’s safety depends on it, and then it is not persisted in but as far as possible turned to the good of one’s subjects. (The Prince, Chapter VIII: Those who come to power by crime, 29)

Machiavelli has a very low opinion of the people throughout history. In general, he feels that men are "ungrateful, fickle, liars, and deceivers. They shun danger and are greedy for profit; while you treat them well, they are yours. They would shed their blood for you … but when you are in danger they turn against you." Machiavelli basically has little respect for the people, and he feels as though they have not earned much either. He also feels that men are "wretched creatures that they are, break when it is to their advantage to do so" (The Prince, 52). This sense of fairness justifies breaking one’s word to men. Machiavelli also writes about how hard it must be for a prince to stay virtuous. He concludes that with so many wretched men around virtue is hard to create in oneself. "The fact is that a man who wants to act virtuously in every way necessarily comes to grief among so many who are not virtuous." Overall, Machiavelli is very pessimistic about the abilities of the people. He feels that after examining people through history, his conclusions of wretched men are correct.

In all, Machiavelli does not necessarily provide a way in which people can better themselves from corruption. To him, human corruption is innate and cannot be reversed. At best, people (subjects) can be kept in check, so as not to bring out their selfish and corrupt tendencies against the ruling prince. Therefore, he uses this as justification for the use of fear in order to control people, as well as the use of cruelty towards the subjects. “…but fear is strengthened by a dread of punishment which is always effective” (The Prince, 52).

Socrates neither provides a definite explanation to human corruption nor how to improve this. He infers, however, that ignorance, or a false belief that one is wise when he is not (a fault which he finds in his accusers), leads to corruption. The way to overcome this is through absolute virtue and knowledge and in order to work one’s way there, one must debate thoroughly philosophical issues.
A Short Dialogue Between Socrates and Machiavelli on

Governing and Human Nature
Machiavelli: The people will not suffer so greatly under correct totalitarian rule for they will always live without indecision for a decision will be made by the prince. He will rule the people with all measures taken to guarantee his rule, and this is efficient. There is no waiting period for a voting to take place. There exists no bureaucracy, and this is certainly more efficient. The prince is the one who’ll need knowledge, and with this he shall rule efficiently. Surely, one must understand that if a prince is to be corrupted or perverted by power so as to compromise the welfare of the state, he is being inefficient. The prince must understand that further upsetting the people will bring upon evil on him. The people will despise him, and he will risk a revolt, which is very inefficient. Therefore, one can reason that the prince needs to satisfy the people’s needs, but not to spoil them. A prince must instill fear in his subjects but in a proper manner. Men are fickle and selfish by nature and cannot be trusted.

Socrates: That’s certainly ridiculous! If men were fickle and selfish by nature, then all is in vain when man has established government. Establishing society is in vain, and so is establishing morals. Men must be by nature good, and it is only greed that turns their heads towards the darkness of evil. How can you talk of men being evil by nature when one is given the example of patriots, heroes, and martyrs? If the life is the only thing that keeps men in power, why were such men willing to give up theirs? Was it power that drove them to make the ultimate sacrifice? Certainly, you make an argument based upon men being selfish and the princes need to control such men by maintaining power, but you do not account for the good. You only see the evil and wrongdoings of men instead of their achievements. What of philosophy? Philosophy cannot surely be the most efficient, yet it has done so much to improve the minds of the people. Philosophy has established knowledge on reasoning, to which you have overlooked as methodical thinking. Surely, you are misled to believe the men are avaricious and should be ruled by an efficient prince. If men are to be truly ruled efficiently, they must rule with philosophy and logical reasoning instead of efficiency in maintaining power. The issue of efficiency involves the people being able to live in order for a longer period, and only philosophy can bring that upon the people. You are mistaken in claiming that your view of efficiency is better than my view of morality. People make mistakes, people can live good lives or bad lives, but surely you are wrong in wildly claiming that all men are evil. It is the cause of your view of great pessimism of human nature that has led astray your logical thinking into the brute idea of the ends justifying the means. The princes must rule with the good instead with your pessimistic views in order to achieve the truly efficient life where everyone is happy.

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