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Power Politics

This paper will present arguments against ethical politics in general and Plato’s ethical idealism in particular on the basis that they will fail in the face of Machiavellian regimes.


In discussions of philosophy, two schools of thought are often pitted against each other as opponents or adversaries. They are idealism and realism – one focusing on what could be possible, and the other on what has been demonstrated to be possible, represented by the Platonic and Machiavellian stereotypes respectively. Whether supporting one or the other, in order to fully understand their relationship, one should begin by trying to understand the nature of politics. Choosing a model that one thinks most precisely defines the contemporary political reality is a good start; a definition that is simple enough for the purposes of this paper, and favored by the author, can be found in the title of Harold Lasswell’s 1958 book – Politics: Who Gets What, When, How (Lasswell, 1958).

By the fact of choosing Lasswell’s definition as a premise, one agrees with his analysis that the character of contemporary politics is hypocrisy. This is to say there are as many different interests, as there are stakeholders in a politician’s decision. Whatever the decision, the politician must create an illusion of reality that convinces each of the stakeholders to the extent of winning their vocal support, their financial assistance, and in a democratic system their vote. Thus the politician can continue in power; but many ethical failures and practical difficulties can arise. Why cannot this problem be avoided by subscribing to Platonic idealism?

Platonic Idealism

Plato evaluates political systems based on their perceived capacity to produce happiness for all citizens; that is to say not only for the individual, but for everybody – the whole society. Happiness is measured by the acts of being virtuous (the four principal being wisdom, courage, moderation and justice (H. Rice, 1998, p. 43)). For Plato, being virtuous, in turn, is based on understanding the true form of things. Therefore the intention of the political system – and there is a clear underlying intention in the Platonic system – is to create citizens who are aware of the true forms. This is to say each citizen has a true place in the society and by subscribing to their specific role, one can thus find peace and happiness.

First, in discussing governance, Plato suggests the state should have a guardian and “the perfect guardian must be a philosopher” (Plato, 1946, p. 389). This lover of knowledge must have the necessary ability and foresight for good governance. While this argument may sound fair, for there are good arguments to support strong leaders, it is the unlikely high degree of optimism about one man’s abilities and virtues that leads Plato to a mistaken path in his discourse. The nature of a philosopher king has been refuted by later authors. For example Rice writes in his 1998 treatment A Guide to Plato's Republic: “the political arrangements he proposes in the Republic suggest that he believes it is actually possible to discover all the truth there is” (H. Rice, 1998, p. 51). Moreover, even if the politician presented as high a degree of foresight as Plato expects of him, considering the various pressures put on a politician, one could imagine, it is unrealistic to expect the politician to use his abilities only for the good of the people.

Because Plato establishes the basis of his ethics in virtues, and the guardian as the symbol of an ethical life, he creates the necessity for each and every individual of the society to be aware of the existence of these virtues. Only then could the citizens aspire towards the ideal. This would have been very unlikely in a world of the 4th century BC because of lack of between people living in different parts. And even today, while some shared virtues could be possible in a small city state where people hold strong personal relations, it would soon become near impossible in cities with millions of people, and even more so in countries with hundreds of millions, or for that matter for a planet with billions of individuals. Therefore the first basis of Plato’s first proposition could fail for practical reasons.

Second, Plato does not have a clear understanding of the distinction between ethics and politics (Hinchliff, 1982, p. 92). Plato establishes his political ontology as a direct reference to his idealistic ethics; that is to say he sees his ethics as a clearly possible political reality. Indeed, in the Socratic dialogues of The Republic one can almost imagine that ethics takes on a life of itself and has the power to create reality, with politics and flesh and blood politicians only considered as an afterthought. Here may be there reason why; for Plato ethics and politics are so intertwined as to be the same. He does not give much thought to the political juggling, consensus creation, power-play and other features of political life that one can witness in contemporary politics. Put another way, the difference between the ideal ways in which things should be, and the real ways in which politics and politicians would achieve these goals (or fail to do so) are not explored by Plato in any considerable depth.

This suggests that the nature of Plato’s political thinking is authoritarian and his envisioned system totalitarian. His ideas do not leave much space for alternative ethics, alternative (or foreign) cultures, or any ideas that are different from his idealized norms (the theory of forms). There is only one single standard of what is good. The institutions Plato would use for the promotion of his ethics arise from his imagination and do not directly interact with reality: In The Republic Plato explains the role of justice and harmony in the institutions: “justice is based on the idea of good, which is harmony of the world, and is reflected […] in the institutions” (Plato, 1946, p. 12). This line of argument leads to a strong refutation by Rousseau in his Emile: or, On Education: “When people wish to go back to a land of fantasies they cite Plato's institutions“ (Rousseau, 2004).  Put in another way, Plato does not explore the direct consequences of his institutions to their stakeholders, or bother with looking for proof of what might be the practicalities or creating such institutions; his institution remain a though experiment without any testing in reality. Plato’s second proposition could fail because without a democratic process, his institutions would be created in a top-down fashion; and could thus be overthrown by the public if it did not find them agreeable.

Third, in all areas Plato reduces his ethics to such a degree of abstraction that there remains little relevance for practical application. Even if considered as ideals, merely as guidelines or inspiration for further thought, these ideals put into application would most likely result in a state contrary to the expectations of Plato. Instead of upholding the highest ethical principles, such a state would fail to provide for even the simplest ideals of contemporary time. This is to say: in the creation of an ethical state where all individuals aspire for the virtues set in the eternal forms Plato does away with democratic values. In search for the perfect model of a good life, the imperfections arising from freedom are disregarded. This is why the politics that might be a beautiful walk in the park according to Plato’s dialectic considerations would in reality soon become a hellish road to the ruin of the state as well as the ethics imagined by Plato.

Machiavellian Realism

Machiavelli (as have many later authors) unequivocally defies almost all the assumptions of Platonic ideals about state-building. He makes commonsense arguments that draw on his experience as a Secretary of the Republic of Florence, and the study of governance in history. Indeed, Bertrand Russell calls his theories “scientific and empirical” (Russell, 2004, p. 465). There is no ease to Machiavelli’s arguments. Reasoning like a practicing politician he transforms the pretty picture of Plato’s ethics-based governance into the harsh power-politics of a 16th century Italian city state.

First. Before any of the politician’s ideas can be introduced, Machiavelli expects his main problem to be the simple deed of staying in power. 

Contrary to Plato, Machiavelli suggests the politician to focus plainly on the practical problems of the office; ethics and the happiness of the people should not be the main concern of the statesman. For a politician to implement his ideas he has to remain in power; it is imminent that he sets this his first priority because “power is for those who have the skill to seize it in a free competition” (Russell, 2004) and there are plenty of those who are after it. Where Plato chooses to focus on the problems of the people, Machiavelli focuses on the ruler itself. With all likeliness, if one takes a measured view on the nature of political competition, and if the politician of Plato would compete against the politician of Machiavelli for office – the latter would go further to win the battle.

Two. Through  practical consideration Machiavelli brings to ones attention the “effectual truth of the thing” rather than “the imagination of it” (Machiavelli, 1998, p. 10) – the lifeblood on Platonic ethics. While Plato argues that one should aspire towards virtue, Machiavelli makes a more subtle point. He argues that politics cannot be led by a single set of ethical absolutes (or the ‘good life’ as defined by Plato) simply because people are unable to live up to such strict ethics:

“Men, walking almost always in paths beaten by others, and following by imitation their deeds, are yet unable to keep entirely to the ways of others or attain to the power of those they imitate.” (Machiavelli, 1998, p. 29)

Political life is not simple and clear cut; the politician will have to make sacrifices. Other politicians will not be that idealistic. Whether the Platonic politician wants to or not, he will have to work with this reality. Or put in Machiavelli’s own words “it is so far from how one lives to how one should live that he who lets go of what is done for what should be done learns his ruin rather than his preservation” (Machiavelli, 1998).

Three. Following Machiavelli’s line of thought further, one finds that once the politician has managed to gain power he has to choose the most cunning and deceitful methods of achieving his goals to stay in power. For if he does not, his opponents will defeat him and stop whatever he is trying to do. 

The politician cannot stop to question, what the ethical or just ways of doing politics are; he must explore all the avenues because his opponents will. This is the crux of the philosophical difference between the ethics of Platonic idealism and Machiavellian realism. A platonic ruler would not withdraw from his ideals if brought to this situation, whereas a Machiavellian ruler would go to the extent of lie and deceit to put his policies into action. Thus, for the politician to achieve his goals – whatever they might be, for the benefit of the people or not – idealism and an ethical mind will be a distraction. If the politician does not use all the means at his disposal he will fail to bring his ideas into reality.

Finally, Machiavelli is able to capture more of the features of the political world in his distinct lack of ethics (his ability to go to the extremes) than Platonic idealism could at its time. 

The failure of Platonic ethics is that it escapes application. Because Plato refrains from all the shades of gray that exist in the interests, premises, goals, but also the ideals of all the different political actors, he will make the politician – who would follow his teachings –lose out on opportunities,  and eventually lose the battle as well as the office. In as much Machiavelli sees such political nuances he also foresees the possibilities arising from them. In a sense Machiavelli’s politician has more foresight than the philosopher guardian proposed by Plato.


Where the Platonic politician will try to be ethical the Machiavellian politician will not be. He would demonstrate himself as ethical if necessary or unethical if the situation required it but in case would do everything to reach the practical measurable goal. 

The Machiavellian politician wins his battle for a single reason: he would go further to get what he wants. Where ethical problems arise for the follower of Plato, there is an open road for the Machiavellian.

Ethics cannot be just about the rights and wrongs of ideas, it must take a deep look into reality and find practical ways of achieving the values it upholds; otherwise ethics itself can become unethical if it spends too much time looking for the ideals of  a ‘good life’.  

While one considers whether the nature of contemporary politics is more Machiavellian or Platonic, one must not only look into the world of ideas but also consider the facts of reality – this is the true path to ethics.

Works Cited

H. Rice, D. (1998). A Guide to Plato's Republic. New York City: Oxford University Press.

Hinchliff, P. B. (1982). Holiness and Politics. London: Darton, Longman, and Todd.

Lasswell, H. (1958). Politics: Who Gets What, When, How. New Haven: Meridian books.

Machiavelli, N. (1998). The Prince. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Obama, B. (n.d.). Ethics. Retrieved November 23, 2008, from barackobama.com: http://www.barackobama.com/issues/ethics/

Plato. (1946). The Republic. New York City: Plain Label Books.

Rousseau, J. J. (2004). Emile: or, On Education. Whitefish: Kessinger Publishing.

Russell, B. (2004). History of Western Philosophy. London: Routledge.

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