Thursday, March 02, 2006

first paper this semester

Last semester, I posted all of the papers I wrote. One of the purposes of this blog is to promote vocations and I thought it would be helpful for guys to see the material covered in seminary. I also thought friends and family back home might be interested as well. But I also gave the grade I got on each one which I've decided not to do anymore so that it doesn't become (is? was?) a pride issue. That said, here's the first paper this semester. I wrote it a while back. It is for my modern philosophy class and is titled, "The Prince and the Summa on Virtue," comparing Machiavelli's The Prince with St. Thomas Aquinas' Summa Theologiae. Again, my professors always provide many helpful comments and corrections on my papers but those would be difficult to include here. So, you'll just have to take 'em as is, not knowing the grade of course too... so if you decide to use one of them, do so at your own risk, but with a link to this blog.

In his great work of political philosophy, The Prince, Niccolo Machiavelli explains in concrete detail what any prince must do in order to acquire and maintain power. Seemingly in accord with the classical political philosophers and early fathers of the Catholic Church in giving such advice, he writes much about the concept of virtue. But as this essay will show, Machiavelli’s instructions to the prince, Lorenzo de Medici of Florence, are in fact a harsh break from the traditional instructions on how to best acquire and maintain power. We will see how this work defines virtue and as it builds on this definition, separates itself further and further from its classical counterpart. Select chapters from The Prince will be presented to show this development and excerpts from St. Thomas Aquinas’ Summa Theologiae will be given to highlight the departure.

In the first chapter of The Prince, in briefly addressing “How many are the kinds of principalities and in what modes they are acquired,” Machiavelli introduces his notion of virtue as a sort of tool for assuming new dominions to add on to what has already been inherited. With this brief mention of virtue Machiavelli sends a message to the reader that where the “ancients” would have introduced such an important concept with a reasonable argument, case study, or simple definition, Machiavelli is only concerned with its utility. This remains his focus through The Prince and is his first departure from the traditional understandings of virtue and its role in the everyday lives of rulers and their subjects.

St. Thomas Aquinas begins his treatment of virtue with Question 55 in the Summa, “Of the Virtues, As to Their Essence.” Four brief definitions can be found throughout the first article: virtues are “good habits;” virtue “denotes a certain perfection of a power;” “is nothing else than the good use of free-will;” and “is the order or ordering of love.” Aquinas and Machiavelli both start with their fundamental notions of virtue and then build on that foundation. This foundation determines the direction each of their arguments will take.

In chapter six of The Prince, Machiavelli returns to his thoughts on acquiring new principalities and specifically treats those acquired “through one’s own arms and virtue.” Here we get a clearer idea of the extent of Machiavelli’s divergence from traditional virtue. Here he also mentions Aquinas’ cardinal virtue, prudence, but in a context of pessimism and dishonesty. Machiavelli says that a prince should follow in the footsteps of the great rulers that have gone before him and while he will never be able to mirror their greatness, he can at least, out of prudence, try to mimic them as close as possible in order to be equally successful. Here prudence has an air of utility as well. He adds that without the opportunity to acquire and rule a nation, any virtues (including prudence) the prince may have are wasted and without these virtues, opportunities in turn are wasted.

This further development of virtue as both utilitarian and opportunistic contrasts with Aquinas’ further development of virtue as “an ordered disposition of the soul [in which] the powers of the soul are in some way ordered to one another, and to that which is outside.” Machiavelli cannot speak of “dispositions” for he claims that “the nature of peoples is variable.” Ultimately:

[Those] who become princes by the paths of virtue, acquire their principality with difficulty but hold it with ease; and the difficulties they have in acquiring their principality arise in part from the new orders and modes that they are forced to introduce so as to found their state and their security. And it should be considered that nothing is more difficult to handle, more doubtful of success, more dangerous to manage, than to put oneself at the head of introducing new orders.
Here we see that Machiavelli will not entertain the idea of installing new orders and modes of virtue or turning to virtue to aid in “introducing new orders.” Once they have been used to acquire new principalities they are out of the picture.

Aquinas provides further contrast when he notes from Augustine (“No one can doubt that virtue makes the soul exceeding good”) and from Aristotle (“Virtue is that which makes its possessor good, and his work good likewise”). So far we have no mention from Machiavelli of the soul as the seat of virtue or “the good” as its object, both fundamental concepts in a doctrine of virtue.

In chapter 25 of The Prince, Machiavelli compares fortune to a rushing river that floods and destroys a population that can do nothing to stop it. If only they had constructed the necessary structures to divert the river and protect the people before it flooded they would not have been totally at the mercy of cruel (mis)fortune. “It happens similarly with fortune, which demonstrates her power where virtue has not been put in order to resist her and therefore turns her impetus where she knows that dams and dikes have not been made to contain her.” Here virtue is presented as merely a deterrent to bad luck, misfortune, and by extension, God. Is virtue not good in and of itself? Aquinas gives us the answer:

We must, however, observe that, as accidents and non-subsistent forms are called beings, not as if they themselves had being, but because things are by them; so also are they called good or one, not by some distinct goodness or one-ness, but because by them something is good or one. So also is virtue called good, because by it something is good.
Machiavelli goes on in this chapter to develop virtue as being only good for the prince’s character if the times allow for it. Living a virtuous life is never an absolute vocation, regardless of the people the prince acquires and the manner with which he does so. If the prince is virtuous and the “times and affairs” accept him, then he “comes out happy.” If the times and affairs change, “he is ruined because he does not change his mode of proceeding.” Here Machiavelli associates the life of steadfast virtue with one of rigidity, foolishness, and ultimately, ruin. He illustrates how well Pope Julius II was able to manage his affairs through his impetuousness and implicitly states that virtue will never bring success as Machiavelli defines it. Furthermore, through this illustration, prudence is defined as having “firm conclusions and everything in order.” The contrast with Aquinas’ definition is glaring: “prudence is right reason about human acts themselves” and “is necessary to man, that he may lead a good life, and not merely that he may be a good man.”

Chapter 25 of The Prince is a particularly egregious chapter as Machiavelli explicitly states his wish to “depart from the orders of others.” His mischaracterization of virtue expands as well as he makes a mockery of prudence. In this chapter he speaks of “those things for which men and especially princes are praised or blamed.” He says that the classical instructions to rulers on how to lead with virtue are made up of illusions and are “imagined.” “What is true,” is that leaders will be praised or blamed for a wide variety of characteristics. Returning to his pessimism for the faculties of the human person, Machiavelli states that since the prince cannot have positive traits “nor wholly observe them, since human conditions do not permit it” he must use prudence to decide if avoiding vice is in the best interest of his state one day or if avoiding virtue is in his best interest the next! Using prudence to practice vice, to bring about evil in order to maintain the state is a notion Aquinas readily and reasonably counters: “One can make bad use of a virtue objectively, for instance by having evil thoughts about virtue, e.g., by hating it, or by being proud of it: but one cannot make bad use of virtue as principle of action, so that an act of virtue be evil.”

Finally, we come to chapter 28, “In What Mode Faith Should Be Kept by Princes.” Here, Machiavelli mentions Aquinas’ theological virtue of faith in the similar vein he has been using throughout the work:

One sees by experience in our times that the princes who have done great things are those who have taken little account of faith and have known how to get around men’s brains with their astuteness; and in the end they have overcome those who have founded themselves on loyalty.
He explains that in combat, the prince must be like a fox “to recognize snares” and a lion “to frighten the wolves.” He must avoid virtue with courage and cunning if he discerns that it is not in his best interests. He must put on airs and fake virtue to reel the people in for not only is man wicked and quick to turn on him, but gullible too and easy to please. Virtue is all part of a larger scheme of control and manipulation. The prince must be able to appear “merciful, faithful, humane, honest, and religious” whenever it is useful but he must also always be ready to “act against faith, against charity, against humanity, against religion” in order to “maintain his state.” By this time, Machiavelli has developed a doctrine of virtue with a teleology of mere “glories and riches.” Aquinas has a higher end in mind: “Man is perfected by virtue, for those actions whereby he is directed to happiness [and] partakes of the Divine nature.” And through the theological virtues he is “directed aright to God.”


Laura H. said...


St. Thomas Aquinas, pray for us!

Amy said...

You rock Matty! Can't wait till your next retreat.