April 8, 2002
Government Response Paper
Utopian or Reality?
Throughout history, it can be argued that at the core of the majority of successful societies has stood an effective allocation of leadership. Accordingly, in their respective works The Tao-te Ching and The Prince, Lao-Tzu and Machiavelli have sought to reach a more complete understanding of this relationship. The theme of political leaders and their intricate relationship with society indeed manifests itself within both texts, however, both Lao-Tzu and Machiavelli approach this issue from almost entirely opposite positions. Lao-Tzu appears to focus the majority of his attention on letting problems or situations take their course and allowing good to prevail. On the contrary, Machiavelli advocates the necessity for a successful leader, or prince, to take control of his endeavors, and the skills or qualities necessary to maintain power, at any cost. Since these thinkers both make an inquiry to what is essentially the same dilemma of effective leadership, it becomes almost a natural progression to juxtapose the two in an effort to better understand what qualities a prosperous leader must possess. In this sense, when we utilize the rhetorical strategy of compare/contrast as a vehicle to transport us to a more enlightened interpretation of Lao-Tzu and Machiavellis conclusions, it becomes apparent that Machiavellis effort is much more successful as his practicality serves its purpose much more effectively.
Although they share some similarities in ideology, these parallels are greatly overshadowed by the concepts in which Lao-Tzu and Machiavelli diverge. Their primary distinction lies within their view of human nature and its role in governing. Lao-Tzu maintains that if we promote a system of governing to the least possible extent, then human nature should manifest a favorable temperance and dictate the direction of society. In fact, Lao-Tzu asserts numerous attempts to illustrate his point that if leaders, Stop Trying to control ( 57, 35), then there is no desire ( 37, 24), he dwells in reality ( 38, 29), and the world will govern itself. ( 57, 35) Although this is an extremely optimistic and beneficial ideal, the main problem with Lao-Tzus entire philosophy is exactly that, it can only be viewed as a philosophy. Because it appears under the section entitled Government, I feel as though I am disposed to analyze it as a possible effective form of governing. I believe Lao-Tzus glaring weakness is that he drastically underestimates the potential problems of human nature, especially in the sense that he places us in what is essentially a society void of any possible laws or regulations. Perhaps in his time Lao-Tzu viewed that his interpretation of human nature was entirely possible, but as far as the twenty-first century is involved, the idea that if societies are left unattended we are able to Trust them ( 75, 59) is absurd. It can be argued legitimately that Lao-Tzus concepts have been applied and in fact have proven to be extremely effective. For example, a capitalistic, laissez-faire approach to governing, particularly the form advocated by American Republicans. However, cases of removing regulations and adopting the leadership standards Lao-Tzu advises have been strictly applied to market economics, not to each and every facet of government.
Refraining from absolute negativity about Lao-Tzus work, the Tao does have many redeemable qualities. The emphasis Lao-Tzu places on the attainment of individual happiness is extremely honorable, however this doesnt detract from the ineffectiveness Lao-Tzu encounters, as he is unable to come to well-grounded conclusion on the means for effective leadership. His advice to politicians is to only interfere when it is an absolute necessity; yet he takes this to a radical extreme advising leaders to pretty much do nothing. His ideas are taken to an extent where if human nature falters, which it has proven to do time and time again, then his approach advises to let things go their own way. ( 29, 16) It seems that in some cases third party intervention becomes a necessity, a side of the story that Lao-Tzu conveniently fails to mention.
On the other hand, Machiavelli provides what I feel is a much more realistic approach to government as he takes account for the disposition of human nature to lean towards negativity, as opposed to an inclination to do good as a matter of principle. However, just as Machiavelli prescribed an informed knowledge of history to properly exercise the mind for the role of prince, an insight into the political environment and motivations that surrounded Machiavelli as he wrote becomes a necessity in understanding his philosophy. Machiavelli, born in 1469:
Was a privileged aristocrat whose fortunes wavered according to the shifts of power in Florence. Renaissance Italy was a collection of powerful city-states, which were sometimes volatile and unstable. When Florences famed Medici princes were returned to power in 1512 after eighteen years of banishment, Machiavelli did not fare well. He was suspected of crimes against the state and imprisoned. Even though he was not guilty, he had to learn to support himself as a writer instead of continuing his career in civil service. (WI 35)
What resulted from his ostracism was an attempt in The Prince to win over Lorenzo de Medici and restore his prominence in Italian political society. Through his efforts, Machiavelli was explicitly advising Leonardo of the urgency to grant what was his one ultimate goal: an Italy that remained unified politically as a defense against the ever-growing threat of invasion from its powerful neighbors: Spain and France. Over the years, Machiavelli had developed a cynical attitude towards the political leadership Italy was experiencing. Accordingly, much of Machiavellis cynicism was a direct result of his abhorrence for the Roman Catholic Church which by maintaining a series of temporal states, helped to keep Italy divided. (pg 765 En) Because of his intensity in creating a distinct support of the end justifying the means, my contention is that Machiavellis lack of moral encouragement is an implicit reproach of the Catholic Church. If the Churchs policies had denied Italy unification, then indeed Machiavelli would be upset as this would oppose the ideals he had envisioned. To further illustrate this point, it is an obvious deduction that the church would promote the attainment of a moral well-being. To counteract this, and in essence protest the actions of the church, Machiavelli created a relationship that contrasted the values of the church, approving anything if it meant the secure hold of power. This pessimistic view of human nature is brought to light though as Machiavelli successfully advises the prince through his practical advice.
One of Machiavellis initial ideas is based on the notion that we are always preparing for war, and a sufficient ruler will always be in training accordingly. His view on human nature first comes into play here as he argues that a prince whom knows nothing about war cannot trust even his own soldiers, asserting that human nature doesnt have an inclination to promote peace. Machiavellis effectiveness in proving his point of the necessity of securing direct leadership lies in his ability to systematically break down the qualities that would be inherent in an auspicious prince, to a point where he provides us with concrete details that become demonstratively obvious. As he progresses in his theorizing, Machiavelli proclaims that he is searching for the effectual truth of the matter rather than its imagined one, or in other words, he is seeking to describe the world how it is, not how it ought to be. He realizes that leaders are placed on a pedestal and therefore are generally recognized as possessing one particular quality. He illustrates that a human being cannot be perfect, and he criticizes those who seek to attain perfection, as it is hypocritical. In the subsequent chapter, he gives the example of generosity to facilitate his point. He advises the prince to not develop a reputation of generosity as in the process of impressing a few he will have successfully alienated others, as the prince will have to result to raising taxes to maintain his reputation as being generous. Machiavellis view on the irrelevance of ethics and the inherently negative aspect of human nature is displayed as he supports his idea about generosity by affirming that men are by nature are ungrateful, fickle, simulators and deceivers, avoiders of danger, and greedy for gain. (Pg. 44)
As Machiavelli continues, he concentrates on the cynicism present in the world and his advocacy of brutality and violence if it means unity. This further illustrates Machiavellis point that he wishes to display things how they are, not how they ought to be, contrary to Lao-Tzus philosophy. To arrive at his conclusion, Machiavelli formulates many of his principles into maxims beginning with it is much safer to be feared than to be loved. (Mach 44) He suggests this because citizens will more readily obey a leader that they fear because it is for their own self-interest. Machiavelli remains sure-footed as he recognizes that cruelty is not necessarily the answer. He advocates its necessity only in an instance whereby the prince would be compromising himself should he not utilize such resources. This serves as a prime example of how Machiavelli utilizes rhetorical strategy to further his point. By discussing both sides of the issues and effectively utilizing comparison and contrast, Machiavelli presents the reader with both sides of the issue, which allows the reader to side with Machiavelli as his position seems more logical. Lao-Tzu fails to discuss both sides of the issue and this consequently deducts from the validity of his advice.
As he begins to conclude, Machiavelli states that the prince: should think about avoiding those things which make him hated and despised. (Mach 48) Although these lack any withstanding moral values, they are effective in the sense that they better serve their purpose. Machiavelli was seeking to display a way to hold political power by any means possible not a utopian state. This may mean malicious acts, imprisonment, and torture, or it may mean the utilization of power to achieve a common good. Machiavelli doesnt elaborate on this. He concentrates on a realistic approach towards government, as he remains concerned with the establishment and protection of power.