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Culture and Public Spiritedness in the Good Regime in Machiavelli and Aristotle

by David Foss

Etched across the recorded history of human kind is one unmistakable lesson. Whatever else can be said of the artifactual lives of civilizations, empires, and states, and no matter the inevitable historic situatedness which colors our experience of the past, the reality of human society is known by and in change. The flux of human relatedness is forever marking the time. Cities grow and collapse. Empires rise and fall. The influence of states, in terms of regional authority and domestic legitimacy, waxes and wanes with the passage of years, decades, and centuries. It seems the only thing as inevitable as the temporal instability of communities, is the fundamental need of persons to live in them.

Niccolò Machiavelli, often cited as the scourge of legitimate governance for his clear articulation of some of the less attractive mechanisms of popular control and rule, found in the history of the Roman Empire a metaphorical vision of state power which resonated with the realities of societal movement. He was not explicitly concerned with the foundations of society, in terms of an explicit nature of the human identity, and even disdained such concerns as hopelessly misdirected. The Machiavellian examination of human society is concerned with how social dynamics occur, rather than with why the social life is an issue for us.

Still, there is implicit in his analysis of the mechanisms of social living a model of personhood which is both detailed and complex. In spite of his outward rejection of philosophical concerns, his is a political philosophy in content as well as form, which finds considerable company in the ancient writings of Aristotle. While there are significant points of departure between the two, Machiavelli and Aristotle are in broad agreement concerning the nature of change internal to social being, as well as the insistence that the analysis of political being can adequately be developed only within the context of political realities.

We are social animals. To understand social being, it is counter-productive to suppose we ought to first look to a priori considerations which can guide a vision toward answering what kind of social life is the good one. We are already social. Social living ought to be examined as a reality, not as simply a possibility. In Aristotle, this attention to the realities of social living takes the form of an explicit treatment of the political and institutional structures of regional cities, with an ultimate eye to those structures which are simultaneously most efficient in the exercise of social action and most sensitive to the realities of the individual participants. Certainly, Aristotle’s examination of political structures is guided by a clearly articulated vision of the relationship between the individual and the community, in which each is essentially implicated in the other. As social beings, we can only thrive by and in social living. And social structures are only “stable” to the extent that they invite the social participation (by a proliferation of partnerships) of the constitutive members of a society: the citizenry. That is, the integrity of a social body is based upon its dynamic responsiveness to the individuals which constitute it.[1]

Machiavelli arrives at a somewhat similar thesis, valuing the temporal integrity of those political arrangements which respond dynamically to (and even successfully contain or manipulate) the realities of communal living, while maintaining a strikingly different vision of human nature. Here the relationship between the state and the individual, while never articulated with the clarity Aristotle had offered, is clearly more antagonistic than the vision the older Greek had proposed. Of course, Machiavelli’s driving concern, throughout the Discourses and The Prince, remains that of making sense of the dynamic of governance, and the realities of political living at the level of macro-management. The ultimate underpinnings of political life, which Aristotle locates in our nature as human beings, is not in itself a concern for him. The state, and the political mode of being it entails, is a given feature of the world in which we find ourselves. So, he is wont to conclude, we are unnecessarily distracted by questioning the reality of our way of being in the world politically, rather than directing our full attention on the manifold reality itself, and coming to understand how one lives that reality more responsively and, in a sense, more perfectly.

This concern for political living, however, is tailored specifically to those who, in fact, govern. Machiavelli is as happy to speak of the most appropriate strategies for maintaining the political life of the tyrant, as of the republican. He does not make the further Aristotelian move, to assert that, in virtually every meaningful sense, the members of a community are best served by their participation in ruling; that an individual’s humanity is most authentically revealed in political activity.

Admittedly, such a gloss of Aristotle is not entirely accurate, and may unduly stress his attention to popular participation as the final measure of a regime’s legitimacy, where he is clearly eager to develop a realistic understanding of political life (in which few, if any, existent polities conform to any ideal of ‘universal’ participation). It is equally misleading to imagine Machiavelli is entirely dismissive of the degree to which a given political system either incorporates or alienates the political tendencies of its constituency.

Machiavelli and Aristotle are closer than they might at first appear. Initial points of contrast eventually fade, and give way to complex paths of agreement. Certainly, their approaches are importantly unique. The questions they demand of the political life are subtly colored by deeply differing historic conditions. Yet there remains in their message, in the analysis they bring to social living, a significant and common insight into the dynamic character of political being. Few places do they clash as violently as in their respective views on Sparta, and few places offer as revealing an insight into their peculiar forms of agreement. Their agreement is not direct, and never complete. It could never be claimed, with coherence, that Machiavelli is secretly Aristotelian, or that Aristotle is somehow Machiavellian. But there is something of the nature of culture and public spiritedness, of the fabric of social being that is culture and the enthusiastic engagement (or participation) of a population in their government that is spiritedness, that emerges as central to both approaches, and essential to the effort of making sense of human living as it truly is.

Thus we turn to culture and public spiritedness, and their role in the assessment of the good regime. What is culture? What is public spiritedness? What have they to do with the good regime?

By culture, we generally recognize that unity of purpose or vision by which a people are called a community. As I briefly noted above, culture can be understood as the fabric of social being. It obtains a lesser or greater strength by the degree of coherence (and practical clarity) of those guiding assumptions upon which the members of a group interact. Conventionally, culture is associated with the participation in art, and contemplative thought. Indeed, this is Aristotle’s understanding of the perfection of social living, and the essence of ruling.[2] Following Aristotle then, insofar as culture is the affection of thought, the acquisition, use of and participation in it is what we call education. And in general, to learn modes of interpersonal behavior is to become ‘educated’ into that community in which such modes are the basis of social interaction. Thought, art, and language all account for the presumptive ground upon which a community functions coherently. Culture is education. Culture is rule. Indeed, culture is the ruling of rule. Culture is the speaking of a people.

What then is spiritedness? Spiritedness, in Aristotle, is the essence of freedom, laying claim to the power of each individual.[3] It is the basis of affection and friendship. Mentioned briefly above, I called it the enthusiastic engagement of a people (individually) in participation. It is, in a sense, the democratization of ruling, wherein the will of each individual breathes fully the power of its own authority. Or, more directly, spiritedness is the full engagement of one’s self in living. Contrasted with culture, spiritedness is educating; ruling; the ruling by oneself over oneself and others; the articulation of novel speech. But this may be misleading. Whereas culture is clearly the authority (power) of the community, and its governance, spiritedness is the authority (power) of those who participate in it. It is only in the context of community that an individual can exercise her participatory validity (her power) coherently and with effect. And it is only where participants act and insist upon their validity (asserting one’s power) that the roles and functions of culture can emerge as that with respect to which the members cohere. As a initial point of departure, the distinction, so stated, should be sufficiently clear. The differences, as well as the interconnectedness of these two notions, will emerge more fully as we explore each of them in the context of assessing the validity of a Spartan-style regime, from the point of view of both Machiavelli and Aristotle.

Before embarking on this task, the Machiavellian condition (in terms of the origin of political being) should be noted. For Machiavelli, the social union is founded upon the necessities imposed by defense. The metaphorical origin of Law, indeed Justice itself, lies in the personal fear of being wronged, and in the belief that an individual’s chances of being harmed are reduced where there are constraints placed upon every member of the community.[4] That this is the only value of Law (and thereby culture) is assumed. The nature of social living is thus rendered a burden of necessity imposed upon the participants, inimical to our being, where we must suffer the imposition of co-habitation, for the sake of security. Or so it might seem.

Recalling the notion of culture sketched above, where culture is contrasted with spiritedness as the containment of freedom under the rule of Law (or even mere convention), this reading of the origin of Justice (and by our extended reading of culture, thought and language as well) is not entirely antagonistic to a notion that such Justice is essential to our being. Certainly, Machiavelli agrees that prior to the adoption of culture, when humanity was “few in number, and lived for a time dispersed, like beasts,”[5] there is nothing to distinguish persons from any other creature. Our uniqueness, our humanity, is a feature of our being cultured (being constrained by rules). Still, the starkness of his initial vision, in which such a gloss is less than obvious, remains troublesome. It presents itself as an explicit contradiction of Aristotle, where the primary aim of partnership is not protection but the full articulation of one’s being.[6]

Here as elsewhere, in spite of what could be seen to have been an explicit effort to refute Aristotelian thought, a common ground emerges. Machiavelli has exposed the nature of governance negatively (by that which it is intended to prevent), whereas Aristotle works to expose the nature of governance and partnership positively (by that which is made possible by such conditions). However, the distinctions between their approaches are not limited to contrapositive articulations. The advantage claimed by Machiavelli is that an assumption against the generosity of all persons will better prepare the ruler (whether a prince, nobility, or republic) for the contingencies of ruling.[7] It is not directly a claim that human nature is in truth fundamentally opposed to social obedience, but that the rule of law is better established where it assumes that it is all that stands between good and evil.

Thus the preface to Machiavelli’s first mention of Sparta in The Discourses moves by a pseudo-historical articulation of the beginnings of government. Knowing the task of governance, and the measure of its success, begins in History.

The Lacedæmonian constitution, as established by Lycurgus, is particularly praised by Machiavelli.[8] The perseverance of the Spartan government, extending over eight hundred years, stands as testimony to its structural integrity. Such integrity is contrasted with that of Athens: the pride of Aristotelian thinking. Yet the virtue of the Spartan regime is located precisely in its structural integrity, where the various modes of ruling, and therein the natural tendencies toward specific orders of political authority, have been successfully integrated into a coherent whole. There are three such natural tendencies toward ordered authority. First is the tendency toward a government of one in monarchy, where the prize of societal unity may best be protected. Second is the tendency toward a government of the few in aristocracy, where the prize of thoughtful perspicacity (notable where specialists in the art of ruling preside) may best be efficacious. And third is the tendency toward government of the many in democracy, where the energies and support of the multitude are most powerfully brought to bear as the bulwark of the state (both internally and internationally). These three are each most praiseworthy when they flourish in that system which permits the fullest expression of each, while containing the natural excesses of any one power by the checking influence of the other two powers.[9] The Spartan constitution is praised for the degree to which it mutually promoted, and therein limited, the power of the king, the nobility, and the people, in a single rule of law.[10]

So we have begun with culture. As in Aristotle, and the articulation of culture offered above — the virtue, orderliness, and good of a people — arises through the successful activity of “good education” by “good laws”.[11] Partially concealed, but animating the development of laws of greater efficacy, is the natural ambition of the human will. It is ambition, or the spiritedness of human nature, that drives the articulation of rules of law which can contain, or more properly redirect, its raw power.

Machiavelli locates his praise of the Spartan regime in the degree to which it tempered the ambition of the citizens by an imposition of universal poverty. More precisely, the Sparta of Lycurgus was so constituted as to “establish equality in fortunes and inequality in conditions,”[12] such that no luxury was permitted that might exceed the marginal utility of any individual, while allocation of the powers of political office was executed without accord to wealth. By these two conditions, wealth and power were divided. Private wealth, where permitted to pass beyond the needs of bodily health, feeds ambition without regard to public good. Where the allocation of power need not respect any inequities of such wealth — possible only where it is strictly restrained by the limits of need — the public good can more effectively prevail (as the rule of law would thereby be both the containment and purest expression of ambition).[13]

Machiavelli’s endorsement of Spartan rule is therefore based, in no small part, upon that regime’s pooling of great wealth in the public treasury, while depriving the people of individual luxuries. He is clear in asserting that “as in well-regulated republics the state ought to be rich and the citizens poor,...”[14] Certainly, in isolation, such widespread deprivation of initiative (the rendering of spiritedness inert by culture) would be catastrophic to the state. This danger is avoided in the good regime by the dual marks of honor (reputation) and merit. And these, in turn, are most readily achievable, given an absence of private wealth, in the regime which continually prepares for war.[15]

The primary argument for such a constitution is historical. He is wont to suggest, “poverty produces better fruits than riches, — that the first has conferred honor upon cities, countries, and religions, whilst the latter have only served to ruin them,...”[16] If this were all Machiavelli were suggesting, that such a regime is statistically more likely to persevere, it would not be a terribly strong case. Indeed, it is not at all obvious that history bears him out. Even where a state is so constituted, with the people poor and the state powerful, longevity need not be uniquely attributable to these features. And there are clear cases where an empire persisted in spite of gross inequities in terms of the private wealth of citizens. The British Empire would have neither been so large, nor so powerful, had the citizenry been forced to surrender all private profit to the Crown.

Admittedly, this is not intended as a serious objection. The possible ambivalence of history to his case is intended to suggest that he makes appeal to a more developed theory of social being. Without such a substantive basis for the endorsement of the Spartan regime, beyond the apparent historical persistence of its power, it is unclear what he can offer against Aristotle’s condemnation of that same regime.

The criticisms of Lycurgus’ Sparta offered by Aristotle might not be so threatening to Machiavelli if they were based merely upon speculative philosophy. But the argument against the Lacedæmonian constitution is staged upon the historical failures of that regime to adequately account for its population, and be as productively disposed in times of peace as it was in times of war. He charges that the Lacedæmonians treat the helots (common slaves) with such oppression as to inspire hatred against their lords (an error commonly criticized by Machiavelli elsewhere); there is no constitutional provision concerning the women, thus leaving roughly half the population outside the scope of Law; in the distribution of power between the people, senators, and king, as well as the allocation of military command, there is such poor management as to produce dangerous inequities between them; and finally, the exclusive emphasis upon military virtue in the distribution of honors prevents the promotion (and development) of civic virtues.[17] This indictment is notable for more than its broad reach. Nearly every point against the Spartan government is a failure Machiavelli would be as quick to denounce. With the exception of the final criticism, where Aristotle takes issue with the Spartan obsession with military virtue, Machiavelli would have no reason to disagree with the analysis.

As this is not a trivial claim, it would be helpful to see how at least one of Aristotle’s criticisms demands Machiavelli’s agreement. The criticism of Lacedæmonian treatment of the helots should be straightforwardly agreeable to Machiavelli, as should be the failure of the Lacedæmonian constitution to properly restrain the powers of the overseers (an office whereby the voice of the people may exercise some power over the government).[18] At the very least these are not so distant from explicit Machiavellian criticisms made elsewhere. It is therefore most instructive in this context to look to the claimed failure of Spartan rule to concern itself with the female population.

The Aristotelian rebuff concerning the governance of the Spartan women centers on two issues. The first is the overemphasis of the law on the male members of the society, such that the education and regulation of the women is left almost entirely wanting. The second is the grossly disproportionate distribution of property as the result of such laxness in the law. Concerning the first then, Aristotle identifies it as harmful with a view “to the intention of the regime”.[19] The execution of the law has defied the intentions of the lawmaker. A failure to ‘educate’ fully half of the population toward obedience is a rather serious oversight, and one Machiavelli would harshly rebuke. This is even clearer given Aristotle’s second point of attack: that such laxity has been harmful with a view “to the happiness of the city”, by contributing to the greed of the women.[20] As frequently identified by Machiavelli, the luxury of material excess, and the values which accompany it, are chief among the vices responsible for the disintegration of regimes from within.[21] It should therefore be clear that, at least in terms of these failures, Machiavelli would not differ with Aristotle’s evaluation of the Spartan regime. However, the final charge against Sparta, leveled by Aristotle, is a direct challenge to Machiavelli.

The exclusive concern of the laws of Sparta toward the promotion and utilization of “warlike virtue” is identified by Aristotle as preventing the city from both the proper enjoyment of leisure, and the proper management of the common treasury generally.[22] The later point, concerning the management of the common treasury, is not one entirely alien to a Machiavellian analysis. Machiavelli would certainly agree that the loss of public funds by mismanagement is a failure in any regime. But Aristotle places the blame for such mismanagement squarely upon the myopic Spartan devotion to military science. That the Lacedæmonians take warlike virtue as higher than any sense of general virtue, leaves them ill equipped to manage the city in terms other than military preparedness. In the end, such mismanagement even corrupts their capacity to effectively engage in military endeavors. All this — amounting to a fundamental failure of civic education — is the result of that peculiar feature of Spartan rule so praised by Machiavelli: the deprivation of the people in terms of material luxury permits the merit of any individual to be measured more purely in terms of military valor.

The other objections offered by Aristotle against Sparta differ with Machiavelli as a matter of history. Machiavelli, if he refused to accept Aristotle’s assessment on these counts, would have to argue that the Spartan regime is being factually misrepresented. If he concedes the historic story given by Aristotle, he would have to concur in Aristotle’s critique. The final objection is different.

Whereas the earlier objections take issue with the degree to which Sparta efficiently and evenly implemented the ideals of its constitution (forwarding the claim that the Lacedæmonians frequently failed on this count), the final objection takes issue with the constitutional intention itself. Indeed, the failures of Lacedæmonians to meet their constitutional imperatives are seen as directly resulting from a fundamental flaw in its orientation. It is not sufficient for a population to concern itself exclusively with the waging and preparing for war. In a sense, the warrior culture is not an adequate human culture. And any regime that takes it to be, fails to accommodate our full humanity, and forces the expression of spiritedness (to the degree to which our spiritedness does not readily obey the confines of the conventional-warrior regimentation) outside the realm of the Law. It thereby undermines its own legitimacy, and renders its own usurpation inevitable.

This is a serious charge against Machiavelli, but one which depends upon a view in which human spiritedness cannot be fully encompassed by military virtue. It is a charge that depends upon a view that there is more to ruling — that there is more to the regulation of human spiritedness by culture — than military regimentation and strength. And this is a view not easily pressed into Machiavellian thinking. It is clearly part of Aristotle’s approach, that civic virtue is only tangentially concerned with military preparedness and warlike virtue. The Aristotelian life is most fundamentally concerned with the proper utilization of leisure, not the proper conduct of war (although warlike virtue is certainly part of virtue generally).

Machiavelli is far more prepared to praise a regime for its conduct in war, than for any other aspect of its political temperament. The difference with Aristotle is as much a feature of his notion of spiritedness as it is of his view toward culture (or education). Both he and Aristotle approach spiritedness as the drive common to all persons as a function of their natural constitution, but differ as to the specificity of its directedness. Machiavelli confines his notion of spiritedness to the insatiable lust for self-aggrandizement.[23] Aristotle, in contrast, extends the notion of spiritedness across the whole of human willing, specially accounting for the faculties directly susceptible to rational supervision.[24] It might be crudely suggested that Machiavelli has simply associated the spiritedness with appetite, whereas Aristotle has associated it with will.[25] But this is clearly not the case with either, as becomes clear if we reflect upon the role and nature of culture for both.

The equivocation of culture and education forwarded in this paper is not a loose or insignificant one. The process of bringing an individual into a community is education. The unique role of education, above any other civic enterprise, is in the establishment and perpetuation of culture. This is the meaning of education for both Machiavelli and Aristotle. Even beyond their agreement on this rather conservative definition, both maintain that the virtue of any individual — the degree of her merit — is at least as much a function of education as of natural aptitude.[26] Character is therefore the province of culture. And insofar as we understand spiritedness to be the motivational foundation upon which individuals act, culture will be that which structures, directs, and characterizes it.

Spiritedness emerges, under both conceptions, as the substance of culture. Machiavelli does not view the natural desires of individuals as beyond the scope of education. So it is misleading to suppose that our general notion of appetite (in which we are helpless with respect to modification short of satisfaction) captures his fuller conception of human desires. It cannot be said that either he, or Aristotle, glosses over essential characteristics of human psychology by a sloppy devotion to some particularly salient aspect of motivation. What can be said is that Machiavelli considers the appetites a better metaphor for all self-motivated action, and Aristotle considers the will a more appropriate model.

Under the pressure of Aristotle’s attack on Spartan rule, Machiavelli’s praise has emerged as involving more than the mere recognition of the regime’s resilience across time. This is not to suggest that Aristotle is particularly anti-Spartan. There is much that Aristotle praises of the Lacedæmonian state, and it would be a serious mistake to think that his criticisms arise from some dogmatic prejudice (in keeping with the temperament of his Athenian audience). Still, his assault on Spartan rule is a serious one. Had Machiavelli accepted, or even considered, the history attributed to Sparta by Aristotle, he too would have had much to ridicule. Indeed, as pointed out above, his criticisms would have looked much like Aristotle’s. Where the two diverge, or where they would have diverged had they agreed to a common historical account, renders manifest their philosophical dispute, and by extension, the substantive foundation of Machiavelli’s assessment.

The claim that the appetite is a more useful model for understanding social behavior is not insignificant, philosophically or politically. That Aristotle concerns himself with a wider range of human motivations, including the appetites as a relevant (and significant) aspect of our nature, opens his evaluation of political structures to the possibility of noting failures concealed by narrower readings of the human reality. It is generally recognized that Aristotle’s Politics, while a pragmatic enterprise, remains a work of significant philosophical interest. But this shows that Machiavelli’s work is not so different. Certainly, his is not a work of speculative philosophy. Neither is Aristotle’s. Yet Machiavelli’s position does stand upon a non-trivial conception of human nature, the validity of which is implicitly asserted by his insistence that it renders a more accurate reading of the past, and a more prudent expectation for the future. Like Aristotle, his is a pragmatics firmly rooted in a particular stand concerning how we ought to view ourselves.

It would be disingenuous to pretend that I do not favor Aristotle’s vision of social being. Once Machiavelli has surrendered the illusion of having a non-normative conception of political being, the Aristotelian conception of the person offers a far more fertile ground upon which to form prudent policy. Nevertheless, Machiavellian pragmatism has much to offer. While Aristotle confines much of his analysis to the internal integrity of political arrangements, Machiavelli casts a more persistent eye to the realities of international modes of behavior, and the mechanics of popular movements.

The persistence of a regime is never successful by the elimination of change. Good living is not possible where political arrangements have become rigid. The pragmatic character of the enterprise demands that these realities be recognized of politics. The realistic analysis of politics which both Machiavelli and Aristotle demand, and their mutual praise for the achievement of dynamic/temporal resilience, suggests a common heritage. However, in the interplay of culture and spiritedness, central to their assessments of the Spartan regime established by Lycurgus, each emerges in a subtly unique light. Politics is the realm of this interplay, and so the divergence of their views concerning the nature of the interplay is directly relevant to their political philosophies.

Whether Aristotelian or Machiavellian, pragmatism, essential for a useful account of political being, reveals itself as philosophy, no less than the purely speculative sciences.

Fundamentals of Political Theory
PHIL-505-01, Georgetown University
Fall 1991
(© David Foss, October 12, 1992)

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Last modified August 26, 1998

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