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Machiavelli and Plato

This paper considers some of the opinions of these men, as given in The Prince and The Republic. (13 pages; 2 sources; MLA citation style)


We can learn a lot about our world from those who have gone before, even if they are removed from us by hundreds, even thousands, of years. Two such authors are Plato and Niccolo Machiavelli, whose ideas about government, justice and freedom are still relevant today.
This paper answers some questions about both men and their beliefs and observations.

Question 1: Definitions of Justice

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The wealthy Cephalus begins the discussion of justice by saying that because he is rich, he has never deceived or defrauded others, and that when he dies he knows what he owes to both gods and men, which gives him great peace of mind.

Socrates says, then justice is paying your debts and speaking the truth? But aren’t there times when one shouldn’t speak the truth? Cephalus’ son Polemarchus speaks up, agreeing with Socrates. At that point Cephalus leaves, saying Polemarchus will take up the argument.
Socrates doesn’t say what he thinks justice is; instead he lets Polemarchus speak. The latter quotes Simonides as saying that a repayment of a debt is just, and he agrees with that. But Socrates then leads Polemarchus through a series of questions and answers (we now call it the Socratic method) that ends up with Polemarchus totally confused and having to take back what he said.

At that point Thrasymachus, who can’t stand it any longer, interrupts and castigates Socrates for not answering directly but taking others’ arguments to bits instead. Then he says that justice is simply the interest of the stronger. Socrates demolishes him as well, taking him through the same type of questioning as he’d done with Polemarchus, until Thrasymachus admits that justice is a matter of the strong looking out for the interest of the weak; the opposite of his original meaning.

Thrasymachus tries again and again Socrates demolishes him, concluding that justice is good and virtue and injustice is evil and vice. Thrasymachus retires and Socrates thinks it’s over, only to have Glaucon challenge him by saying that he thinks men are just only because they are forced, not because they want to do right. Adeimantus also chimes in, saying that men who only appear to be just gain the same respect as if they truly were just, so what’s the difference?

It’s not until much later, when he discusses his concept of the city/state, that Socrates finally gives his definition of justice, which turns out to be, basically, minding one’s own affairs and acting in accordance with the inner harmony found in one’s own soul.

Question 2: The Guardians’ Lifestyle

The guardians, who are guarding an imaginary state, should be young and exhibit some of the same characteristics of a watchdog: faithful and true to the family but on guard and hostile to strangers. It is their duty to maintain freedom in the State: this is to be their “craft.” They are to perfect this craft by, among other things, imitating those who are “courageous, temperate, holy, and free,” but shunning those who are base, “lest from imitation they should come to be what they imitate.” Such imitations can grow into habits and become second nature, affecting everything about the person and not, in this case, for the better.

In order to remain free from these evil influences, Socrates suggests that certain things should be forbidden to the guardians, including the ancient myths and legends which portray the foibles of the gods, though those that show the gods as godly should be permitted, so that the guardians may try to emulate them.

He also relates the legend that when gods made men, they put certain metals into them and that the guardians are those who contain a bit of gold. Because of this, they have no need for any sort of luxury; indeed, they are forbidden to even touch gold or live in any sort of luxury. By denying the guardians any private property, Socrates insists they will remain objective, free from influence, and dedicated to the interests of the state.

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Question 3: The Ring of Gyges

Gyges was a shepherd tending the sheep of the King of Lydia. During a great storm, an earthquake opened a huge crack in the ground, and Gyges climbed down. He found a “hollow brazen horse” with a dead body inside; the body was of greater stature than a man’s, and was wearing only a gold ring. Gyges took the ring and climbed back out.

He soon found that if he turned the ring one way it made him invisible, but when he turned it the other, he was visible again. Using the ring’s powers, he entered the King’s palace, seduced the queen, and with her help slew the King and took his kingdom.

The point of the story is to illustrate the fact that even good and just men will commit unjust acts when they think they can do so with impunity. Glaucon argues that if two men, one just and the other unjust, both found such magic rings, the actions of the just man and the unjust man would be exactly the same, for who can avoid such temptation as invisibility provides? In other words, there is no real difference in the actions between just and unjust men given these circumstances; that is, any man, even the best, can be tempted to commit unjust actions when the gain is great and the risk to himself small and when he believes he can be safely unjust.

Question 4: Socrates’ Model City

Socrates is trying to create a Just City, one in which there is an equal division of labour and where everyone’s needs are met. The people live well, they are healthy, but this Just City is in no sense luxurious. Socrates considers a luxurious city, which ends up being much larger than the Just City, and requires an army to protect it. Soon, of course, the larger city runs out of land, it needs to expand and becomes enmeshed in war with its neighbours. He suggests that the luxurious city is not his ideal for a Just City.

In order for his Just City to actually come about, what’s required is one of two things: that true philosophers be compelled to become its rulers, or that king or the sons of kings – also “divinely inspired with a love of true philosophy” – take charge. The keyword here is “philosophy.”

He says this because he truly believes that philosophy is the highest art and that its practitioners are free from the follies and foibles of other men; they will not be influenced by wealth or power; or allow themselves to be flattered into accepting the will of others. Their studies in philosophy have taught them what men are like, and they can use this knowledge to rule wisely.

Question 5: Plato’s Cave

The allegory of Plato’s Cave is one of the most famous in all literature. It tells of people who were raised from childhood in a dark cave, chained so that they cannot move their heads. The only light is from a fire burning behind and above them, and behind them (between them and the fire) is a raised walkway with others passing freely along with it. All they can see, then, because they are compelled to face forward, are the shadows of those passing behind them; likewise, if they hear any sound, they will assume it came from the shadows because they have no idea that real people are anywhere nearby. Thus, their entire reality is made up of shadows; of the Forms of things, and not the things themselves.

When someone is released from the cave, the sun outside is so bright that he cannot see. Likewise, when he reenters the cave, his eyes are now used to daylight and he can no longer see in the dark. Furthermore, if he tries to tell the other prisoners that they were seeing only shadows, they would likely laugh at him, and if they were able to free themselves, they would kill him.

Socrates is using the story to talk about the blindness of humans, those who see only the shadows, and those who see only the forms (spirit and reality). It’s necessary, he says, to acknowledge the reality of both.

Question 6: Machiavelli’s Soldiers

Machiavelli is very readable, possibly because he says what he means. In The Prince, he says that there are three kinds of soldiers that a prince may use: his own, mercenaries, auxiliaries, or mixed.

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His own troops are the men that are loyal to the prince himself and fight for their country. Mercenaries are men who are paid to fight; auxiliaries are the troops of another powerful man whom the prince asks to help him in his conflict, and mixed troops are made up of all three.

The differences are striking. The troops loyal to the Prince are the ones that he believes should always be used, because they fight out of a sense of duty and honour. Mercenaries fight only for money, and as such cannot be trusted to fight well. Machiavelli believes them to be cowards who turn tail and run if there is any likelihood that they’ll actually have to enter combat. But they are not the worst; that honour belongs to the auxiliaries.

The auxiliaries, unlike the mercenaries, fight well, but they owe their allegiance to a different prince. It is Machiavelli’s opinion that auxiliaries, having helped the prince, will then turn on him and try to take his kingdom in the name of their ruler. “If anyone, therefore, wants to make sure of not winning he will avail himself of troops such as these.” (Machiavelli, p. 39).
His advice to the ruler is to stick with his own soldiers, and refrain from either hiring or borrowing others.

Question 7: Differences between Plato and Machiavelli

Freedom is vital for Plato; and his support of it is apparent in his discussion of the four forms of government: timocracy, oligarchy, democracy, and tyranny. He suggests that timocracy (apparently a word he coined) is a “government of honour” run by aristocrats (“the government of the best.”) Presumably under such a government there would be little input from ordinary citizens, but that isn’t the main problem; the difficulty here is that such a government will eventually collapse as “impure” elements come into it. (Here Plato gives a long dissertation, including mathematical formulas, to describe the way in which the pure “gold” of the aristocrats’ families – you’ll recall that the guardians have gold in them – is combined with that of others to become baser metal. This will inevitably lead to conflict.) Thus, this government by people who seem to come close to being gods will not last.

In its place comes a sort of hybrid, partly good and partly evil, a government mid-way between timocracy and oligarchy. When it passes, oligarchy (something like the government we have now in the U.S., run by the rich and benefiting the rich) comes into existence.

This government arises as certain people become wealthy. When they achieve a certain level of prosperity, Socrates says, they “proceed to make a law which fixes a sum of money as the qualification of citizenship… These changes in the constitution they effect by force of arms, if intimidation has not already done their work.” (Plato, VIII, PG).

This type of government also fails, because it is based on money, not capability. Those who have money rule, even if they are less skilled than those without means. The oligarchy is thus characterized by great extremes between rich and poor; poor education generally; poor training and an “evil constitution.” Finally, though, the oligarchy disappears to be replaced by democracy.

The oligarchy, like the timocracy before it, is subject to internal collapse, as well as outer tension, as the poor finally rise against injustice.
In a democracy, Socrates says, “a man may say and do what he likes.” (Plato, VIII, PG). That in turn means that he can order his own life as he pleases; that is, he can do as he wishes. Socrates describes democracy as “the fairest of States, being an embroidered robe which is spangled with every sort of flower.” (VIII, PG). Here he means that as people decide their own futures for themselves, the new democratic state will be full of people of all walks of life.

In addition, he says, “because of the liberty which reigns there,” a democracy has “a complete assortment of constitutions,” and anyone who wants to establish a state of his own can go there and pick one that suits him best. In other words, democracy is the best possible pattern for other states.

Obviously, then, for Plato, freedom is the basic cornerstone of the democratic government, which he considers the best form under which men must live. It follows then that his political interests lie in the exercise of the responsibilities that lie with members of such a democracy, particularly as he goes on to argue that democracy can devolve into tyranny, again because of the mechanism of wealth. In order to avoid such an outcome, he would no doubt be observant of any changes in the social order that would indicate such a course.

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Machiavelli, though, is comfortable in a country divided into different kingdoms and spheres of influence. The Prince was written for the benefit of Lorenzo de’ Medici and was meant as a little handbook of advice on how to govern wisely and well. (It’s here that we read his dictum that it’s better to be feared than loved.) Clearly, Machiavelli is not interested in examining the idea of a democratic state, since he lives in a monarchy and is writing to its ruler with sound advice on how to remain in power.

Machiavelli seems to see freedom as either a threat or a tool; not at all a positive thing as Plato does. He says that when a prince acquires states that have previously been accustomed to living under their own laws, he has three ways of keeping them. “The first is to destroy them, the second to go and live therein, and the third to allow them to continue to live under their own laws, taking a tribute from them and creating within them a new government of a few which will keep the state friendly to you.” (P. 12). He also says that a city accustomed to freedom can be more easily held through its citizens than any other way. (P. 12).

The idea of installing a sort of “puppet government” of a few men loyal to the prince is tantamount to creating a dictatorship in an attempt to coerce the citizens into obeying the laws of the prince, now being enacted through this new government.

Machiavelli sees freedom in this regard as a rallying point for dissidents, an “incentive to rebellion [in] the name of liberty.” (P. 13). States accustomed to living under a prince are used to obeying, but states that are free have no such memories; they will rebel. Machiavelli suggests then that they either be completely destroyed or that the prince go and live in the new territory.

Machiavelli’s political interests clearly lie not with the citizen, but with the prince himself. (He wrote his wonderfully sly little book in the hope of winning de’ Medici’s favour.) Plato is a philosopher, but Machiavelli is a politician, and in that, perhaps, lies the greatest difference between the two. Plato considers the issue of statehood and government from a somewhat abstract viewpoint, looking for truth and causality in the formation of cities and states. He has the long view of the philosopher; further, he holds no position in the government, nor does he seek one.

Machiavelli, however, was closely involved in government; he was secretary to the Republic of Florence for a time and was employed on several diplomatic missions. It was very much in his interest to remain on the “right side” of the prince since his livelihood depended on keeping the favor of whichever faction was in power. His view of politics, then, is much more real and less abstract than Plato’s. And whereas Plato sees freedom as a great blessing to be cherished, Machiavelli sees it as a problem to be solved.


Classic authors such as Plato and Machiavelli tell us a great deal about our own world by the insights they give us into theirs. Thousands of years after Plato, most people still consider democracy the supreme form of government; at least it’s the best we can achieve.
And 500 years after he wrote, we’re still reading Machiavelli to learn the best ways to govern.


Machiavelli, Niccolo. The Prince. New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts, 1947.

Plato. The Republic. The Internet Classics Archive [Web site]. 1994-2000. Accessed: 7 Mar 2003.

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