History of Political Theory: Aquinas v. Machiavelli

The reason of why different philosophical schools and theories exist is that different philosophies saw and perceived reality in their own individual ways. It is impossible to state that some philosophical methods and right and others are wrong. There are just people, who support certain theories, those who criticize them and a group of people, who does not care about philosophy at all. A separate philosophical study is political philosophy, which is focused on the nature of politics. This paper discusses the political philosophies of Aquinas and Machiavelli, their visions of human nature and state and strives to prove that though their philosophies are different, they both offer many reasonable interpretations.

Aquinas’s Political Philosophy: the Concepts of State, Religion and Human Nature

Aquinas and Machiavelli were chosen for the research, because both philosophers have made an outstanding contribution to the development of political philosophy with their original views. The first philosopher, whose name is Aquinas, is worth some special attention, and it will be interesting to compare his views with the vision of Machiavelli. Thus, the first point of the research is the way Aquinas understands the concept of “a state”. He sees a state as a complex and multilayered phenomenon. A state originates from a desire to promote order at a social level and social groups are ruled by mutual coordination and goals.  One of the leading concepts for Aquinas is the concept of law. He distinguishes three types of laws, namely eternal law, natural law and legitimate human law . Following Aquinas, “The eternal law is the plan of government in the supreme ruler. Natural law explains the meaning of human beings and is revealed in common freedom of people and possession of the property. Not all human laws derive from natural laws and they are established by the governors of the communities.

For a complete understanding of Aquinas’s views, it is necessary to consider the concept of religion in his works. Aquinas writes that “religion calls the faithful to the comprehensive way of life and Christian Church inoculates a comprehensive moral code of conduct.”  Aquinas states that the society, living on the Earth,  is secular and the state aims at creating the secular common good. The structure of authority of this state is the spiritual power. The notion of human nature has a direct connection to the notion of law in the works of Aquinas: “the natural law results from the nature of human beings. But human nature as a whole is one, although multiple regarding its parts.” Being a follower of Aristotle, Aquinas is sure that the human nature consists of two units – mental and physical. People are biological creatures, who perform different physical functions and are intellectuals, following their soul as a principle of life.

Aquinas’s Political Objectives and their Connection with Human Nature

Speaking about the political objectives, determined by Aquinas, it is important to note that the philosopher considered political society to be the highest level of development of the society, higher than a family or a village. Political society develops from other lower societies in his understanding. The main political objective of a ruler, in Aquinas’s opinion, is to fight for the common good of all people, because “there will be an unjust and wicked regime”, if the ruler cares for his personal benefits only. The laws of the political community should be issued on the basis of the needs of this community for easily managing it. The moral objective of lawmakers, which is closely related to the political objectives of the state and rulers, is to make people virtuous through issuing loyal and honest laws.

The enumerated political objectives are fully coordinated with Aquinas’ assumptions about human nature. As the main objective of laws, and consequently, of the state, is making a person virtuous, virtue is the aim of the political system and “what comes from virtue cannot fall within legal percepts.” Following the views of Aquinas, virtues can be intellectual, moral and theological. A state, which promotes virtue for all its citizens, echoes with Aquinas’s vision of human nature, consisting of body and soul. The role of the state in achieving the political objectives is clear and very important. Aquinas is sure that a state is a supreme body for organizing a community in general. Its role should be clearly defined and differ from the role of the Church. Issuing laws is also mostly performed on the basis of natural laws, which reflect the people’s desires, but, as it was noted above, sometimes there is no coordination between two types of laws.

Machiavelli’s Political Philosophy: the Concepts of State, Religion and Human Nature

At the beginning of the discussion of Machiavelli’s theories, it is worth stating that scholars did not manage to determine whether the views of Machiavelli could be labeled as republican, aristocratic, democratic or any other, because they were too multifaceted, unusual and at the same tame answered the expectations of the historic period, in which he lived. Machiavelli considered a state to be an independent political and social entity, which did not recognize any religious, spiritual or universal organization outside its borders. Machiavelli was against organized religion, but not against religion in general and recognized its importance: “Of all the types of men, who are praised, it is the heads and the founders it is the heads and founders of religion, who are most highly praised”.  Machiavelli  states that only ecclesiastical rulers really have states, because they are governed by some super power, which cannot be fully understood by usual people. Therefore, the religion is viewed by Machiavelli in a different way than it is discussed in the works of Aquinas.

Machiavelli was a very progressive philosopher and wrote about the importance for state rulers to be up-to-date: “a ruler will flourish if he adjusts his policies as the character of the times changes.” He discussed many aspects of power and a state and developed a number of political objectives: (1) choosing a group for trusting political freedom and keeping it safe (preferably populace); (2) preventing the religious ceremonies in the state from being corrupted; (3) creating an army for self-defense and the defense of the state; (4) not postponing the application of the measures to win the support of the populace until the last moment; (5) allowing the establishment of dictatorship or some other emergency form of ruling in the times of crisis. The considered philosopher saw these principles as a clue to creating a strong state.

Machiavelli’s Political Objectives and their Connection with Human Nature

It is logic that these political objectives of Machiavelli are closely related with his assumptions about human nature. The Prince, a separate handbook written by Machiavelli, contains the description of the traits, which a skillful ruler should possess and contrasts them with the traits of usual people. Machiavelli wrote that “the nature of the people is variable, and whilst it is easy to persuade them, it is difficult to fix them in that persuasion.” Machiavelli had a cynical attitude to human nature and stated that people were born to serve the powerful. The opposition between rulers and public masses is the basis for developing the aforementioned political objectives, when a ruler should wisely protect himself or herself, by skilfully managing people.

The role of the state in achieving the enumerated objectives is significant. Machiavelli was sure that the main function of a leader was keeping a state safe and secure and a leader could do it only by wisely ruling his or her people. He believed in the power of legitimate human laws, which were issued by the political leaders. A strong state has a successful ruler and a weak state has to face a number of challenges, because it allows many uncertainties before making a decision. Machiavelli claims that there are two forms of states – countries and principalities. State and art of politics are key concepts for the discussed philosopher and they help rulers create such a state, in which political freedom and trust of populace are developed. Machiavelli agrees with Aquinas that some human laws are established by the governments and do not directly derive from natural laws. However, generally, it is possible to claim that the notions of a “state” are different for both philosophers and the concept of law has more accurate connotations in the work of Aquinas.

Machiavelli sees a state as human and material resources with the help of which the governing regime is built. A state, which has two layers of society, namely elite and populace, is easily managed, in case of having a support of both to this or that extent. It is worth noting that Aquinas’s description of a state is not limited by two layers only. The political objectives, determined by Machiavelli, have no sense, if they are not implemented through certain state structure, regime and policies. Machiavelli was deeply interested in the history of Italy, France and Greece and used these countries as examples of rulers and states’ successes and failures. Thus, he demonstrates the connection between a state, people and a ruler. He shows on the example of  some Italian states, which quit their existence, because their rulers were in confrontation with elite, though had some support from the populace. Machiavelli gives some recommendations to the state, who want to survive. He writes that they should return to their finding principles. In such a case it will be easier for them, being ruled by a reasonable leader, to reach the determined political objectives.

To conclude, it is important to note that Aquinas and Machiavelli are two outstanding figures for philosophy in general and for political philosophy in particular. They have developed their individual approaches to the concepts of state and human nature. Aquinas is sure that the state should contribute to making people virtuous, keeping in mind of what components human nature consists, and, in consequence, to facilitate law issuing and formation of a healthy order in a society together with the church. To compare, Machiavelli did not develop such a loyal approach to people and claimed that the function of usual citizens consisted in working for the benefit of those, who had power and considered tyranny to be an effective method for solving problematic issues in a political system.