Plato and Machiavelli and How Their Ideas Essay

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Plato and Machiavelli, and how their ideas on leadership compare and contrast with each other. To do this, their respective works the Republic and the Prince will be used.

In addition to the works by the two main authors considered, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy will provide important insight on Machiavelli and his work. Indeed, the piece authored by Nederman (2009) contains a section that specifically considers The Prince and Machiavelli's concept of leadership. In addition, Farmer's work also contains several good chapters on leadership, ethics, and how Machiavelli's concept of these is to be understood. For Plato's work, Goethals and Sorenson (2005) provided some good insight into his ideas of leadership and what these mean for ethical leadership today.

These works provide a valuable addition to the primary works by the authors themselves, as well as how the two might be compared with each other.

Application to Ethical Leadership

One of the greatest insights that might be gained from both authors is the fact that ethics in leadership is not a constant phenomenon. Indeed, there are many viewpoints that might be justified by any philosophy or argument. This is as true today as it was in Plato's time and as it remained in Machiavelli's time. The nature of politics and business often dictate the meaning of ethics in leadership. For both Machiavelli and Plato, for example, occasional lying is justified, although for widely divergent reasons. Lying today, on the other hand, is seldom justified and constitutes fraud. At the same time, politicians are notorious for lying, even while this is not considered ethical behavior in any sense.

Leadership today has many treacherous pitfalls and difficulties as companies navigate the world of business. Indeed, this is evidenced by the many cases of fraud, insider trading, and other questionable activities within companies and by leaders themselves. The leader of today, therefore, has to navigate not only a difficult maze of potential unethical activity by his or her subordinates, but also resist the temptation to be the perpetrator of such activities him- or herself. In politics, the situation is even more difficult. Pressure to win elections, provide citizens with the best possible leadership, and to manage many difficult political situations and relationships could easily tempt a leader into highly unethical activities, including bribery and even, at worst, murder. This has been the case throughout the history of statesmanship and leadership. Many authors have addressed the issue of ethical leadership, advancing vastly divergent opinions and ideals. This becomes clear when comparing the writings of Machiavelli, who held political advancement as higher ideal for the leader than personal or social ethics, and Plato, who believed in leadership as a position to be taken by a highly ethical and educated "guardian."


According to Nederman (2009), Machiavelli criticizes the traditionally moralistic view of authority in his work The Prince. Indeed, Machiavelli holds that there is and should be no moral basis for the use of power. In fact, power should be the only determinant for the right to authority. Those with the greatest power are those with the right to lead. This is a philosophy in which goodness has no place. Goodness does not ensure power and should therefore not be used in the measure of a good leader. Indeed, the political leader should strive only to obtain and maintain power by any means possible.

According Nederman (2009), Machiavelli draws on his own experience with his political environment to advance his views. He does not, however, advocate the random application of power in order to maintain the leadership position. In The Prince, Machiavelli is also highly concerned with the way in which power is to be acquired and used. He therefore uses various figures from history to demonstrate both the proper and improper ways of using power. The main purpose of power and political rule is to ensure the safety and security of the state.

Early in The Prince, Machiavelli raises the opinion that those who become political leaders as a result of inheritance will maintain their powers more easily than those who newly arrive in the position from other states. Even with average power, such a prince can maintain his position by little more than keeping to the traditions of his family and dealing with circumstances that arise during his rule, since the people are used to being ruled by the family. The only way to deprive such a prince of his position is by "extraordinary and excessive force." Machiavelli uses the Duke of Ferrara as an example of such a leader, who withstood the attacks of potential usurpers only because of his longstanding position. Hence, he had the most power and could therefore maintain the most authority.

Machiavelli follows this by the conclusion that, should one be able to enter a province with the purpose of taking over leadership, strong armed forces is just one component of winning such a battle. In addition, one would need the goodwill of those living in the states being taken over. As an example of failed leadership, Machiavelli uses Louis XII, who occupied Milan, but failed to keep it for a very long time. One of the reasons for this was that his deception of the citizens, who did not benefit from his rulership, but were instead ill treated. To truly gain and maintain power, Machiavelli suggests that the new ruler enter the new state and reside there to become accustomed to the way of life in the state. This would enable the ruler to rule with greater understanding not only of how to gain trust from his followers, but also to rule them in the way that they require or are used to. In this respect, Machiavelli suggests three ways in which to gain and maintain power in new countries. Since citizens are accustomed to their own laws and freedoms, one course of action is to ruin them, to reside there in person and gain their trust, or to permit them to live under their own rules, but to draw a tribute for this privilege. In all these ways the new leader can establish a position of power while citizens also understand that they cannot survive without him.

At the same time, however, Machiavelli also suggests that rulers should maintain power by all means necessary, even if this means making citizens fear him. The kind of leader that impresses Machiavelli most is exemplified in Cesare Borgia (Farmer, 2005, p. 143). Indeed, Machiavelli goes as far as referring to him as the ideal prince, who tricked the Orsini leaders into trusting him and then strangled them. Borgia took leadership by means of murder, establishing his power over the other leaders, which is highly approved by Machiavelli. Hence, the prince must not only punish, but also forgive. He must benefit and suppress. In this way, he must attempt to be both loved and feared, connecting with his subordinates sufficiently to be loved, but also creating a regime in which those who disobey him are severely punished. At the heart of his argument, Machiavelli notes that, if there were a choice, the prince should choose to be feared rather than loved (Farmer, 2005, p. 143).


The only similarity between Plato's and Machiavelli's views of leadership is that leaders have qualities that set them apart from ordinary citizens. For Machiavelli, the ideal leader is the one with the most power, or at least the inheritance of power. For Plato, on the other hand, the ideal leader is one who is naturally inclined to critical thinking, a high level of academic and philosophical study, and also a sense of guardianship over others, with a concern to keep the state safe and its citizens happy. Machiavelli's leaders are far less concerned with happiness for their citizens, unless the cultivation…[continue]

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