Warp and Weft Threads in Machiavelli’s Philosophy
The writings of Aristotle and Machiavelli are more than nineteen centuries apart. It is not a surprise that the political thoughts and ideologies of these two philosophers differ to a great degree. Although the underlying teleological approach, originally spear-headed by Aristotle, resonates throughout Machiavelli’s works, the Italian Renaissance humanist deals contemporary politics with incomparably unutterable realism through a macroscopic perspective, highly context-sensitive. Machiavelli sympathizes those who “waste time with a discussion of an imaginary world”and presents his political thoughts discharged with appalling realism.
An analogy of the warp and weft threads shows how Machiavelli departs from Aristotle’s political thoughts and what he achieves as a result as a compatibilist philosopher. In this paper, there will be references to two threads that commonly create a sheet of fabric: the warp and weft threads. The warp thread will be defined as free will on a level strictly dependent on subjects. The weft thread, on the other hand, signifies a social force unmaneuverable on an individual’s level. In Aristo-tle’s political discourse, he focuses more on the warp thread: he expresses strong belief in absolute “goodness” and virtue of an individual and a city-state and gives a normative account on how individuals “should” behave according to different parts of a soul and household. In contrast, Machiavelli takes into consideration the rather uncontrollable po-litical context i.
e. the weft thread: he acknowledges and face the brutal reality in politics during his time and through a macroscopic observation of present circumstances, Mach-iavelli gives credit to the “fortune” in determining human actions and the politics. Aristotle’s political thoughts remain relatively theoretical and ideal. He moves from analyzing smaller compartments to understanding larger communal entities such as a city-state. In Politics and Ethics, Aristotle begins to “examine each thing in terms of its smallest parts” , believing that the “composite has to be analyzed until [one] reach[es] things that are incomposite” .
Aristotle’s fairly naive acceptance of the power of the weft thread – contextually speaking, the political system in Italy in the sixteenth century – is carefully illustrated on levels of both the individual’s soul and a city-state’s skeletal structure. In Ethics, Aristotle examines the binary nature of an single individual he discusses the two attributes that constitute humans, namely the body and the soul. Furthermore, he highlights that the soul displays a two essential features: the rational and the irrational elements . Simply put, Aristotle delves into the microscopic elements inherent in human nature in order to fully understand a normative account for a larger entity, i.e.
households, communities, and eventually political states. In Politics, before giving a detailed analysis of the structure of a city-state, Aristotle initially inspects how smaller building blocks in a state are organized and systematized: moving from “the primary and smallest parts of a household”to villages and complete communities, he analyzes social and familial structures through a microscopic lens. In short, Aristotle’s political philosophy remains highly analytical and clear-cut. He depends on his appre-hension of individuals’ needs, desires and propensities inherent in human nature. By taking a closer look at small-scale fragments that constitute a city-state, Aristotle em-ploys a microscopic method to understand a large political structure and does not heavi-ly focus on a weft thread.
Machiavelli, on the other hand, takes a rather macroscopic approach; that is, he depends on a keen observation of the circumstances contingent on dominant sociopolit-ical trends during his time. Machiavelli’s understanding of a successful government takes minimal account of individual’s needs and propensities. In The Prince, Machiavelli argues that “the gap between how people actually behave and how they ought to be-have”should be bridged. He underlines the importance of practical and sensible obser-vations and advises that rulers scrutinize political movements and trends. In other words, Machiavelli’s political philosophy rests mostly, if not solely, on circumstances that remain highly context-sensitive. Unlike Aristotle, he does not depend on abstract, metaphysical notions.
Based on his knowledge and perception of contemporary socio-political contexts, Machiavelli pays close attention to circumstances that determine polit-ical and governmental incidents. Through a realistic take on politics, for example, Mach-iavelli redefines certain terms conventionally thought to be “vices”. His realistic yet pes-simisticperspective defines his account on how to “make a successful government possible” . Machiavelli’s convincing arguments support the notion of “necessary evil” and he claims that one “cannot take precautions against one danger without opening [oneself] to another”; hence must necessarily “accept the lesser evil as a good” . With a highly realistic and contextual approach, Machiavelli further redefines cruelty -a concept traditionally ostracized in politics.
Promoting “pious cruelty”in establishing a successful government, he distinguishes abused cruelty and “well-used cruelty” . Machiavelli spe-cifically redeems Hannibal from the common accusations against his reputation “to be harsh and cruel” , and emphasizes the necessarily useful element of cruelty: “without [it], his other virtues would not have done the job (53)”. Along with his argument that vir-tue depends on well-used cruelty to an extent, he additionally discusses the necessary coexistence of “admiration and fear”in ruled subjects, i.e. citizens. He condemns Scip-io to had been “too easygoing” and blames his fall to the “excessive leniency” .
In con-clusion, Machiavelli believes that it is better to be feared than to be loved. One of the themes central to Machiavelli’s works is the adaptability to circum-stances which is understood as “conformity with the times” . In both The Prince and Discourses, Machiavelli supports two contrasting political institutions: a principality and a republic. The ultimate goal is accomplished “when circumstances accord with [the rul-er’s] conduct” , and what matters the most accordingly is the capacity to adapt and ad-just in a timely manner: the “ruler will flourish if he adjusts his policies as the characters of time changes”and “when times change and no longer suit his ways, he is inevitably ruined” . This uncontrollable temporal variable reechoes in The Prince as the powerful lady “fortune”. This lady fortune can be compared with to the weft thread: what deter-mines human actions and eventful political trends is the “extraordinary variation in cir-cumstances”which “everyone flees [away from and] nobody can resist” .
According to such accounts, it appears as if Machiavelli is a determinist philosopher who gives minimal credit to individual free will. However, it is reasonable to assume that he rather presents himself as a compatible philosopher on the subject of the fortune and free will. Holding the view that “fortune determines one half of our actions, but… she leaves us to control the other half” , he denies the belief that “the affairs of this world are so com-pletely governed by fortune and by God that human prudence is incapable of correcting them”, declaring that “our free will must not be eliminated” .
Machiavelli not only takes the weft thread of circumstances into account, weaving his political philosophy, but also leaves seemingly enough space for free will to play a role in the course of human affairs. Unlike Aristotle who focuses on theoretical and nor-mative attributes of humans, Machiavelli emphasizes that the force of sociopolitical movements and circumstances – the weft thread – easily overpowers the warp thread – needs, propensities and the according free will on an individual level. Despite his notori-ous reputation for being brutally realistic and nihilistic, by providing the readers with a powerful yet tamable concept of fortune, Machiavelli remains fairly flexible regarding his political philosophy: if one “want[s] to [do so]..beat and strike [the fortune]” .
Works Cited Aristotle. Nicomachean Ethics. Trans. David Ross. New York: Oxford’s University Press, 2009.
Print. Aristotle, Politics. Trans. C.D.
C. Reeve. Cambridge: Hackett Publishing Company, 1998. Print. Machiavelli, Niccolo. The Prince.
Trans. David Wootton. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, 1995. Print. Machiavelli, Niccolo. The Discourses.
Trans. Leslie J. Walker. London: Penguin Books, 2003. Print.