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Philosophers have waxed long and eloquent on the ideal government and therefore the ideal sovereign; this short essay will serve to compare two works on the subject, Lao Tzu’s Tao Te Ching and Machiavelli’s The Prince. This paper will analyze three main points of contention between these authors. First, it will consider the author’s view on the character of humanity and how the people should be expected to act. Second, it will assess what sort of government and sovereign is required to manage a nation populated by such a people. Last, it will compare the thoughts of each author on the defense of the nation and what that should require of both the sovereign and the people. While each philosopher gives very different answers to the same questions, both writings are ultimately honest attempts to improve the lives of those being ruled.
Any comparison of two philosophical works must begin with an introduction of the works in question. Within the pages of the Tao Te Ching, Lao Tzu’s semi-poetic writings warn the reader of the dangers of ambition and materialism, while simultaneously exalting the character of man. Lao Tzu argues that people must only follow the Tao, the ‘way,’ to find not only contentment in individual life but also peace and prosperity on the national level. He likens the Tao to a river that winds through all of life, offering to man the correct path, whether he be farmer or prince. The Tao Te Ching, together with several works from other early Chinese philosophers, served to successfully inform governmental policy in China for many centuries. A continent and a half away and almost a millennium in the future, Niccolò Machiavelli had a very different approach to the quandary of government. Instead of expecting or advocating that people adhere to any sort of ethical code, Machiavelli laments the sad state of humanity and constructs a method of governance with that fact in mind. While he advocates for harsh and occasionally brutal policies, he maintains that these are necessary in order to manage an unruly and opportunistic people. Machiavelli focuses his writings on specific examples of the decisions to be made by a sovereign, and why these decisions are necessary in operating a stable and successful nation.
The primary reason for the vast differences in the conclusions drawn by each of these philosophers can be traced to their divergent views on the state of mankind. Lao Tzu saw in every man the ability to follow a path of contentment that is open to all, without the need or desire to do harm to others. He argues that a society that chooses to follow the Tao would rise above the petty nature of man because the Tao is of the world. Lao Tzu writes:
Throw away holiness and wisdom, and people will be a hundred times happier. Throw away morality and justice, and people will do the right thing. Throw away industry and profit, and there won’t be any thieves. (207)
Lao Tzu explains that if man refuses to ascribe to the world a fundamental truth such as religion or ‘wisdom,’ the happiness of man will not be unduly limited by these constructions. In refusing to enforce a flawed sense of universal justice, man allows himself the ability to choose the correct path in fluid circumstances, as opposed to an unyielding and uncaring law. By refusing to overvalue the worth of material goods and wealth, man does not allow any lack of them bring him unhappiness, and so he would not wish to take them from others. According to Lao Tzu, if man would open himself to the Tao and follow the path, his choices would bring contentment to himself and others.
To Lao Tzu, the purpose of government and the sovereign (or the ‘Master,’ as Lao Tzu refers to them) is to serve simply as an example for the people. This example would be bereft of ambition, content and refusing to project its will onto others. By making the people content with what they have, leaders can make it so that a perfect society can be constructed, one where the people do not want for anything; therefore, there is no conflict or disruption. Lao Tzu’s teachings are those of stability of the nation through individual inaction, expressed in the statement that “When there is no desire, / all things are at peace.” (209). Without the desire for power, man would not struggle to rise to the top. Without the desire for personal wealth, man would not swindle others to gather it. Without the desire to change the world, he is content to stay as he is. Lao Tzu implies that the greatest good for humanity is not individual achievement through strife or conflict, as conflict leads to unhappiness for all, but contentment and peace gained through acceptance of things as they are. When the individuals of a nation are at peace, the nation is at peace.
Lao Tzu’s teachings pose that this peace would extend even to foreign powers. He argues that by refusing to make an enemy of another person or nation, nations can sidestep states of conflict. He states: There is no greater illusion than fear, no greater wrong than preparing to defend yourself, no greater misfortune than having an enemy.
Lao Tzu argues that when man allows himself to fear another, whether that other be person or nation, he clouds his own thinking, and sees an enemy where there is none. When he stockpiles weapons to defend himself from this imaginary foe, he will make them see a foe in himself; he will have created his own enemy. Lao Tzu’s teachings state that humility and the Tao preclude the existence of an enemy.
Meanwhile, Machiavelli drew very different conclusions to similar questions, beginning with his views of man as ambitious and opportunistic, always seeking to improve his lot in life, even at the expense of others. His statement on the character of man is such:
They are ungrateful, fickle, simulators and deceivers, avoiders of danger, greedy for gain; and while you work for their good they are completely yours, offering you their blood, their property, their lives, and their sons, as I said earlier, when danger is far away; but when it comes nearer to you they turn away.
While he expresses some slight disdain for the people over their character, Machiavelli does not hold human nature against them; it is a fact that people are the way they are, and they must be governed as such. Machiavelli bases his method of governance on managing such a fickle and unworthy shade of humanity, with the understanding that, on the whole, they cannot and will not understand the actions of the sovereign. Unlike Lao Tzu, Machiavelli argues that trusting the people to do the right thing unaided is to lay the groundwork for failure as a nation.
With such a people to govern, Machiavelli’s ideal sovereign is a hard man, quick to punish and slow to reward, ready to break his word when necessary but never to be seen as untrustworthy. He must guide his people in every way that he can, with laws, appearances, and a strong measure of guile. On the qualities of the sovereign, this passage says the most: “[A] man who wishes to make a vocation of being good at all times will come to ruin among so many who are not good” (224). Machiavelli states that the prince must be seen as good to avoid being hated, but to be good at all times will ruin the prince, as he cannot have the resources to be good to all in his kingdom. When the prince is ruined, the prince’s nation falls, and with the fall of the nation, the people fall. Therefore, to protect his people, the prince cannot only be good; he must practice cruelty at some times and miserliness at others. By rejecting the need for small injustices, the prince creates far greater injustice in the future. This idea differs greatly from Lao Tzu’s hands-off approach to governance, in which injustice on behalf of the Master would only serve as inspiration for further injustice among the people.
Furthermore, in an effort to preserve his nation and the people therein, Machiavelli argues that the prince must keep his mind always on the topic of war. He must see every other nation as an enemy to be fought, even if he does not treat rival nations in this way. Machiavelli states that a prince unprepared to fend off the advances of a hostile nation will have his nation taken and subjugated, to the detriment of his people. According to Machiavelli, “Francesco Sforza became Duke of Milan from being a private citizen because he was armed; his sons, since they avoided the inconveniences of arms, became private citizens after having been dukes” (222). Princes who forget that a prince most often rises to power through force of arms are well suited to lose their princedoms. If he is to protect himself, and therefore his people, he must be a master of war, and not turn against it because it is cruel. This stance is strongly at odds with Lao Tzu’s view on the gravity of war. Lao Tzu argues that all men should despise weapons, and should only take up arms when strictly necessary, whereas Machiavelli states that a prince’s thoughts should seldom stray from the subject.
The teachings of Lao Tzu and Machiavelli stand at odds, separated not only by time and distance but by disparity of culture as well. The Tao Te Ching embodies the Chinese philosophy of satisfaction with your lot in life, while The Prince draws every attention to the insatiable ambition of man characterized by European nobility. Neither work offers a perfect answer, but Machiavelli’s pragmatism is perhaps a more perfect solution to the modern quandary of government. Hopes and ideals cannot afford man a just and right rule, as much as we might wish, or as much as such idealism may be made possible by the technologies of the future. The general state of mankind in the present, being too coarse for self-governance, allows only for a strict hand and short leash.
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