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Virtue on Equality and Power

The notion of virtue for both Niccolo Machiavelli’s The Prince and Jean Jacques Rousseau’s On the Origin of Inequality contrast sharply wherein the former is used as a tool of political governance and power; and the latter, a natural tendency for the human state to establish social relationship beneficial toward the formation of an ideal government and society. However, the unifying factor for both viewpoints is the notion of compassion as virtue, in order to provide social harmony or retention of authority.

The Prince narrates the existence of a compassionate dictator; a ruler to govern over society inspiring fear, respect, and authority without resorting to hatred. For Machiavelli, the ideals presented in his treaties are necessary for a chaotic society to regain stability and it is through a form of dictatorship that it can be achieved. The treatise acts as a guideline for a prince on how to acquire and maintain power. Much of the theories that are found on the treatise basically stress importance on the function of power and how it can be effectively used to govern and control; the end justifies the means.

It is necessary for a prince, to remain in power, to instill goodwill and fear. This implies a strict notion of discipline rather than authoritarian abuse since a prince’s downfall comes from the instilling hatred. “Nevertheless he [prince] he ought to be slow to believe and to act, nor should he himself show fear, but proceed in a temperate manner with prudence and humanity, so that too much confidence may not make him incautious and too much distrust” (Machiavelli 93). It is however, not necessary for a prince to be loved but rather, to be feared.

Fear in Machiavelli’s context, functions as a medium for respect rather than hatred, for hatred may cause a prince’s downfall either through a revolution or assassination. In addition, the utilization of goodwill among the ruled is the prince’s main weapon and guarantee of longevity and hold on power. Goodwill prevents insurrections or aggression as long as the prince maintains his role and promotes goodwill and fear. Goodwill however, does not necessarily represent the prince’s main objective of harmonizing the populace but rather used as a political instrument of ensuring hold over power and position.

On the notion of virtue, the main idea stipulated in The Prince is the object of the leader to be virtuous through the practice of virtuous characteristics such as courage, compassion, fortitude, etc. : “he should endeavor to show in his actions greatness, courage, gravity, and fortitude; and in his private dealings with his subjects let him show that his judgments are irrevocable, and maintain himself in such reputation that no one can hope either to deceive him or to get round him” (Machiavelli 99). However, virtue, for the practice out of its own sake, is a danger toward his power.

As such, cruelty and other vices such as dishonesty, murder, should be executed only with proper or justifiable cause, not out of its own sake. Thus, such acts are justified toward an end; in unifying, protecting and ultimately controlling over principalities. But such means are redirected toward the guarantee over a prince’s authoritarian hold over a chaotic society. On the other hand, Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s second discourse On the Origin of Inequality, argues on the condition of the human soul as it progresses from its distinct natural form up until equality is transformed through the presence of social relationships.

Rousseau first argues on the obvious reasons of inequality concerning the natural or physical makeup of the human being: “I conceive that there are two kinds of inequality among the human species; one which I call natural or physical, because it is established by nature, and consists in a difference of age, health, bodily strength, and the qualities of the mind or the soul; and another, which may be called moral or political inequality, because it depends on a kind of convention” (Rousseau 1).

Rousseau’s arguments on inequality fall under social context, specifically on the problem of moral inequality. Through the formation of society and the rise of classification, the cause of moral inequality falls on the social classes itself, focusing on the difference of power, money, and social status. For Rousseau, the cause of such are formed through socio-political conventions.

His arguments focus on the purity of the state of human nature before society and conventions corrupted the soul. Man’s natural state is pure in context, until growth and development and the entry toward social structure corrupts the pure state. In contrast with the definitions brought by Thomas Hobbes which state that man is naturally in conflict with himself and with other individuals, Rousseau first states the origin of man’s pure and natural state where Hobbes failed to characterize.

For human beings to be in constant disagreement in social context, the social consciousness should have at first conceptualized the existence and importance of social factors such as value of property, government, laws, etc. and also an acceptance of other human beings as immediate threats to their own specific goals. According to Rousseau, these factors are historically conditioned and cannot be inherent to the pure state. On virtue, Rousseau argues the natural sense of compassion as a virtue in the condition of the human state apart from self-preservation.

According to Rousseau, this single important natural virtue is what contradicts selfish impulses or vices which come from the passions or irrational tendencies of man. “It is this compassion that hurries us without reflection to the relief of those who are in distress: it is this which in a state of nature supplies the place of laws, morals, and virtue, with the advantage that none are tempted to disobey its gentle voice” (Rousseau 14).

As the natural state of man is transformed through the conventions formed within society, the one remaining virtue, apart from the natural tendency of self-preservation, compassion exists in order to regulate selfish, irrational behavior and promotion harmonious relationships. The idea of compassion is transcended toward the formation of social contracts, in which the general will is formed through mutual understanding rather than subjective and selfish transgressions.

Virtue is then an innate part of the human state of nature as it may be used to establish social relationships in Rousseau’s account or to act as a means of control for Machiavelli. Rousseau’s notion of compassion as a virtue establishes individuals to engage in relationships in lieu of creating a harmonious society. Virtue is a part of the natural state of man before the foundation of civil relationships while Machiavelli’s notion is within the context of a chaotic of civil society and acts as a necessity rather than an innate condition.

For Machiavelli, virtue is used as a tool of preserving power and authority solely limited to an individual or a prince which sharply contrasts Rousseau’s view of virtue as a means of establishing social relationships.

Works Cited

Machiavelli, Niccolo. The Prince. trans. Rufus Goodwin. Boston: Dante University Press, 2003. Rousseau, Jean-Jacques. Discourse on the Origin of Inequality. Mineola, N. Y. Dover Publications, 2004.

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