Thomas More’s Utopia And Niccolo Machiavelli’s Intriguing Perspectives

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Both Machiavelli in The Prince and More in Utopia are concerned with the relationship between virtue and politics yet they seem to differ considerably about the nature of this relationship.' Critically discuss this statement.

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Assignment Solution

The intriguing perspectives present in Thomas More's Utopia and Niccolo Machiavelli's The Prince, both seminal texts, on the question of virtue and politics will be discussed here. There are three central points that will be taken into consideration in this write-up. Firstly, Machivelli’s seeming moral indifference in The Prince shall be questioned and his concept of ‘virtu’ will be re-evaluated in this context. Secondly, More’s conception of Utopia shall be discussed with respect to the notion of virtue. Thirdly, the differences and interplay between Machiavelli and More’s ideas of virtue will be extrapolated. In addition to this, questions regarding whether either of the texts subscribes to the humanist perspective or morality are also debated and discussed. 

Machiavelli and ‘Virtu’

Niccolo Machiavelli has often been painted as immoral or at least amoral. Such a narrow understanding precludes us from taking into account certain nuances in Machiavelli’s work. In his article, Ball (1984) argues that Machiavelli was not indifferent to morality and its effect on the masses. On the contrary, Ball insists that Machiavelli is, in fact, a moralist, for he certainly envisaged a set of moral behaviour and conduct for the Prince. Machiavelli advocated a moral double standard – one for the Prince and another for the citizens. In public, the ruler must portray the embodiment of virtue, piety and propriety, but in private, he is above the morality that binds the normal citizen (Machiavelli, 2009). In Machiavelli’s estimation, the ends justify the means; effectively sanctioning the use of immoral means in order to gain stability and power. The ruler must unlearn Christian morals since they hinder him from attaining his objectives. Controversially, Machiavelli contrasts the Christian morality as weak and feminine while prizing virtu as virile and masculine (Ball, 1984). Paradoxically, the ruler must be cold and merciless in order to reduce the moral corruption prevalent in the society, although his primary duty is to maintain his “state, status and station” (Ball, 1984). Ball locates Machiavelli in a quixotic sense, asserting that Machiavelli sought, like Don Quixote, to replace the prevalent concept of morality with an archaic one derived from Homeric morality. “Machiavelli’s moral code is,” Ball (1984) asserts, “in a word, heroic; it rests upon an archaic ethic of emulation, not upon reasoned reflection on the right, the just, and the good.” The 'virtuoso' prince in a morally corrupt and weak society must resort to calculated violence to purge the society. 

Yet Machiavelli does not condone the acts of Agathocles, a tyrant of Syracuse since he did not inspire awe and affection but only military virtu (Ball, 1984). For Machiavelli, draconian measures are dictated only by necessity, permissible only by circumstance. Machiavelli states, 'Therefore a prince, so long as he keeps his subjects united and loyal, ought not to mind the reproach of cruelty; because with a few examples he will be more merciful than those who, through too much mercy, allow disorders to arise, from which follow murders or robberies; for these are wont to injure the whole people, whilst those executions which originate with a prince offend the individual only.' (Machiavelli, 2009)

For Machiavelli, the Prince is transformative insofar as his potential for changing society, state and imbuing the citizens with a strong civic virtu. By creating such a state, the Prince shall achieve glory in the manner of Homeric heroes of the past, whose names have been immortalized by history. There is, thus, what Ball describes as “a moral method” to the “Machiavellian madness”.

More's Utopia

Thomas More’s seminal work called Utopia envisaged a fictitious state by the same name. Utopia is portrayed as an ideal state-led not by religion but by reason. We come to know more about the state through a dialogue between the two protagonists – Raphael Hythloday and Thomas More (a fictionalized version of the author). While there have been many debates about what More's real message was, with Hexter, Skinner and Dermot (Bradshaw, 1981) reading the text in different ideological contexts; Bradshaw puts forth a very different analysis. Bradshaw overturns earlier assumptions by looking at the text vis-à-vis the humanist perspective. More's Utopia has often been interpreted as being under the field of Humanists under Christianity, but Bradshaw, through extensive arguments shows how that assumption is erroneous. Utopia was seen as Erasmian Humanism in practice by earlier scholars. In opposition, Bradshaw  (1981) reiterates, 'Utopia, therefore, must be taken for what the text tells us that it is, a non-Christian community, organized in accordance with human values as perceived by the light of reason.' Bradshaw goes on to point out the fallacies in Hexter's reasoning, saying – 'However, the most serious objection to Hexter’s hypothesis that it not only misrepresents the nature of More’s case with regard to religion, as we have seen, but that it misrepresents it with regard to social justice also. Here the matter at issue is the central feature of the Utopian commonwealth, its communism. In this regard, Professor Hexter’s anxiety to demonstrate the Christianity of Utopia has resulted in a failure to relate the debate about common ownership to its precise context in the history of Christian moral philosophy.' (Bradshaw, 1981)

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