Prof. David Levy Publishes "Aristotle's 'Reply' to Machiavelli on Morality"

Professor David Levy recently published the article “Aristotle’s ‘Reply’ to Machiavelli on Morality,”  in Interpretation: A Journal of Political Philosophy.   

The article concerns the notorious claim of Niccolò Machiavelli (1469-1527) in The Prince that a person, and especially a political leader, who wants to be good all the time “will come to ruin among so many who are not good.”  Human nature being what it is, the best policy is a judicious alternation between goodness and badness, or between what has traditionally been called virtue and what has traditionally been called vice, as circumstances require.  Expedience replaces morality—in the interest of human well-being.

In Machiavelli’s time, the most authoritative philosophical treatment of morality was Aristotle’s Ethics.  Aristotle taught, in accordance with the views of well-bred people everywhere, that moral virtue is its own reward: one does the decent thing because it is the decent thing to do, rather than because, or when, it pays one to do so.  Truly virtuous people practice virtue on account of its intrinsic nobility.

Machiavelli argues that Aristotle’s teaching is naive because it fails to come to grips with the necessary conflict between the noble and the useful.  The article shows that Aristotle, almost two thousand years before Machiavelli, was well aware of this kind of argument and that he replied to it.  In the first place, without denying that the noble and the useful are not always in perfect harmony, Aristotle showed that the nobility of moral virtue is a kind of freedom and that it has a ground in the freedom of the mind.  In the second place, while focusing in the Ethics on the nobility of moral virtue, in his discussion of civic virtue and justice in the Politics Aristotle gives expediency its due.

David Levy focuses primarily on political philosophy, ancient and modern. He is the author of Wily Elites and Spirited Peoples in Machiavelli’s Republicanism (Lexington Books, 2014). In Fall 2019 he will be teaching PH 101 Introduction to Philosophical Thinking.