Comparing Aquinas and Machiavelli Outlook

Aquinas / Machiavelli Edit

Comparing Aquinas and Machiavelli

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Aquinas and Machiavelli both had an important position in the study of historical development of Western political theory. They were Italian giants of medieval philosophy and politics. One of their common arguments is that nature is the basis of politics, including the nature of human beings and the nature of nations. Some may argue that in the totality of comparison that the work of Machiavelli was superior to that of Thomas Aquinas.

Aquinas Background

Aquinas’s political thought started from the study of human nature. According to him, human beings are creations of the God. He agreed with Aristotle in that a human is a union of a body and a soul- a body is the matter, while a soul is the form. Also, bodies are under control of souls. He believed that humans have rational souls, which are abstract forms independent of the body. However, he did not think that souls were created before bodies, like Aristotle, but are creating at the same time, and they are both necessary parts of a unique human.

On the other hand, as a kind of spirit, a soul has independence and purity, which enables it to exist without bodies. Hence, human souls, which also have divinity, can communicate with the God. According to Aquinas, just like humans consist of many parts, a human soul, which is the form of a man, is also made of different parts. In On Kingship, he says, “Man, however, is given none of these (which means animals’ food, furry covering, teeth, and horns and claws-or at least speed of flight.) by nature. Instead, he has been given the use of his reason to secure all these things by the work of his hands. . The highest part of soul is reason, which is the essence, and it rules the other parts, and “In each man the soul rules the body and within the soul reason rules over passion and desire. At the same time, because everyone’s soul is different and unique, all the souls are equal. As a result, from the view of human souls, Aquinas claimed that everyone is equal before the God.

Aquinas’ Political Views

The discussion of politics is always logical and starts from human nature, and a kind of political philosophy depends on view of human nature, too. St. Thomas Aquinas’s political thoughts were based on his understanding of the nature as well. He claimed his theological and political thought from the point that human beings are rational creations and he claimed that “man is by nature a political and social animal. Even more than other animals he lives in groups (multitudine). This is demonstrated by the requirements of his nature. First, human is born naked and with nothing, and human does not have food, covering, and abilities like animals to protect himself. Aquinas agreed; “a man cannot secure all these by himself, for a man cannot adequately provide for his life by himself. As a result, it is obvious that a man is naturally a kind of the social animal, and “it is natural for man to live in association with his fellows.

According to his thoughts, animals can live depending on their nature and abilities while humans cannot. Humans only have natural knowledge of what is necessary to his life in a general way, but the knowledge of particular things are also indispensable for human life. “Arid it is not possible for one man to arrive at the knowledge of all these things through the use of his reason. So, people can only reach survival and happiness with social division of labor and cooperation. Third, the sidedness of human knowledge and multiple needs of life make perfection hard to achieve with one man, so cooperation and relying on each other is needed, and that is precisely the reason of development of human society.

Although it is better for people to live together than alone, because of different abilities, thoughts and interests, there must be conflicts in the society. In order to avoid the disorder and for people’s common profits, there should be a government. Aquinas claimed that “Therefore if it is natural for man to live in’ association with others, there must be some way for them to be governed,” (Aquinas 1265-1267). Aquinas stated that a state originates from human nature, and in his view, a state is not only an institution that prevent the spread of crime and make production, but a place that promotes cooperation between people.” The aim of any ruler should be to promote the welfare of the territory that he has been given to rule. Also, talking back to the God, Aquinas pointed out that “it is the duty of the king to promote the good life of the community so that it leads to happiness in the heaven” There should be three purposes of a state. First purpose is to maintain the peace in society. Second, a state provides and allocates wealth. Third, a state exists for people’s common good. A just ruler has to clearly understand these purposes. Justice of the country is not even based on human social nature, but the national social activities to achieve the highest goals for the benefit of Christianity.

Like Aristotle, Aquinas also described states as “the most perfect community.” States are not the punishment from the God to human original sin, but a way of saving people. In order to get peace in the world, people need states and politics. At the same time, justice of the state comes from the God, so it is close to heaven good.

Machiavelli’s Philosophy

However, unlike Aquinas seeing the good in human, Machiavelli regarded human nature as evil. Machiavelli also saw a state of an evil fruit in human nature. He abandoned the medieval scholasticism and dogmatic reasoning, and his thoughts were not from the Bible or the view of the God, like Aquinas, but from human nature. He used historical facts and personal experiences as the basis to study the social and political issues. He totally separated politics and ethics, and he proclaimed the state as a purely powerful organization. His theory of the state is from the evil nature of human that man is selfish, has a kind of wild hunger of power, fame, and wealth. In the Prince, Machiavelli wrote, “The problem is that people willingly change their ruler, believing the change will be for the better; and this belief leads them to take up arms against him. (Machiavelli 1994),” which says people are hard to control and they have different minds, which are only considering for their own benefits. In addition, he stated, “people are by nature inconstant. It is easy to persuade them of something, but it is difficult to stop them from changing their minds. For him, controlling was difficult because people’s minds are changeable.

As a thinker who had pragmatic and lofty political aspirations of emphasizing practical results, Machiavelli seeks on careful and detailed analysis as solid and reliable foundations in revealing the actual social life of human nature. Also, in chapter III, “It is in the nature of things that, as soon as a forgiven power enters into a region, all the local states that are weak rally to it, for they are driven by the envy they have felt for the state that has exercised predominance over them.” So, according to Machiavelli, it is also easy for human to be driven by the envy, and then ignoring the common profits of all people. As a result, there are often violent struggles between people, and in order to prevent from endless battle, the state rises in response to the condition. The state enacts laws, restraints evil and builds social order.

Furthermore, Machiavelli claimed, “It is perfectly natural and normal to want to acquire new territory; and whenever men do what will succeed towards this end, they will be praised, or at least not condemned. But when they are not in a position to make gains, and try nevertheless, then they are making a mistake, and deserve condemnation. .” He understood human nature as greedy and that they always want new territory by fair means or foul, and they are unscrupulous. Different from earlier philosophers’ optimistic attitude about human nature, Machiavelli sees almost all the dark side of human beings, and he applied it to his political theory in the Prince of ruling people, army, and the state.

Contemporary philosopher Russell once called Machiavelli’s theory as a “self-interested human nature.” First, it exists without theology, and it claims that selfishness is naturally normal, so people should seek for instant wealth, power and benefit instead of otherworld happiness. Second, it states that human are naturally political and seeking for a kind of social life. Third, it says characteristics of the bourgeoisie decide the development of society. His theory is from an emerging bourgeois thinker, who is at a new height, analyzing from the view of human and society’s real needs, which Inspires posterity. His originality is emphasizing the decisive role of the material interests to social life, which is a kind of historical progress that make humanity start from reason and logos instead of divinity.


Comparing to Aquinas’s thought, Machiavelli’s thought is more persuasive according to its profound ideological, practical significance and application. From the beginning of the Renaissance, modern Westerners thinkers saw the problems and great changes in a different view from before. Humanists such as Machiavelli, their political and ideological analyses were focusing on the history of the various events, the reality, and experience. They considered natural enjoyment of civil and legal rights, freedom of the individual obligation as a political analysis starting point. This “humanity – political,” secularization tried to answer the relationship between a person, the national interests, and secular rule. The way to answer is with modernity features. According to Machiavelli’s political vision: the design and the presence of the country’s political system are to defend civil liberties and rights. At the same time, humanity and each individual have its particularity. Human nature has many weaknesses, so a perfect state system must be designed to cope with a variety of accidental human nature, which would lead to evil factor. Also, the value of a state’s existence and value of individual existence is not completely equal. The ruling of a state should take care of the relationship between the state’s political domination and the state’s own existence as well as the relationship between countries.

Machiavelli referenced two examples: in history, Machiavelli focused on the rule of the Roman Republic, and the reality is his government officials experience in Florence. In Machiavelli’s minds, the Republic is his ideal state system model; On the other hand, the system alone cannot solve the problem. A ruler or monarch must also use a variety of effective political means in order to maintain the order, including national polity within the structure that involves obtaining power, consolidate power, the power of the various powers of political issues disorders. The idea of state power above operation was part of a long-term one-sided dubbed name “Machiavellianism,” which exists in order to achieve the purpose of unscrupulous Western scholars put forward. At the same time, it criticized back to Aristotle, Aquinas etc. who emphasized rationality first, and the thinkers re-use the Western Christian humanism to save the Western world.

According to political philosophers like Machiavelli, cultural phenomena like reason is just packing of human nature. Reason can play a role in adjusting, and the fundamental forces of human behavior are human nature. In the 20th century, those who insist on thinking from the humanity and experience try to demonstrate further the openness and universality of their theory. For example, people need to survive, people have passions and desires, and people need security. In reality, the elderly and children are vulnerable.

Also, there are many unpredictable factors in human nature. These factors are based on political thinking and political ideas, and they are more valuable compares to others. At the same time, what this political theory emphasizes is not the ultimate good, but to avoid the evil that may arise. The practical significance of this way of thinking is also very obvious. Also, to be noted, that humanists including Machiavelli do not negate the role of religion, including Christian theology. According to their ideas, religion is an important part of national stability. The God also makes a rational analysis of the contents to the secular world, according to the laws of nature.


Both Machiavelli and Aquinas agree that nature is the basis of politics, including the nature of human beings and nature of states. They think it is necessary to study nature for understanding politics. At the same time, according to its profound ideological, practical significance and application, Machiavelli’s thought is more persuasive than Aquinas’s.


Machiavelli, Niccolo, and David Wootton. Selected Political Writings. Indianapolis:

Hackett Pub., 1994.

Aquinas, St. Thomas. ON KINGSHIP or THE GOVERNANCE OF RULERS. DE REGIMINE PRINCIPUM, 1265-1267. (Handout received in Political Theory from ProfessorT. Bejan, Mississauga, Jan, 14th, 2014).

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