Human Nature According to Niccolo Machiavelli, Karl Marx, and Ayn Rand

Jonathan Rick
Issue XXVI - September 10, 2004
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A sample imageThere is no question more crucial to man than the question, What is man? What kind of being is he? What are his essential attributes?

Indeed, man’s nature determines that which his survival requires. And one’s view of man symbolizes one’s attitude toward life.

What is open to us is whether we discover our nature and whether we find the appropriate attitude.

Niccolò Machiavelli and Karl Marx offer us two views of and attitudes toward man, which I will describe in their fundamentals. Novelist and philosopher Ayn Rand offers us a third view and attitude—which, as we all know, is also my own—and which I will contrast with those of Machiavelli and Marx.

How one views human nature informs the entirety of one’s philosophy.

Now, Machiavelli thinks that liberty emerges only from a sly understanding of men’s passions. He thus sees man as a “wicked,” passion-ridden power seeker. “[U]ngrateful, fickle, deceptive and deceiving, avoiders of danger, [and] eager to gain,” men are so immoral as to justify the prince’s immorality. Thus, men “should either be caressed or crushed,” according to the principle that “it is much safer to be feared than loved.”

In this way, Machiavelli subordinates ethics to results; hence, we recognize the adjective
Machiavellian as meaning “the ends justify the means.” Of course, this runs counter to the conventional wisdom that morality reigns supreme. So, rejecting the idea that that one must practice politics within the bounds of virtue, Machiavelli simply redefines virtue. No longer equated with righteousness, virtue becomes what he calls virtu, or the blend of ferocity and slyness.

As Machiavelli explains, “We have not seen great things done in our time except by those who have been considered mean; the rest have failed.” To wit, a virtuosic prince must employ the qualities of both a lion and a fox. Indeed, crafty and deceitful princes have historically defeated the prince of integrity. For morality neither keeps nor wins principalities.

Yet it is neither amoralism nor ruthlessness per se, but the acquirement of power that interests Machiavelli. Though a ruler must often acquire power via amoral means, ruthlessness has its limits: a ruler must keep the necessary cruelties to a minimum, and commit them in unison, for the purely practical reason that he will lose power otherwise. Thus, Machiavelli intends
The Prince as a pragmatic manual; and so makes himself the father of realpolitik.

Realpolitik is a politics of adaptation to the existing state of affairs. In this light we can understand Machiavelli’s reasoning: not doctrinaire rhetoric, but realistic compromise leads to the attainment of objectives. As Machiavelli explains, “[O]ne cannot have all the good qualities, nor always act in a praiseworthy fashion, for we do not live in an ideal world.”

Thus, the prince must master an ability to achieve what The Cambridge Dictionary of Philosophy calls “effective truth.” Important, therefore, is not what is right, but what wins. Virtue and vice, rather than rigidly absolute, are relative to success. Ethics are mere provisional tools in a constantly changing world.

Now, albeit unscrupulous, a realpolitik régime is the best, Machiavelli tells us. If anyone is to benefit from government in the first place—even if the leaders are in fact Machiavellian—then that government must ensure the unity of its citizens at all costs. That unity, then, depends on the continuity of the leadership; for people see government as a source of reassurance in their dealings. If the government constantly changes leaders, then people no longer go about their daily lives with a sense of stability. After all, we sheep, according to Machiavelli, crave a status quo.

Now, “It’s only human” Machiavelli might argue in defense of human depravity. Yet here, as with
virtue, Machiavelli usurps the meaning of man. Exiling from the human race the hero, the thinker, the producer, the inventor, he renders man into prey—the fool, the weakling, the coward. After all, the prince—himself a fraud, a fake, a hypocrite—must not suffer any challenges to his authority.

Hence, Machiavelli reduces mankind to our lowest common denominator. He regards us as vulnerable rotters—and struggles never to let us discover otherwise.

But man is so much nobler, so much more important than this—and he deserves an according defense. In Hamlet’s exquisite language: “What a piece of work is a man! how noble in reason! / how infinite in faculty! in form and moving how / express and admirable! in action how like an angel! / in apprehension how like a god! the beauty of the / world!”

you represent this beauty—or are you the corrupt Machiavellian chump? You represent this beauty, I say, and so we should judge men by reference to the ideal world Machiavelli scorns. Political scientists should, therefore, propose their views of human nature by reference to our greatest exemplars—the Lance Armstrongs, the Bill Gates’, the history and sociology professors—rather than by our John Does. It should focus, in the immoral words of Aristotle, not on things as they are, but on things as they might be and ought to be.

Next, the problem of evil arises as a central issue for Machiavelli: a ruler reserves the right to exercise force when he deems it necessary.

But dealing with men by force, as Ayn Rand writes, is “as impractical as to deal with nature by persuasion.” As she elaborated: “To interpose . . . physical destruction between a man and his perception of reality, is to negate and paralyze his means of survival. To force him to act against his own judgment is like forcing him to act against his own sight. Whoever, to what purpose or extent, initiates the use of force, is a killer operating on the premise of death in a manner wider than murder—the premise to destroy man’s capacity to live. . . . Force and mind are opposites; morality ends where a gun begins.”

And yet Machiavelli would ask, What’s so good about being moral anyway? But the more fundamental question is, What’s so good about being alive? As Plato declares in the
Republic, “We are discussing no small matter, but how we ought to live.” Indeed, morality enables you to discover your goals and values, and the way to pursue them. Morality provides you with knowledge of the conditions by which you can achieve your ultimate end: happiness.

Now we move to Karl Marx. In Marx’s view, man is a social animal; to be human is to be social. By
social—and hence collective—Marx means “the cooperation of several individuals, no matter under what conditions, in what manner, and to what end.”

Men are inherently social, according to Marx, because their needs—and therefore their natures—and the manner to satisfy them creates between them reciprocal links. Man’s dependence on others and how they can aid him to “cultivat[e] his gifts in all directions,” therefore, holds civil society together.

Thus, much like Aristotle and the polis, Marx holds that man cannot exist outside normal social relations; we are always and forever social beings. “[O]nly in the community, therefore, is personal freedom possible.”

Indeed, the individual cannot escape his dependence on society—even when he acts on his own. A scientist, for instance, who spends his lifetime in a laboratory, may delude himself that he is a modern-day Robinson Crusoe. But the material of his activity and the apparatus and skills with which he operates are, in fact, social products. They are inerasable signs of the cooperation that Marx refers to and which binds men together. The very language in which a scientist thinks he has learned in a particular society.

Social context also determines the career and other life goals that an individual adopts, how he tries to carry out his choices, and whether he succeeds. In short, man’s consciousness of himself and of his relations with others and with nature are that of a social being, since the manner in which he conceives of anything is a function of his society.

Yet “social,” in the way Marx uses it, is a euphemism for the subordination of the individual. But man is no ant, in the sense of an anatomically specialized organism that can survive only in a colony.

Indeed, as Ayn Rand has observed, one cannot think for or through another person, any more than one can breathe or digest food for him. Each man’s brain, like his lungs and stomach, is his alone to use. The mind is an attribute of the individual. It cannot be given or received, shared or borrowed. There is no such thing as a collective brain or collective thought. Only an individual qua individual can perceive, abstract, define, connect. The primary act, the process of observing, considering, passing judgment, each man must perform alone.

Nonetheless, man gains enormous benefits from dealing with others. Together, men can build on what they learn from others. Together, they can achieve feats by specialization and joint effort that no man can achieve alone. Living in society is man’s proper way of life.

Yet in any collective, each man must do his own thinking, to guide his own part of the work. If an individual reaches a new conclusion, he does it as an individual, and it is his breakthrough, not that of his peers.

And yet man is neither a social animal, as Marx contends, nor a lone wolf, neither a socialized automaton nor a solipsist. Rather, man is a contractual creature, who adjusts as circumstances warrant.

And so, being social depends on certain conditions. For in the end, in any form of association, men can achieve cooperation only by recognizing the sovereignty of the individual—that man is, as Ayn Rand writes, “self-created, self-directed, and self-responsible.”

Man is not a product of id instincts, as Freud would have us believe. He is not ruled by tradition, as Edmund Burke would have us believe. He is not an otherworldly soul trapped in a bodily prison, as Plato would have us believe. He is not an aspiring but foolish mortal, as Shakespeare would have us believe.

He is not a puppet dancing on the strings of power lust, as Machiavelli would have us believe. He not a cog of the collective, as Marx would have us believe.

Man is, however, an individual of elevated moral stature and uncompromising individuality, as Ayn Rand—and Jon Rick—would have you believe.

Thank you.

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Learn about Mr. Stolyarov's novel, Eden against the Colossus, here.

Read Mr. Stolyarov's comprehensive treatise, A Rational Cosmology, explicating such terms as the universe, matter, space, time, sound, light, life, consciousness, and volition, here.

Read Mr. Stolyarov's four-act play, Implied Consent, a futuristic intellectual drama on the sanctity of human life, here.