Tao-Tzu and Machiavelli: Similarities and Contrast of Ideas of Ideal Government

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Leadership has always been a key factor in the failure or success of a society. The absence of such a factor would lead to chaos and complete anarchy in most situations. People need somebody who can lead them into being a progressive society; somebody they can trust and follow. The public has the power and obligation to choose who will be the person to represent them. Big power frequently leads to big responsibilities, and having to determine the virtues of an ideal influential figure is a difficult task within itself. While some agree on what constitutes these ideals, contrasts between ideas start to rise when influential figures have conflicting opinions. Among history’s most influential thinkers, Lao-Tzu, author of the Tao-te Ching and the philosopher Machiavelli, author of “The Qualities of a Prince”, expose their resembling but also contrasting perception of what constitutes an ideal government and the correct way said government governs its subjects.

On one hand Lao-Tzu bases his opinions of a Master’s values on the Tao, the Chinese word for ‘path’ or ‘way’, and on the other hand Machiavelli bases them on powerful figures like Kings and emperors who lived in the past. Although the two have many conflicting principles that define them as philosophers, the main ideals that distinguish the two thinkers are about power, leniency and war.

“According to Lao-Tzu, in order to be a great leader, you must follow the Tao, stop trying to control and let go of fixed plans and concepts. Only then, the world will govern itself” (Lao-Tzu 57). An aspect that evidently distinguishes Lao-Tau from Machiavelli and most likely many other leaders, is that he does not believe in the importance of institutions such as power, wealth and dominance. He, for instance, sees them as elements that will only lead to corruption and general dissatisfaction when it comes to ruling a society.

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In his work, the Chinese philosopher strongly minimizes the power of the government and its ability to repress the people within it. Although it stands in direct opposition to the standard beliefs of most leaders, Lao-Tzu is of the opinion that repression and constant control will not gain the respect or trust of the people. “If a country is governed with repression, the people are depressed and crafty” (Verse 58). Rather, the ruler should be more discreet and involved in as few tasks as possible. In an ideal society, people do not feel repression, they do not feel governed, and they do not need to question the credibility and power of their leader (even if it is not evident). “The Master is above the people, and no one feels oppressed”. That way, according to Lao-Tzu, people will always use their inner goodness and therefore bring their country to success.

In other words, he has an anti materialistic view, convinced of the fact that a great master should induce the public to a state of spiritual satisfaction and not a materialistic one. He asserts that a good master should guide his/her people into knowing and wanting what would make their society functional and successful.

Machiavelli, on the other hand has a completely different approach and believes that a leader should be feared more than loved. The ruler should be powerful and involved in more tasks and feel more present than in Lao-Tau’s ideal society. Since fear and hate come together most of the times, a great leader has to make certain to be feared by his people, but not hated or despised because of it. As stated by the Italian philosopher, as long as you do not deprive people of either their property or their honor, the majority of men live happily (25). Thus, as long as the Prince keeps his subjects pleased and content, they will subsequently be united and devoted. Contrastingly, Machiavelli also states humans are ungrateful, fickle, simulators and deceivers, avoiders of danger; greedy for gain (14). For this reason, a ruler should never be too generous as the public would just expect more and more from him until they reach a stage of continuous dissatisfaction.

Another relevant distinction between the two thinkers lies in their believes about war. Machiavelli on one hand affirms that a great leader must be a master of the art of war in order to be trusted and respected by his soldiers. He must think about strategies and learn about the rules and discipline. Without these virtues, the decline of the society is inevitable by internal or external forces. Also, in Machiavelli’s point of view a ruler should always be ready to fight a war, since war is almost always a viable answer to any issue presented in his opinion. He wants his citizens to feel safe in case of attack, knowing that they can defend themselves from any kind of attack. Machiavelli regards war as strategy and activity thus, the necessities are unity, induced order, and fealty incited and projected by the fear of leadership or the leader (37-39).

Compared to Machiavelli, Lao-Tzu has completely different principles on the use of violence and war. For instance, he affirms that war should always be the last and not first option since the sufferings would not worth the victory. Also, Lao-Tzu affirms that people must detest weapons as they are tools of violence. Nobody should feel the need to use them, unless forced by the situation. “Human beings must never find pleasure in war; instead, they must choose to avoid war” (25-27).

Based on these facts one may conclude that while Lao-Tau has a more idealistic and optimistic view of how to lead a government and its subject towards achievement and victory, Machiavelli has a more realistic approach to it. Tao-Te Ching is more poetic, filled with analogies and euphemisms that makes it easier for the reader to have many different interpretations. The Prince, however is straight-forward and more of a narrative than the Tao-Te Ching. Machiavelli in his work gives specific suggestions and instructions of how to govern a country and its subjects, making it almost impossible for the reader to have different interpretations. Machiavelli’s political view is more realistic and surely more pessimistic compared to Lao-Tzu’s;

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