Feb 3, 2014

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Deconstructing and Comparing the Works of Machiavelli’s The Qualities of a Prince and Lao Tzu’s Tao-te Ching – English 5 – Essay 1

Assignment: Compare Lao-tzu’s view of government with that of Machiavelli. Consider what seems to be the ultimate purposes of government, what seems to be the obligations of the leader to the people being led, and what seems to be the main work of the state. What comparisons can y0u make betwee Lao-tzu’s Master and Machiavelli’s prince?

Grade: 85/100


- You write with clarity

- Your comparison/contrast is logical and well organized

- You provide convincing evidence

- Keep verb tense consistent


Gabriella Wendt

English 5


Deconstructing and Comparing the Works of Machiavelli’s The Qualities of a Prince and Lao Tzu’s Tao-te Ching

Reading the works of Machiavelli and Lao-Tzu in succession highlight how truly at opposition the messages are. Though both pieces express the desired way to govern a people, the “Tao-te Ching” speaks of peace, simplicity, and letting the universe work its will, while “The Qualities of the Prince” emphasizes the necessity for war, and the natural wickedness of men. There are no particular reasons that these two ways of thought should be in harmony, one written in the 6th century, and the other the 16th, but they are similar in that they are highly revered and the aphorisms taken from the text are often quoted and considered wise, brilliant, and true. Both authors seem to believe that they are experts in the ways of human nature, and at their time in history might have been, but I could argue that their political reasoning’s are so antiquated, that they have no place in today’s culture. That said, contrasting these two texts can emphasize the extremities between a conquering nation and a stagnant one.

One of the prevailing messages of the Tao is that of inaction, or at least inaction until absolutely necessary and even then taking action without notice. “The Master doesn’t talk, he acts. When his work is done, the people say, “Amazing: We did it, all by ourselves!” (207) The Tao believes that the role of the Master is that of silent leader, an example, a sturdy center to the Way; the Master encourages simplicity in all things and knows the universe will move as needed.  To take unnecessary action would be to move outside the center and to upset the balance and the flow of life. Machiavelli, believing in strong actions and leadership as a controlling roll, would find Lao-Tzu’s teachings weak.

Machiavelli opines that “there is such a gap between how one lives and how one ought to live” (224) and concludes that to accept the true nature of men is the only way to rule appropriately. Machiavelli thinks of himself to be a realist and would consider Lao-Tzu a wishful person when considering the people.

In “The Qualities of a Prince”, Machiavelli leads me to believe that the purpose of a government and its leader is to gain power and stay in power; everything is focused on that task. Lao-Tzu states “Act for the people’s benefit. Trust them; leave them alone.” (214) He feels that people at the heart of it are simple and good, and that if only left to the ways of the universe, they would live simple and good lives without ambition, desire, or want. “I let go of the law, and people become honest. I let go of economics, and people become prosperous. I let go of religion, and people become serene. I let go of all desire for the common good, and the good becomes common as grass.” (211)

Trusting in those you lead was not something Machiavelli encouraged though, “[…] men are a sorry lot and will not keep their promises to you, you likewise need not keep yours to them.” (230) He expected plotting, treason, and unlawfulness from his people and wrote his rules as such under the ideals of being a realist. Finding that “they are ungrateful, fickle, simulators and deceivers, avoiders of danger, greedy for gain” (228) the role of Prince was to contain and govern that instead of letting the people prosper or set an example.

Lao-Tzu thought “If a country is governed with tolerance, the people are comfortable and honest. If a country is governed with repression, the people are depressed and crafty.” (211) The Tao speaks on the balance of life that “For every force there is a counterforce.” (208) He understood that through your example as the Master, the people would follow in suit. You cannot force anything upon your people except through force, but if you let things be, everything would fall into place. Machiavelli though, was not shy about what kind of leader you should be.  “A prince must not worry about the reproach of cruelty when it is a matter of keeping his subjects united and loyal” (227) His reasoning’s for being cruel or for lying were that they are the only logical means to an end, when the other possibility is to fall out of power. Everything is done to keep the Prince in power. Keeping the Prince in power is in the best interest of the people.

Lao-Tzu and Machiavelli surprisingly spoke similarly on how a people should feel about their leader, Lao-Tzu stating “[…]best is a leader who is loved. Next, one who is feared. The worst is one who is despised.” (207) Machiavelli insists that though to be both loved and feared would be best, being the two at once is impossible, thus “it is much safer to be feared than to be loved when one of the two must be lacking.” (227) On the subject of being despised, Machiavelli fest strongly that a Prince should avoid being considered that at all costs.  “A prince must guard himself against being despised and hated[...]” (226)

Where I felt the most disagreement between the two texts was on the subject of war. Machiavelli felt it was the single most important thing a Prince could do. “A prince, therefor must not have any other object nor any other thought, nor must he take anything as his profession but war, its institutions, and its discipline; because that is the only profession which befits one who commands.” (221) Lao-Tzu in opposition felt that it was the lowest form and should only be attended if absolutely necessary. He believed “Peace is his highest value. If the peace has been shattered, how can he be content? […] How could he rejoice in victory and delight in the slaughter of men? He enters a battle gravely, with sorrow and with great compassion, as if he were attending a funeral.” (209)

As a pacifist, I am want to admire Lao-Tzu’s messages of peace, however his stance on inaction and simplicity, in their substance, are not qualities I support. I believe that ambition and education are necessary and admirable for our world to continue to advance. Again, as a pacifist, I am immediately judgmental of Machiavelli’s text. Where Lato-Tzu’s message is of peace and feminine undertones, everything about Machiavelli’s is harsh and violent and masculine.

Works Cited

Jacobus, Lee A. “Lao-Tzu Thoughts from the Tao-te Ching and Niccolo Machiavelli The Qualities of the Prince.” A World of Ideas: EssentialReadings for College Writers. N.p.: n.p., n.d. 203-33. Print.

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