Mill and Machiavelli

Post by Alex Lee

Having taken another excellent political theory class last spring at the Eastman School of Music, I am compelled to draw a comparison between John Stuart Mill and a philosopher I studied last semester, Niccolò Machiavelli. One can clearly see that Mill’s On Liberty is directly influenced by the spirit of Utilitarianism that he received from Bentham. Instead of being guided by overarching moral principles, Mill focuses on what will bring people the most overall good, or pleasure. Eventually he goes on to modify that and acknowledge that some goods are of a higher sort than others, but the ends still justify the means. To me, this seems like straight Machiavelli. In both The Prince and The Discourses, Machiavelli is concerned with a principle that he calls virtú. In contrast to virtue, which may include any of the many moral codes that we impose upon ourselves, virtú is the ability to quickly and efficiently deal with the problems at the moment. Like Utilitarianism, its sole purpose is to produce results. Mill and Machiavelli also have the exact same solution to government in freedom of speech. Machiavelli writes in The Discourses about the importance of public debate and discussion. He even allows for public demonstrations, if it will help to know what the people want. Mill and Machiavelli both know that, without giving each opinion its due, be it true or false, a people cannot have a hand in ruling itself. I think that, by combining the spirit of Utilitarianism/Virtú with free speech and discussion, we get a government and a people that is much more capable of addressing the issues that arise and much more likely to succeed.

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