“The Qualities of the Prince,” the most notable treatise written by Niccolo Machiavelli in 1513, instructs the Medicis, the rulers of Italy, to save Italy from the rapacious invasion of France and Spain. In “The Qualities of the Prince,” Machiavelli proposes qualities that princes should acquire in order to sustain authority such as to have a balance between being feared and loved, assuming that a prince righteously possesses the power to control the people. Along with these qualities, Machiavelli also exerts his views on the properties of human nature, power, war, and the responsibilities of the leaders towards their followers. On the other hand, “The Origin of Civil Society,” an essay written by Jean-Jacques Rousseau, a significant modern philosopher, in 1762, focuses on the issue of the nature and right of man both in a natural and civilized society and thus conveys the ideas of Rousseau about what a legitimate government with a stable basis should be based on. In contrast to the belief of Machiavelli that a prince, his decisions unalterable, functions as the only commander, Rousseau claims that a government, concerning the “general will” (68) of the people and is elected by the people, should rule as the leader. Rousseau also asserts views opposing Machiavelli’s stances on war, power, human rights, and duties of the government towards its followers. Machiavelli and Rousseau formulate their ideas at different time in history with different purposes and under various social and cultural influences. Thus even though they both discuss the relationship between leaders and followers and share a few similar ideas on government, Rousseau disagrees most Machiavelli’s views based on war, human nature and rights, power, society, and responsibilities of the leaders. However, while Machiavelli mostly quotes historical contents to support his arguments, Rousseau uses convincing rhetorical approaches like aphorism and analogy and analyzes as well as examines closely the concepts of both the other thinkers as well as his own before coming to a reasonable conclusion. By using these methods, readers are provoked to think critically, and consequently, they accepts the ideas of Rousseau more readily than those of Machiavelli, indicating that Rousseau expresses more successful arguments than Machiavelli.
To begin with, Rousseau agrees with Machiavelli that a strong government is needed in a society, but he has reservations about Machiavelli advising the prince to go to war. Machiavelli implies that a society requires a strong government through urging a prince not to “take anything as his profession but war, its institutions, and its discipline” (39), as Machiavelli believes that by focusing on the art of war, a strong government may be created. Rousseau approves this idea, believing that a strong government is necessary for the well-being of the people in a society. He believes that a society needs a strong government because a strong regime, guiding people to “act in concert,” directly leads to a powerful and cohesive “association” that can effectively assist people within the society in “[withstanding] any resistance exerted upon them from without” (67); thus, when one weaker member of the association is attacked, due to both “duty and interest,” the stronger individuals within the association can be united to provide “mutual assistance” (69) against the attackers. Such actions defending members of a society against the outside powers under the guide of a strong government provides great advantage to the members of the association.
Yet Rousseau does not assent that a leader should take war as his “only profession” (Machiavelli 39). Rousseau claims that going to war is never righteous especially when most of the times the “despot” is actually trying to satisfy his “insatiable greed, and the vexatious demands of his Ministers” instead of keeping his promise of providing “civil peace to his subjects” (63). As an alternative, Rousseau holds that rulers should take the common will of his people as his top priority and work to make decisions that benefit everyone in the community. While Machiavelli uses specific historical figures like Francesco Sforza and Philopoemon to support his idea that war is the most important part of a prince’s career, Rousseau convincingly suggests the benefit member of a society can get when a government considers the common will as its chief considerations. Rousseau maintains that if the government makes decisions according to common will, the weaker members of the society will greatly benefit from this action as they will receive “mutual assistance” (62) when being attacked from the mightier individuals with the support and guidance of the government, assuming that the common will is to defend themselves against the foreign forces for their own well-beings. This argument is more convincing than that of Machiavelli’s as the readers being part of the society is more closely related to the situation proposed by Rousseau but not to the historical contents Machiavelli mentions, and thus readers sympathize with Rousseau’s argument more.
In addition, while Machiavelli asserts that the Prince, acting as the only commander, has absolute authority over his people, and his “decisions [must therefore] be irrevocable” (50), Rousseau argues that being a member of a civil government that concerns the common will, every person of this association has the right to alter the decisions made by the governors or even to overthrow the existing government and establish a new one. Due to the cultural influences, Machiavelli presumes from the very beginning that every person in the country would summit themselves fully to the prince and obey his orders without questioning, thus, this leads Machiavelli to assume that people do not have the right to either choose who to rule them or decide how they are to be governed.
However, Rousseau, using aphorism and analogy, makes a powerful and convincing contention against Machiavelli’s assumptions of common people having no say in what the ruler would do. Rousseau states at the very beginning that “man is born free” (59), a widely accepted aphorism increasing the persuasiveness of the argument, and later suggests that “as soon as a man attains the age of reason he becomes his own master” (60) given that every man deserves a “condition of equal independence” (59). After constituting a strong basis for his argument, Rousseau then goes on to compare the “political associations” to a typical “family” (60) with, by analogy, the ruler as the father and the people as the children. Rousseau claims that since the children are, by the law of nature, free to make decisions that will “best assure [their] continued existence” (60), they are vindicated to choose whether or not to keep stay at home and be controlled by their father as soon as they are independent. Consequently, Rousseau comes to a conclusion that people in a society should similarly have the right to choose whether to summit themselves to the government or to establish a new one themselves. By using the analogy of comparing the structure of a family to the “political associations” (60), an analogy that relates the personal lives of the readers to the government, Rousseau effectively guides the readers to thoroughly understand and agree with his points of view. This argument of Rousseau saying that the people has the right to choose who to govern is made even more convincing when Thomas Jefferson, a former Virginia governor, backs Rousseau’s idea by claiming in “The Declaration of Independence” that “it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish [any Form of Government], and to institute new Government” (80).
Additionally, regarding the matter of power, Rousseau rebuts Machiavelli’s idea that people will submit themselves fully to those who are physically mightiest. Machiavelli strongly believes that only by being armed, equivalent to be might, people would willingly summit themselves to the rulers (40). On the contrary, Rousseau maintains that yielding to physical power is a “necessity” but “not of will” (63) and therefore asserts that the act of forcing people to obey through the use of violence is not very practical as people will not surrender themselves to the mightiest person if they had the ability to get away with the orders. Rousseau successfully incites the readers to agree that might does not sustain right by presenting a hypothetical scenario and then asking the readers a provoking rhetorical question. Rousseau supposes that he is being “waylaid by a footpad at the corner of a wood” and is forced to give him his purse; he then asks the readers: “But if I can manage to keep [my purse] from him, is it my duty to hand it over?” (62) As a result, readers are actively engaged to the reading and would agree that since Rousseau is being forced in the scenario to hand over his purse, he will very likely to keep his purse away from the “footpad” (62) if he has the ability. Thus, the readers can conclude that Rousseau is logical when suggesting that Might does not make Right since people are most likely to find ways to escape from obeying orders when they are forced to do so with violence.
In addition, by putting forward and examining closely the arguments others might present before proposing his own ideas on the issue, a convincing rhetoric approach, Rousseau has made a successful case in arguing that “Might does not create Right” (62). Rousseau is aware that people may claim that “all power comes from God” and “no case will ever be found of the violation” (62), suggesting that the belief of “all power comes from God” is generally accepted by the society at that time and no one should be allowed to go against those powers such as the mightiness of people. He therefore associates “power” with “ailments” which is also thought to have given by God, proposing that the power given by God can sometimes be faulty and disruptive, and thus encourages readers to think by asking the rhetorical questions: “Are we to conclude from such an argument that we are never to call in the doctor?”(62) Therefore, what Rousseau is trying to say here is that if people are able to fight against the “ailments” given by God through calling in a doctor, they will also be able to rebel against the orders from the mightiest individuals, their physical power given by God, if they are forced to obey with violence. By using this clever rhetorical device, Rousseau has effectively brought out his own idea that “Might does not create Right” as well as drawing the readers to sympathize with him.
To conclude, Machiavelli and Rousseau possess a few similar but mostly dissimilar views on the issue of government. Yet, even though they both have very distinct views on this issue, their ideas are greatly influential and are still affecting the thoughts of many modern politicians as well as inspiring many philosophers and leaders like Tomas Jefferson throughout history. By looking closely at the successful, logical and convincing arguments Rousseau mad