Guide for Teachers



This unit on politics and morality is held together by the themes of justice, morality, and politics, as they are set forth in Machiavelli's Prince and Plato's Apology.

The Prince

In The Prince, written in 1513, Machiavelli advocates the separation of moral and political orders, as the excerpt on the previous page indicates. Machiavelli argues that a concern with the morality of one's actions limits political effectiveness, and might even harm an individual. Thus, he teaches that a "prince" or political actor ought not hesitate to engage in immoral action when he finds it to be politically necessary or expedient. Indeed, Machiavelli redefines what is meant by "moral," just as he redefines what is meant by "virtuous" action. It would be immoral from Machiavelli's perspective to do what is harmful to oneself and to one's community for the sake of upholding a moral principle. So too does the "virtue" of a ruler consists in performing those actions necessary for the sake of seizing and maintaining power.

In the selections that we read Machiavelli discusses the specific virtues of a prince, including the ability to act as both lion and fox. While it is good to have a reputation for all the virtues if possible, the prudent prince should not act virtuously if it means the ruin of himself or his state.

One can easily understand why Machiavelli would be called a teacher of evil, and be associated with an amoral power politics. Much of his advice to those who want to rule is morally shocking, even today. Nothing, however, is quite so simple. That the end justifies the means does not mean that anything goes. Machiavelli was, after all, trying to give the advice that would bring peace and unity to his war-torn and disunited Italy.

The Apology

Our second reading dates back to the Greek world, in the fourth century BC. The Athenian philosopher Socrates was brought to trial and found guilty in 399 BC of doing injustice, by corrupting the young and by not believing in the gods of the city. After Socrates was executed, Plato explores the charges against of Socrates as well as his philosophic life by writing The Apology of Socrates, a defense speech of the sort that Socrates himself might have delivered in court. In that work, Socrates gives an account of his search for wisdom, his pursuing a virtuous life and urging others to do so, and how he has become unpopular as a consequence. It is political life itself, and not Socrates' teaching, Socrates suggests, that corrupts the young. Although Socrates argues that a good person cannot survive the corruptions of political life, his trial nevertheless demonstrates that a good life inevitably brings one into political conflict and dangers, just as Socrates' life devoted to philosophic questioning entails obligations and duties toward others. By exploring the character of Socrates' life, Plato offers an alternative vision to Machiavelli's concerning the relations between morality and politics.

The readings thus raise questions of what is owed to one's political community and what is owed to oneself. Should we pursue a political career? And what would that mean for our happiness, and the good of our own souls? Is justice good, and why? How much justice is good for a ruler, and is it ever consistent with what is necessary to rule effectively?

The readings and films in this unit can be used in any combination, but we recommend beginning with the selections from Machiavelli's Prince and Plato's Apology found in the first two sections, and discussing the preliminary questions found therein. The readings from The Prince are grouped by their relevance to the film and great book selections. Section questions follow each reading and film, and frequently ask the student to compare the work of that section with the selections from The Prince and The Apology found at the beginning of the unit.


Shakespeare's Macbeth might be seen as a didactic tale, cautioning the reader against an excess of ambition. It is ambition that consumes Macbeth and his "dearest partner of greatness," his wife, and sets them to the task of committing a series of murders that escalate to the point that none of Macbeth's subjects can be ignorant of his culpability in these many crimes. Our selections include five scenes from Shakespeare's Macbeth. These are, however, a rich and sophisticated picture of what executing the most horrible cruelties can do to a man's conscience, soul, or self. Macbeth's ambition causes him to take the Machiavellian divide between the morally right and the expedient and push it to its logical outcome.

Shamed for his irresolution and encouraged by his wife, Macbeth murders King Duncan in his own home, violating the "double trust" Duncan had in him as his kinsman and subject. Once there, however, Macbeth is not satisfied with simply possessing the throne, but seeks to keep it in perpetuity-even into future generations. This requires that he seek the death of Banquo's heirs, as Banquo, it is foretold by the witches, will be the father of many future kings. But Macbeth's ambition quickly turns to a madness that consumes him with his sense of insecurity on the throne. He finds every slight among his nobles cause to suspect them and he does not hesitate to order the murder of Macduff's entire family in spite of the obvious senselessness of fearing the wife and young children of the defected thane.

Macbeth follows the advice of his wife, who acts as his Machiavellian advisor. While Macbeth has the ambition to be king, according to his wife, he is free of the "illness which should attend it." That is, he possesses a conscience or a fear of upsetting a moral order of which he is a part. His initial irresolution is a product of knowing what committing such a deed might do to his soul or psyche. He seems to be able to foretell the outcome for both himself and Lady Macbeth, fearing that "Bloody instructions, which being taught, return/To plague the inventor." Even his resolute and cruel wife so suffers from her part in the murders that she kills herself. Macbeth, in his last appearance on the stage before his defeat, is equally in despair of the world and defiant of his fate. The horror about him cannot match the horror within him.

But Shakespeare does not leave us with the despair of Macbeth. The play closes with the ascent of Malcolm to the throne. By showing us in an earlier scene Malcolm's testing Macduff's character, Shakespeare dramatizes Malcolm's own character, and his worthiness to be king. Like Machiavelli, Shakespeare is concerned with the character of the ruler, but does he understand the ruler's virtues in the same way as does Machiavelli? Moreover, Malcolm's personal merits complement his rightful claim to the throne. Shakespeare adds legitimacy (whether by inheritance or election) as a factor that justifies rule.

Also interesting about the exchange between Malcolm and Macduff are the compromises that both are willing to make to overturn Macbeth's tyranny. Macduff determines that certain, measured and well?managed vices on Malcolm's part will not disqualify him as a good king-at least one more worthy of Macduff's support than is Macbeth. And Malcolm, as we have said, willingly employs a deception in order to test Macduff's loyalty. Each thus seems to tempt the other, in the manner that the witches tempted Macbeth. But, while neither is uncompromising in his defense of virtue and truth, both Malcolm and Macduff pass the other's test and prove themselves to one another as free men, unwilling to sell themselves, each other, or their country to present or future tyrants, whatever the personal profit.


The first film clips selected for this unit come from the film, Elizabeth, in which we meet the Machiavellian counselor Sir Francis Walsingham. Walsingham, who was virtually a contemporary of Machiavelli's, is remarkably well schooled in Machiavelli's teachings as is demonstrated by his ruthlessness in the first clip. Walsingham's murder of a young and (mostly) innocent boy, who did not have the heart to carry out a murder which he had been paid or instructed to commit is shocking. By the end of the film, however, the movie allows us to appreciate Walsingham's virtues as well as his advice to Elizabeth. If we have any affinity for Queen Elizabeth herself, we must acknowledge her growth in wisdom and the strengthening of her judgment for the difficulties she faced as a "new Prince" as a result of Walsingham's tutelage.

Walsingham, furthermore, never tries to usurp Elizabeth's power. We have no indication that he will ever be anything more than a loyal and powerful advisor. This is most clearly demonstrated in his desire to instruct her in the ways of a wise Prince, rather than in commanding her as her former counsel Sir Walter is wont to do.

Elizabeth's choice of Walsingham's counsel over Sir Walter's -- her choice in effect to remain (or become, as the very last scene suggests) the Virgin Queen and never marry -- is itself an acknowledgment of her adoption of Walsingham's counsel. Again, this seems to be a great boon for England and its strength vis-a-vis the foreign powers that were looking, through marriage or military conquest, to subordinate her.

But for Elizabeth herself there appears to be an immense personal cost to having strengthened England. Not only does she have a good deal of blood on her hands, which appears to genuinely upset her, but she comes to understand the necessity of being made, as it were, of stone -- unmovable and untouched. Such a personal price is the cost of a successful reign, according to Walsingham.

The one man it appears she would have wanted to marry, Lord Robert Dudley, was himself a conspirator against her reign and she chooses to keep him alive although she could justly have him executed. She does not act out of love at that point. Tthis is no romantic movie when the queen spares the life of the man she loves even though he has betrayed her to the England's enemies. Rather, Elizabeth keeps him alive, as she says, to remind her how "close she came to danger." But, as the movie suggests, Lord Robert also serves as a reminder of how far she is from happiness. Thus, while we might admire her immensely and even be pleased with the gains won for England-England's internal harmony and strength on the world stage -- few of us might want to imitate Elizabeth if such a high price must be paid for those ends. The glory (praise) that Elizabeth attains is in fact what Machiavelli seems to promise the reader of The Prince, but does he indicate so well as this film, the price of that success and glory?

A Bronx Tale

A Bronx Tale, set in 1960's New York City brings the teachings of Machiavelli somewhat closer to us than does The Prince, Elizabeth, or Macbeth. C, a young boy who grows up learning Machiavellian lessons from the local mob boss, is a Yankee fan living in a world not unlike our own.

The wisdom and relevance of Machiavelli is demonstrated in the simple lesson taught to C by Sonny about lending money. When C tries to collect $20 owed him by an acquaintance, Sonny teaches him not to be concerned about the right or wrong, the justice, of collecting what is his due. Rather, by not collecting the debt, C will no longer be bothered by Louie Dumps. He has "gotten off cheap." This Machiavellian calculation of self-interest may not be noble, but the film shows that Sonny's advice is preferable to that of his men, who advise C to collect his money by going after Louie with a baseball bat. And when C attempts to instruct his friend Mario with his new-found wisdom about how to treat an annoying debtor, Mario replies that he is "still gonna break his face."

While we might expect the alternative to Sonny to be someone concerned with justice (the debt is owed to C), the film emphasizes the difference between Sonny, who is neither petty nor over jealous for a just outcome, with the intense pettiness and mean?spiritedness of some of C's friends.

We must not overlook, however, the severity of Sonny's response to the motorcyclists in the bar. Sonny's violence is not committed (at least initially) in the heat of passion or rage. Nor is it born of hatred or prejudice as is the violence of C's peers against blacks, as is clear if we see the movie as a whole. Sonny's violence is motivated primarily by the belief that such action is necessary to keep order in his bar and to maintain his authority that the motorcyclists attempt to undermine. Sonny gave the motorcyclists every opportunity to avoid the beating they received, but the Machiavellian instruction he has just given to C demonstrates that he supposes that he has no choice but to act as he does. Sonny instructs the lead biker, after finally taking a baseball bat to his head: "Look at me, I am the one who did this to you. Remember me." It is not only important for Sonny to make an example of these motorcyclists, but he makes certain it is known that he has the force to back up his authority, and that he does not fear using it.

Moreover, Sonny has in fact been like a father to C, as C himself says. And, while C initially concludes that "no one cares" when he sees that no one else in the funeral home is mourning Sonny's death, the film does not end there. That C's father, Lorenzo, comes in to "pay his respects to [C's] friend" causes C to recognize that Sonny was in fact appreciated by not only him, but in a unique way by C's father as well. Lorenzo acknowledges that Sonny had a positive influence on his son-helping him "to grow up," even if it was "too fast."

In the end, C concludes that Sonny's talent was "wasted." He thus lends support to his father's claim that making something of oneself was in fact more complicated than following Sonny's too simplistic claim that "the working man is a sucker."

Like Elizabeth, this film emphasizes the cost in human terms to the "wise Prince." Sonny, like Elizabeth, believes he too must be "touched by nothing" and insulated from the need to trust others. He must count on his own wisdom, and the dependence on himself he creates for his men, rather than the genuine bond between himself and C, or any other. As Sonny says, "I give [my men] just enough so they need me, but they don't hate me." Again, while Sonny may have been right about his men, it seems that C does in fact bear him genuine affection. That C chooses a different life than Sonny is not only a rejection of him, it is a tribute to him. He is better than he thought himself, and he is perhaps better for the affection he bore C.

Primary Colors
and City Hall

While again, the experience of C in A Bronx Tale seems to be closer to us than the previous works which involved queens and kings, envoys and battles, we might still ask whether what we learn from the A Bronx Tale are not rules for mobsters and outlaws? Both Sonny and C acknowledge that Sonny's life is not for C. Sonny merely wants to give C "two educations"-- that of school and that of the streets. But in neighborhoods that are not so tough, is this second education necessary? So long as the law is present, and one can fight or "contest" with laws, is Machiavelli's teaching at all relevant to us?

The final two films show men interested in public life-ambitious men by Machiavellian standards, who become involved in politics to make a difference-even to make history. Henry, of Primary Colors and Kevin Calhoun, of City Hall, are men with noble ambitions. They are men who want to be and to do good. These stories demonstrate the presence of the kind of competition in which foxes engage in our everyday politics, and its effect on idealistic men like Henry and Kevin. What advice would Machiavelli give to these young men? And what advice would Socrates give to them?

When Henry comes to work for a Southern governor running for the Presidency, he is faced with a dilemma: the very possibility of achieving the kind of history?making changes which are both good and desirable, is dependent upon the amorality of Governor Stanton's campaign. How far can one compromise with morality in order to put oneself in a position to do good, that is, even if the end justifies the means, might not the means become everything? Does Henry grow in wisdom, as does Elizabeth, and learn hard lessons about what it takes to govern, or does he sell out? Where must one draw the line? The two most appealing characters in that film draw the line differently, Henry remaining in the campaign and seeing his candidate to victory, his friend Libby, in despair, committing suicide. Is Libby's despair warranted? Does Henry do the right thing? Is there any other possibility if one wants to make a difference, to have an effect on history?

We are left, like Henry, with the ambiguity of the film's message and with Libby's repeating Stanton's own words to him twenty?five years later, "Our job is to end all that. Our job is to make it clean. Because if it is clean, we win-because our ideas are better." Is Libby's a foolish idealism or a noble aspiration, or both?

In City Hall, Kevin rejects the Mayor's criminality, but not the "difference" he tried to make. Like Henry, Kevin wanted the game to be cleaner than it was for the Mayor and for Stanton. At the end of City Hall, Kevin's choice is quite different from any we see in Primary Colors. After he leaves the mayor, Kevin decides to run for city council. We see him campaigning on the streets of New York City. He is starting over, and clearly going to do it the clean way. The movie, however, leaves us wondering whether he will win even this local election. We are left with the question whether Kevin's "honest and decent politics" will be able to accomplish anything at all, or whether it holds out an alternative vision to Primary Colors about politics that suggests a renewal of American innocence in the face of corruption.

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