Meet Your Meat

“Recognize meat for what it really is: the antibiotic- and pesticide-laden corpse of a tortured animal.”

~ Ingrid Newkirk

“Being vegan is easy. Are there social pressures that encourage you to continue to eat, wear, and use animal products? Of course there are. But in a patriarchal, racist, and homophobic society, there are social pressures to participate and engage in sexism, racism, and homophobia. At some point, you have to decide who you are and what matters morally to you. And once you decide that you regard victimizing vulnerable nonhumans is not morally acceptable, it is easy to go and stay vegan”

~ Gary L. Francione


Our treatment of animals is morally appalling! We ought to change radically the way we live and our attitude toward animals. But what am I precisely talking about here? Considering our stage of intellectual and technological development, we could carry on with our lives without having to exploit and kill other beings. And yet, we shoot animals for fun, raise them in cages, crack their skulls, cut their bodies into pieces, boil them alive, drain their blood, package their body parts, ship the packages to supermarkets where they are sold and labeled with hypocritical euphemisms such as beef, pork, drumsticks, eggs, and so on. The reality is that people buy the mutilated body parts of cows, the cut up flesh of pigs, the cut-off legs of chickens, and the unfertilized reproductive cycles of chickens. These animal parts are fried, broiled, roasted and eaten, coagulated blood, skin, veins, nerves, and all, nothing gets wasted.

Animal females, cows for example, are forced to become pregnant. Hormones and other chemical supplements are injected into their bodies. Their babies are taken away from them and killed; their cut-up bodies are labeled and sold as veal. Chefs make a dish called “veal scaloppini” and not “thin slices of baby cow flesh,” which is really what it is. The cows, now engorged with milk that will never be given to their babies since they were killed and sold as “veal,” are hooked up to machines that squeeze their breasts and steal their milk. When the cows are completely drained and no longer produce milk, they are sent to be slaughtered. Their milk, which by the way contains pus and blood, is drunk straight up or used in recipes, pus, blood and all. But if you think about it, the milk produced by a human mother is meant for her baby; similarly, the milk produced by a cow is meant for cow babies, not for humans, and certainly not for human adults. At any rate, this is the kind of cruelty behind your glass of milk. Also milk is turned into cheese. The way this works is to add to the milk an enzyme contained in animal intestines (rennet) to turn the milk into a firm glob of fat that we call “cheese,” the same fat, by the way, responsible for atherosclerosis, diabetes, and obesity.

Many people like to have breakfast with unfertilized reproductive cycles of chickens (eggs) fried in animal lard or in the hardened artery-clogging fat of breast-squeezed animal milk, which we call butter, with a side of fried slices of swine abdomen fat. But have you ever asked yourself what really happens in egg farms? Since male chicks are not profitable to the industry because they cannot lay eggs, every year, 200 million baby chicks are ground up alive. Workers separate male chicks from females and toss the males into a chute where they are ground up alive in a meat grinder into a bloody pulp that is fed back to chickens. The industry calls this practice “instantaneous euthanasia.”

For Thanksgiving dinner, millions of Americans have turkey. But are these people aware of how they are able to have such a large number of turkeys? Turkeys naturally do not reproduce that quickly. This means that they are artificially inseminated. By “artificially” I mean that there are people whose job is to masturbate turkeys, collect the semen, and then inject it into female turkeys (Try bringing up this as a topic next Thanksgiving dinner.).

But, as if this were not enough, animals and insects are used not only as food. Animals are used for every single purpose of our bodies and, sadly, for every aspect of our lives. We cover car seats with the skin of killed animals. We wash our bodies with products containing animal parts or by-products. We even use animal skin strips around our waists as belts and around our wrists as bracelets, or animal skin to make shoes or purses or wallets. We kill birds and use their feathers to fill up pillows and winter coats when it is absolutely unnecessary since we can use synthetic material instead. We use animal fur to make brushes and clothes, their boiled bones to make Jell-O or soap, their fat to make lotions, glue, paint, or to put on our skin as lotion. Vanilla, raspberry and strawberry ice cream flavors are enhanced by castoreum. Castoreum is the anal secretions of beavers! And the chewing gum you are chewing right now may contain lanolin, an oily, sweaty secretion found on the outside of sheep’s wool. Lanolin is also used in skin lotions.

Insects are eaten straight up by many cultures or utilized in many foods people consume daily. Candies are colored using the secretions of various insect or crushed bugs. Another insect product that many people consume daily without giving it any thought is insect vomit. Commercially, the acidic vomit of bees is known as “honey.” But think about this: honey is bees’ food. Humans steal it from the bees. Obviously, the stolen honey, which is stolen food, must be replaced. It is, therefore, replaced with high fructose corn syrup. However, since corn syrup is not the bee’s natural food, the consumption of the same is believed to be the cause of the death of millions of colonies worldwide. Just think about it. There are animal parts and animal by-products everywhere—in your toothpaste, in your breakfast, in your pockets, around your necks, in your cars, animals, animals, and more animals. In other words, one day does not go by without humans using the dead bodies of animals and their by-products.

But animals are not only killed, eaten, and used, but also tortured while alive. Every minute, every day, hundreds of animals are killed in laboratories in the United States. Millions of animals are used in experiments and die every year. Many animals die after being administered drugs or cosmetics. The government requires testing on animals before products are sold to people. But consider that many natural cosmetic products on the market are not required to be tested on animals. Ask yourself, why do we need to test toothpaste or mascara on animals when we can produce and use only natural cosmetics that do not require animal testing at all? And since humans “need” these products, why don’t they test them on humans? There is more: In a recent experiment, baboons were strapped down and had special helmets cemented to their skulls. Then, a pneumatic device delivered calibrated blows to determine the strength of the helmet. The blows continued until the skull of the baboons were fractured, resulting in the death of the baboons. Dogs are driven to the point of insanity by electric shocks so that scientists can study the effect of insanity. Cats are deprived of sleep until they die to study sleep deprivation. Elephants were given LSD to study its effects. Mice had their legs cut off to study how they walk on their stumps. Polar bears were drowned in vats filled with oil to study the effects of oil spills in Polar Regions. Cats were blinded, castrated, and rendered deaf to study their sexual developments under these incapacities. Other cats are placed in small rooms heated up to 110 degrees Fahrenheit and left there until they die. This process produces a musk in the cats’ genitals, which is scraped off and used in the production of perfume, making the scent last longer.

To return to the question of eating meat, if asked “Why do you eat meat?” most people would not even consider it as an intelligible question. It is a complicated question. One’s diet, like many other aspects of life, traditions, beliefs, and customs, is normally embraced or not embraced—but seldom considered or questioned. So, the first reason people eat meat is simply that people were taught to do so by their parents, their parents were taught by their parents, and so on.

Some may say that they really enjoy eating meat. But, I often wonder whether people really enjoy eating meat. I am convinced that not too many people would really eat a slab of animal flesh unless it has been coated in spices and sauces and then cooked. What people really like when they eat a piece of animal flesh is mostly spices. I am willing to bet that most people would not “enjoy” the taste of raw flesh—that’s what meat is. However, people enjoy all sorts of things, but the question is whether they enjoy them because it is written in their DNA, so to speak, or because they have learned and adapted to enjoying certain things. For example, humans enjoy sweet food because every single cell in the human body runs on sugar. It does not seem to me that people enjoy smoking, drinking alcohol, or eating meat because the human body requires them. On the contrary, I think that many people passively embrace the commodities offered by today’s society with open arms just because they are offered to them. If we consider smoking as an example, is it really enjoyable to breathe smoke and nicotine into one’s lungs? Perhaps I fail to get the virtue of smoking, but that seems to me a clear indication that some people are told what to enjoy, and then they tell themselves they should enjoy certain things, and eventually become accustomed to those things. In other words, it seems clear that human beings in many of their practices learn to become comfortable with the uncomfortable. The important point here is that just because one enjoys something, does not make it moral. One can enjoy, for example, gratuitously lying to people, but that is obviously immoral. Similarly, you may “enjoy” your steak or chicken dish, but have you ever considered that your few minutes of enjoyment gave those animals a miserable life ended by a brutal death?
Another reason people eat meat is that, they say, it is “natural.” By natural, it is meant that human beings are somehow “designed” to eat animals as if it were a “law of nature” or the cycle of life. I think that these people are misinformed, and mistake natural with social. Many social practices are immoral and unnatural, but nonetheless practiced. Consider this thought experiment. Think about a cow, a pig, a chicken, a lamb in their natural environment, grazing happily. You are walking by the countryside and see these animals. I argue that you would find none of them appetizing. Think of a chicken scurrying on the grass in front of you. Think of her neck bobbing back and forth, her fluffy plumage and her skinny legs, and her sound “coo, coo, coo.” Next think about a pig enjoying a mud bath grunting happily. Think of a cow, placid large animal, chewing grass with her big mouth sliding from side to side saying “moo, moo” to her cow friends. And what about a lamb? Think about a little lamb eating grass saying “mee, mee” to you while you caress her fluffy fur. Now, these, and other, features and behaviors of these creatures strike one as cute or funny, or both, but not appetizing. That is to say, as you caress a lamb or a cow you would never see them as food, your interaction with these creatures will not make you hungry.

Now, if eating meat is “natural” as meat eaters always like to believe, why is it that your reaction to watching a chicken wobbling along the grass makes you smile rather than making your mouth watering? Why is it that when you see a ripe fruit your natural instinct is to want to eat it but when you see a lamb you want to pet her? And if you are still not convinced, think of children’s reaction to animals and fruit. Why is it that small children naturally want to play with animals instead of jumping on them to take a bite of their flesh? The answer I think is easy—animals are not our food, fruits and plants are our food. Animals are creatures with desires just like us; and just like us, they have a strong desire to thrive and not to be imprisoned and killed to become food or shoes or purses. Now reverse this thought experiment. Put yourself in a predator’s shoes. Imagine you are a lion or a wolf. Would you not find it natural to see a lamb as appetizing if you were a wolf? And if you were a lion, would you not find a pineapple a useless object but a gazelle a delicious meal?
Next think about this thought experiment: a friend invites you over for dinner. He promised you a succulent meat-based dinner. As you are ready to sit at the table, your friend reveals to you that he has roasted a whole dog for you—that is what’s for dinner! If you were brought up in the West, you would be shocked, to say the least, by your friend’s meal choice. But now ask yourself, why is it wrong to eat a dog, or a cat for that matter, but OK to eat a cow or a pig or a turkey? Why is it OK to eat pig but not OK to eat dog? Why is it OK to eat a bird but not OK to eat a cat? This reflection should make one pause. Once you put aside your emotions, you’ll realize that there is no rational justification for eating one animal rather than another.
The fact that dogs are not meals in this part of the world is purely accidental, a socio-geographical accident.

Many people use the argument that since certain animals eat other animals, it is normal or natural for us to eat animals, as well. However, carnivores do not have a choice; nature designed them to eat the flesh of other animals and they cannot survive solely on plant food. Also, it does not seem to be a fair analogy because humans and carnivore animals obtain their food in quite different ways. Carnivores do not walk into supermarkets, buy steaks or sausages, and then season and cook them like we do. They catch their food or eat the flesh of dead animals they find on the ground. Besides, they eat the whole animal, flesh, hair, eyes, blood, and bones, nerves, right there on the spot. On the other hand, people buy meat in supermarkets. The meat has been conveniently cut, cleaned, and packaged for them; it is taken home, seasoned to taste, cooked and eaten. Secondly, although humans are animals, they are different kinds of animals in that (1) they are capable of appreciating morality in a way that non-human animals obviously cannot, and (2) unlike most animals, humans can survive on an exclusive vegan diet. What this means is that eating meat is something humans have learned to do but is not necessary.

Another argument to justify animal exploitation is that it is a human tradition. Throughout the centuries, humans always have exploited animals. But why continue a tradition if it is immoral? Think about slavery. For millennia, slavery was a legitimate practice. At one point in history, many people realized the absurdity of slavery and fought to abolish it, realizing that they had been wrong. Slavery shows that many traditions or practices in human history often are unethical. Thus, the argument that humans have always eaten meat is fallacious and historically inaccurate because it is not true that humans always have eaten meat. The important point here is this: with hindsight, we all recognize the wrong of slavery. But back in those times, many people did not see the wrong in it. Now, think about what people do to animals. How can we be sure that we are ethically warranted to use them as property, kill them, eat them, wear them, etc? How can we be sure that we are not wrong, just like the people in the past were wrong for condoning slavery?

Another argument I have heard over the years is from religious people who maintain that eating animals is not wrong because their respective religious leaders, as well as their respective religious texts, promote the consumption of meat. Now, while it is true that certain passages in religious texts recount stories of people eating animals or God offering animals as food or even animal sacrifice, no religion that I know of prescribes consumption of meat. Or to put it the other way around, no religion teaches people that a vegan diet is not proper or is irreligious. To take a passage from the Bible as an example, it would seem that the ideal diet recommended by God to humans in the Garden of Eden before the fall is a vegan diet. Here’s what Genesis 1:29-30 says:

Then God said, “I give you every seed-bearing plant on the face of the whole earth and every tree that has fruit with seed in it. They will be yours for food. And to all the beasts of the earth and all the birds in the sky and all the creatures that move along the ground — everything that has the breath of life in it — I give every green plant for food.” And it was so.

Granted, there are many other passages in the Bible that clearly acknowledge consumption of meat. However, we must consider that most religious texts were written in times prior to globalization when supermarkets did not exist, and when people did not have much choice in the way of food, and knew very little about nutrition. But the important point to me is this: the message of various religions is peace and love. The message of veganism is love and compassion for all sentient creatures. Conversely, the meat-eating world is about pain, cruelty, and profit. So, it would seem to me that given these premises, and considering that nowadays we can survive well on an exclusive vegan diet, God would support a vegan diet rather than a meat and dairy one.

Yet another argument is that eating meat and animal products is essential for good health. For example, people argue that we should consume dairy products because they are rich in calcium or meat because it is rich in proteins. In other words, there is this wide-spread idea among people that animal products are essential for healthy living. I must say that it is baffling to learn how many people still believe these propositions. Science has been very clear about the danger of consuming animal products—that is, they are unhealthful. It is interesting to notice that the United States population has one of the highest consumption of meat and dairy products, and it is also one of the sickest populations in the world. The rate of obesity, heart disease, high cholesterol, diabetes, and more in the U.S. has been growing exponentially. People insist on consuming animal products despite scientific research has decisively shown that the meat-and-dairy diet increases the risk of heart disease, diabetes, obesity, atherosclerosis formation, cancer, and so on, and that a vegan diet not only lowers, but also in most cases reverses those conditions. In short, science is very positive about the benefits of a vegan diet and the deleterious consequences of the Standard American Diet, whose acronym, SAD, speaks for itself.

One of the reasons this false idea that animal products are healthful continues to resonate among people—even though science shows the opposite—is in part due to mass media influence upon society. People have been exposed to media since very early in their lives. Thus, most of our everyday practices and beliefs are inculcated in us by the media. But this paper is not about the negative influence of the media upon people; in fact, I do not even intend to argue that the media is intrinsically bad. My point is that often, most of what people say, enjoy, and do is due to the powerful influence of the media. Consequently, one should put a question mark in front of what they think, say, believe, and enjoy.

One of the many examples of how the media influence society is a marketing tool called “Unique Positioning” (UP) or “Unique Selling Proposition” (USP). UP or USP is used in advertisements by making a unique proposition to the consumer that highlights only a product’s specific benefit that no other product can offer, but often neglects to reveal the negative aspects of that product. For example, a pharmaceutical company may advertise a unique painkiller that can make your headache disappear faster than any other painkiller can, but not tell you that this painkiller is likely to cause high blood pressure and other undesirable side effects. In the case of food, the aim of UP or USP is to make a cognitive association in consumers’ minds, connecting one product with a specific benefit or benefits by drumming the message as consistently and as frequently as possible. For example, when I say “calcium” you think of “dairy,” when I say “protein” you think of “meat,” when I say “Omega-3 fats” you think of “fish.” But the truth is that Omega-3s, calcium, proteins, and other important nutrients are found in plants in the amount required by the body. Animal products are advertized as having more of these nutrients than vegetables, which is superficially true. However, what is not told to the public is that more is not necessarily better. The quantity of nutrients in vegetables is more than enough for good health. Think about horses, elephants, bulls, and gorillas. They all are incredibly strong and all they eat is fruits and grass. It is true that meat and dairy products contain important nutrients, but the negative consequences of a meat and dairy diet outweigh the benefits. Nowadays, it is no longer a matter of debate. There is overwhelming scientific evidence that shows a link between the consumption of animal products and cancer, heart disease, diabetes, high blood pressure, atherosclerosis, and other such conditions.

Finally, our treatment of animals should make us reflect upon the purpose of our life on this planet. The way history has unfolded makes us care about only our immediate surroundings. The world has been conquered and nature dominated by humans. In so doing, humans have killed not only other humans but also animals and destroyed the environment. So, I believe that changing our attitude toward animals, i.e., acknowledging that they are not our property and our food, is a way to reconnect with nature and the rest of the world. It is also a way to consider that humans are guests on earth, and not hosts. And since we pride ourselves in having the capacity of reason, which allows us to create, among other things, sophisticated ethical systems, we should accept this fact and use that capacity to realize that exploiting other sentient beings is unnecessary and therefore unethical.

In the foregoing, I have described only some of the absurdities and the evil that humans unnecessarily inflict upon animals. There are many other horrific examples. My hope is that these examples suffice to strike a chord with people to make them realize that human exploitation of animals is no more justified than the exploitation of other people. My hope is that people realize the moral necessity to end what I call the world’s greatest injustice, which, in practical terms, means to stop eating animal flesh, to cease using animal by-products, and to shun all products obtained through animal testing.

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Descartes: A Way Out of the Circle

In this paper, I argue that Descartes arrives at the proof for God (the Ontological Argument) with normative certainty of all his clear and distinct ideas. Thus, his epistemology is in no way circular. Descartes proves the existence of God as a retrospective confirmation of his normative certainty of clear and distinct ideas. Furthermore, I argue that even if Descartes were required to prove the existence of God in order to grant his epistemology, he should not fear circularity because the Ontological Argument is a sound deductive argument.

To start, it is necessary to discuss the nature of the Cartesian Circle and how it arises. In the first meditation, Descartes reflects on the number of falsehoods he has believed during his life and on the subsequent faultiness of the body of knowledge he has built upon those falsehoods. Thus, he decides that in order to secure knowledge once and for all, he needs to start over, building up his knowledge anew on indubitable grounds. To this end, Descartes employs hyperbolic doubt. To attain an epistemology that resists even the most radical skeptics, Descartes decides to proceed in his investigation to find a secure point of reference by doubting literally everything. Everything that he has accepted as most true, after all, he has acquired from or through his senses. He realizes that the senses cannot therefore be a trustworthy source of knowledge. When he is dreaming, for example, Descartes experiences what seem to be real sensations and real objects. As he writes, he feels certain that he is awake and sitting by the fire, but reflects that he often has dreamed a similar scenario and has been convinced by it to be true. Descartes concludes, though he can doubt composite things, he cannot doubt the simple and universal parts from which they are constructed, such as shape, quantity, size, time, etc. While we can doubt studies based on composite things, such as medicine, astronomy, or physics, he concludes that we cannot doubt studies based on simple things, such as arithmetic and geometry.
On further reflection, Descartes realizes that even simple things can be doubted. At the beginning of the third meditation Descartes presents his most powerful doubt, which seems to be the root of what is known as the Cartesian Circle.


Some God could perhaps have given me a nature such that I might be deceived even about matters that seemed more evident. But whenever this preconceived opinion about the supreme power of God occurs to me, I cannot help admitting that, were he to wish it, it would be easy for him to cause me to err even in those matters that I think I intuit as clearly as possible with the eyes of the mind.” (Meditation III 36, p. 25)

To be specific, the Circle arises because, according to that line, an evil god, for example, could make even our ideas of mathematics false. One might argue that God is supremely good and would not lead him to believe falsely all these things. But this reasoning would clearly depend on dubious premises and thus the argument would beg the question. In other words, if an evil god has the power to deceive us into believing that 2+2=4 when in reality is not, then we are not entitled to mount any argument because the premises of that argument can be false.

That passage seems to have caused a great deal of trouble for Descartes. Many commentators have pointed to that passage as an insurmountable obstacle that prevents Descartes from acquiring normative certainty of any further propositions than that he exists. Michael Della Rocca, who defends an interpretation of the Meditations that allows Descartes to avoid circular reasoning, sets up the standard interpretation of Descartes’ problem this way: Supporters of the Cartesian Circle lament that before Descartes proposes his argument for the existence of God in the third and fourth meditations, he (Descartes) has merely psychological—and not normative—certainty of propositions in general. In other words, those who believe that Descartes reasons in circle claim that Descartes is not entitled to use God as a guarantor for acquiring normative certainty of any proposition because the conclusion that God exists and he is not a deceiver rest entirely on premises that can be doubted, i.e., that are not normatively certain, by Descartes’ own system. So, even if Descartes’ theological argument, i.e., the Ontological Argument is deductively valid, at this stage, all Descartes have is a series of premises that are merely psychologically certain, and thus can be false; consequently, the Ontological Argument appears to be unsound and thus unable to support its conclusion that God exists. However, this reading, I want to argue, is unduly uncharitable for at least two reasons. The first reason is that although Descartes’ increasing doubt requires that he suspend all judgments, we should not forget that in his second meditation, Descartes established a proposition that resists all skeptical attacks—even the alleged powers of a deceitful, evil god. That unshakable proposition, known as the Cogito, is normatively certain. In the second meditation, Descartes writes
I have convinced myself that there is nothing in the world — no sky, no earth, no minds, no bodies. Doesn’t it follow that I don’t exist? No, surely I must exist if it’s me who is convinced of something. But there is a deceiver, supremely powerful and cunning whose aim is to see that I am always deceived. But surely I exist, if I am deceived. Let him deceive me all he can, he will never make it the case that I am nothing while I think that I am something. Thus having fully weighed every consideration, I must finally conclude that the statement “I am, I exist” must be true whenever I state it or mentally consider it. (Meditation II, 25, p.18)

Here Descartes proves beyond doubt the existence of a self. Granted, if an evil god exists and is able to deceive me, and he is deceiving me as we speak, I may well be deceived into believing that I have a physical body and that there is an external world independent of my thoughts even if in reality I have no body and what I perceive as being an external world is an illusion. However, the existence of myself becomes a necessary truth, which I perceive clearly and distinctly. Notice that the proposition “I exist,” is necessarily true and is affected by the law of contradiction like any mathematical proposition. That is to say, to deny that I exist, is to affirm that I exist—even if an evil, deceitful god exists and he is currently deceiving me. Now, many commentators failed to appreciate that the proposition “I am, I exist” or better known as “I think, therefore I am” is a normatively certain proposition that Descartes uses as a model or axiom to find other such propositions. Namely, if I find that a proposition cannot be false in any possible world, it follows that that proposition must be normatively certain. In other words, even if an evil god uses his powers to deceive me or I am dreaming (or I am in the matrix), there is no possible world in which I may be deceived but at the same time I do not exist. If that were possible, it would be tantamount to saying that the proposition P and –P is true or that something exists and does not exist at the same time. However there is no possible world in which something exists and does not exist at the same time. The fact that one can utter such a proposition does not make the proposition possible or even conceivable. One would not even be able to imagine what it would be like for something to exist and not exist at the same time. P and –P is in fact necessarily false in any possible world. The logical form of a proposition such as P and –P is the same as “I think, therefore I am” because there is no possible world in which a thinking thing wonders about its existence when in reality it does not exist. These propositions are generally referred to by Descartes as clear and distinct perceived ideas.

The second reason why I regard the standard interpretation, that which lament circularity in Descartes’ argument, as unduly uncharitable is that there is textual evidence showing that Descartes approaches the Ontological Argument with normative certainty of his current clear and distinct perceived ideas. At the outset of his third meditation, Descartes writes


When I turn to the things themselves which I think I perceive very clearly, I am so convinced by them that I spontaneously declare: let whoever can do so deceive me, he will never bring it about that I am nothing, so long as I continue to think I am something; or make it true at some future time that I have never existed, since it is now true that I exist; or bring it about that two and three added together are more or less than five, or anything of this kind in which I see a manifest contradiction. (Meditation III, 36, p. 25)

The passage above indicates that Descartes has normative certainty of those ideas and concepts he later uses to mount the Ontological Argument and, moreover, the passage shows that he does know to have normative certainty at that stage. That is why Descartes uses the logical form of his Cogito as an axiom that enables him to identify other similar logical forms. (I’ll return to this later) Mathematical propositions as well as propositions of geometry, for example, have the same force and logical indubitability as the Cogito. Namely, Mathematical concepts have the important feature that they never change. The number three is what the numeral “3” refers to. A numeral is a symbol that can be written down at a particular time and place. In contrast, a number is not the kind of thing that can ever be written down. This shows that, if numbers exist, they do not exist at some times and places as opposed to others. If a skeptic complains that perhaps, if we go along with Descartes’ evil god, it is possible that the number three were different 10,000 years ago. But what would that mean? That proposition is not just inconceivable but also nonsensical. To say that the number three was not really three but almost three or slightly less than three is tantamount to saying that at one point in time or in some possible world a triangle might have four sides. Clearly, there is a peculiar aspect of language that allows one to utter nonsensical propositions. These points about numbers are uncontroversial. However, one may still object that it is Descartes who, after all, admits that


Whenever this pre-conceived opinion of the pre-eminent power of God occurs to me, it is not possible for me not to allow that if He wishes, it is easy for him to bring it about that I err, even about those things which I think I intuit as evidently as possible by the eyes of the mind. (Meditation III, 36, p. 25)

Here I want to suggest a reading of Descartes saying something like this: God can make me err when I count my 5 fingers on my right hand and then I count my 5 fingers on my left hand and I end up with the number nine. Surely it would be petty of God, even for an evil God, to deceive me like such, but an omnipotent, evil God could nonetheless do it. However, let us say that he deceived me into believing that, say, after counting to five fingers on my right hand, evil God erases my memory of counting to five and replaces with a false one whereby I have counted to four. Then, when I count my fingers on my left hand I arrive at the number nine. As I said, it seems an unlikely scenario even for an evil God, but if this were to happen, evil God deceived me but did nothing to change the reality of numbers. So, if I am dreaming, or an evil God wants to deceive me about things that I deem true, then I do not possess normative certainty of any proposition. But if I pay close attention, in this case I attend to the concepts of mathematics or geometry, I will find that based on pure self-evident logical axioms, I clearly and distinctively realize that five and five are ten or that a triangle has three sides, and other such truths, which are tautological. When I realize this, when I attend to these axioms, even an evil God in his immense power cannot actualize that five and five make nine when in reality they make ten. In fact, Descartes is not unaware of this difficulty and, in this regard, in a conversation with Burman, who points out that Descartes’ argument appears to be circular, Descartes writes,


[Descartes] does use those axioms in the proof, but he knows that he is not deceived with regard to them, because he is actually paying attention to them. And for as long as he does pay attention to them, he is certain that he is not being deceived, and he is compelled to assent to them. (The Philosophical Writings of Descartes, Vol. 3, p. 334)

Thus, Descartes realizes that it would be easy for an evil God to deceive him in a way I pointed out above with the example of counting fingers. But he says that he knows he is not being deceived about certain axioms because he is paying close attention to them. And as long as he is attending to these axioms and realizes that they are self-evident, he is compelled to accept them as normatively true. But one might want to push the issue and question God’s omnipotence. That is, if God is omnipotent, and the creator of all truths, isn’t it the case that he can do anything he wants even to the extent that he creates a world in which no absolute truths exist? For example, if God is omnipotent, can he create square circles and four-sided triangles? As I pointed out already, I think that because one can utter the words “A square circle” or “A triangle has four sides” or “Two and two make five”, whether God or human, those words do not actually refer to anything that could be the case in any possible world. But Descartes does not seem to take the same position. In my opinion his assertions are the product of the fact that in those times one could be burned at the stake for saying the wrong thing about God or saying that there are things that even God is not able to bring about.
However, if traditionally the concept of omnipotence is taken to mean that God can do whatever he wants, it does not mean that God can create a round square or a rock so heavy he cannot lift. According to classical monotheism, God—despite being infinitely powerful—cannot bring about what is illogical. In any case, Descartes seems to consider the possibility that if God wanted to, he could “make a mountain without a valley, or bring it about that 1 and 2 are not 3” as he writes in the Letter for Arnauld of 29 July 1648 (The Philosophical Writings of Descartes, Vol. 3, p. 358-359) Thus for Descartes, God could somehow bring it about that perhaps in some possible world 2 and 1 are not 3 or that mountains come without valleys. But in the end, God decided to bring it about that 2 and 1 are 3 and that mountains do have valleys. Nonetheless, Descartes says that these truths are necessary because God willed so: “I do think that [the mathematical truths] are immutable and eternal, since the will and decree of God willed and decreed that they should be so.” (The Philosophical Writings of Descartes, Vol. 2, p. 261). And he later continues that “It is because He [God] willed that the three angles of a triangle should necessarily equal two right angles that this is true and cannot be otherwise; and so on in other cases.” (p. 261) One interesting aspect of what Descartes is willing to say about the power of God, i.e., that “he could make a mountain without a valley…” is that Descartes adroitly avoids saying that God, in his infinite power, could bring it about that I think I exist although I do not exist.


Let him [God] deceive me all he can, he will never make it the case that I am nothing while I think that I am something. Thus having fully weighed every consideration, I must finally conclude that the statement “I am, I exist” must be true whenever I state it or mentally consider it. (Meditation II, 25, p.18)

It seems clear to me that when Descartes here believes that in fact even God could not bring about a world in which thinking things do not exist. Granted, God is the one that created me, but in doing so he created an eternal truth, i.e., that a thinking thing cannot not exist. With regard to geometry and mathematics, Descartes seems to be saying that they are not independent of God, but he nevertheless made them as eternal truths.
At this point, I want to return to the original question of whether Descartes has normative certainty of some propositions, which allows him to mount his theological argument. The proponents of the Cartesian Circle defend an interpretation of Descartes according to which Descartes lacks normative certainty of the premises required to prove God’s existence. According to these proponents, Descartes’ clear and distinct perceptions, prior to the Ontological Argument—on Descartes’ own account—are not free from doubt. But in light of the passages above, it seems that we have strong textual evidence that affords Descartes a way out of the Circle. Still, the initial doubts, we might say, partially stand. All the truths concerning the existence of an external world might not be certain, i.e., they are at best psychologically certain. But the truths or axioms required by Descartes for the premises used in his version of the Ontological Argument, as shown by textual evidence, are normatively certain. And an important reason for this is that those truths that Descartes declare eternal are independent of the physical world and independent of the self. Namely, the truths of mathematics and geometry, as illustrated earlier, are self-evidently true and true in all possible worlds. Thus Descartes is able to start with the normative claim that if he thinks, he must exist. This claim or axiom serves as a model to find other such axioms that, like the Cogito, are eternal truths. Descartes now moves forward using these axioms in arguments for the existence of God; and he is sure that God exists because he attends to the arguments that prove it. Therefore, God becomes a retroactive guarantor of any further knowledge and the memory of all the clear and distinct perceptions when not thinking of them directly.

Although I presented an interpretation of Descartes that dispenses him from circularity, based upon well-grounded textual evidence, it is not to say that Descartes’ troubles are over. Granted that Descartes has normative certainty of the premises to his theological arguments, i.e., granted that these premises are self-evident truths that even an omnipotent God cannot change, still many philosophers do not regard the Ontological Argument as sound. Hence, they lament that Descartes never successfully extends his knowledge outside of the solipsistic corner of the self. Therefore, here I want to suggest a way to look at the Ontological Argument as deductively sound; and if it is so, this argument is able to afford Descartes with retroactive normative certainty of all previously clear and distinct perceived ideas. With that in mind, at this point it would be helpful to see how exactly Descartes makes use of the aforementioned axioms in his theological arguments. The most important argument is known as Ontological. But before Descartes proposes the famous Ontological Argument, he actually offers two other very interesting arguments, both of which are based on the principle of contingency. I point this out because it seems to me that many critics of Descartes, and critics of his version of the Ontological Argument, fail to appreciate that Descartes offers a rich cumulative case for the existence of God. That is to say, Descartes’ Ontological Argument should not be considered in isolation, but rather as the culmination of a cumulative case produced by a cluster of arguments.

The first stage toward the Ontological Argument is Descartes’ proposition that there are three types of ideas, which are referred to as innate, fictitious, and adventitious. I find it easier to rename these ideas respectively as necessary, impossible, and contingent. Necessary ideas are true independently of us and are true in any possible world: e.g., propositions of math and geometry. (These are what will later be called Relations of Ideas by Hume and Analytic by Kant) Impossible or invented ideas come from our imagination: examples include unicorns, round squares, mermaids, etc. And contingent ideas are those that come from experiences of the world. He argues that the idea of God is necessary and placed in us by God, and he rejected the possibility that the idea of God is impossible or contingent. On this note, let us see how Descartes make use of these concepts in the following arguments:

Argument 1(Origin of Ideas)

1. From nothing, nothing comes.
2. The cause of an idea must have at least as much formal reality as the idea has objective reality.
3. I have in me an idea of God. This idea has infinite objective reality.
4. I cannot be the cause of this idea, since I am not an infinite and perfect being. I don’t have enough formal reality. Only an infinite and perfect being could cause such an idea.
5. So God, having infinite formal reality, must exist cause my idea of him.
6. An absolutely perfect being is a good, benevolent being.
7. So God is benevolent…
8. So God would not deceive me, and would not permit me to err without giving me a way to correct my errors.

Argument 2 (On The Existence of the Self)

1. I exist.
2. My existence must have a cause.
3. The only possible causes are
a) Myself
b) My always having existed
c) My parents
d) Something less perfect than God
e) God
4. Not a. this is simply nonsensical: it would mean that when I did not exist, I brought myself into existence. But if I was not there, it would be impossible to cause myself to exist.
5. Not b. This does not solve the problem. If I am a dependent being, I need to be continually sustained by another.
6. Not c. This leads to an infinite regress.
7. Not d. The idea of perfection that exists in me cannot have originated from a non-perfect being.
8. Therefore, e.
9. Therefore, God exists.

Argument 3 (Ontological)

Descartes now advances his version of the Ontological Argument according to which the fact that one cannot conceive of God without existence inherently rules out the possibility of God’s non-existence. Simply put, the argument is framed as follows:
1. God is defined as an infinitely perfect being.
2. Perfection includes existence.
3. So God exists.

Descartes had already claimed to have confirmed God’s existence through previous arguments, but this one allows him to put to rest any discontent he might have had with his “clear and distinct” criteria for truth. With a confirmed existence of God, all doubt that what one previously thought was real and not a dream can be removed. In other words, Descartes, as shown in the previous section, possessed normative certainty of his clear and distinct ideas prior to his entering the Ontological Argument. And since the premises used in the argument are doubt-free, normatively true, axioms, these premises are true. Consequently, the Ontological Argument is deductively sound. With the existence of God in place, Descartes produces what Della Rocca, in his paper, refers to as “normative retrospective certainty of his [Descartes’] clear and distinct ideas.

But what are we to make of the ontological argument? Why are so many philosophers troubled by it? To be sure, the Ontological Argument is one of the most controversial argument in the history of philosophy. Its controversy stems from its sheer simplicity. Ontology deals with existence, and the argument in question claims that the existence of God is implied by the concept of God. To put it in a modern term, the existence of God is an analytic proposition, just like “All bachelors are unmarried man.” Descartes starts by considering what God means. By God we certainly mean an entity that possesses all qualities or perfections: he is all-knowing, all-powerful, and all-loving, in short, the greatest of all possible beings. Also, being the creator of time, he must exist outside time. And since he created everything that is extended in space, he must exist outside space. Such a being would, accordingly, less perfect if he did not exist, and therefore he exists. Descartes, as I mentioned earlier, relies upon his previous arguments of the origin of ideas and existence. Still, many philosophers have criticized it as being a fallacious argument, though they never quite articulated what goes wrong with it. Kant for example criticized the argument by pointing out that existence is not a real predicate, a real quality. A predicate is that part of a statement that states the properties about the subject. The predicate “exists” is not conferring real existence on the subject term. This idea was anticipated by Gaunilo in his arguments against Anselm’s version back in the 11th century. Consider the following statement: “God exists.” Kant thinks the real existence of a thing, be it God or anything else, is presupposed in that thing’s having any properties at all, since anything having properties must exist in order to have them. Thus, to say that God exists is to assert a thing with properties—God—that also possess a further property—existence. But since having any properties at all is only possible if the thing having those properties exists, it follows that existence is not an additional property of the thing, but presupposed. Hence, existence is not a predicate. So the question “Does God Exist?” according to Kant is really not a question of logic at all. It is a question that lies entirely beyond what empirical science can determine.

The ontological argument, I want to argue, has two aspects, one arrogant and one humble. Most criticisms are based, in my view, on the arrogant aspect of the argument or, I may say, on an uncharitable interpretation thereof. I think the humble is helpful here. The arrogant aspect is what Kant highlighted with regard to existence. But what Kant and others failed to appreciate is a point that Descartes, as well as Amselm who had proposed an Ontological Argument before Descartes, namely, that the existence of God, regardless of whether existence is an attribute, is neither impossible nor contingent. Thus it must be possible. And if it is possible, it follows that God is necessary. Let me illustrate how this works: the idea of God is not an incoherent one. I think that virtually all philosophers agree that, in the end, it is possible that a God exists. The idea of God existing is not barred by the same logical contradiction inherent in the idea of a square circle. At least, if the idea of God were absurd or self-evidently false, God would be, immediately and self-evidently false. But this is not the case. I think it is impossible to show that the existence of such a being as God is absolutely impossible. Furthermore, for obvious reasons, if God existed, his existence could not be merely contingent, since the existence of contingent beings depend on external causes. But accordingly, God is an uncaused being. What remains, then, is that God is necessary, and thus exists. I can illustrate what I call the humble aspect of the argument as follows:

1. It is possible that a being that has maximal greatness (God) exists.
2. If it is possible that a being that has maximal greatness exists, then that being exists in some possible world.
3. A being has maximal greatness in a given world only if it has maximal greatness in every world.
4. A being has maximal greatness in a given world if it has omniscience, omnipotence, and omnibenevolence in that world.
5. Therefore, God—an omnipotent, omniscient, and omnibenevolent being—exists in the actual world.

This presentation of the argument, in my view, is a more charitable interpretation of Descartes’ version of the Ontological Argument. This way of expressing the argument is important for at least two reasons. The first is that this formulation avoids the need to suppose that existence is a perfection or great-making property. And the second is that it does away with all criticisms that try to invalidate the argument by conjuring up a greatest of all possible islands or greatest of all possible pizzas or unicorns or what not. That is to say, many philosophers have tried to invalidate the argument by claiming that it is possible to replace “God” with any other object, a pizza, for example. But that is a misunderstanding of the argument. If one supposes that there exist a maximally great pizza, one is obviously not referring to an actual pizza. What could it mean that a pizza, a physical object, could be maximally greatest? In order to be so, that pizza should be metaphysical, omnipotent, omnibenevolent, and omniscient—in other words, “pizza” would be an uncanny name for God. In fact, pizzas or unicorns as we know them are not necessary beings; a unicorn can be fruit of the imagination. One need not assume that a unicorn exist in reality. A pizza, on the other hand is a contingent object. So, a maximally great pizza would be a metaphysical pizza, and thus impossible to be eaten. Conversely, when we think about the idea of God we can either say that he exists or he doesn’t. But we cannot say that the existence of God is merely contingent. And since there is no self-evident contradiction in the existence of God, since his existence is possible, then it follows that it is necessary, and thus the Ontological Argument is deductively valid and sound.

In the foregoing discussion, I presented an exposition of the reasons according to which some readers lament circularity in Descartes’ reasoning. I hope to have shown that those readers adopt an uncharitable interpretation of Descartes. I also hope to have shown that there is an alternative interpretation based on well-grounded textual evidence. This alternative sees Descartes as having normative certainty of his clear and distinct ideas prior to his exposition of the Ontological Argument. As a result, Descartes uses these normatively certain truths as axioms to extend his knowledge outside his own self. God enters in the picture later, as it were, as a retrospective guarantor that all ideas clearly and distinctively perceived outside the self are normatively certain. Surprisingly, Descartes, in my opinion, is one of the first philosophers in the history of thought that uses the existence of God to grant all future scientific knowledge and at the same time to separates science from religion.

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Machiavelli: Saint or Sinner?

Terms such as “Machiavellian” and “Machiavellism” have entered not only the vocabulary of philosophers, but also that of the layman. Such adjectives as “Machiavellian” and “Machiavellism” are used to indicate a character that is diabolical, immoral, deceiving, and similar treacherous connotations. But was Machiavelli indeed a “Machiavellian” in the sense often ascribed to him? That is, was Machiavelli espousing a kind of nihilistic message by his advice to the prince? The foregoing is one of the questions I want to discuss in this paper. And to give a preliminary and short answer, I think that to say that Machiavelli sanctioned immoral behavior and or deception—in other words, that he was a Machiavellian—is an uncharitable reading of his work, the Prince. Machiavelli’s prose may often appear unsystematic and sometimes self-contradictory, if it is considered from the point of view of rigorous philosophical standards. He tends to appeal to experience and historical examples rather than rigorous logical analysis. Arguably, the uncharitable interpretation of Machiavelli’s thought to which I am referring stems, among other things, from the very prose that Machiavelli chose to convey his thought.

Another question I want to discuss is the reasons that made the Prince—quite a brief output, and one among many books of its kind—such a unique and influential source of a large number of important discourses in Western thought—most notably, political theory, the principles of warfare, and diplomacy. Machiavelli’s thought made the world of ethics, politics, and philosophy pause ever since it was first presented in writing. Perhaps this pause was due to the radically novel discourse introduced by Machiavelli’s Prince. This question, as I shall illustrate in the course of my discussion, is intimately related to the previous question. In fact, the content of Machiavelli’s Prince represents radical philosophical innovations or, as Lefort puts it, a new ontology. Machiavelli made a radical departure from classical political theory rather than following it or improving upon it. Another way to put it is to say that in hindsight, Machiavelli was a modern man and his message was way ahead of its time; as a result, it provoked a great deal of shock to its readers, but also a fundamentally new source of ideas regarding politics. Consequently, many took Machiavelli’s thought as warped and diabolical, when in reality, in my opinion, Machiavelli understood that a prince who wishes to succeed and cement his success must take a more pragmatic attitude and jettison certain moral values.

Lastly, I would like to end my discussion with a consideration of Lefort’s view on the possibility of precisely interpreting Machiavelli’s Oeuvre. To be sure, Lefort believes that it is not possible, and perhaps not even desirable, to try to render a philosophically accurate interpretation of the Prince. While I generally agree with Lefort’s contention, I will try to do the following: first I will suggest exactly Lefort’s position and the element of it with which I agree; and then, I will point out certain difficulties with Lefort’s contention that it is impossible to render a precise, objective interpretation of Machiavelli’s message presented in the Prince.

Let me start where it all began, Plato’s Republic. Political philosophy’s very first inception is perhaps the Republic. Plato’s theories of justice and of ideas represented a paradigm of political thought for centuries to come. In his masterwork, Plato shows that there is an important relationship between political life and an invisible realm of ideal forms. The polis for Plato is a physical expression of an unchanging form of justice existing in that invisible realm. In other words, for Plato there is a metaphysical paradigm by virtue of which political systems exist. Similarly, there is a metaphysical paradigm of justice, which is the locus of justice and the form that determines the shape of a just city and a just individual. The function and purpose of the philosopher-king, the ideal ruler according to Plato, is to shape and rule the city according to the form of justice. Not anybody can become a philosopher-king; this requires years of education that leads one to the ascension of dialectic and true knowledge of the forms.

The individual and the city are for Plato organic entities divided into parts or classes. The individual and the city are two analogous creatures. The just individual, therefore, is but a miniature version of the just city. The city’s parts are the three classes, the producers, the guardians, and the philosopher-kings. The just city is the receptacle of wisdom, courage, temperance, and justice. Justice is produced as a by-product, as it were, of the three classes’ sharp separation and at the same time by their harmonious cooperation. A city is thereby just when the class of individuals that subsume wisdom, the rulers, rule over the appetites of the citizens with the help of courageous soldiers. Yet another way to put it is that a city is just when everybody minds his or her own business and performs the task for which he or she possesses a natural aptitude. A mirror image of this model is, according to Plato, what gives rise to justice at the individual level. Namely, a just individual is one whose soul’s parts function in an orderly manner. The order intended is that the rational part of the individual’s soul must be the ruling part. This part rules over the individual’s appetites with the help of the spirited part of the soul. Thus, according to Plato the just individual and the just, beautiful city arise according to nature. Plato talks about a relation of mastering and being mastered, i.e., the rational element in the soul and in the city must rule alone and the other parts (or classes) must be mastered and accept to be mastered.

Platonic philosophical ideas regarding justice and ruling had been passed down the centuries and modified by neo-Platonists (e.g., Plotinus) and, during the early medieval period, incorporated by Christian thinkers. The Sun of Plato became the One of Plotinus and the God of Augustine. In the City of God, Augustine never focuses primarily on politics like Machiavelli. However, Augustine clearly influenced the political thought of the time. He supports the Christian Church’s domination of politics. The state, Augustine writes, “Is a disposition rooted in sin.” The ruler is not to be considered as privileged, but as carrying a heavy responsibility to encourage virtue and to punish vice. Augustine thus divides people into two classes, those elected for salvation and those elected for damnation. He refers to these classes by using the metaphor of cities—the City of God and the earthly city. Citizens of the earthly city are the descendants of Adam and Eve, who deserve to be damned because of Adam’s Fall. These people are aliens to God’s love because they refuse to love God. These citizens of the earthly city have an incontrollable lust for material goods. On the other hand, citizens of the City of God are “pilgrims and foreigners” whose object of their love is God and God’s law. Augustine definition of justice is therefore grounded in his Christian philosophical commitments: “justice,” says Augustine, “is love serving God only, and therefore ruling well all else.” Justice is the distinction between ideal political states—which does not exist on earth—and non-ideal political states—that is, every political state on earth. For example, the Roman Empire could not be a City of God because it lacked true justice in the sense that Roman justice was not about serving God. “Remove justice,” Augustine points out, “and what are kingdoms but gangs of criminals on a large scale?” Therefore, no earthly state can have true justice, but only relative justice in various degrees, i.e., one state is more just than another.
Nevertheless, political states, imperfect as they are, serve a divine purpose. That is, they serve as divine instruments for maintaining order and for preventing war among people. In that respect, the state is a divine gift and an expression of divine mercy—especially if the state is righteously ruled. The state maintains order by keeping evil men in check through the fear of punishment, though God will eventually punish them and along with those elected for damnation. So, God uses the state to impose immediate punishments against the damned. The rulers of earthly states have the right to establish any law that does not conflict with the law of God. Citizens have the duty to obey their political leaders regardless of whether leaders are bad or righteous. However, citizens are always bound to obey God; and when obedience to God and obedience to the ruler conflict, citizens must choose to obey God and willingly accept the punishment of disobedience. In short, the state is an institution imposed by God upon fallen man for his temporal benefit, and the ruler is an agent of God. A ruler may create his laws, but a just ruler is one who patterns his laws off God’s eternal law.

The foregoing constitutes the backbone of Western political philosophy. Specifically, Plato’s and Aristotle’s thoughts were influential enough to bequeath a common view among political philosophers that there is a definite relationship between moral goodness and legitimate authority. Many philosophers after Plato believed that political power was objective and that it was rightfully sanctioned by rulers whose moral character was virtuous. Plato’s ideas even evolved into a religious form during the Middle Ages; this era is characterized by the belief in a higher authority, the Christian God, as the enforcer and paradigm of morality, and political authority. Thus rulers in the history of Western civilization were promptly counseled that in the first place, there exists a metaphysical ground of morality, whose locus is God; and furthermore, if they wanted to succeed and maintain a long and peaceful reign they ought to act in accordance with conventional standards of ethical goodness. In fact, it was believed that rulers were most successful and earned the right to be obeyed and respected when they acted and showed themselves to be virtuous and morally upright.

Now, to return to one of the questions I posed, was Machiavelli indeed a “Machiavellian” in the sense often ascribed to him? And why has the Prince become (and continues being) such an important paradigm of political philosophy? I think that Machiavelli earned the reputation of being a Machiavellian due to an uncharitable reading of his work. Moreover, as I mentioned in my introduction, I believe that the very radical and new nature of Machiavelli’s message contributed to his (undeserved) infamous reputation. It is true that if we take the teaching of Plato, for instance, we see that although Plato considers war as a part of his ontology, he never ascribe to war metaphysical origin, nor particular importance. War is for Plato a social consequence. By and large, Plato does not seem to embrace war or make it part of his political system. And to speak about classical political theory, Aristotle in his ethics regards moderation and striving to achieve goodness as fundamental precepts. Arguably, Aristotle was not pro-war. Machiavelli changed all this. Machiavelli’s departure from Aristotle’s and Plato’s ethical and political views—and his departure from Christian morality—is, to say the least, shocking.

Let me illustrate what Machiavelli says about ruling. Machiavelli is very clear on what a prince should be concerned about as he begins chapter XIV with the following statement: “A prince, therefore, should have no other object, no other thought, no other subject of study, than war…” (40) He further adds that neglecting the art of war is the easiest way to lose a state. Thus, a prince should study this art very attentively, but so should he study history and read about other great leaders. Machiavelli also argues that in order for a prince to remain in power, it is necessary that he become feared; he should be ready to be cruel but only insofar as it does not affect his relationship with the people. In fact, if a prince becomes hated, he will eventually lose his power. A prince should not hesitate to use deceit and cruelty so long as his ultimate goal is to benefit the state; yet, cruelty should not be perpetrated upon others just for the sake of it. The point here is that Machiavelli, unlike any other classical political theory or moral standard, promotes war. In fact, war, he believes, is a fundamental aspect of political life. A ruler who does not think about war or who tries to avoid it will not be successful.

While Plato and Aristotle talked about the importance of virtue, moderation and a harmonious order of the soul as fundamental aspects of just ruling, Machiavelli emphasizes the importance of conflict. And with regard to the fundamental characteristics that a successful ruler should possess, Machiavelli points out that there are two important elements that may lead a prince to acquire a state and rule successfully: virtù and fortuna. Virtù, Machiavelli says, encompasses a variety of concepts such as perspicaciousness, intellect, strength, honesty, astuteness and many others. Specifically, when he says that a prince should be a virtùoso, he refers to the fact that a successful prince is often a citizen who comes up through the ranks by using his natural ability and strength. Machiavelli points out that between virtù and fortuna, the hardest and most difficult way to acquire a state and rule successfully is virtù. However, he argues that those who rely on virtù are most likely to maintain their power and with little effort too. To that extent, he mentions some examples of men who triumphed because of their virtùosismo, Cyrus, Romolus, and Theseus. Also, he compares two princes, one virtùoso and the other fortunate: Francesco Sforza and Cesare Borgia. The virtùoso, Sforza, started as a private citizen and become Duke of Milan, “and maintained it with little effort.” (19) On the other hand, the lucky one, Borgia, acquired authority through his father, but he immediately lost it. Therefore, Machiavelli would choose virtù because it guarantees long-lasting success. Machiavelli says that if a prince needs to choose between being loved and being feared, the wisest and safest choice is being feared. This conclusion derives from his argument on human nature. That is, Machiavelli believes that people tend to be selfish, however, in times of peace they may be good and trustworthy, but they may quickly go back to being selfish in times of hardship. Therefore, a prince should always be prudent and distrustful of people.

As I said earlier, a prince should pay attention not to become hated but rather feared. Also, he should avoid idealistic principles such as being compassionate, generous, a giver, faithful etc. Idealistically, these are good qualities that a prince should have, and these are generally referred to as good qualities. However, according to Machiavelli, these are bad qualities for a prince. For example, between being generous (virtù) and being miser (vice) the latter is recommended by Machiavelli; that is, first of all if a prince intends to be generous, he will soon use up his entire revenue, and to continue being generous he will eventually need to increase taxes in order to have enough money to give to the people. This will inevitably lead the prince to being hated. Therefore, Machiavelli says that “[that prince] should not mind in the least if people consider him a miser.”(44) Between cruelty and clemency, a prince should choose cruelty. That is, Machiavelli argues that often we try to be good and act in good faith, and yet we obtain the opposite result of that which we expected. For example, Cesare Borgia was cruel, but he used cruelty wisely and the result was the unification of the Romagna, “establish it in peace and loyalty.” (45) Conversely, the people of Florence wanted to avoid cruelty, but “allowed Pistoia to be destroyed.” (45)

Furthermore, between being loved and being feared, a prince should choose to be feared. The reason is that if a prince is loved, he may ultimately be hated and therefore, to use Machiavelli’s expression, “down he goes.” On the other hand, being feared will guarantee a prince respect. A prince must avoid being hated and despised. A prince should therefore avoid “confiscating the property of his subjects or taking their women.” (49) Rather, he should be courageous, honest, and moreover he should be feared. Consequently the ruler’s greater strength is the skill of deception.

From the foregoing exposition of Machiavelli’s teachings (by no means complete) one can easily realize the reason Machiavelli’s thought have generated considerable controversy not only among his readers back in the sixteenth century, when he was denounced as an apostle of the Devil, but also by various modern readers. The main source of controversy is clearly due to Machiavelli’s attitude toward conventional moral and religious standards of human conduct. For many, his teaching prescribes immoralism, though I think it is more correct to say that Machiavelli stance is amoralism. One of the most notable versions of this reading that finds Machiavelli to be an apostle of the Devil is expressed by Leo Strauss (1958, 9-10). Strauss condemns Machiavelli on the grounds that he (Machiavelli) counsels the prince to avoid the common values of justice, mercy, temperance, wisdom, and love of their people in preference to the use of cruelty, violence, fear, and deception. As I have enunciated earlier, I am of the opinion that this bad reputation was earned by Machiavelli due to uncharitable reading. It is true that Machiavelli counsels future princes to adopt deception, cruelty, and other forms of apparent immoral behavior; but a more charitable reading thereof would consider the circumstances surrounding Italy and Machiavelli at that time. Machiavelli’s message can be read as the implementation of pragmatism in political theory. This reading, taking into consideration of the circumstances at hand, would see Machiavelli as promoting the doctrine of “reason of state” (Viroli 1992).

So the questions we must ask are “What is Machiavelli’s ostensible aim in writing The Prince?” and “What are these circumstances?” Italy at that time was constantly invaded by the French and also Milan, Venice, Florence, and Naples. Everyone wanted control over Italy. This constant turmoil somehow led Machiavelli to envision unity and peace for Italy. But that peace could not have been brought about by simply applying the teaching of Aristotle or Plato, or all the less those of Christianity, which, perhaps, was one of the very causes that led Italy to the present situation. Therefore, Machiavelli thought that a more pragmatic attitude would work toward unifying the state. It also has to be said that Machiavelli at the time was seeking to obtain an office, possibly a position as an advisor for the governor of Florence Lorenzo il Magnifico, A.K.A. de’Medici. Granted, if we consider Machiavelli’s disposition from our 21St century point of view, it may seem more than obvious that a leader should sometimes implement Machiavellism. But for the time in which Machiavelli was writing, his message must have been like that of 1792 Mary Wollstonecraft A Vindication of the Rights of Woman.

Another, more charitable, school of thought, for example is that of Benedetto Croce (1925), who views Machiavelli as a “realist” or a “pragmatist” advocating the suspension of traditional ethics in matters of politics. Croce seems to suggest that Moral values have no place in the sorts of decisions that political leaders must make, or at least that when it comes to ruling, traditional standards of ethics should not and cannot be expected. Yet another view, e.g., Ernst Cassirer (1946), is that Machiavelli adopts the attitude of a scientist in proposing a mechanistic view of the world and transposing it to politics. Just like a scientist explains the facts of the world and the laws of nature, Machiavelli treats ruling in the same fashion. This view seems correct considering that Machiavelli constantly refers to history when he justifies his principles. That is to say, Machiavelli notes that human behavior is mechanistic and never changes its course. When rulers in the past acted in certain ways, those events caused expected results. Thus, by studying past ruler’s actions, a prince can be successful by employing certain behaviors that promote success. For Machiavelli, the only factor that can change events is fortuna. Pure accident can change the mechanics of human behavior. And pure luck can aid human behavior. This concept is also totally new in his time when people believed in divine providence. This is an example of what Lefort refers to as a “new ontology”. He was an absolute pioneer in regard to modern political thought. His message came as a shock to all educated men who still regarded as sacred the political philosophy of Aristotle and Plato and Christian morality, which proposed a political science of virtue.
Earlier I used the term pragmatic referring to Machiavelli’s attitude toward political theory. I believe that virtually all defenders of Machiavelli’s philosophy use this term to justify Machiavelli’s message to the prince. I think that an even more appropriate term to describe Machiavelli’s thought is the term (though anachronistically used) utilitarian. Machiavelli seems to suggest that a prince should suspend traditional moral judgment and behave in ways that may be considered immoral; but he stresses that this behavior is not implemented by a prince for the sake of the prince himself, but rather for the ultimate goal, which is the happiness and stability of the people. Machiavelli applies something that will be known much later on as the principle of utility. When he tells the ruler how to act, he does not want to jettison traditional morality. Rather, Machiavelli’s message is supposed to give the prince the knowledge to rule successfully, and that can be done only by the implementation of various amoral practices and actions that ultimately aim at the benefit and happiness of the greater number of individuals, i.e., the people. In other words, Machiavelli is interested in promoting the greatest good for the greatest number of people. He does not view political justice as Thrasymachus, for example. Thrasymachus is in fact what some have in mind when they consider Machiavelli. But Thrasymachus said that justice is advantageous for the stronger. That is, he does not consider the well being of the people. So, the ruler according to Thrasymachus perpetrates a sophisticated scheme whereby the rulers constantly scams the people to the point that the people think the ruler as a benefactor when in reality he is ruling and acting only in his interest.

What Machiavelli talks about in book VIII of the Prince clearly shows that the allegedly amoral aspect of his philosophy is due to uncharitable reading. He notes that there are individuals who come to power by crime, killing fellow citizens and betraying friends. He calls these individuals “treacherous, pitiless, and irreligious.” (p. 48) King Agathocles of Syracuse is an example of such a man. He was a common citizen who joined the militia, rose through the ranks in the army, and then in a meeting of the senate he ordered his men to kill all the senators and to install him in power. Agathocles’ reign was characterized by constant difficulties and threats to his power. However, he withstood them and maintained his rule. Once in power, Agathocles was a competent ruler, but the severity of the crimes he committed during his ruling prevented his being considered great. For Machiavelli, cruelty can be used well if it is applied once at the outset, and subsequently only employed in self-defense and for the greater good of the people. Regular and frequent perpetration cruelty, like in the case of Agathocles, earns a ruler infamy. If a prince comes to power by crime and wishes to be successful, he, like Agathocles, must only use cruelty wisely. In other words, princes who commit criminal acts for their own advantages can achieve power, but never glory. Glory is achieved when a prince wisely measures cruelty and uses it to bring about something positive. In fact, Machiavelli does not hesitate to characterize the use of cruelty as “evil.” I believe that this point clearly shows that Machiavelli is not proposing an immoral or amoral system of politics and ethics. On the contrary, he is concerned about morality; but in order to maintain certain standards of morality, and ensure that the populace is happy, a prince must have the authority to override the established morality, rather than abide by it. Therefore, Machiavelli’s very recognition of the intrinsic immorality of cruel behavior contradicts the reading that sees Machiavelli as a “Machiavellian.”

Now, I want to turn to my third point of discussion and address Lefort’s interpretation of Machiavelli’s work. To be sure, Lefort’s position is anti-interpretation. That is to say, Lefort notes that although Machiavelli invites us to interpret his work, we modern are not in a position that allows us to do so objectively. To be precise, he seems to argue that a quest for an objective meaning and or interpretation of a work is not possible and, moreover, is not desirable. One difficulty that Lefort sees in interpreting a work is the very fact that many perspicacious readers come down with many different readings of the Prince. For Lefort, a work such as the Prince is not a static piece of matter, but rather an organic advent whose meaning continues to evolve through time. This idea reminds us of what Löwith says about interpreting history. Philosophy of history, he writes, is a “systematic interpretation of universal history in accordance with a principle by which historical events and successions are unified and directed toward an ultimate meaning.” (p. 1) Löwith ultimately argues that philosophers of history were either religious figures who posited theological views of history or philosophers who unwittingly secularized the same religious interpretations of history. He says that the Western view of history is a confused combination of Christian faith and secular view, which is neither Christian nor pagan. The modern historical consciousness is, according to Löwith, derived from Christianity. Christians are historical people to the extent that they view the world as a temporary state where humans fulfill the Imago Dei in order to eventually be saved and become one with God. This view, according to Löwith, explains the tendency in history (and philosophy) to an eschatological view of human progress. Before Christianity and Judaism, ancient Greeks also had a sense of history as a process, though they interpreted history as a cyclical process, perhaps directed by a god or gods.
Therefore, theology of history had two interpretations, cyclical and eschatological. When we consider modern interpretations of history, we find that some historians and philosophers still think of history as a succession of events leading toward a final purpose, though moderns may not believe that events are directed by a god. These two views create confusion. According to Löwith, modern thinkers have unwittingly secularized theology of history; they have unknowingly retained the Christian, Hebrew, and Greek ways of interpretation. The way Löwith puts it is that “We of today, concerned with unity of universal history and its progress toward an ultimate goal or at least a ‘better world,’ are still in the line of prophetic and messianic monotheism; we are still Jews and Christians, however little we may think of ourselves in those terms.” (p. 19) For Löwith, our modern view of history is an inconsistent compound of ancient and modern, i.e., of religious and secular. I do not think that Löwith is mistaken, but I do think that he paints only half of the picture, namely, I think that those philosophers he describes in his monograph, particularly Hegel, Marx, and Nietzsche, were not necessarily “confused” or unaware of applying theological principles to their theories of history; rather they were metaphysicians applying metaphysical principles to their philosophies of history claiming to be doing scientific work.
Similarly, Lefort is aware of these difficulties when he writes that


It is only in a sense that interpretation, thus extended to the time of history, dissolves the identity of the interpreters; in another sense, interpretation lives only thanks to the diversity of historical time. Its movement presupposes the continuous fall of a discourse…In trying to ignore this, in maintaining, for example, that each person fades away before his or her statements, we would be making do with a half truth—a half truth that, because it gives itself out as the whole truth, would turn into a lie, since it would conceal the imprint always left by a Subject on discourse…a knot impossible to undo, binding the word to knowledge. (430)

Lefort wants to say that the interpreter that claims to render an objective interpretation of the work—one who thinks that interpreting the Prince does not require much more than just carefully reading the words and understanding the message—very often finds himself or herself interpreting his or her own voice, that is, the very voice, beliefs, predispositions, and desires projected into the work by the interpreter. For Lefort, a text like the Prince envelopes the reader so much that it would be not only impossible to try to capture all the aspects of the text and to understand them in a mathematical way, but it would also be deflationary as to the richness of the message. Such attempt will inevitably confine the meaning of the text to a narrow perspective. In other words, we of today cannot pretend to know all the historical aspects and circumstances that contributed to the production of a rich work like the Prince. We cannot know what the world was like in the 1500’s, for example.
To begin with, I want to point out to what extent I agree with Lefort’s argument. In a nutshell, his view is that a work like the Prince cannot be objectively and precisely interpreted like an algebraic expression. The nature of the work itself and the socio-historical circumstances surrounding it, do not allow us today to attain an objective, unbiased interpretation; all we can hope for is a hermeneutic process of understanding through time and traditions. I want to say that Lefort is correct in maintaining that the content of a philosophical work, such as the Prince for example, is not a solid object with defined boundaries, which gives us a true and unbiased picture of itself. Perhaps Machiavelli himself did not want his message to be so strict as to yield a specific interpretation. But a question that Lefort does not explore is why interpreting the Prince in the first place? Namely, if we take, say, a work of art, and try to give it a universal interpretation, I believe that virtually all art critics and art lovers would say that it is not possible to put into precise words and attain a precise meaning of the artwork. One must consider the intention of the artist, the subjective experience of each single individual generated by the work of art, and a host of other aspects and circumstances. But is it the same with Machiavelli’s prince? Arguably, Machiavelli did not write the Prince as an artistic expression. As far as we can say, Machiavelli was not an artist. At least, his intentions in writing the Prince were not artistic. Thus why should we not expect to attain an objective interpretation of the Prince? The question is whether the interpreter wishes to interpret Machiavelli in his own context and historical circumstances in order to perhaps understand 1500’s political thought or rather use the message contained in his work as a model to use to inform us about ideas applicable to modern political thought. Namely, if by “interpreting” Lefort means interpreting in the first sense, i.e., understanding Machiavelli in his own socio-historical context, then, I have to agree with him. That is an impossible task because of many factors, some of which I reviewed earlier. On the other hand, if by “interpreting” Lefort merely refers to the activity of philosophers by which thinkers of the past are read and interpreted for the sake of advancing our understanding of philosophical literature, then, it seems that a precise interpretation is possible as well as desirable.


My point here is this: Lefort says that interpreting the Prince is an impossibility. Yet, Lefort’s Machiavelli in the Making is itself an interpretation of the Prince. To say that a work cannot be interpreted is in itself a philosophical position, that is, an interpretation. Now, Lefort may respond that he is aware of this and that it is not his intention or his claim that his interpretation is the correct one. However, he sure understands that his interpretation is more informative and more precise or accurate of one rendered by a person with superficial knowledge of Machiavelli’s work or even a reader who learned about Machiavelli’s Prince through secondary sources. In that case, Lefort’s interpretation is superior in its level of accuracy. But if it is so, this indicates the possibility of having an accurate interpretation. My point is that acknowledging that there can be more accurate interpretations of a work than others is acknowledging the possibility of accurately interpreting a work. Granted, interpreting a work is no easy task for reason I have already discussed. Perhaps we may never accurately know to a degree of precision around 100% what Plato had in mind when he formulated his theory of ideas. Nevertheless, over the millennia, and thanks to the collective effort of scholars, we of today are able to read and understand standard interpretations of the Republic and other works by Plato. To close with an analogy, imagine we could take a time machine and go back to the time of Vivaldi. We may discover that his works sound different. The acoustic for which his songs were meant was different. The meaning and subjective experiences from listening his music may be different. The instruments were for sure different and the tempos and techniques and performances were surely different. But should we conclude that we cannot accurately play and feel Vivaldi’s music the way it was meant to be heard? I think not.

In the foregoing discussion, I presented an exposition of the reasons according to which some readers find Machiavelli as being Machiavellian, that is, sanctioning to the prince immorality and deceit and other unorthodox courses of conduct as fundamental dispositions for successful ruling. I hope to have shown that those readers adopt an uncharitable interpretation of Machiavelli’s Prince. I also hope to have shown that there is an alternative interpretation based on well-grounded textual evidence, which sees Machiavelli as a pragmatic thinker giving effective advice to the price. According to this reading, Machiavelli does not positively encourage the prince to be ruthless and or immoral for the sake of it. Machiavelli understands that a prince who acts immorally and ruthlessly all the time as a natural disposition may become successful. But in the end, it is glory and respect that a prince should strive to attain. Thus, the use of sporadic acts of cruelty or deception are meant as sort of utilitarian principle that will in the long run bring about happiness to the greater number of people. With regard to Lefort, I wish to make a few points. My understanding of Lefort’s contention regarding the interpretation of the Prince is limited to my reading of Machiavelli in the Making and our class discussions. Lefort’s thought is very rich, and his dense prose makes it a challenging endeavor to capture all its nuances. Still, I believe I presented a fair exposition of his chief argument. My response to his chief argument is not meant as a slam dunk, but rather a reflection generated by it. I think he is right in asserting that there are many difficulties preventing interpretations of texts in retrospective, especially philosophical texts. Indeed, there are many obscure areas of the past, and many other factors I discussed above, that hinder completely accurate textual interpretations. Therefore, Lefort seems to lean in the direction of a hermeneutic approach. But as I suggested, it is possible to have better or worse interpretations of the same text. Texts such as the Plato’s Republic or Aristotle’s Politics—which are even older than the Prince—are given accurate interpretations. This means that there is a genuine possibility to attain a precise interpretation, one that is agreed upon by the philosophical community.




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Augustine. City of God Hendrickson Pub (March 2009)
Augustine. On Christian Doctrine Scott Kirby Publishing (August 27, 2013)
Cassirer, E., 1946, The Myth of the State, New Haven: Yale University Press.
Croce, B., 1925, Elementi di politica, Bari: Laterza & Figli.
Lefort, C. Machiavelli in the Making, Northwestern University Studies in Phenomenology &
Existential Philosophy (March 30, 2012).
Löwith, K. Meaning in History: The Theological Implications of the Philosophy of History
Phoenix Books University of Chicago Press (April 15, 1957).
Machiavelli. The Prince W. W. Norton & Company; Second edition (May 17, 1992).
Strauss, L., 1958, Thoughts on Machiavelli, Glencoe, IL: The Free Press.
Viroli, M., 1992, From Politics to Reason of State: The Acquisition and Transformation of the
Language of Politics 1250-1600, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.