Cicero and Machiavelli: Being and Seeming

Cicero said that it is better to be than to seem. Some fifteen centuries later, Machiavelli said it was better to seem than to be. The greater good, thought the former, lay in what you actually were rather than in what others thought you were. Loser talk, thought the latter.

Cicero’s tenet was consistent with Aristotle, who said the more valuable of two things is that which men would be satisfied only with possessing outright, rather than that which they would be satisfied with only appearing to possess.

Health, therefore, is valued higher in this scheme than courage, since we want to be truly healthy rather than only seem to be so and we’re pretty satisfied with only appearing to be courageous.

Regardless of such distinctions of actual worth, Machiavelli saw that power lay in the ostensible as much as it did in the actual, and with far less cost.

The healthy man can run as many marathons as he wants. While he’s doing that, the apparently courageous man will accede to the throne of the fiefdom—as long as he also appears to be healthy, intelligent, charming, etc.

The people are suckers for that stuff, Machiavelli did not say, but could have.

Cicero’s view is classical, noble, honor-bound. Machiavelli’s is modern, practical, streetwise.

Cicero died by execution. Marc Antony, his political enemy, cut off his head and hands and nailed them up in the forum. Machiavelli had a rather less bloody end. Cicero isn’t read much anymore, outside of courses in the classics, but everybody reads The Prince.

The total triumph of Machiavelli’s view, even among those who have never heard of him, can be witnessed in the image maintenance undergone by those in both the public and private sphere.

Instead of championing classical virtues, we advocate persona, aura, impression. It’s all in the presentation—in the PR—in the spin. We’ve even changed the way we talk about virtues, and even changed what we aspire to achieve.

For example, seldom is the idea of temperance put forward or cultivated anymore—i.e., the ability to meet both fortune and ruin with equilibrium. Instead, in trying situations, we’re cautioned to “never let them see you sweat.”

But while it would seem the two are the same thing—and indeed an outward showing of fortitude may in fact be evidence of an inward investment of courage (a distinctly different virtue)—it’s more likely that the modern counsel lies in the way of putting on a show:

Even if you’re torn up inside, don’t give the world the satisfaction of knowing that you are.

And that’s clearly not the same thing as temperance; it’s a semblance, not a reality, and the only victory lies in the worldly scheme of power against power, not in the advancement of the soul.

The virtue of humility is another example of this confusion. Classically, the merit lies in a detachment from worldly appraisals and honorifics—a “poverty of the spirit,” as it used to be called.

Like the states of contrition and piety, humility is an inward condition that can only be verified by the possessor (and God, of course). But now humility is oddly mistaken for its converse—the outward show of want.

It would seem to go without saying that humble circumstances, though they can lead to the state of humility, need not do so. Nevertheless, nowadays they’re offered as direct and convincing evidence of the same. Conversely, while earthly means may make the condition harder to achieve, they do not frustrate it entirely, nor are they direct evidence of its lack.

Notice how many politicians begin their campaigns with involved encomiums to their working class backgrounds. They do so because it’s effective; we identify the thing by its semblance. Incontrovertible proof—endless stories of modesty and countless tales of an unassuming nature—cannot earn the wealthy man this badge.

It’s worth remembering that the classical mind also had a deep appreciation for how things looked. The orator’s ethos—his credibility and authority as a speaker—was one of Aristotle’s three modes of persuasion. Still, another distinction presents itself. Ethos is not at all what we now call charisma.

Ethos belongs to a speaker by way of what he truly is—what he truly possesses. His outward character must be a reflection of his inward self. In contrast, charisma is only that which the speaker exudes; it is the shape of the man, but not the substance.

I don’t see things swinging back to Cicero’s way any time soon. As a culture, we’ve bought in to the other franchise in a big way. Why sift for a man’s true nature when his persona is so very appealing?

But appearances are deceiving, they say. And it depends on how you look at it.

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  • T.Martin Lesh.

    The modern interpretation of Machiavelli’s axiom being ;

    The Media is the Message ; In as far as news , reporting and in fact any and all media today is concerned .

    As well as ;

    The Package Defines the Contents : When it come to manufacturing ; e.g. What the packaging says it is is in fact more important than what the actual contents may be ; Example ; If I re-package an entry level Ford Focus and wrap it up in Range Rover cladding .. its no longer an entry level car at an appropriate price , but rather now a very expensive luxury car … because I , the marketing mavens and the packaging say it is .

    ( FYI; The example used above is in fact the Range Rover Evoque .. )

    One even more disturbing and all inclusive modern interpretation is in fact the whole Post Modern zeitgeist of the Story is More Important than the Facts . Which pretty much supports the other two I’ve mentioned and in fact is the very root of this mindset we now find ourselves in today

    Truly the ” Weird Sister’s ” curse has fallen upon us from every angle today . That curse being ;

    ” All thats Fair is Foul and what is Foul is Fair ”

    Think about that one for a minute 😉

  • A. G.,

    I would’ve paid a lot more attention in rhetoric class had I known Cicero was executed as you say in this piece. How insane!

    I taught public speaking for five years, and we talked about Aristotle three modes of persuasion, and this is a great look at ethos. Thanks for sharing this and jogging my memory!

    I wonder how this piece would intersect with C. S. Lewis’s chapter from “Mere Christianity” on dressing up in Christ. I think it’s called “Let’s Pretend.” The idea that we become more like Jesus when we “put Him on” suggests that image may plant a transforming vision in us that helps us become who God intended us to be is an interesting one.

    Your thoughts?

    Thanks for this!


  • Lucy

    Fascinating, thank you so much!