A science of human behavior can be created only by simplifying it, fragmenting it, and debasing it. For example, to create a science of economics with predictive value (or claiming predictive value), the economist has to reduce human beings to utility maximizers—a “utility” ordinarily understood in material terms. The view of humanity taken by Machiavellian prudence is ultimately Epicurean in origin: Human nature is an unstable material substance that experiences a stream of selfish and insatiable desires ending only in death; once illusions are stripped away, the only real human goods are security and pleasure. Machiavellian prudence is intrinsically adversarial and selfish, both in the case of individual selves and our collective selves as members of states; it is directed to improving one actor’s position vis-à-vis another’s. It assumes that human beings cannot prefer interpersonal human interests to individual ones except when seeking collective security, and that states operate under the same necessity with respect to other states. In short, it assumes that human beings can never prefer interpersonal interests to personal ones. Machiavellians thus assume that cooperation and consensus can be based only on fleeting, unstable shared interests and can never rest on universal principles—on ideals.
Human beings, of course, are often adversarial and selfish, and other nasty things as well. But that’s not the whole picture. We can be decent, even noble, caring and even self-sacrificial. Aristotelian phronesis is not blind to our baser impulses. But it knows that man is, as Pascal observed, both angel and beast. This allows for a truer realism in those who must govern, one that accounts for our worst impulses and yet is alive to our higher desires.
Still, persons wrapping themselves in the white coat of the laboratory continue to make claims to know the future, with the wildly inconsistent results we see all about us in our current crisis. When a culture is inclined to regard scientistic predictions as operational intelligence, those with authority over us are easily tempted into foolish, harmful, and even immoral decisions. One may well ask whether in our modern world, where the moral foundations of our polities are falling into ruins, it is Machiavellian scientism or Aristotelian phronesis that provides us with the better guide to personal morality and public policy.
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