Tea with a Duke and Prince: 
Virtue in Confucian and Machiavellian Politics
China History

Research Report
Web Resources


     This paper is an historical analysis of two primary scholastic works on virtuous leadership and political philosophy in Eastern and Western civilization.  Attainment or cultivation of an academic and morally founded authority became desirable in China during the sixth century BCE.  Although similar in some respects, the paragon on virtuous authority was more politically manipulative in Italy during the 16th century.  This report provides a comparison of virtue as defined by Confucius in The Analects, to Niccolò Machiavelli’s definition of virtue in The Prince.  Based on the interpretation of these two texts, this paper first examines the historical significance and creation of archetypal virtuousness, followed by the comparative significance of virtue in the political and social philosophies of the East and West.  This paper challenges the political theory behind Machiavelli’s military strength and moral manipulation with Confucius’ pacific and morally sound characteristic of the noble man.

    Confucius was born in the small Chinese state of Lu in 551 BCE, in the middle of the Spring and Autumn period (771 to 479 BCE) -- the apex of cultural development in Chinese history.  Confucius received the traditional Chinese education and developed an interest in the imperial administration.  Motivated by political ambition, Confucius traveled from state to state teaching his political views.  He believed that Chinese society had crumbled and nobility had became corrupt. Consequently, he preached about the importance of virtue and wisdom.  While he did convince some, Confucius was more often ignored or mocked.  Although he is not a primary or sole author to any scholastic works, Confucius’ philosophies are connect with many.  Unlike the many great minds of the Axial Age, Confucius  left no great work of literature or academia after his death in 479 BCE.  However, Confucius’ teachings extended to a small group of disciples after his death.  In his posthumous years, these disciples diligently devoted themselves to documenting statements and observations made by Confucius while he was alive. This meticulous task resulted in The Analects as one reads it today: a collection of memorized quotes given to the disciples from their “Master.”  In addition to the proverbial statements and philosophies for effective government and social harmony recorded in The Analects, Confucius emphasizes the ideal qualities of a noble man.  The Chinese title given to The Analects is Lun Yü .  Although translation precludes absolute agreement on its English equivalent, we derive “selected” from Lun, and “sayings” or “words” from Yü.  Since Confucius’ death, Lun Yü has fixed the moral and political provisions of a virtuous leader, not only in China, but Japan and Korea as well; it has served eastern civilization with the direct requirements for an effective and harmonious society.   Although unique in his contributions to the East, Confucius is not the only significant political philosopher to so candidly articulate the virtues of a good leader.  Nearly twenty centuries later a Western political philosopher sought to save his beloved country from monarchical ruin.  Bolstered by similar political ambition, Niccolò Machiavelli produced a western paragon of ideal leadership in The Prince.

   Niccolò Machiavelli was born in 1469 to a middle class lawyer and country family in the hills of Florence, Italy.  Machiavelli blossomed into a prolific writer inspired by the huge explosion of the humanities and ebullience of the Renaissance in 16th century Italy.  At a relatively young age, Machiavelli’s accomplishments already included numerous works of literature, drama and political satires.   Unlike Confucius, Machiavelli’s political ambition led to a position in the Italian government.  As Secretary of the Republic, he was required to maintain diplomatic connections with other countries, serve as chief of the military and government council in Florence.  Although he was required to document his business during assignments away from the capital, most of Machiavelli’s correspondence was with friends in Florence.  The pith of these revised letters resulted in The Prince.  Compiled into one work, Machiavelli intended The Prince for Lorenzo de’Medici, the prince of Italy.  However, Machiavelli’s fortuitous political opinions preceded him and impetuously led to his banishment in 1512.  With the fall of the Republic and seizure of power by the Medici family, Machiavelli was exiled for a year. After one week he was accused of conspiring a clandestine plot against the family, arrested, tortured and ironically found innocent.  His castigation prohibited participating in any future form of political activity, though he obstinately rewrote chapters of The Prince up to his death in 1527.   The Prince was finally published in 1532, accompanied by a lucidly opinionated letter to Prince Lorenzo addressing the need for a more powerful and virtuous leader.  Machiavelli’s definition of virtue is quite different from that of Confucius.  Although similar in some respects, Confucius’ noble man possesses more altruistic characteristics than those specified by Machiavelli. 

  Confucius and Machiavelli describe ideal virtue in two very distinct men.  In Eastern philosophy, Confucius established the criteria for virtuous leadership through a, or noble man.  Machiavelli created the archetype of the prince, a role that has served western civilization with a distinct definition of virtuous leadership.  Most important to both philosophers was education and knowledge.  A virtuous man knew history and was attentive to its consistent study.  However, Confucius specifically elaborates on the importance of education in The Analects.  In numerous proverbs throughout the book, Confucius says that education is key to progress.  To stay virtuous, on must continue to desire knowledge.  A virtuous man must also be diligent in his practice of ren and li.  Ren is the special relationship between two people that results in the cultivation of benevolence, humility, humanity and filial piety.  Li is the well-defined Chinese practice of ritual and good manners.  The result of properly practiced li is a disciplined mind and body.  A junzi is the perfect blend of ren and li—the characteristics of a virtuous leader.   Through education, cultivating ren and practicing li, Confucius applied the virtuosity of a noble man to effective and successful government.

        Confucian virtue is defined through ren and li.  However, it is applied through the role of the leadership role of a junzi.  Confucius believed that as a junzi, a leader  would maintain a peaceful and unified society.  If everyone could strive to become more like a junzi, harmony would result; laws and punishments would be  unnecessary.  Historian Leonard Hsü explains that to Confucius, the success of the state depended on the personal qualities of the emperor.  These qualities, he explains, are of “vital importance to the political unity and proper political organization…the emperor is the model for the nation and so the people are likely to imitate him” (Hsü 77).  Moreover, Confucius explains how the people will follow a government if the leader has attained proper virtue.  He says, “If you desire what is good, the people will at once be good.  The essence of a gentleman is that of the wind; the essence of the small  people is that of the grass.  And when a wind passes over the grass, it cannot choose but bend” (Waley 158).  Thus, with a paragon of virtue leading the people, society would strive to follow his example.  If all citizens lived as a junzi, violence would transform into infinite peace and structure in the state. 

    In Confucian political philosophy, the peace and structure of the state was indebted to a divine ruler.  Confucius was not a religious figure— he refused to discuss gods, miraculous events and even his own beliefs about life after death (Allan xi).  However, religion was important to his moral code.  He believed that the right man to rule over the people was the “Son of Heaven,” a junzi justified through the Mandate of Heaven.  When virtue in the government was lost or the welfare of the people was not recognized any longer, the Son of Heaven would lose his Mandate and be forced to abdicate the position to a more competent junzi.  A virtuous leader would not hesitate to leave his position if the Mandate was lost. 

    Confucius was a pacifist.  He did not believe virtue rested in any proclivity towards aggression.  A junzi and virtuous leader was a man who pursued harmonious relationships and did not seek military or strategic force to gain success.  This is dichotomous to Machiavelli’s concept of a virtuous leader and political philosophy.  Ingenuity, ability and skill were fundamental to the success of an Italian state under the leadership of a prince.  Speaking on war, Machiavelli says a true prince must be courageous enough to “enter into evil when necessity commands” (Bondanella 60).  The prince must not be afraid to use force in order to preserve his position, an element of leadership that forcefully clashes with the more pacific and Confucian based perspective from the East.  However, military prowess is not only the power the prince must possess according to Machiavelli.  In addition to being recognized as an aggressive leader, the prince must also be a master in the art of disguise.

   Machiavelli believed that a prince must perfect the arts of manipulation and study of history, in order to disguise shortcomings and learn from any previously made mistakes.  While the prince must understand that war is more common than peace, he must also understand that he will be disliked.  For these reasons, he must chose to represent and win the loyalty of the people to maintain the image of a peaceful leader.  According to Machiavelli, the prince is able to hide his faults from the people who support him.  Whether the prince does or does not have the capability to rule over his people according to benevolence and humanity, is not a question.  In this way, the archetype of virtue presented to Western civilization by Machiavelli is drastically different, and in the example of personal image, more manipulative of the truth than Confucius’ idea of virtuous leadership. 

   The image of the prince is of fundamental importance to the success of the state in Machiavelli’s political philosophy.  In chapter 19 of The Prince, Machiavelli states that the prince must gain the esteem of the common people by taking all the necessary means of showing them “greatness, spirit, dignity and strength” (Bondanella 61).  As appearance is everything to Machiavelli, manipulating a prince’s image into the best and most ideal character is a safeguard against insurrection, hatred and betrayal.  Machiavelli justifies the reason for this when he says, “men in general judge more by their eyes than their hands; for everyone can see but the few can feel” (Bondanella 60).  Although Machiavelli’s prince must have some ability to rule and lead the people, incompetence can be disguised with the proper manipulation of the common people.  Contradictory to the Confucian ideal, virtue for Machiavelli seems to be imbedded more in the image of the prince, rather than his humble personal 
characteristics of virtuousness. 

    Ren and li elude the virtuousness of a noble ruler from the West.  Although the prince and junzi are both paragons of virtuous leadership, the fundamental principles of their image and personality creates a strong dissonance distinguishing the concept of Western virtue from Eastern virtue.  So is there a better or true paragon of virtuous leadership?  Is Confucius’ ideal man better at maintaining a structured society than Machiavelli’s prince?  Confucius’ pacific and morally sound characteristic of a noble man based in The Analects should be seen as the superior or more virtuous political theory.  From the Eastern perspective, there are not many virtues outlined in The Prince at all.  True virtue would not allow the prince to use guise for strategic advancement or loyalty.  Harmony must not come from fear, but from the acceptance from the people of their leader and the place they occupy in society. The span of centuries in between the birth of both philosophies do not make The Analects and The Prince incomparable.  The unique contributions to the idea of virtuous leadership and philosophy of Confucius and Machiavelli have shaped the political and social history of the East and the West.


    Both The Analects and The Prince have been studied since their respective publication. In Eastern Civilization, The Analects has been a textual tool for erudite pedants throughout two millennia.  The idea of the junzi and the political philosophy articulated in the work provided a structure for the Chinese political administration since its completion in 5th century BCE.  The influence of The Analects has extended out of China and into other Asian countries such as Japan and Korea.  Not only is the political philosophy from The Analects present in Japanese and Korean history, but in their social structure as well.  Confucianism established a code of values and morals influencing even the Japanese Samurai.  The Analects was an efficacious tool stressing the importance of self cultivation and personal harmony during the Samurai ceremonies and traditions.  Confucius teaches not only the importance of structured political leadership, but also how to live in the world while pursuing the good inherent in the attempt to fulfill our potential as human beings (Waley xxii). 

    The Prince is Machiavelli’s most recognized publication.  Philosophers and historians regard it as one of the most prominent yet controversial contributions to the genre of political literature by any philosopher, Eastern or Western.  Machiavelli changed western civilization’s view on the nature of politics and set a precedent for future political philosophers.  He suggested the moral and political requirements of good leadership through the virtue of power and resilience; The Prince withstood the end of the Renaissance, the Enlightenment, and all modern revolutions.  Furthermore, The Prince has served as a model for free institutional administration throughout the West.  As the Japanese Samurai warriors used Confucian proverbs and teachings to train their minds, the Delta Force fighters of the United States also use The Prince in their training.  At the end of their two and a half week selection process requiring excessive physical and mental endurance, officer candidates are given The Prince for further challenge.  They are required to take a written exam and asked to relate the ideas presented in the book to their experiences during the selection process (Ledeen viii).  Given only eighteen hours, the men must convince the selection team that they have absorbed and learned the wisdom in The Prince.


Confucius.  The Analects.  Trans. Arthur Waley. New York:  Alfred A. Knopf Inc., 2000

Hsü, Leonard Shihlien.  The Political Philosophy of Confucianism.  New York: 
    Barnes & Noble Books, 1975

Ledeen, Michael A.  Machiavelli On Modern Leadership.  New York: St. Martin’s
    Press, 1999

Machiavelli, Niccolò.  The Prince.  Trans. Peter Bondanella, et al.  Oxford: Oxford 
    University Press, 1984

Mansfield, Harvey C.  Machiavelli’s Virtue.  Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996


http://www.the-prince-by-machiavelli.com : biography of Niccolo Machiavelli and links to other interesting sites

http://www.confucius-museum.com : web page for the Confucian museum

http://www.confucius.org : biography and information about Confucius' life

http://eawc.evansville.edu/anthology/analects.htm : discussion questions on The Analects

http://www-chaos.umd.edu/history/ancient2.html : background on the Spring and Autumn Period 

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