Niccolo Machiavelli was born in 1469 in Florence. Since 1484, Florence had a republican government after ruling Medici family and its supporters were driven from power. Machiavelli suffered from this regime change: first he was sent to an internal exile and later was imprisoned and tortured for several weeks when (wrongly) suspected of conspiring against the Medici family in 1513. Following which, he retired to his farm outside Florence. This drove him to turn to literary pursuits and he wrote his famous study on power, ‘The Prince’ in 1517.
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The Prince was primarily a guide book for his prince, Lorenzo De Medici, to help him promote himself into the political set up of Italy. Machiavelli analyzed power and the ways for Italy to gain it to become independent and keep control. The explanations in the book were driven by Machiavelli’s own attraction with power and his deep desire for an independent Italy. His ideas on the rules of power caters to the struggles for all levels of power, from a common man struggling in the world of business to strategies performed by the political leaders in the sixteenth century to now. ‘The Prince’ is primarily a study of power in which Machiavelli suggests how political power should be acquired, utilized, and maintained by the ruler. (Fischer, 2000),
Machiavelli always asserted the importance of acquisition of power, he thinks it comes naturally to all humans and the one who does acquire power should be praised and not blamed.
Machiavelli’s Philosophy beyond Acquisition of Power:
Machiavelli doesn’t just concentrated on acquisition of power, he said that the real concern of any ruler is the not just acquisition but also maintenance of power. On the basis of his past experiences with the Florentine government, he supports the view that being right and good human being is not sufficient to acquire and maintain political office. He feels power typically defines political activity; therefore any ruler must know how it is used. Since only by proper application of power, can rulers make individuals obey them and will be able to enforce law to maintain peace in the state.
“one can say this in general of men: they are ungrateful, disloyal, insincere and deceitful, timid of danger and avid of profit…. Love is a bond of obligation which these miserable creatures break whenever it suits them to do so; but fear holds them fast by a dread of punishment that never passes” (Machiavelli 1965, 62; translation altered)
Thus we see that Machiavelli believes that fear is always preferable to love while dealing with subjects, because laws are enforced on the basis of threat of coercive force, because people obey law due to the fear of results of not doing the same, whether the loss of life or other punishments. These are all Machiavelli’s views on how to maintain power not acquire it. His pragmatic political ideas are based on two elements:
- The political environment in the world at that point in time was divided and commanded by powers with no possibility of unification. That time no political leader at that time who was using the kind of force Machiavelli thought was required for peace. He thought that a price feared by his subjects would ensure their loyalty.
- On human nature, Machiavelli thought humans are basically greedy and selfish and their actions are driven more by fear than by love. As a political philosopher, his attempt was to introduce a new way to create a society, which according to him was different from the one existing.
Though his philosophy has been regarded as evil by many, but in practice most business leaders and politicians agree and follow it and regard it as the physics of power. The philosophy put forward in The Prince, is popularly known as Machiavellianism and is defined as: “The political doctrine of Machiavelli, which denies the relevance of morality in political affairs and holds that craft and deceit are justified in pursuing and maintaining political power.” We can explain this with simple saying that as far as power is concerned, the end justifies the means. The core thought of Machiavelianism is that the purpose of the ruler (power holder) is to maintain peace and security of the state irrespective of the morality of the means.
Many thinkers have different view of The Prince, according to Alberico Gentile, Machiavelli wrote a satire. Alberico believed that he cannot mean what he has witten in the book. It seems to them that The Prince was written with the intention of warning general public of what rulers can think like and do, so as to advise them to resist them and he chose to write a satire due to the fear of the Medici family.
Machiavelli separated power from morals, and this was his basic thinking which has been criticized for years. Since traditionally the thought was quite contrary, he stressed on the irrelevance of morality in politics. To acquire power, he believed that an individual shown act as required by the circumstances rather than trying to act rightfully. He believed that the truth is different from what churches view and in real the world is quite sinful. He doesn’t propagate pursuing evil ways but when the circumstances are such and it is imperative to opt for these ways to keep power in society. When contesting for power, to keep it, good and evil are equal, there are no prejudices. He believed acquiring power and glory are worth every trouble faced in attaining them French philosopher Michel de Montaigne denounce this view. He focuses especially on the costs of acquisition. Montaigne firmly believes that true power does not come from power over peoples, land, and such material things, it comes from power over self in everything. Montaigne’s philosophy is that the means of acquiring and maintaining power necessarily disagree with the attainment of the greatest end which according to him is private life of self exploration. But if an individual wants to acquire and keep power, he has to forego this good life, as power requires that one has to be on guard and be scheming continuously.
Machiavelli’s basic philosophy was never that acquisition of power was the only aim of the humans, he talked about the ways in which the powerful attain power and retain it. He believed that nothing should come in their and he talked very strongly on Christian morality. He did not deny their validity, he never professed that a crime committed due to political needs is not a crime. Rather he believed that this morality just didn’t hold in political affairs, and that any principle based on the assumption that morality and politics co exist, would end in disaster. This stand of Machiavelli was misinterpreted in two main ways:
- It sounds like a clash between morality (as per Christianity) and political necessity. The implication of this is that there is an incompatibility between morality which is the constituency of ultimate principles and values sought after by people for their own sakes, and it is this value system that helps us define ‘crimes’ and on the other, politics which is the art of taking appropriate means to achieve desired ends, which guides action without asking whether end itself is intrinsically desirable or not. This is the main crux of the divorce of politics from ethics put forward by Machiavelli. But the fact is he is putting aside one morality (the Christian) not in favour of something immoral but for a game of skill, and called politics, which is not ethical at all as it is not concerned with ultimate human ends. He is indeed rejecting Christian ethics in favour of a society geared to end results just as the Christian faith, a society in which people fight and die for ends which are pursued for them.
- Second misinterpretation is the idea that Machiavelli viewed the crimes committed with anguish. The philosophy put forward by Machiavelli is built on the need for systematic slyness and force by rulers, as he believes that it is natural and not at all immoral to employ these weapons as per the requirement of the circumstances. He doesn’t even treat the ruler and the people who are ruled distinctly. The citizens would also be Romans and therefore would not need the virtue of the rulers, and in case they cheat as well, Machiavelli’s ideas will not work; the subjects must be poor, honest, and obedient and if they lead moral lives, they will uncomplainingly accept the rule of mere bullies and this cannot form a sound republic.
Machiavellian ideas work in all set ups – democracies as well as tyrannies. He does not advocate cruel force as the only tool to retain or gain power for a leader, but also talks about persuasion, which might include telling lies to keep power.
Machiavelli’s work goes much beyond Power Acquisition and Maintenance. He laid stress on importance of popular public speeches and liberty of people. In his later work, ‘The Discourses’ he talks about his belief in the capacity of general people to contribute to the promotion of society’s communal liberty. He talks about masses’ extensive competence to judge and then act for their collective good in different circumstances, audaciously in contrast to the traditional thinking of ordinary citizens to act at the unsound discretion of the prince just to ensure stability. He believes that common people are more concerned about liberty and are definitely more willing to defend it as compared to either princes or nobles. The rulers tend to confuse their liberty with their right and ability to rule and dominate their fellows. Common people on the other hand are more bothered about protecting themselves against domination and think of themselves as free only when they are not abused by someone who is more powerful. Machiavelli also views popular speech as the best method of resolving conflicts if any, in the republican setup. In the Discourses, he has elevated debate as the most preferred way for the people to choose the best course of action to be taken and to decide on who is the most qualified leaders. The classical rhetoric was associated by him with contention, he thought the best application of speech in the real world is an adversarial setting, debate, where each speaker tries to convince his audience of the stand taken and unworthiness of the opponents. Machiavelli’s stress on the importance of the role of people in running the state is also supported by his confidence in the enlightening effects of public speech on its citizens.
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Romans were able to maintain liberty and order because of the people’s ability to discern the common good when it was shown to them. At times when ordinary Roman citizens wrongly supposed that a law or institution was designed to oppress them, they could be persuaded that their beliefs are mistaken … [through] the remedy of assemblies, in which some man of influence gets up and makes a speech showing them how they are deceiving themselves. And as Tully says, the people, although they may be ignorant, can grasp the truth, and yield easily when told what is true by a trustworthy man.
(Machiavelli 1965, 203).
Machiavelli was a believer in classical republicanism, which implies the ability of the people to support and agree with the words of a good orator when he genuinely speaks about the general welfare of public. He also stressed the superiority of popular government over princely government as long as public deliberation and speech is encouraged in the community, as he believes that the people are prudent enough.
Another philosophy touched by Machiavelli in the Discourses includes the realities of human character. He argued human conduct favours a republic set up over a principality, as the former “is better able to adapt itself to diverse circumstances than a prince owing to the diversity found among its citizens” (Machiavelli 1965, 253). This is because human behaviour is ingrained in a firm and invariant character, in case of rule of a single human, it tends to be essentially unstable and uncertain. This emphasizes Machiavelli’s stand on the acquisition of virtue by an individual, and believes a stable principality cannot be attained due to the Machiavellian dichotomy: the need for flexibility and at the same time the inherent constancy of character which also present a limitation in single-ruler regimes. Different circumstances require different responses therefore the need of flexibility, but it is psychologically impossible for human character to change over times, therefore, the republic is a better alternative as it has the advantage of people of different qualities taking care of different exigencies as per their fits.
Machiavelli’s philosophy is not to defend any abstract theory, he is very transparent, honest and clear. When an individual chooses the life of a statesman, or a citizen, he has enough civic sense to desire that his state is as successful and splendid as possible, and such a man commits to rejection of moral behaviour. The teachings of Christians might be right regarding the well-being of the individual soul, but that in case if it is taken without the social or political context. The point to note is the well-being of the state is different from the well-being of the individual and therefore they need to be governed in different ways. He stressed that individuals have made their choices: considers weakness, cowardice, stupidity as crimes as they lead them to draw back in midstream and fail.
There are no two views that Machiavelli’s writings, mainly The Prince, has been very controversial and scandalized human beings more deeply and consistently than any political philosophy. The reason for this is not the discovery that power has a major role in politics, the fact that political relationships between and within different independent communities invariably involve the use of force and fraud, unlike the principles professed by the players. This is not a discovery, as this piece of knowledge is as old as conscious thought about politics. The controversy also is not also due to his advocating ruthless measures to fulfil political necessity. Aristotle had long ago talked about these exceptional situations that might arise in which set principles and rules can not be rigidly applied.
Machiavelli’s main achievement is his talking about an insoluble dilemma, putting of a question mark in the path of posterity. There is no doubt that he caused a lot of confusion and exaggeration. He confused the very basic proposition that eventually ideals may be very different proposition that the traditional conventional human ideals based on ideas of Natural Law, human goodness, morality and brotherly love. This was never realized and it was taken for granted that those who acted on the opposite of these ideals were considered to be not right, at times dangerous ones. Machiavellian principals are exploited on different other levels than what he had intended for their universal truth. From political setup to business world, his theories of power have transcended from these areas to the basic functions of the human beings’ struggle for power. In the same way the modern governmental principalities understand these, so does the 20th century corporate tycoon down to the struggling working class.
Clearly, acquisition of power is not the only goal for Machiavelli. His work is beyond that. He professes ways to acquire and maintain power, be it immoral in the eyes of society but as long as these actions are the need of the circumstances, they are justified. He talks of how people should acquire virtue, liberty and also stressed on importance of public speeches. His teachings might have been criticized so far as being evil but the fact is he was being bluntly honest, to expose the bitter truth, to publicly endorse the view which has been in practice in politics and business since ages; ends justify the means. People tend to ignore these, but he brought the worst to everyone’s notice but that doesn’t mean to be liberated from its consequences. It is one thing to accept things like these happening in practice, another to try to justify it rationally and Machiavelli’s was a pioneer in this direction.
- Coleman, J. (1995): Machiavelli’s Via Moderna: Medieval and Renaissance Attitudes to History
- Deitz, M. (1986): Trapping the Prince: Machiavelli and the Politics of Deception
- Fischer, M. (2000): Well-Ordered License: On the Unity of Machiavelli’s Thought, Lanham
- Mattingly, G. (1958): Machiavelli’s Prince: Political Science or Political Satire?
- Pocock, J. (1975): The Machiavellian Moment: Florentine Political Thought and the Atlantic Republican Tradition, Princeton: Princeton University Press.
- Sullivan, V.B. (1996): Machiavelli’s Three Romes, DeKalb
- Vatter, M.E. (2000): Between Form and Event: Machiavelli’s Theory of Political Freedom
- Viroli, M. (2000): Niccolò’s Smile: A Biography of Machiavelli, New York
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