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Machiavelli’s political treatise has raised many ethical questions and passionate debates since it was first published in 1532. He was trying to provide useful advice to new political leaders, but ever since, his work has been used to rationalize cruel and heartless political undertakings. Does the end always justify the means? Should we, as individuals or as a nation, be conducting ourselves in such a fashion as to achieve whatever result we are looking for? We must ask these questions and look for honest answers and not just simply the answers that we think are the best.
Machiavelli’s The Prince has been a controversial book since its publication, but it has also been a remarkable influence throughout history. It was written during the European Renaissance era when wisdom and the discussion of new objectives were common. He wasn’t trying to become famous, but instead wrote his book to try and earn himself a position in the new Italian government formed by the Medici family. Machiavelli himself was influenced greatly by the complex works of European politics. The Prince was written as a political handbook for leaders and has been used, and misused, this way for many centuries.
Machiavelli was born on May 3, 1469, in the city of Florence, Italy. His father was a lawyer and a member of the lawyer’s guild, allowing him influence in the Florentine political arena. As a lawyer, he was well versed in literature and writing, and Machiavelli would share this love with his father. He was educated by humanist ideas of the Renaissance. When he was young, he lived through and witnessed a highly disorganized time. During this time, he saw popes ruling over armies, city-states collapsing one after another to distant powers, and governments falling or changing rapidly. Italy was not a unified country, but a collection of city-states constantly vying to gain power over one another. Machiavelli would eventually pursue a career in this government. His first job was a clerk, next an ambassador and then finally he found himself on a council that was accountable for diplomatic negotiations and military affairs. He would soon find himself in charge of the Florentine militia and trusted with the protection of the entire city. Machiavelli was most comfortable trusting a citizen’s army and never trusted mercenaries or armies which had been paid. He felt that a citizen’s army would be more faithful and show more obedience than one that was financially driven. He stayed extremely loyal to the Florentine Republic during all his years in service.
Machiavelli originally led the foreign policy of the Republic of Florence from 1502 to 1512. In September of 1512, the republican government was overthrown by the Medici family who returned to resume control after years of exile. He attempted to get the Medici to keep ruling with a republican government, but his pleas were unheeded. In February of 1513, he was arrested and charged with conspiracy. They imprisoned and tortured him. He denied having anything to do with it and was released in March. He retired to his family estate outside the city and upon this retirement, he began to write The Prince, hoping to pressure the Medici to re-evaluate his loyalty to their political beliefs.
Machiavelli attempted to provide a reasonably straightforward and easily understood directive to Lorenzo De Medici. The Prince was written to prove Machiavelli’s expertise on leadership roles and to offer counseling on how to gain well organized power. He strongly believed that a strong leader should maintain authority for the well-being of the residents and for the leader’s betterment. Machiavelli hoped by writing his political treatise, The Prince, to gain acceptance and a position in the Medici government. He watched the local and political disruption of the political arena and believed that he had a distinctive viewpoint in which to give his opinion on governmental affairs.
A main question discussed by Machiavelli “is it better for a Prince to be loved or feared?” (The Prince, Ch 17) Machiavelli says that it would be better to be loved and feared at the same time, because you can’t do them both simultaneously. He claimed it would be better to be feared than loved. This, he states, is because as a leader it is your responsibility to supervise and keep the state running properly. He felt the only way to accomplish this is with complete compliance from your people. Machiavelli didn’t believe in brutality and thought it should be reserved for military use only. One of his most famous quotes, “the presence of sound military forces indicates the presence of sound laws”, helped explain his stance. (The Prince, Ch 12) He admitted that a prince cannot be hated, or it will lead to his undoing. (The Prince, Ch 17) He thought that the people’s allegiance is a better defense than building a fortress, (The Prince, Ch 19), therefore advising so.
The Prince is a realistic guide for freshly chosen leaders. Machiavelli thought that a ruler who can adapt their policies and methods, will succeed, while those who cannot, will fail. (The Prince, Ch 25) He advised new leaders to pursue public opinion and attain certain objectives. The most important of his objectives was remarkable in merging the Italian city-states. While being maintained that Machiavelli meant, “The end justifies the means,” (The Prince, Ch 18) this is in fact, has been translated wrong and too simplistic. He did not instruct new leaders to be cruel for the purpose of their own interest but simply the opposite. He did not respect leaders, such as King Ferdinand of Spain, because he was unnecessary brutal to his people. He felt that this behavior could bring power to a new leader, but not necessarily honor. He argued that id people are mistreated over time, allegiance and faith cannot be encouraged.
The Prince did not give Machiavelli the results he was looking for, in winning any respect or praise from the governing body. His book was quickly confiscated. The Medici did not accept his academic discussion, nor did he receive any favors. Machiavelli’s book did not get published right away. It took until five years after his death and another 350 years to unite Italy. This did not make his point any less valid. For many years, heartless political leaders, such as Hitler, have quoted the book trying to explain the wicked or evil of behaviors. Some people in social settings or business environments, try claiming that Machiavelli stands for the principle that winning is all that matters, despite how it is won. A Machiavellian is a person that is known to be devious, sly, unethical, scheming, imaginative, dishonest, et cetera. Machiavelli may not have been this way at all, but through his work, others have come to be known as Machiavellian, when they are seeking power at any expense.
- En.wikipedia.org. (2019). The Prince. [online] Available at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Prince [Accessed 26 Apr. 2019].
- Encyclopedia Britannica. (2019). The Prince | treatise by Machiavelli. [online] Available at: https://www.britannica.com/topic/The-Prince [Accessed 26 Apr. 2019].
- Jumper, Alexandra. “The Prince Chapter 17.” LitCharts. LitCharts LLC, 5 Jan 2014. Web. 25 Apr 2019.
- Bartleby.com. (2019). XVII. Of Cruelty and Clemency, and Whether It Is Better to Be Loved or Feared. Machiavelli, Niccolo. 1909-14. The Prince. The Harvard Classics. [online] Available at: https://www.bartleby.com/36/1/17.html [Accessed 26 Apr. 2019].
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