Politics Essays - Machiavelli

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Why didMachiavelli believe that a ruler should learn how not to be virtuous?

Machiavellianismhas become synonymous with cynicism and immorality, and any superficialanalysis of the advice Niccolo Machiavelli offers to those in power in ThePrince will confirm this view. After all, Machiavelli clearly states a rulerwho wishes to maintain his power must be prepared to act immorally when thisbecomes necessary (Machiavelli 1988, p.54). A deeper analysis of Machiavelli'sprescriptions will reveal that -indeed- he does not disregard the concept ofvirtue, but deconstructs that concept providing his own alternativedefinitions.

The philosophicalfoundations provided by Machiavelli's position on virtue also provide thefoundations for the Realist approach to International Relations; Machiavellianalyses in terms of agents competing for power and his basic assumption isthat human nature is bad. Machiavelli's deconstruction is also based on thenotion that appearances might be deceptive: what appears to be good mightactually be bad and vice versa. Machiavelli's philosophy is also essentiallyutilitarian; for him the end always justifies the means. Machiavelli's adviceto rulers generally aims at achieving positive consequences for as many aspossible (usually both the ruler and the majority of his subjects).

In understandingMachiavelli's argument that a ruler should not always be virtuous, one shouldconsider that The Prince is characterized by a conscious effort on the partof its author to say things as they are, in fact rather than as they ought tobe in theory: I shall set aside fantasies about rulers, and consider whathappens in fact (Machiavelli 1988, p.55). Machiavelli lists the virtues thatare generally held to be desirable and the vices that are generally held to beundesirable. He comments that even if a human being could have all thesevirtues (which is close to impossible) the circumstances make it hard to bevirtuous. Therefore, what one should do in practice is to be careful not to displaythose vices that would endanger one's reputation and power. However, certainvices are essential to possess if one wishes to hold on to power: Yet oneshould not be troubled about becoming notorious for those vices without whichit is difficult to preserve one's power, because if one considers everythingcarefully, doing some things that seem virtuous may result in one's ruin,whereas doing other things that seem vicious may strengthen one's position andcause to flourish (Machiavelli 1988, p.55). From this proposition, one maycome to the conclusion that acting according to necessity, motivated byself-preservation is at the core of Machiavellianism.

Machiavelli goeson to deconstruct the concept of generosity. Generosity is a virtue andgenerally held to be a good quality, but Machiavelli proves the opposite. Hedoes, however, clarify that it is not generosity that he's attacking, but theeffort and desire on the part of rulers to appear generous to their subjects.According to Machiavelli, if a ruler wants to appear generous, he will have tospend lavishly on his people. To fund this lavish spending the ruler willresort to heavy taxing which will consequently make him unpopular with hissubjects.

Therefore,generosity might have the opposite effect to that expected and desired. In thisperspective, if a ruler is not reluctant to do what ought to be done (in termsof necessity and not of morality), then he will be more successful as he willbe doing what is prudent and brings the optimal outcome for both himself andhis subjects. This, of course, is a characteristically utilitarian viewpoint.

Machiavelli'sutilitarianism can also be discerned in his argument on whether a ruler shouldbe merciful or cruel, which can be summed up by conventional wisdom as youhave to be cruel to be kind. As noted by Skinner, Machiavelli uses the riotsat Pistoia in 1501 to illustrate his point. If a ruler fails to punish adissident, then a riot might escalate into large-scale violence; but if a rulerdoes not hesitate to act ruthlessly and does not fear being called cruel, thenhe can make an example of the dissidents and deter others from dissenting.Machiavelli favors the use of punishment as a deterrent for by punishing avery few he will really be more merciful than those who over-indulgently permitdisorders to develop, with resultant killings and plunderings. For the latterusually harm a whole community, whereas the executions ordered by a ruler harmonly specific individuals (Machiavelli 1988, p.58). Notwithstanding the valueof Machiavelli's proposition, the argument that fear of punishment acts as adeterrent has proved to be of limited value, particularly in a legal contexte.g. there is no solid evidence that capital punishment decreases the murderrate.

On whether a rulershould strive to be loved or feared, Machiavelli notes that it is desirable tobe both loved and feared; but it is difficult to achieve both and if one ofthem has to be lacking, it is much safer to be feared than loved (Machiavelli 1988,p.59). Machiavelli's defense on this view is based on the assumption thathumans are selfish. Because human nature is bad, when there is profit to bemade people will not hesitate to break the bonds of love, and fear ofpunishment is the only security against such a breach.

One may deducethat Machiavelli has a very limited definition of love and is too cynical toacknowledge that in certain cases love inspires people to act in aself-sacrificing manner. In defense of Machiavelli's argument, however, oneshould distinguish between the private love between individuals and familymembers and the public love between a ruler and his subjects. The latter canbe said to be characterized more by a sense of respect for authority and theprovision of security and order on the part of the ruler.

A generalassumption about leaders of government is that they should be men of theirword and honor their promises; after all many agreements are based on mutualfeelings of trust between leaders. According to Machiavelli, however, rulersshould act according to necessity and self-preservation, not according to therequirements of honor. Power is the ultimate aim in Machiavellian thought, andthis power should be acquired and maintained through any means possible. Ifcircumstances make it necessary for a leader to be cunning deceitful, then hejust has to do what is necessary. If a ruler has to break a promise in order toachieve a goal, then he has a duty to himself to break that promise.

A wise rulershould be both strong and cunning: Since a ruler, then, must know how to actlike a beast, he should imitate both the fox and the lion, for the lion isliable to be trapped, whereas the fox cannot ward off wolves. One needs, then,to be a fox to recognize traps, and a lion to frighten away wolves(Machiavelli 1988, p.61). In addition, a wise ruler should be able to deceiveothers and prevent them from seeing his true colors, as it is not good to beperceived as untrustworthy.

The immediateconclusion that can be drawn from this is that Machiavelli is disregarding theconcept of virtue, branding it useless. After all, when referring to his modelof a wise ruler, Machiavelli clearly states: in order to maintain his power,he is often forced to act treacherously, ruthlessly or inhumanely, anddisregard the precepts of religion (Machiavelli 1988, p.62).

Alternatively,Machiavelli might be seen as embracing the concept of virtue, albeit providinghis own, Machiavellian definition of the concept. Skinner eloquently refersto Machiavelli's prescriptions as the Machiavellian revolution. In essence,Machiavelli is deconstructing the notion of virtue, arguing that it mightdenote the capacity to do what is necessary to achieve one's goals: he arguesinstead that the defining characteristic of a truly virtuoso prince will be awillingness to do whatever is dictated by necessity- whether the action happensto be wicked or virtuous- in order to attain his highest ends. So virtucomes to denote precisely the requisite quality of moral flexibility in aprince (Skinner 1981, p.39).

Therefore,Machiavelli believed that a ruler should learn how not to be virtuous inorder to maintain his power and the loyalty and wellbeing of his people.Despite its shocking honesty, the philosophy cannot be fairly perceived as evilby the contemporary analyst for two main reasons; first, the philosophy strivesto bring good ends to the greatest possible number of people (the ruler, andpreferably to his subjects too) and second, Machiavellianism provides thefoundations for one of the prevailing (although sometimes equally shocking)approaches to international relations- namely Realism. In essence, Machiavelliviews politics as a contest for power, where the agents are acting onself-interest, always assuming human nature as bad. In such an environmentlearning how not to be virtuous is essential for one's survival.


Machiavelli, N(1988) The Prince. Cambridge, Cambridge University Press.

Skinner, Q (1981) Machiavelli.Oxford, Oxford University Press.