Machiavelli's The Prince

Reply Fri 21 May, 2010 05:51 am
The Prince

Machiavelli's The Prince is a book concerned with the question of how a new prince, or ruling figure, especially one whose legitimacy is unclear, can consolidate his rule.

Machiavelli writes that a new prince 'cannot observe all those things by which give men a reputation for virtue, because in order to maintain his state he is often forced to act in defiance of good, of charity, of kindness, of religion' and that when necessity dictates, the Prince must 'know how to do evil'. Nevertheless, bringing forth a level of complexity, Machiavelli informs the Prince that he must also try to 'appear a man of compassion, a man of faith, a man of integrity, a kind and religious man' and hence, the art of statecraft becomes the art of deception.

Machiavelli authorises the use of violence, cruelty, deception, treachery, torture and murder, provided that these actuations are used to reach a given end, often and erroneously equated by critics with the increment of the prince's own power.

In this review, then, we need to highlight Machiavelli's conception of human nature, and the desirable civic-end to clear up this misunderstanding and to acknowledge that these determinants are selected because I believe them to be the most pertinent aspects of Machiavelli's thesis in general.

To get the ball rolling, we can point out that curiously, for the time of its writing, The Prince has only one or two chapters regarding religion and of these references the reader is not informed about some universal guiding principle of morality, but reminded that the people like to appear religious and in turn like to see this quality in their prince.

For Machiavelli, morality does not stem from God or an existent Ideal, but an individual ruler or the society itself. Through examples, especially those drawn from pre-Christian cultures, Machiavelli demonstrates that it is beneficial to the prince's rule, for means of control and propaganda, that he promotes religious conviction among his subjects, but that he is under no obligation to live by these standards himself.

Perhaps for these reasons, the trend of political scholarship has often treated Machiavelli as a teacher of self-promotion through whatever means necessary. The end of increasing one's power, for example, justifies the employment of whatever deceptive and cruel means that serve that end.

However, this is a truncated and partial reading of The Prince. Machiavelli is clear that as long as it is possible, the prince 'should not deviate from what is good' and condemns those who employ evil or cruel methods gratuitously or unnecessarily. In discussing Agathocles, the cruel tyrant of Syracuse, for example, Machiavelli stresses that it cannot be called 'to kill one's fellow citizens, to betray friends, to be treacherous, pitiless, irreligious.I believe that here it is a question of cruelty used well or badly' and cruelty is used well when it is 'turned to the good of one's subjects.' Thus, for example, Machiavelli forgives Romulus' murder of his brother Remus because this evil act, even if not motivated for this reason, helped produce the social good of allowing for the foundation, unity and stability of Rome.

In short, the prince must strive to be good wherever possible, but when public needs demand it, his office obligates him to commit evil for the good of the people. Moreover, it is not necessary that the prince either believes or desires that he is doing good or evil, for Machiavelli's system of value is strictly consequentialist: so long as the effects of the prince's actions are consistent with the common good, then the motives which caused these effects are irrelevant.

The term Machiavellian, then, does not indicate an amoral or unscrupulous disposition, but that the deceptions, cruelties and evil that the ruler enters into serve a public interest. Promoting religious morality among the citizens, for example, may help maintain stability and order, but if this morality has the potential of conflicting with the prince's ends, or that by acting according to religious morality will ensure the prince's route to disaster, then he can defy conventional morality.

Hence, the prince is bound by moral obligation, the 'flexible disposition' that may not be the normative value system found in Christianity, for example, but certainly that of doing whatever is necessary to maintain peace and stability in his kingdom, what Berlin called a Pagan morality, the morality of the polis in which the good man is the good citizen.

In consequence, Machiavelli's prince is a genuine patriot. human nature and once clarified, one will have a better insight into the advice afforded within The Prince.

One could assert that Machiavelli's ideas on man's nature echo those of the doctrine of Original Sin - 'men will always do badly unless they are forced to be virtuous', or, again, a type of psychological egoism - that men 'are ungrateful, fickle, liars and deceivers, they shun danger and are greedy for profit,' but one needs to be aware that the myriad possibility of man's nature is not addressed per se, but rather, following the Aristotelian thesis, abstracted to a permanent and stable quality that is man the political animal.

One can identify that Homo Politicuspermanent desires and interests' not in other-worldly or religious terms, but in pursuit of secular objectives such as wealth, glory, fame, power and seeking to protect their own security, loved ones and property. The picture thus offered, is one whereby the people and the prince have the potential to actuate in harmony.

Politics, for the prince, is to organize and control the hearts and minds of his citizens, if he fails in this objective, he compromises his office. It is extremely beneficial for the prince to have opposing forces within his kingdom, especially between the nobles and the plebeians, the rich and poor, so long as they are kept in check and not hostile to the prince himself.

As noted, Machiavelli grounds The Prince upon his conception of Homo Politicus: that people are motivated by fear and envy, desire for wealth, power and security and that they are inherently selfish.

To avoid arousing public rebellion, then, the prince need only abstain from interfering with the people's traditions, customary laws, taxes, property and women, promote industry, arts and festivals, and delegate to others 'the enactment of unpopular measures and keep in his own hands the means of giving favours'. If he follows these simple rules, the prince will appear to the people to be 'compassionate, faithful to his word, kind, guileless, and devout'.

And of those who are close to the prince? Those who can really see what is going on behind the scenes, the nobles, the generals and high ranking statesmen? Here, Machiavelli informs us that 'it is far better to be feared than loved...[and that] fear is strengthened by a dread of punishment which is always effective.'

Moreover, if the prince has sufficient control of his government and nobles, conspiracies against his life will inevitably fail if there are too many conspirators, simply because news will eventually leak out, and if there are too few conspirators, the odds of success becomes monumental.

Finally, if any other individual in society cares to adopt The Prince's thesis himself, and proceeds to murder and deceive even with the intention of fulfilling some common good, then if these acts arouse the wrath of other citizens, magistrates, law-enforcement agencies or the prince in governance himself, then he will be dealt with swiftly, for as Machiavelli informs the reader, 'executions only affect individuals' not the whole community.

To conclude, one needs to be aware that throughout The Prince, there is not only a dichotomous system of morality that the prince needs to promote, two distinct values which we can label Pagan for the prince and Christian for the subjects, but also a dual system of being within the prince himself who embodies two distinct personas: that of the individual who by nature is like all others and that of the ceremonial prince encompassing the entire kingdom in human form.

Hence, the prince is understood by Machiavelli as a singular and unique force whose station explicitly forbids him to be compromised by any other, not only for his own sake, but for the sake of his kingdom and the common good.
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