Political realism did not become a popular concept until it was discussed by Niccolò Machiavelli, making him one of the most influential philosophers. According to another philosopher, Francis Bacon, Machiavelli was “the founder of a new, objective science of politics, concerned not with what should be, but with what is, not with hopes and fears, but with practical realities” (Wootton XXXVII). Machiavelli’s handbook for princes, titled The Prince, takes the world as it is and gives advice through the discussion of real world examples. Max Lerner, the deceased American journalist, once stated, “May I venture a guess as to the reason why we still shudder slightly at Machiavelli’s name…
It is our recognition that the realities he describes are realities; that men, whether in politics, in business, or in private life, do not act according to their professions of virtue.” When people read Machiavelli’s text they are astounded by some of his remarks. However, he persistently uses examples to validate that what he is saying. Although people may not want to accept his comments, he is merely making observations. Throughout his handbook, it is made evident that Machiavelli is indeed a realist. Throughout his handbook, Machiavelli makes it evident that he is indeed a realist through his examination of why a commitment to integrity and virtue is not possible for successful leadership, but deception, cruelty, and war are essential.
The essential perception of reporting what actually occurs is expressed by Machiavelli. In explaining his purpose for writing The Prince, he states, “But my hope is to write a book that will be useful, at least to those who read it intelligently, and so I thought it sensible to go straight to a discussion of how things are in real life and not waste time with a discussion of an imaginary world” (Machiavelli 48). Unlike most other philosophers, Machiavelli does not believe in creating a utopia. He prefers to state the truth and make conclusions based on real events, which is exactly what he does throughout the text.
According to Machiavelli:
Many authors have constructed imaginary republics and principalities that have never existed in practice and never could; for the gap between how people actually behave and how they ought to behave is so great that anyone who ignores everyday reality in order to live up to an ideal will soon discover he has been taught how to destroy himself, not how to preserve himself. (Machiavelli 48) Machiavelli uses examples from the present time as well as the past to illustrate his advice for the princes. For example, Machiavelli refers to a contemporary Italian prince, whom he feels is a model of the ideal prince, on several occasions. His name is Cesare Borgia, the son of Pope Alexander VI.
One time Machiavelli refers to him is when discussing individuals who acquire principalities through fortune. Instead of creating a hypothetical situation in which a person receives principalities through luck and making up possible outcomes, Machiavelli directly cites Borgia who received land from his father. He asserts, “Cesare Borgia, who was called Duke Valentino by the common people, acquired his state thanks to the good fortune of his father, and when that came to an end he lost it” (Machiavelli 22). By using real occurrences, Machiavelli’s advice becomes more convincing. The people know that he is basing his guidance on events which have actually taken place, and therefore they accept more of what he has to say.
Machiavelli’s criticism of human nature is infamous for the obvious reason that he bashes humans. The words he uses to describe humans all have a negative connotation. While they may seem incredibly harsh, he is only stating the truth. Machiavelli explains, “For of men one can, in general, say this: They are ungrateful, fickle, deceptive and deceiving, avoiders of danger, eager to gain” (Machiavelli 52). While some may argue that they do not possess these negative characteristics, Machiavelli disagrees arguing that while they may not show them, they are capable of them.
He continues on to describe humans as being self-preserved. “As long as you serve their interests, they are devoted to you. They promise you their blood, their possessions, their lives, and their children, as I said before, so long as you seem to have no need of them. But as soon as you need help, they turn against you” (Machiavelli 52). People are willing to give up all that they have, but when the time comes to actually give their belongings away, they run away. This assumption that humans are being of pitiless self-interest follows with political realism.
Machiavelli furthers his negative remarks about human beings when he discusses virtue. Based on Machiavelli’s use of the word virtue, he seems to be referring to qualities that would earn praise. He states several praiseworthy characteristics that most humans would think are beneficial to possess. Machiavelli continues pointing out: Now I know everyone will agree that if a ruler could have all the good qualities I have listed and none of the bad ones, then this would be an excellent state of affairs. But one cannot have all the good qualities, nor always act in a praiseworthy fashion, for we do not live in an ideal world. (Machiavelli 48) While his point is intended for princes, it can be applied to humans as well.
His earlier case about humans being self-absorbed and fickle can apply here as well. He acknowledges that it would be better for society if everyone acted virtuously, but it is not an ideal world. Therefore, since not everyone can possess only good qualities, he turns to a blatant reality that people must be deceiving. They need to pretend to have positive characteristics in order to fool those who oppose them. He believes the good traits are more advantageous if a person merely seems to possess them. A person should seem to be compassionate, trustworthy, sympathetic, honest, and religious instead of actually being those things.
Machiavelli makes clear that virtue is not possible for a prince to be successful. He emphasizes the need for deception, and then moves on to discuss cruelty. Machiavelli explains that while it is good to be loved by your people, it is better to be feared. This is because men who love you will remain loyal until they fear their interests are at stake and run away. If the men are afraid of you, then they will not be able to run away because their fear will restrain them. Machiavelli states, “…for it is impossible to keep an army united and ready for action without acquiring a reputation for cruelty” (Machiavelli 52). If a prince wants control and order, then he needs to be feared. According to Machiavelli, cruelty is the way to achieve this goal and is essential if a prince wishes to maintain his power.
The third necessity for a prince to remain a leader is to be powerful during war. Machiavelli, who clearly believes it is important to refer to the past as a guide, advises rulers to read history books and study the actions of men who succeeded. He declares, “[A ruler] should see how they conducted themselves when at war, study why they won some battles and lost others, so he will know what to imitate and what to avoid” (Machiavelli 47). By learning about past leaders, a prince can imitate the actions of historical figures who are admirable in order to make himself better.
Machiavelli’s emphasis on war may come from the fact that, during this time, Italy is in pieces, and he wishes for it to be united. He encourages rulers to “only think of military matters” and states that “in time of peace he should be even more occupied with them than in time of war” (Machiavelli 46). A prince should constantly be a step ahead of his enemies, and, therefore, needs to persistently focus on how he can be better prepared for war. By having a good army and a set plan, a ruler is able to maintain his power.
Although many people criticize Machiavelli for his outrageous political realism, he was discussing the truth about reality. Some people may see it as harsh, but sometimes the truth hurts. Machiavelli states, “So it is necessary for a ruler, if he wants to hold on to power, to learn how not to be good, and to know when it is and when it is not necessary to use this knowledge” (Machiavelli 48). He explains in depth why honesty and virtue are not factors in determining a prince’s success. Instead, a prince needs to be deceiving, cruel, and a powerful military ruler in order to keep his power.
Machiavelli, Niccolò. The Prince. Trans. David Wootton. Indianapolis: Hackett, 1995. Print.
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