The way one should govern and the way for one to be governed will always be an ongoing struggle. How can a government maintain order and the safety of its people yet at the same time preserve its citizens’ natural right to be free? The ideas from Niccolo Machiavelli, an Italian aristocrat, who published “The Prince” in 1513 for a Medici prince as a guideline on how to rule a country, gives a conservative approach to how one should govern. Henry David Thoreau’s “Civil Disobedience” published in 1849, offers a liberal approach on how one should be governed. Machiavelli stresses the importance of maintaining order while Thoreau suggests reform.
Although their views are different both men approach their positions in an aggressive manner. Machiavelli’s approach for his audience would be through fear and power while Thoreau’s approach for his audience would be through nonviolent acts, such as being a nuisance to the government. Machiavelli’s audience would be any person in a position of power, particularly that of a prince. Machiavelli uses aphorisms and historical references when introducing his argument. Not only would he present his argument but he also presents an opposing point of view and discredits it. Thoreau’s audience would be people who share his views on a less controlling and a moral government. Thoreau appeals to his audience through the use of aphorisms as well as analogies with which people would be able to identify.
Machiavelli insists that a ruler must do whatever is in his power to rule his people regardless of whether his actions are moral or immoral and that “…it is safer to be feared than to be loved when one of the two must be lacking….For one can generally say this about men: that they are ungrateful, fickle, simulators and deceivers, avoiders of danger, greedy for gain, and while you work for their good they are completely yours, offering you their blood, their property, their lives, and their sons…” (Jacobus 44). These comments support the pessimistic views that Machiavelli has about mankind. He theorizes that man is immoral therefore justifying a ruler being immoral.
He states that in return for a ruler’s protection that a man must give his life. Contrary to Machiavelli’s views on morality, Thoreaus states, “That government is best which governs not at all” (Jacobus 145) and that “It is truly enough said that a corporation has no conscience; but a corporation of conscientious men is a corporation with a conscience” (Jacobus 146). Thoreau believes that it is a man’s moral beliefs that would make a moral government. He believes that a man, if left at his own will, will do what is right and in return, if in government, will do what is right for the people.
When governing a country, a ruler must have an army. In that aspect, Machiavelli states “A prince, therefore, must not have any other object nor any other thought, nor must he take anything as his profession, but war, its institutions, and it’s discipline…” (Jacobus 37) and that “…between an armed and unarmed man there is no comparison whatsoever, and it is not reasonable for an armed man to obey and unarmed man willingly, nor that an unarmed man should be safe among armed servants” (Jacobus 38). These statements suggest that a ruler must always prepare for war and military strength is more intimidating than any other type of force. In order to maintain a country, a ruler must have a strong army to defend it. Thoreau’s opinion on the military seems to differ in which he describes an army as “…small movable forts and magazines at the service of some unscrupulous man in power” (Jacobus 147). He clearly describes men as machines of a ruler lacking morals, rather than men protecting country.
Machiavelli emphasizes a ruler maintaining order and control while Thoreau emphasizes on the citizens ruling or having an impact on their government. For example, Machiavelli’s approach on how this order can be established would be through appearance. When Machiavelli states, “And men in general judge more by their eyes than their hands; for everyone can see but few can feel. Everyone sees what you seem to be, few perceive what you are, and those few do not dare to contradict the opinion of the many who have the majesty of the state to defend them; and in the actions of all men…” (Jacobus 47), he is stating that what a ruler does that his citizens do not know about should not affect his reputation, as most people will follow the majority if the majority believes that their ruler is just and fair.
He then continues to explain how this can be accomplished. Machiavelli continues to explain how a ruler can be deceiving when need be but can also be depicted as “…merciful, faithful, human, forthright, religious…” (Jacobus 47), leader yet at the same time, he states, “…in order to maintain the state he is often obliged to act against his promise, against charity, against humanity, and against religion” (Jacobus 47). In these statements, Machiavelli is arguing that in order for a leader appear moral he is often subjected to immoral acts.
Thoearu’s views seem to disagree with Machiavelli’s reasoning as Thoeau states, “A minority is powerless while it conforms to the majority; it is not even a minority then; but it is irresistible when it clogs by its whole weight” (Jacobus 155). Thoreau believes in the good in men and that every man will do what is right for himself and if he believes a government to be immoral then it should be a man’s duty to rebel for what is right. Although one might be a part of the minority, an impact can still be made if the group stands together.
The power struggle between government and individual freedom has been and always will be a never-ending battle. Comparing Machiavelli’s standpoint, which would be order and control, and Thoreau’s standpoint, being individual freedom, would give one an idea of this conflict. Even though both men were from different countries and lived during different times in history, their contrasting ideas still live through people in societies today and will echo into the minds of others in societies to follow.
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