“And if all men were good, this teaching would not be good; but because they are wicked and do not observe faith with you, you also do not have to observe it with them” (69). Niccolo Machiavelli’s The Prince is arguably the most famous and controversial political science book of all time. Many think of Machiavelli as synonymous with evil. The father of the idea that the ends will always justify the means, the term Machiavellian has become connected with selfish, brutal, or immoral actions.
Machiavelli has long been associated with totalitarianism, conquest, and tyranny. But is this label deserved? Is The Prince a book that expresses evil? Many argue that Machiavelli is not a teacher of evil, but bases his teachings on a pragmatic realism that has long been a part of politics. He would certainly not be the first to have such a view, and he is certainly not the last. In promoting his realistic view of power and politics, Machiavelli does not teach evil, instead, he uses necessity and practicality as the criteria in which his thought is based on.
In this way we see that he does not put the matter of good or evil as a priority in his actions, but uses practical methods to make his choice in each instance as to what is necessary and beneficial. Through the exploration of the basis for Machiavelli’s treatment of ethics and his agenda for writing The Prince we see that his teachings are not evil, but based on political pragmatism and necessity. He himself makes it clear as he advises the Prince on how to be able to do what is necessary whether it is good or evil.
“And so he needs to have a spirit to change as the winds of fortune and variations of things commanded him, and as I said above, not depart from good, when possible, but know how to enter into evil, when forced by necessity ” (70). Machiavelli treats morality and prudence not as guides for a Prince, but as tools to use for political gain. In this way we see that Machiavelli is not preaching evil, which would be to encourage the opposite of virtue and morality, but to use them in different ways depending on the situation. Virtue is a key concept when discussing moral living and actions, and vice is the opposite of virtue.
The concepts of virtue and vice are age-old ideas ingrained within human society. But the traditional view of virtue and vice, laid out by such thinkers as Aristotle and Plato, is changed to fit the pursuit of power in Machiavellian’s The Prince. Classic virtue comes from a criterion based on just and beneficial interaction, while pursuing an end, within a civil society. This interaction can involve the impact of an individual on another individual, a citizen and a state, or even an impact an individual has upon himself.
Thus a man who sacrifices his life to save his friend, city, or beliefs is thought of as virtuous. On the other hand the reciprocal of this action would be vice, a man who sacrifices his friend, city or beliefs to preserve his life may be viewed as possessing a vice. Virtue finds its anchor in morality and ethics, and upholds that, it is focused on preserving qualities like justice and harmony. The change in the Machiavellian code of morality comes as a result as result of an entire shift in what the foundation of this morality is built on, namely the ends being pursued.
The Machiavellian concept of virtue not only divorces virtue completely from its ethical foundation, but places it on a foundation of ability to execute what is necessary in order to achieve what is desired. In this case what is desired is power, which is to be strictly maintained and used to achieve glorious ends, whatever they may be. From this foundation of the pursuit and maintenance of power comes the Machiavellian outlook on everything else, and is the reason in which he is able to separate ethics from politics.
Morality in its classical sense would only serve to get in the way of power and prudence; it creates unnecessary dilemmas between what is politically necessary and morally correct, interfering with being a wise ruler. Therefore the Prince must take the necessary actions regardless of their moral ramifications. “? [If] one considers everything well, one will find something that appears to be virtue, which if pursued would be one’s ruin, and something else appears to be vice, which if pursued results in one’s security and well-being” (62).
Machiavelli removes the foundation of prudence and virtue from morality, and reinterprets them in regards to necessity and power. Correct policy within The Prince is based on the Machiavellian conception of virtue and prudence. Stemming from this, Machiavelli at times refers to virtue and prudence in their classical definitions, pertaining to high morality, and just actions. But at other times in The Prince, he refers to them as directly pertaining to the proper execution of power. For example he often compares a ruler’s success, not morality, with virtue.
No matter how brutal the ruler, if he is able to hold power well then he is virtuous. Prudence is thought of as being careful, observant and logical in the classical sense. But Machiavelli uses it to describe a ruler who is very sharp, decisive, and makes the correct choices. “A prudent lord, therefore, cannot observe faith, nor should he, when such observance turns against him, and causes that made him promise have been eliminated” (69). It therefore would be prudent for a ruler to massacre a rebellion, if it meant the ultimate preservation of power.
In this case necessity calls for action, even if those actions go against classical morality. A ruler, who has correct judgment and knows what is the best course of action, would take the proper measures to stop the rebellion and pay no attention to the morality of his actions. The ends in this case change the conception of the codes in which the means are to be judged by; no longer is the end such universally beneficial ideas of peace and justice, but power and conquest. Virtue and prudence to Machiavelli hold meaning only in the sense of ability and accomplishment.
To Machiavelli cunning would be a virtue, as would decisiveness while wielding power. A vice for a ruler would be stupidity, or ignorance of ones own subjects. Something that is virtuous in the classical sense would only be followed if it were deemed compatible with the situation, and did not in anyway undermine the ends being pursued. The Machiavellian view is based on and around a realism seen in politics and history, and is amoral. The entire intent of the book was to write a pragmatic and realistic approach to dealing with power, not a lesson in high virtue and morality.
He states, “But since my intent is to write something useful to whoever understands it, it has appeared to me more fitting to go directly to the effectual truth of the thing than to the imagination of it” (61). He finds that necessity is what guides most actions. “? [Because] men will always turn out bad for you unless they have been made good by a necessity”(95). A military training manual written on the best way to execute killing would not go into a debate on whether or not killing is right or wrong.
The manual would be almost amoral and not go into the debate, those who have already settled that debate in their minds would read it, and the same follows for The Prince. One should not associate the teachings of The Prince as something that Machiavelli himself feels is moral, just and proper, but rather what history has shown to be the ideal and efficient way to handle power. Survivor in the political world creates certain necessities, and forces individuals to undertake certain actions in order to ensure success.
“? [for] it is so far from how one lives to how one should live that he who lets go of what is done for what should be done learns his ruin rather than his preservation” (61). The purpose of The Prince is not a guide to being a moral Prince, but how to abide by necessity and pragmatism. Just as a purpose of the war manual would not be the ethics of killing. The manual would not debate war as a just or unjust means to an end, but instead would accept it as reality, and try to approach it with the same harsh reality.
In fact the entire purpose of The Prince was to serve as a guide to restore Italy to greatness, a path that can only be achieved by power. He uses examples from throughout history of rulers who acted successfully when faced with a situation, drawing from these examples he shows the correct actions that a Prince should follow. There is no room for being a virtuous and honest ruler, as it will be at odds with the reality of political life. Because he uses realistic examples from history, we see his true pragmatic nature; his ultimate goal is the achievement of his ends, not the correct actions.
Machiavelli uses the actions of past rulers whether or not they are just, as long as they prove successful for the ends being pursued. Machiavelli himself states that he has taken a realist approach, and outlines the reason as to why he has taken this approach, as being necessary and efficient. If one were to examine the way in which Machiavelli looks towards allowing freedom towards his subjects, or the treatment of honesty toward his subjects, one would conclude that Machiavelli himself was not in favor of these things.
It would be a mistake to reach this conclusion, it is not so much that he is against freedom or truth, but he realizes that these things will damage and undermine ones power – the goal and focus of The Prince. “For a man who wants to make a profession of good in all regards must come to ruin among so many who are not good” (61). Machiavelli is not favoring things that we would view as brutality, deception and in many cases evil; instead he is using them as tools in an act to obtain what he desires. Machiavelli spends much time on the behavior that a Prince should follow in order to be successful.
Although Machiavelli goes through many different traits and practices a ruler should follow, the two that he deems very necessary are to be loved and to be feared. Machiavelli stresses that a ruler should seek to be loved, but above all make sure that he is not hated, because if he is hated it will ultimately be his undoing. This follows the Machiavellian line of pragmatism and necessity; it is not motivated by a lust for evil or deceit, but is something that many people who are appalled by his amorality would agree with.
If Machiavelli were a teacher of evil he would never make such a statement. A leader who is feared will ultimately deter any action against him by his ability to control the actions of the people with his fear. . Morality will only serve to hamper a prince’s abilities. “This has to be understood: that a prince, especially a new prince, cannot observe all those things for which a men are held good, since he is often under a necessity, to maintain his state, of acting against faith, against charity, against humanity, against religion.
And so he needs to have a spirit disposed to change as the winds of fortune an variations of things command him? ” (70). The most efficient way to deal with a problem is usually not the moral way, and Machiavelli time and time again points to this as the reason in which he chooses the path he does. His book is not for idealists, and as he states idealists rarely accomplish what they want. His book is for the guidance of a Prince towards power, and the ability to maintain that power. All of these things follow the strict Machiavellian criteria of necessity for power.
Whether these things are good or evil in our eyes is not the topic of discussion for Machiavelli, therefore it does not concern him, what he seeks is the necessary actions to gain and maintain power. “Hence it is necessary to a prince, if he wants to maintain himself, to learn to be able not to be good, and to use this and not use it according to necessity” (61). This doctrine of pragmatism within The Prince was not invented by Machiavelli, one can look at it as merely an expression of the practical political ideas of his time, and perhaps forever.
We see that Machiavelli puts forth an ethics of political convenience. It does not hold to or allow itself to be hampered by morality, virtue, or Christian values, but allows them only when opportune and beneficial. The Prince’s doctrine supports actions including murder, deceit, and betrayal given that the Prince will benefit from it. The ethics found within Machiavelli is entirely based upon a realistic outlook upon the political world and caters to political convenience. To Machiavelli this moral code of convenience and pragmatism is a political necessity.
He states that when it is politically necessary to act in accordance with a vice then one must do so in the interest of power. “And furthermore one should not care about incurring the fame of those vices without which it is difficult to save one’s state? “(62). He holds that the world will swallow up idealists, and that it is unrealistic to expect someone to exercise morality when dealing with a political situation, or their enemies. Through the exploration of the basis for Machiavelli’s treatment of ethics and his agenda for writing The Prince we see that his teachings are not evil, but based on political pragmatism and necessity.
Machiavelli treats morality and prudence not as guides for a Prince, but as tools to use for political gain. By removing the foundation of prudence and virtue from morality, he reinterprets them in regards to necessity and power. The amoral Machiavellian view centers on a realism seen in politics and history. The entire purpose of The Prince is not a guide to being a morally, but a guide to necessity and pragmatism. This doctrine of pragmatism within The Prince was not invented by Machiavelli, but used masterfully by him to craft a powerful instructional book on power.
The concept of morality is not attacked or thrown away, but put aside and only referred to or used when necessary. In the real world few will be honest, or moral, so it becomes necessary for one to also set these things aside as it will conflict with ones ends. This is the reality of politics and Machiavelli recognizes this and refers to it many times in the book as the reason to why he chooses the path he does and not out of evil or some wish for deceitful actions. Political reality deems his method necessary, thus it is a realistic and pragmatic way to approach the subject.