There have been many treatises of political philosophy, but Machiavelli’s Prince is different because it was intended to be a practical guide rather than a philosophical discourse. The book was published in 1520’s, and did not receive much of a response initially. As it started gaining attention gradually, however, much of the response was characterized by horror and repulsion because the Italian public and other readers of the work throughout Europe thought that it was evil, immoral, brutal and wicked.
Such an attitude to Machiavelli’s work is rather justified since The Prince apparently disregards values, morals, principles, ideals, various ethical and philosophical issues, and is purely focused on practical, opportunistic ways for a ruler to secure more power, retain it and use it effectively. This is by no means a book of wisdom but only of hard-nosed, ruthless shrewdness. It was a revolutionary work in its own way. Lofty ideals were of no concern to Machiavelli, what mattered to him were practical results. All means are justified to achieve the desired ends.
Nothing so mean, nothing so foul that it could not be used as a stepping stone on the path of achieving greater power. The political thinkers who came both before and after Machiavelli yielded in some measure or other to the temptation of conceptualizing an idealistic, utopian form of government. While Machiavelli too was conceptualizing about an ideal ruler, his ideals were grounded in historical realities, especially of the turbulent political circumstances in the contemporary Italy and Europe, rather than in any utopian vision.
The course of history has been marked by a paradigmatic transition from monarchies to democracies. Machiavelli, however, does not have any sympathy for progressive notions. He is clearly in complete favor of old-fashioned despotic regimes, and all of his advice is set in the context of autocratic monarchies. Although Machiavelli concedes that popular goodwill is essential for maintaining the regime, it is only a means; public welfare in itself need not be a particular concern for the ruler.
The broad topics of Machiavelli’s work, as outlined in Chapter III, have to do with power politics and the craft of war. These famous lines of Machiavelli quoted below capture the singular importance he attaches to war: A prince ought to have no other aim or thought, nor select anything else for his study, than war and its rules and discipline; for this is the sole art that belongs to him who rules, and it is of such force that it not only upholds those who are born princes, but it often enables men to rise from a private station to that rank. (Chapter XIV)
Although Machiavelli deals with matters related to public goodwill, they are also part of power politics and do not have any noble altruism for their mainspring. After the initial introductory sections, the author of The Prince talks at length, in the next 20 chapters or so, about various issues that an ambitious and ruthless ruler has to concern himself with: the many routes to power, their respective advantages and disadvantages, ways to acquire and retain new dominions, ways to deal with mutinies and rebellions, ways to build up military power and forge strong alliances.
Machiavelli does not set out to expound on any explicitly philosophical matters regarding human nature, yet his standpoint on several deeper philosophical issues is implicit in the advice he proffers. He also keeps showing some deep psychological insights from time to time and making fleeting observations on ethics and philosophical matters. The greatness of The Prince does not lie in its unabashed exhortations to perpetrate all the necessary evil, violence, brutality, and such things but in the occasional uncanny insight into human behavior that Machiavelli stumbles upon.
The latter chapters of the book – from XV to XXIII – focus on the qualities which a prince needs to cultivate. Machiavelli encourages power-hungry rulers to become even more power hungry and quit bothering about higher values. He prescribes a general indifference to moral issues, i. e. , amorality, rather than straightforward immorality. Everything is permissible as long as it is conducive to gaining and maintaining more power. Evil, no problem. Cruelty, no problem. A prince who wishes to maintain the state is often forced to do evil. A prince must not mind incurring the charge of cruelty in order to keep his subjects united and loyal.
The focus of the prince needs to be on efficiency and effective government, which have to be achieved at any cost. There are of course things like good and bad, virtues and vices, but Machiavelli’s point is that in matters of governing, certain conventional virtues could prove to be detrimental while actions that may be normally considered bad and cruel may prove beneficial. At the same time, creating a good impression for the public in order to attract and maintain their goodwill too is very necessary. Even in an autocratic regime, the ultimate base of the ruler’s power is popular support.
Therefore Machiavelli recommends that the prince cultivate a number of virtuous qualities simply for the sake of appearances, while very well knowing that actually trying to follow the path of virtue could lead to many undesirable outcomes. Although Machiavelli does not put it in so many words, he is urging the ruler to realize the power of propaganda. [T]he nature of the people is variable, and whilst it is easy to persuade them, it is difficult to fix them in that persuasion. And thus it is necessary to take such measures that, when they believe no longer, it may be possible to make them believe by force.
(Chapter VI) Throughout the 20th century, despots and dictators all over the world have heavily relied on propaganda. While they would commit all kinds of atrocious deeds, the extensive propaganda effort of their governments would portray them as liberators of people constantly involved in improving the standards of the society or things like that. Kim Il-Sung and his son Kim Jong-Il of North Korea particularly come to mind in this context, while Hitler, Stalin, Castro, Mao Zedong, and a host of other leaders in South America and Africa too fit into the broad role model of a despotic ruler set by Machiavelli.
The final chapters of the book discuss the deplorable political scenario of Italy during Machiavelli’s times. What Machiavelli seems to be saying in these last sections is that only a powerful ruler guided by the radically practical advice laid out in his work would be capable of reuniting Italy and bringing political stability to the land. Machiavelli expresses his confidence that the incumbent governor of Florence, Lorenzo de Medici, whose favor he sought to win by dedicating his book to him, is the person who has the potential to undertake the great task of reuniting Italy.
Ironically, de Medici received Machiavelli’s work very lukewarmly, and furthermore he actually died before the book was published. Evidently, The Prince is a detailed manual for the Hitlers and Stalins of the world, and reportedly, Stalin nurtured a special fondness for Machiavelli’s didactic work. The Soviet dictator most probably got more number of people killed than Hitler, Mao or any other person in history. No one would have better understood and practiced certain prescriptions of Machiavelli than Stalin. For example,
Upon this, one has to remark that men ought either to be well treated or crushed, because they can avenge themselves of lighter injuries, of more serious ones they cannot; therefore the injury that is to be done to a man ought to be of such a kind that one does not stand in fear of revenge. (Chapter III) Although Machiavelli must not have realized it, priding himself in all innocence on the copious ‘practical’ advice on statecraft he offers to ambitious leaders, what he was doing was preparing the ground for the descent of pure evil upon the face of the earth.
On the other hand, it is possible that he himself may have realized at some level that his ‘prince’ actually refers to whom the Bible calls in John 12:31 ‘the prince of this world’, indeed, the prince of darkness — the great Satan. A government can be based on force and violence or law and justice. Machiavelli shows a clear preference for the former. One may wonder why — why such intense, unconcealed predilection for the darker side of things? Was Machiavelli a sadist or a psychopath?
It would not appear to be the case if we look at the life and various other works of Machiavelli. We must be reminded that The Prince is simply amoral rather than immoral. Machiavelli does not advocate evil for the sake of evil, and cruelty for the sake of cruelty, but evil, cruelty, force, violence, anything and everything for the sake of power. In a government based on law and justice, the power lies diffused with people, but in a government based on force, cruelty and violence, the power lies concentrated in the hands of the ruler.
Machiavelli seems to have dedicated himself to answering a simple question: given the insatiable lust for power of the human heart, how to go about fulfilling it? Power can be achieved in positive ways too, through cooperation and not through conflict. But Machiavelli’s work is based on the premise that power achieved through conflict and coercion is superior to that achieved through love and cooperation. Machiavelli expresses it in the following way: Upon this a question arises: whether it be better to be loved than feared or feared than loved?
It may be answered that one should wish to be both, but, because it is difficult to unite them in one person, it is much safer to be feared than loved, when, of the two, either must be dispensed with. Because this is to be asserted in general of men, that they are ungrateful, fickle, false, cowardly, covetous, and as long as you succeed they are yours entirely; they will offer you their blood, property, life, and children, as is said above, when the need is far distant; but when it approaches they turn against you.
And that prince who, relying entirely on their promises, has neglected other precautions, is ruined… This is the key to understanding The Prince. Once we accept the fundamental choice that Machiavelli has made of fear over love, everything else in the book follows. (It may be noted though that Machiavelli urges the ruler not to elicit the hatred of the masses; a situation of fear without concomitant hatred, however, can happen only with the aid of propaganda. ) If we do not accept Machiavelli’s choice, however, everything falls flat and the author of The Prince would appear to us only as an evil monster at best.
Machiavelli’s choice is justified, however, given his grim view on human nature. Men are ‘ungrateful, fickle, false, cowardly, covetous…,’ says Machiavelli. As much as he tried to cut down on philosophy, Machiavelli’s work nevertheless abounds in philosophical assumptions and allusions. One of the profoundest, and a very radical one for his time, is Machiavelli’s concept of ‘prowess’ which is posited against the notion of ‘fortune’ or fate. Machiavelli fully believed in the power of the free will of the individual.
In an age when people generally still had a bleak view of human capacity, Machiavelli jubilantly championed human self-reliance and self-determination. He rejects the notion of divine destiny and affirms his confidence in the power men have in defending themselves against the misfortunes presented by nature or circumstances. This radical affirmation of the power of human will is definitely one of the few positive and inspiring things about this book, something that perhaps justifies its status of a classic.
It is tragic that the will to power in the philosophy of Machiavelli could not be put to better use than creating oppression and suffering for the common people, whereas in the philosophy of Nietzsche, it is harnessed to take all men to the next level of evolution. Both Machiavelli’s prince and Nietzsche’s superman are driven by the will to power, but whereas the former achieves power by suppressing and oppressing other people, the latter achieves it by seeking to uplift and elevate the others around him.
Incidentally, Nietzsche and Machiavelli have many views in common, for example they share the same contempt for masses, but Nietzsche could use it in a positive way whereas Machiavelli could not rise above his negativity, and his work eventually became a recipe for large-scale disaster. Work Cited Machiavelli, Nicolo. “The Prince. ” Tr. W. K. Marriott. http://www. gutenberg. org/files/1232/1232-h/1232-h. htm
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