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Can it be right to do wrong? Can we have a square circle? Can we move backwards and forwards at the same time? During Plato’s time (c. 429-347 B.C.) a long discussion had begun and carried throughout the Middle Ages that affirmed that the ruler ought to embody noble ideals and values. This tradition focuses on the virtues of justice and mercy as essential for good government. However, during the Renaissance period the author Niccolo Machiavelli turned away from these traditions and considers in The Prince what is necessary to be successful in a corrupt world.
Machiavelli proclaims in his book The Prince, “A man who wishes to make a profession in everything must necessarily come to grief among so many who are not good. Therefore, it is necessary…to learn how not to be good, and to use this knowledge and not use it, according to the necessity of the case”. Essentially, it is the situation at the moment that determines which actions are necessary.
For Machiavelli, the goal is success, not the virtue or vice of the act. He does not advocate that the successful prince should always violate the rights of others but, rather, calculate what course of action will enhance the strength and vitality of the state. In the book All the King’s Men by Robert Penn Warren, the character Willie Stark is similar to the prince; he exemplifies and exercises Machiavelli’s ideals. In All the King’s Men by Robert Penn Warren, Machiavelli’s ideals are dealt with through the political career of Willie Stark, a man that was transformed from an idealist to an opportunist because of power, a man who ultimately was assassinated, but not before he could achieve the goodness he sought to make possible.
Willie Stark, the son of a farmer, began his political career when becoming the County Treasurer of Mason City. As the Treasurer of Mason City, he was an idealist, guided more by ideals than practical considerations. Willie Stark remained an idealist up until he discovered the truth about politics. He than started to believe that goodness derives from evil because there is nothing else from which to make it. This idea comes from the mature, disillusioned Willie, who had become a tough-minded politician after losing his first political job and after discovering he was manipulated by the bosses who wanted to split rural votes.
After he learned about the scheme and analyzing the situation, Willie Stark realized what Machiavelli’s theory proclaimed, “A man who wishes to make a profession in everything must necessarily come to grief among so many who are not good”. Willie encountered and experienced the “grief among so many who are not good,” he encountered Harrison and his men and their political methods to try and win an election which was all made possible by corrupt men, bad men.
This was a turning point in Willie’s career and life since he how believed, “Man is conceived in sin and born in corruption and he passeth from the stink of the didie to the stench of the shroud.” As he sees it, goodness is not an inherent human characteristic. People, basically, are prone to corruption and evil. Goodness has to be made. Because of the scheme Willie’s blindfold he had as an idealist was gone and he now knew that politics were not at all what he though it to be and that he had to change the way he was conducting his political campaign if he was to get anything done around here.
Although Willie withdrew his name from the ballot for the Governor race, he still came out of that ordeal as a winner. Stark exposed the dirty tricks of Harrison and his men and in the process gained support from the public, therefore leading to his ultimate election for Governor the second time he ran for the position. By this time Willie, “learn how not to be good, and to use this knowledge and not use it…” He exposed to the public the corrupt men of Harrison who coerced him to run for Governor only to be “used and abused in the process;” by blowing the whistle Willie became a bad man who turned against the people who helped him come into the political spot light.
Instead of being seen with bad eyes, the public sympathized with him. With all the sympathy he gained Willie managed to win the race for Governor. Once Willie became Governor he became an opportunist because of the lack of support he received and because his power was growing. Willie essentially started off as a man who rose to power by offering to save the people from their distress, during his struggles, he became corrupted by power. Willie became corrupted because he realized that in order for him to help out the people he wanted to help out the most, he had to play a “little dirty”.
He was forced to bribe the state legislators in order to get his bills passed; he even went as far as blackmailing some in order to achieve his goals. Willie Stark exemplifies Machiavelli’s discourse, “to learn … not to be good …and not use it, according to the necessity of the case”. He was vicious and ruthless at times to his enemies and then he befriended those who opposed him within the state legislator. He learned when it was appropriate to be good to people and when it was necessary to be bad to people according to each situation because he could not afford to unbalance one with the other since both were essential for being a great governor.
Willie Stark was an opportunist because of power. As Machiavelli’s theory stated one must use the knowledge of when to be good and when to be bad, “according to the necessity of the case,” and when the situation presented itself, Willie was ready to follow accordingly. When the plan to build a hospital presented itself, Willie wanted to keep the hospital clean, he did not want politics involved with the hospital especially , corrupt contractors. That is why Willie did not want to give Gummy Larson, a corrupt contactor to build his hospital. In this case Willie became a bad man who turned on a man that was much like him.
Both had been involved in dirty politics, but now Willie chose to be a bad man in order to keep his hospital free from corruption and politics. While dealing with this situation, Willie also chose to be a good man by trying to persuade Adam Stanton, a romantic and idealist to be the Director of his hospital, but when Adam refused the offer, Willie indirectly used incriminating information about his father, a former governor who was involved in a bribe and cover up, in order to convince him to accept the position.
Ironically, Adam Stanton, the man Willie wanted to Direct his hospital ended up assassinating him. In return Willie’s men ended up killing Adam. Both were destined to kill each other since they were complete opposites, one was a man of ideas and the other was a man of fact. In the end, by the author of All the King’s Men adhering Willie’s life to Machiavelli theory of how a ruler should govern and obey by; Willie life was destined to become righteous and end up dying because of it. Willie wanted to help out the poor by building a school house, a hospital for the poor, and reworking the state’s tax structure in favor of the poor. But by the means he achieved these goals were wrong and bad which ultimately lead to his death. Even a man who wants to do good things, but uses bad methods ends up paying a harsh price for being bad while trying to do some good.
In conclusion, Willie Stark was a character of good intentions who becomes tainted by the system. He was a human being who had dreams, a family he loved, and passions he yields to, among them a desire for power. The author, Warren shows Willie as a man torn between his visions of an ideal society and stark reality- what it takes in the real world to fulfill one’s dreams. Willie sacrifices his ideals for action. He is a man of stark fact, and he wants results. In the end, Willie reevaluates his life’s goals. But it is too late for change. Willie is not given a second chance. For Willie’s political activity is much like Machiavelli political activity which is like a game of chess with its rules, its proven gambits, and its successful strategies.
The master player knows how to exploit the weaknesses and blunders of his opponents to maximum advantage. The goal is finding the best move, the move that wins. The qualities needed to win may be judged as vices by others, but, as Machiavelli puts it in The Prince, they are “the vices by which you are able to rule.” The crimes committed in order to preserve one’s country are “glorious crimes.” Willie essential would have believed, “a multitude is more easily governed by humanity and gentleness than by haughtiness and cruelty,” the point is that a wise ruler does whatever is necessary.
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