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Niccolo Machiavelli, writing in The Prince, circa 1513, and published post humously in 1532, states, in essence, that a ruler should obey no law but his own. He is free to do anything to achieve and to remain in power. Machiavelli was likely writing to the Medici family of Florence, having dedicated his work to Lorenzo The Magnificent. Machiavelli listed several traits which the prince must possess to be successful. This paper will look at two traits needed to gain power and one trait which will cause the prince to fail.
He writes that a prince must be wise, which covers a large area for he must be wise in more than one discipline, not the least of which is war. Says Machiavelli, “… the wise man should always follow the roads trodden by the great, and imitate those who have most excelled” (23). Although Italy was a Christian nation, Machiavelli, and indeed, even the popes of his era, placed little faith in the Golden Rule, other than the old adage, he who has the gold makes the rules.
He wrote that a prince must be wise enough to anticipate trouble and nip it in the bud.
This wisdom that Machiavelli describes has nothing to go with ethics or morality or any other trait one would think to be exemplary in a modern day leader. Machiavelli means that it is wise to be cruel if cruelty is needed to maintain power. He means that it is wise to be wise like the fox. He counsels the prince to keep the institutions and old laws in place when coming to power in a new principality, then says it is imperative to be wise enough to destroy every member of the former ruling family.
Machiavelli states that the successful prince must be strong. Violence, he says, must be inflicted quickly and it must be ruthless. There can be no quarter. The prince must be strong and fit in body as well as in mind. He must be militarily strong through building his own army. He cannot be strong through allied forces or through the hiring of a mercenary army. They cannot be trusted to have loyalty to the prince. He cannot try to conquer with any force other than his own, therefore he must make and keep himself strong.
Strength, and therefore power, is built through the people and kept through religious ritual. On the opposite side of Machiavelli’s ledger he speaks of those traits which will cost a prince his throne. Virtue is a trait that cannot be entertained. Although the prince must give every appearance of possessing virtue, he must not actually act virtuously at any time unless it should cost him nothing and profit him greatly to do so. He must give every appearance of being a virtuous man. But never may he act on any impulse out of a sense of virtue.
Thus Machiavelli shows why his name has become synonymous with treachery and deceit. He counsels deceit and dishonesty, saying that the prince must seem to be a pious man, full of virtue and ethics, but this seeming virtue is classically Machiavellian, in that he means the opposite and he says that a prince who is truly virtuous will not long remain in power. He wrote that another prince who is not virtuous will undo the virtuous prince, therefore the prince must not possess virtue but only a semblance of it according to his needs.
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