POLITICAL PHILOSOPHY – A PRIMER
Niccolo Machiavelli (1469 – 1527) and the “early modern” period. (pp7)
Revised June 2017.
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Machiavelli is one of the best-known names in political philosophy. He is also one of the most controversial writers, since his study “The Prince” (1513) recommends that a ruler should be entitled to use any means (including treachery and murder) to keep power and stability in his kingdom. The term “Old Nic” is sometimes used as a synonym for the Devil – this is derived from Machiavelli’s first name, Niccolò, such was his evil reputation!
Aside from his reputation as an evil writer, there are also disagreements:
(i) did he really mean what he wrote?
Machiavelli’s recommendations seem so immoral that some critics have said that he was writing ironically, in order to expose the evils of the Medici regime. See
for example: ‘Be Like a Fox’ by Erica Benner.
(ii) was he really a political philosopher? He writes perceptively about power, but does he deal with any of the “deep” questions of human nature, political power or
(iii) on the other hand, he could be said to be a political ‘realist’ (see later, on ‘realpolitik’), and therefore ahead of his time!
These notes will follow a slightly different pattern to previously, in that I shall use quotes from The Prince as I go along, to illustrate points made by Machiavelli. (Extracts are also available separately – go to: Extracts) The Extracts are mainly presented in the order they appear in the book, rather than as a systematic or logical sequence: again, the work is not strictly a philosophical one – not a logically-presented system of ideas. However I hope to present Machiavelli’s thought in such a way that he comes across as an original and highly significant thinker.
2. Machiavelli and his time:
For detailed notes on the broad historical and cultural context, see the previous two topics. Note that we are not following a chronological order here, since both Luther (whose ‘Wittenberg Theses’ were written in 1517) and Calvin (whose ‘Institutes’ were published in 1559) were later than Machiavelli.
Rather, Machiavelli in his thinking shows more “modern” features than the Protestants. He also serves as a useful introduction to Hobbes (next topic). His influence could be seen especially strongly in twentieth-century social thinkers such as Pareto and Mosca – theorists of ‘elitism’ (see the references at the end). A recent issue of Radical Philosophy (182) also has an article (by Knox Peden) suggesting he has similarities to very recent thought, such as that of Merleau-Ponty and above all Claude Lefort – especially because Machiavelli does not think about society and politics as fixed and obeying ‘natural laws’ (he was very pre-occupied with ‘fortuna’, or ‘fate’). He was, then, from this point of view, a humanism who ‘confronts the relationship of man to man and the constitution of a common situation and a common history between men as a problem’ [my emphasis] (p 29, quote from Merleau-Ponty). For Lefort, politics must ‘negotiate the contingencies of fortune’ and must display ‘openness to the future’. (p 30, quote from Lefort).
2.1 The Renaissance, the late 15th to early 16th centuries (see below (*) for dates of contemporaries of Machiavelli):
A key feature of this time in terms of politics is the emergence of kings (or ‘Princes’ in Machiavelli’s terms) – individuals who would eventually have ultimate power (“sovereignty”) in their territories.
At the same time, political thinking is secular and more individualistic – two features that are carried over into modern liberal thinking (“the sovereignty of the individual” as Berki puts it). The state is seen as a means to an end – mechanistically (in keeping with the more scientific outlook of the early modern period) – “the end” being individual security and happiness.
However, the period also had many features that ‘belong to’ the Middle Ages: cruelty, superstition, and the struggle between various power-centres, i.e. guilds, cities, and local laws and customs against the king’s power. In Italy there was conflict between city states such as Florence, and nations such as France and Spain, as well as the Papacy. The struggle around the emerging power of the king developed from the situation where the king was “primus inter pares” (first among equals). In keeping with feudalism and with Christian teaching, the king was – again at first – subject to the law. As already noted, the renaissance (and the reformation) marked a time of transition.
Machiavelli (1469 – 1527) is characteristic of the renaissance in:
- his references to classical learning; his fascination with individual psychology;
- his concern for “virtu” - though he used the word in a different sense to classical writers, viz. a more militaristic sense, and he applied it to both citizens and rulers (not just the latter);
- his practical outlook (what is important is what will work). He was very much concerned with issues surrounding the power of the monarch, and what we now call the concept of sovereignty.
He was born in Florence, at a time when Italy was not unified as a state, but split into (sometimes warring) cities: Florence, Venice, Milan, Naples, and the Papacy. France and Spain both interfered in Italy.
2.2 Historical sketch:
The most powerful family at Machiavelli’s time was the Medici (whose power grew from their organising the first major bank). The history of Florence is really the history of this family – and there were constant changes due to the different character of individual members of the family, as well as the power-struggle going on between Florence, other city-states, the Pope, and neighbouring countries.
Lorenzo de Medici ruled Florence from 1469, the year of Machiavelli’s birth, and at this time there was a period of stability. Lorenzo de’ Medici (“The Magnificent”) set up treaties between states, using ambassadors, and he established embassies abroad.
A later Medici, Giovanni di Lorenzo de’ Medici was to become pope Leo X (– The Prince is dedicated to Giovanni’s nephew Lorenzo). Nepotism and the buying of influence were common at this period – even in the election of a pope!
Charles VIII of France invaded Italy in 1494, shortly after the death of Lorenzo (1492). Then his successor Louis XII got Spain involved by bargaining with them for the partition of Naples. Within a few years, Spain owned the southern part of Italy.
When the French invaded, Lorenzo’s son Piero de’ Medici left Florence to try to negotiate with Charles, and was declared a traitor in his absence. The republic was re-established under Savonarola – notorious for the ‘bonfire of the vanities’ since he believed that works of art and literature had become decadent.
Then a friend of Machiavelli’s, Soderini, was in control. Machiavelli had become a government official in 1498, age about thirty. He held senior posts, involving diplomatic activity, for 14 years. So he was at the centre of political life in Florence (Jones). He was favoured by Soderini, and went on missions to France, to Cesare Borgia (who was the son of pope Alexander VI by his long-term mistress!), to Rome, and to Maximillian among other journeys. He saw the factional fighting at first hand, and experienced humiliation at the hands of foreign diplomats, and hence longed for stability and unity in the state.
He was given the task of recruiting militia troops for Soderini, but they failed in fighting against Pisa and against the Spaniards, leaving him with a distrust of ‘mercenaries’.
In 1512 the Holy League (the Pope (Julius II), together with the Venetians and Ferdinand of Spain) forced the Medici back into office, and re-took much of Italy from Louis. Ironically, Machiavelli was suspected of being opposed to the Medici and spent 3 weeks in prison, suffering torture, in 1512. He wasreleased when the Medici fell. He retired from public life and continued his writing. He made attempts later, when the Medici returned, to get back into favour, but without success.
there were Medici Popes (Leo X and Clement
In 1527, when Rome was sacked, there was a brief rebellion against the Medici, but they were re-established by the Emperor Charles V, and stayed in Florence “sinking into decadence, for some two hundred years.” (Bull)
It is significant that the Catholic Church was very corrupt during this period: Pope Alexander VI (who took on his mother’s surname: Borgia…) was described by Machiavelli as “a great liar and deceiver” in secular politics (Mackenney); when Alexander moved to annul the marriage of his daughter Lucrezia, her husband Giovanni Sforza accused both Alexander and Cesare of having had incestuous relations with Lucrezia! (source: Wikipedia). Although Alexander VI was probably the most notorious of the popes, others were also capable of decadent and criminal behaviour (e.g. when there was a plot to assassinate Lorenzo de’ Medici, pope Sixtus IV was aware of it). (Mackenney).
Incidentally, Wikipedia also tells me that Cesare had at least eleven illegitimate children, and wore a mask to cover the symptoms of syphilis!
3. Machiavelli’s writings:
It is fairly clear that his experiences are reflected in his writings – for example his preoccupation with such issues as: how rulers can hold power effectively, how to build up a strong reputation as a ruler, his mistrust of militias and of the nobility, and his sense of the danger of people betraying you. He was clearly impressed by those with power, such as the Borgias.
In terms of political philosophy, it can be said that he asked a new question: not “how do we create a good state?” as discussed by Christian and classical thinkers, but “why should we obey a ruler at all?” and “how does power work?” In other words, his thinking is surprisingly modern...
In addition, he no longer saw religion as the basis of the state – in fact he was a materialist in his outlook on the forces that affect society (fate vs. virtu). He simply recognised that if rulers appear religious, and their followers believe in a religion, this could help hold the state together. Religion was a political instrument, as far as Machiavelli was concerned, a view probably held as a result of being aware of the corruption of the papacy!
His best-known work is The Prince (first distributed in 1513, published 1532), which deals with “how principalities can be governed and maintained”. He wrote this after his release from prison.
Another important work, written in the same year, is the Discourses on Livy (the Roman historian) – here he presents (surprisingly to those who only know of his reputation from The Prince) a democratic republican viewpoint: where a people is sufficiently politically mature they can – and should – choose their leader.
By “republic” here is meant a state where politics is a “public” affair – i.e. there is an element of democracy (this reflects classical attitudes, since a “democracy” was seen as rule by the crowd or the mob).
He even goes so far as to say: “For a prince, who knows no other control but his own will is like a madman, and a people that can do as it pleases will hardly be wise. If now we compare a prince who is controlled by laws, and a people that is [restricted] by them, we shall find more virtue in the people than in the prince; and if we compare them when both are freed from such control, we shall see that the people are guilty of fewer excesses than the prince, and that the errors of the people are of less importance, and therefore most easily remedied. For a licentious and mutinous people may easily be brought back to good conduct by the influence and persuasion of a good man, but an evil-minded prince is not amenable to such influences, and therefore there is no other remedy against him but cold steel… The excesses of the people are directed against those whom they suspect of interfering with the public good; whilst those of princes are against apprehended interference with their individual interests. The general prejudice against the people results from the fact that everybody can freely and fearlessly speak ill of them in mass, even whilst they are at the height of their power; but a prince can only be spoken of with the greatest circumspection and apprehension.” See Ball and Dagger 1999. p 30.
Other works include: The Art of War; A History of Florence.
4. The Prince:
Introduction: The Prince was in fact a reply to writings about the Roman authors Cicero and Seneca, by fellow Italians (Pontano, Castiglione – whose names are forgotten now!). Where these writers reflected Cicero’s concerns with “virtues” that a ruler should possess, Machiavelli argues that such virtues would make a ruler weak!
- on generosity: he said it was better to be parsimonious towards your subjects than to risk running out of money.
- on Cicero’s opposition to cruelty: as we shall see, Machiavelli believed that cruelty could be “used well” to bolster the ruler.
- on keeping promises: rulers should only do this if it serves their power.
- on selflessness: all rulers, and their advisors, expect rewards for their efforts, and bribes should be used if necessary.
However, (see below), it could be advantageous to the ruler to appear to have some of these virtues!
4.1 On the “prince’s” power – a study in the nature of power-relationships:
The Prince is primarily a practical book, describing and analysing power-relationships in the state. It is because the book appears more descriptive than philosophical that it is sometimes said that Machiavelli was more of a political scientist than a political philosopher. Re-reading it today, I find it is more like the work of a military strategist!
Much of the book is advice to would-be “princes” – what we now might in fact call kings: individuals ruling with either absolute power or only partly restrained by law.
However, Machiavelli does recognise the importance of the two sides to a power-relationship: “to comprehend fully the nature of the people, one must be a prince; and to comprehend fully the nature of princes one must be an ordinary citizen”. (Letter to Lorenzo de’ Medici – Machiavelli’s dedication of The Prince).
[Isn’t this a remark which actually goes very deep? It implies that we cannot know ourselves: we need the insights of others… But isn’t it also rather cynical, or pessimistic? Is it not possible to imagine how other people see us?
The book begins in a systematic way: he will not be dealing with republics, as he has “discussed them at length on another occasion” (in The Discourses).
4.2 Taking over different types of principality – a ‘manual’ for would-be conquerors:
He then identifies three kinds of principality – (i) hereditary (where a new prince simply takes over and continues the existing traditions, which should not pose much of a problem to the new prince) in Chapter II; (ii) newly acquired (Chapters III and IV); (iii) newly conquered principalities may be attached to another state (a kind of ‘mixed’ situation) – Chapter III, and there is much of interest in this Chapter.
In taking over a new state “difficulties may arise” – “men willingly change their ruler, expecting to fare better… but they only deceive themselves, and they learn from experience that they have made matters worse.” This is because “you are opposed by all those you have injured in occupying the principality, and you cannot keep the friendship of those who have put you there.” Consequently “a prince is always compelled to injure those who have made him the new ruler.” (Ch III, first paragraph).
Here is a first indication of Machiavelli’s outlook: many have criticised him for advocating ruthlessness and cruelty, but it could be argued that he is merely being a realist who is dealing with all-too common power-struggles.
This point is reinforced later, for Machiavelli is acutely aware that the powerful will always struggle amongst themselves: “whoever is responsible for another’s becoming powerful ruins himself, because this power is brought into being either by ingenuity or by force, and both of these are suspect to the one who has become powerful.” (Ch III, last sentence). So, you cannot trust people who have helped you rise to power, as they may want more power themselves!
As an example of a statement that has given Machiavelli his bad reputation there is this advice: if the prince “wants to keep hold of his new possessions, he must bear two things in mind: first, that the family of the old prince must be destroyed; next, that he must change neither their laws nor their taxes.” (Ch III, third paragraph)
Note here, (as so often with Machiavelli!) (a) the apparent lack of any sense of morality (it is not wrong to kill a ruling family whose territory you have taken over) coupled with (b) a startling insight into human psychology: people don’t want to change their customs and laws – though they might not mind having their ruler changed!
Machiavelli is clearly, in this text, most interested in the problems posed by newly-conquered principalities. He stresses that a new ruler will have more or less difficulty according to the expectations and previous experiences of the population – already he is dealing with, in modern terms, states of mind, or – going rather further, what I would call “political culture”.
For example, in another comment on Cicero, who argued that rulers must behave in a way that is superior to animals, and must not use force or deception, Machiavelli says that rulers must be able to be both like a lion (forceful) and like a fox (cunning); but they must also appear to be virtuous, and should not antagonise the people.
Here he is emphasising the people’s attitude to their rulers – and he says something he will re-iterate several times, that rulers need the support of their people.
“For always… to enter a conquered territory one needs the goodwill of the inhabitants” (Ch V, paragraph 1) and “it is a very easy matter to hold on to [the people] when they are not used to freedom.” (Ch III, paragraph 3) Note that this is consistent with Machiavelli’s views in The Discourses: a people who are used to freedom will expect to have some say in running their own affairs, and will pose more difficulties for a would-be conqueror. He says that “in republics there is more life, more hatred [of a conqueror], a greater desire for revenge; the memory of their ancient liberty does not and cannot let them rest.” (Ch V, last paragraph).
“So long as their old ways of life are undisturbed [viz. by a conqueror] and there is no divergence in customs, [i.e. so long as a conqueror does not try to change the way they live] men live quietly.” (Ch III, paragraph 3)
This illustrates what I call Machiavelli’s tendency to see conservatism as a people’s main characteristic (see below): people do not like change.
[One wonders if the Americans would have dealt with the problem of post-invasion Iraq differently if they had read this part of Machiavelli’s work?!
In Chapter V Machiavelli describes the problems of taking over a city or principality with a long-established tradition of its own laws and freedom. He makes the kind of point already noted in regard to the Discourses: “A city used to freedom can be more easily ruled through its own citizens… than in any other way.” (First paragraph). And: “Whoever becomes the master of a city accustomed to freedom, and does not destroy it, may be expected to be destroyed himself; because, where there is a rebellion, such a city justifies itself by calling on the name of liberty and its ancient institutions…” (second paragraph) and this is followed by the quote given above, that “in republics there is more life…” (last sentence).
If new territories with different languages etc are acquired, “… to hold them one must be very fortunate and very assiduous. One of the best, most effective expedients would be for the conqueror to go to live there in person”!! (Ch III, paragraph 4) I comment on the word “fortunate” below…
[Does a huge Embassy and several military bases count here?
In conquering territory where the culture is different, the prince could “go and live there in person” (chapter III paragraph 4) in order to establish his hold on the people; but it is better to “establish settlements in one or two places” since this only injures a few people (those whose land has been taken to give to the settlers), and if you scatter the settlements, the injured people will not be able to unite against you! “Settlements do not cost much, and the prince can found them and maintain them at little or no personal expense. He injures only those from whom he takes land and houses to give to the new inhabitants, and these victims form a tiny minority, and can never do any harm since they remain poor and scattered.” (Chapter III, paragraph 5).
[This is another quote that I find truly amazing in its general and modern applicability, since inevitably the case of Israel and Palestine comes to
Thus, if the ruler goes and lives among them he presumably shows that he is prepared to live as they do, or at least that he does not regard them as “aliens”; living amongst them he might also convince them that he cares for their well-being: “the subjects are satisfied because they have direct recourse to the prince; and so they have more reason to love him…”. This is in addition to the practical benefits of “being on the spot, [so] one can detect trouble at the start and deal with it immediately…” (Ch III, paragraph 4).
[Machiavelli is clearly advocating what we now would call “colonialism”– assuming that the old-style colonialism meant the citizens of the colonial power going and living among the “natives”; I wonder what he would have said about “neo-colonialism” with its more “hands-off” approach?
4.3 The People are Conservative – Machiavelli’s view of human nature:
There is some disagreement over Machiavelli’s understanding of human nature; my own view, based on these and other extracts, is that he regards people as
conservative (wanting to hold on to what they are used to) – but that they can be changed if a ruler is clever enough.
Machiavelli also says that people are: “creatures of circumstance” (hence the point about not changing their laws or taxes). Some writers say that he believes that they are selfish (see Sabine, but contrast Berki), greedy or even wicked. I think this is at the least an overstatement, if not a distortion…
On the other hand, Machiavelli’s account of how rulers should behave is so ‘cold’ - surely a clear example of ‘realpolitik’? - that it is not surprising if he is read as being totally cynical about human nature in general:
“… men must be either pampered or crushed, because they can get revenge for small injuries but not for fatal ones. So any injury a prince does a man should be of a kind that there is no fear of revenge.” (Ch III, paragraph 5).
Again, this is a statement that can be interpreted as justifying immoral conduct in war – and yet, once you have conflict, is this not good advice?
[Given this outlook, which I imagine most in the military would share, is there any hope of establishing effective ‘laws’ for the ‘moral’ conduct of war?
On the subject of politico-military strategy, isn’t much modern ‘realpolitik’ also based on Machiavelli’s idea: a ruler whose country has other powers on its borders should “make himself the protector and leader of the smaller neighbouring powers, and he should endeavour to weaken those which are strong”?! (Ch III, paragraph 6).
Finally, I find the following statement quite revealing of Machiavelli’s assumptions, especially about human motivation for power: “The wish to acquire more is admittedly a very natural and common thing; and when men succeed in this they are always praised rather than condemned. But when they lack the ability to do so and yet want to acquire more at all costs, they deserve condemnation for their mistakes.”(Ch III paragraph 12). This is why ‘lame duck’ leaders have such a hard time with their critics!
In the next chapters, Chapters VI – XI, Machiavelli goes on to list, and comment on, 5 ways of conquering a state, showing us more on his view of human nature:
In Chapter VI he describes the first way: by force of your own arms (the best way) - though it may be easy to conquer a state, but then difficult to bring in new laws: “there is nothing more difficult to arrange, more doubtful of success, and more dangerous to carry through than initiating changes in a state’s constitution. The innovator makes enemies of all those who prospered under the new order…” (Ch VI, paragraph 4)
To deal with this, the ruler should use force: “all armed prophets have conquered, and unarmed prophets come to grief.” “The populace is by nature fickle; it is easy to persuade them of something, but difficult to confirm them in that persuasion” – so the ruler should try to arrange things so that “they can be made to believe by force.” (ch VI, paragraph 4)
Here is one of the oft-quoted statements Machiavelli made about ‘human nature’:
“One can make this generalisation about men: they are ungrateful, fickle, liars, and deceivers, they shun danger and are greedy for profit; while you treat them well, they are yours… Men worry less about doing an injury to one who makes himself loved than to one who makes himself feared. The bond of love is one which men, wretched creatures that they are, break when it is to their advantage to do so…” (Chapter XVII, paragraph 3)
4.4 The nature of effective political power:
Here there is a long account of the struggles of Cesare Borgia, on the other hand, who is held out as a good example of someone who laid “strong… foundations” for power by “destroying all the families of the rulers he had despoiled, thus depriving the pope of the opportunity of using them against him; second, by winning over all the patricians in Rome… in order to hold the pope in check; third by controlling the College of Cardinals as far as he could…” etc! He is praised because “if he could not make whom he wanted pope, he could at least keep the papacy from going to one he did not want.” However, in the end “old injuries” he had caused to others defeated him.
4.5 Power is different to glory, and cruelty must be used economically:
Chapter VIII deals with the third way of conquering a state: by crime (murdering the existing political leaders! – risky!!). In the course of this chapter Machiavelli makes an interesting distinction: “yet it cannot be called prowess to kill fellow citizens, to betray friends, to be treacherous, pitiless, irreligious. These ways can win a prince power but not glory.” (Paragraph 2).
I return below to the question of whether Machiavelli’s standpoint was immoral – but it is clear to me that he here distinguishes between ‘power’ (neutral) and ‘glory’ (praiseworthy), so he is hardly refusing to acknowledge morality.
One of the most famous – notorious? – quotes follows this:
Machiavelli writes: “For I believe it is a question of cruelty used well or badly. We can say that cruelty is used well (if it is permissible to talk in this way of evil) when it is employed once and for all, and one’s safety depends on it, and then it is not persisted in but as far as possible turned to the good of one’s subjects.” (Paragraph 4).
This has been described as a case for “economy of cruelty” – if you are going to be cruel, do it at once and don’t drag it out; “Violence should be inflicted once for all; people will then forget what it tastes like and so be less resentful. Benefits should be conferred gradually; and in that way they will taste better.” (Last paragraph).
Machiavelli here does recognise that there is morality involved in how violence and force are used. Cruelty should only be used for the benefits of one’s subjects, and when one’s safety depends on it.
[This reminds me of more recent attempts at limiting the amount of suffering that war causes, or justifying pre-emptive attacks (permissible only in the case of immediate danger – the attack which led to the current Iraq conflict has been condemned for not fitting this criterion).
However, of course, another part of the point is addressed at the practicalities only – unnecessary cruelty causes more problems than it solves, in the form of “resentment”!
4.6 A ruler needs the support of the people:
In Chapter IX Machiavelli describes what he calls The Constitutional Principality (the 4th kind of situation/power) i.e. the ruler has gained power by election (but how to please the voters, and when you have done so, how to avoid them weakening your power). Here he discusses the three-way conflict between the prince, the nobles and the people. Machiavelli’s distrust of the nobles is expressed here: “A man who becomes prince with the help of the nobles finds it more difficult to maintain his position than one who does so with the help of the people… The people are more honest in their intentions than the nobles are, because the latter want to oppress the people, while they only want not to be oppressed.” (Paragraph 2)
So the prince is secure if he relies on the people’s support (the nobles are rivals in power) – though if he loses the support of the people this is not so bad as losing the support of the nobles, as the latter are likely to try to kill him! The chapter concludes: “Therefore a wise prince must devise ways by which his citizens are always in all circumstances dependent on him and on his authority; and then they will always be faithful to him.”
He goes so far as to say:
“...so the best fortress that exists is to avoid being hated by the people.” (Chapter XX: On Fortresses, last paragraph).
(Chapter X briefly adds points about the importance of the prince’s army, which Machiavelli deals with in Chapter XII).
In Chapter XI: Ecclesiastical Principalities, he discusses how a ruler can base their power on religion, and even ideally by becoming Pope! (The latter would be good because religion is a powerful way of holding people together – see below). (The fifth way).
Ecclesiastical principalities are a different kind of regime altogether: they may be “won by prowess and fortune” but they are “kept without the help of either.” For religion holds the people and the ruler together. “These principalities alone are secure and happy. But as they are sustained by higher powers which the human mind cannot comprehend, I shall not argue about them; they are exalted and maintained by God.”
Nevertheless Machiavelli briefly goes into the history of Alexander VI’s rise to power, to show how temporal power can be acquired for the church, using “money and armed force”.
Here we see Machiavelli as – realist or hypocrite? Religious authority presumably cannot be used alone to go about conquering territory – but the fact that Machiavelli discusses religion in this “instrumental” way has led to much criticism. Later, Machiavelli reinforces this point – perhaps cynically – about religion being a most effective way of keeping a state in order.
4.8 The role of ‘arms’
Chapters XII – XIV deal with this, and the controversial position Machiavelli takes (no doubt drawing on his own experience of organizing mercenaries) is that power, (often based on the ability to use force), comes first – justice comes second, as in this point about the army:
“The main foundations of every state… are good laws and good arms; and because you cannot have good laws without good arms, and where there are good arms, good laws inevitably follow…” (Chapter XII, paragraph 1)
[Writing this out again, I wondered if Machiavelli isn’t being slippery in his use of the word “good”? Does he simply mean “effective”? Or is this connected with the point quoted above, about the “economy of violence” – that is, force used to pursue a good end?
[It is worth commenting also that the French political philosopher Jean Bodin, and in more recent times German sociologist Max Weber, defined sovereignty as the ability to use enough force to keep order. The state, from Weber’s point of view, always ultimately rests on force – as we can see when rulers face determined opposition.
Machiavelli then turns to a discussion of “(good) arms”. This Chapter is often quoted, for its advice on the use of military organisation, and in particular mercenaries.
Machiavelli does not trust mercenaries or auxiliaries (soldiers from another state): “Mercenaries and auxiliaries are useless and dangerous… Mercenaries are disunited, thirsty for power, undisciplined, and disloyal; they are brave among their friends and cowards before the enemy…” and so on! (Chapter XII, paragraph 2). Both kinds of troops are unreliable. So he argues that the army must be under the control of the prince in a principality, or the people in a republic. The prince, in fact, should make control over the arms of the state his central concern (Opening of Chapter XIV): “A prince, therefore, should have no other object or thought, nor acquire skill in anything, except war, its organisation and discipline. The art of war is all that is expected of a ruler…”
4.9 On utopias:
The next few Chapters: XV - XIX contain some of Machiavelli’s most interesting points about how a ruler should behave, but first he rejects imaginary utopias: “Many have dreamed up republics and principalities which have never in truth been know to exist; the gulf between how one should live and how one does live is so wide that a man who neglects what is actually done for what should be done learns the way to self-destruction rather than to self-preservation.”
[Thomas More’s Utopia was written in 1516…Machiavelli may well have been aware of the work.
4.10: How a Prince should behave:
A prince must “learn how not to be virtuous, and to make use of this or not according to need.” (Chapter XV, first paragraph).
This is an instance of Machiavelli at his most controversial, since he is not advocating good behaviour unless it actually does good for the prince. Conversely, what is wrong with bad behaviour if it brings good results? There is one very ambiguous element in this statement, when Machiavelli warns a ruler “to escape the evil reputation attached to those vices which could lose him his state” – (paragraph 2) – and note that it is the reputation that has to be avoided, not necessarily the vices themselves… This could either lead a ruler into better behaviour because of anxiety to avoid such a bad reputation that he falls from power – or it could lead him to try harder to cover things up! (Think of President Nixon and Watergate...) Some have defended Machiavelli along the lines that he was advocating that princes try to ensure they have at least a moral appearance. This does not convince me, especially in this age of spin!
Chapter XVI illustrates how generosity can ‘back-fire’: it is no good being generous if all you want is to appear generous - the only way to convince people of your generosity is to over-do it! But this will lead a prince to spend more than he can afford, and he will have to raise more taxes, thus defeating the whole point of the exercise! So – better not to try to be generous at all!
Chapter XVII is one of the most-cited parts of the book: “whether it is better to be loved than feared, or the reverse”.
Machiavelli’s advice to princes on the feelings they should try to evoke in their subjects is a good example of his psychological precision – he describes what, to me, is a “balancing act” that a prince should attempt:
“A prince should try to avoid, above all else, being despised and hated…” (Chapter XVI end)
“…a prince should want to have a reputation for compassion rather than cruelty… but a prince should not worry if he incurs reproach for his cruelty so long as he keeps his subjects united and loyal. (Chapter XVII, paragraph 1)
“[then there is the question] whether it is better to be loved than feared, or the reverse. The answer is that one would like to be both one and the other; but because it is difficult to combine them, it is far better to be feared than to be loved, if you cannot be both. (Chapter XVII, paragraph 3)
“The prince should nonetheless make himself feared in such a way that, if he is not loved, at least he escapes being hated.” (Chapter XVII, paragraph 4).
This last point is reinforced in Chapter XIX: The need to avoid contempt and hatred. This includes the cynical suggestion that rulers should “delegate to others the enactment of unpopular measures and keep in their own hands the distribution of favours”.
In sum, Machiavelli is always most concerned about the practical effects rather than the innate praiseworthiness or morality of a prince’s behaviour – is this defensible in any way?
4.11 Chapter XVIII – XXIV: different standard of morality for rulers. Also the importance of military success (Chapter XX).
This part of the book reinforces the point that is often made, that Machiavelli is laying down a different standard of morality for rulers than for ordinary people. Princes are judged by their results – the common people are always impressed by success!
“There are two ways of fighting: by law or by force. The first way is natural to men, and the second to beasts. But as the first way often proves inadequate one must needs have recourse to the second. So a prince must know how to make a nice use of the beast and the man.” (Chapter XVIII paragraph 2)
“One must know how to colour one’s actions and to be a great liar and deceiver. Men are so simple, and so much creatures of circumstance, that the deceiver will always find someone ready to be deceived. (Paragraph 3)
“In the actions of all men, and especially of princes, where there is no court of appeal, one judges by the result. So let a prince set about the task of conquering and maintaining his state; his methods will always be judged honourable and will be universally praised. The common people are always impressed by appearances and results.” (Paragraph 6)
“Nothing brings a prince more prestige than great campaigns and striking demonstrations of his personal abilities.” (Chapter XXI, first paragraph).
4.12 Chapter XXV: on “fate” (fortuna):
There are two key terms that Machiavelli uses: “virtu” (meaning, roughly, “manliness” in the sense of being able to overcome difficulties that fate throws at you) and “fortuna” (meaning “fate” – things over which we seem to have no control: what Harold Macmillan called “events, dear boy, events.”). This is another point at which – perhaps – Machiavelli gets close to dealing with a philosophical issue… it is not fashionable now to believe in fate or pre-destination, but there are still arguments over the extent of our “free will”… (A significant – if erroneous – criticism of Marx centres on his determinism…)
“I believe that it is probably true that fortune is the arbiter of half the things we do, leaving the other half to be controlled by ourselves.” (Chapter XXV, paragraph 1).
This distinction is mainly applied to the prince: when the prince does control things himself, he exhibits “virtu”. If he is lucky, he can make policy coincide with “fortuna”:
“As fortune is changeable, while men are obstinate in their ways, men prosper so long as fortune and policy are in accord; and when they clash they fail. I hold strongly to this: that is it better to be impetuous than circumspect; because fortune is a woman and if she is to be submissive it is necessary to beat and coerce her.” (Chapter XXV last sentence).
[The question of political philosophers and their attitude to women is a subject in its own right… I am aware of a similar statement to this one of
Machiavelli’s, made by Francis Bacon, the originator of “scientific method”, where he says that nature is like a woman, and has to be forced to give up
On the other hand, there are other instances in The Prince - as we saw - which reflect the idea that it is best to try to go along with “fate” or circumstance – in the ‘conservative’ sense (or is it realism?). Thus, when he warns citizens not to expect good things from changing their ruler: “Men willingly change their ruler, expecting to fare better… but they only deceive themselves, and they learn from experience that they have made matters worse... (Chapter III, first paragraph).
But see Chapter VI: “the less a man has relied on fortune the stronger he has made his position.” (Paragraph 2)
The reason that leaders such as Cyrus, Romulus and Theseus were great was that “they do not seem to have had from fortune anything other than opportunity. Fortune, as it were, provided the matter but they gave it its form; without opportunity their prowess would have been extinguished, and without such prowess the opportunity would have come in vain.”
In other words, - and Machiavelli is surely showing a very ‘modern’ frame of mind here – circumstance and character cannot be separated when it comes to achievement. For even if fate presents an opportunity to someone, they have to have the ability (“virtu” is probably the same as “prowess” here) to use it; and even a man with “prowess” needs the opportunities that fortune brings. (This throws a slightly different light on the words above: fortune is the arbiter of half the things we do…).
5. Summary Comments:
Machiavelli’s lack of scruples (or even of morality?):
It is worth noting that Machiavelli passes no judgment on the rights and wrongs of conquest: “The wish to acquire more is admittedly a very natural and common thing; and when men succeed in this they are always praised rather than condemned.”
And he goes further, in not hesitating to recommend the use of force and cruelty. As we saw, not only are new rulers “compelled to injure” even those who have supported them, but in conquering a new people: “first, the family of the old prince must be destroyed”…
However, since Machiavelli’s aim is always to give practical advice, the important question is “will it work?” not “is it right or wrong?”
Some have detected in Machiavelli a desire to get conquerors to question their ways and to be more subtle and less barbaric. After all, the times were very different to today…
Or it has even been suggested that Machiavelli is not serious in his advice to use cruelty: that he intends to shock his readers. I think the latter is most unlikely (and it didn’t work anyway – Stalin and Mussolini were both admirers of Machiavelli!). If his advice leads to rulers being less barbaric, this would only happen as a ‘by-product’ of his essentially ‘realistic’ and pragmatic outlook. However, he may have felt that if he were to propose something radically different from the norm, rulers would not take his advice seriously.
A ruler needs popular support:
As we saw, again, Machiavelli was sufficiently realistic not to try to make a case for ruthless control despite resistance: and he warns princes not to trust the “nobles”. And, although he describes ordinary people as “fickle” etc, he has more faith in them –collectively – than he does in the nobles. Hence the prince should always try to get popular support (more evidence of Machiavelli trying to ‘nudge’ rulers into being less barbaric? (“A man who becomes prince with the help of the nobles finds it more difficult to maintain his position than one who does so with the help of the people… The people are more honest in their intentions than the nobles are, because the latter want to oppress the people, while they only want not to be oppressed… I shall conclude that it is necessary for a prince to have the friendship of the people; otherwise he has no remedy in times of adversity.”)
Again, I believe this is an important indicator of Machiavelli’s ‘balancing act’: he is telling rulers that they should get popular support for their own benefit. This is not a philosophical, principled or ethical case for democracy (it is not a normative statement) – merely a realist’s way of advising a ruler! The ruler needs to understand the psychology of his people in order to be able to keep them in control.
“Ends and means”:
It is important, I believe, to be careful how we describe Machiavelli’s position on the use of force, cruelty, deception etc. He believed that it was justified if it helped to bring about stability and order in the state (“peace” if you like). Some writers say that Machiavelli believed that “the end justifies the means” – this is not strictly true: he believed that one end, the stability and well-being of the state, justified almost any means (killing rivals in particular – but not persecuting the ordinary people).
This is one issue where Machiavelli moves near to philosophical discussion – and note the precision of his point. It reminds me of an example used when I was a student of philosophy: there is a world of difference between the statement “inflicting pain on people is wrong” (which is open to dispute – ask a doctor or dentist!), and the statement “inflicting pain on people, without their consent, and purely for your own pleasure is wrong”.
Machiavelli: military strategist, political scientist, or philosopher?
Machiavelli makes no claim to be a philosopher – yet his words are often studied: and there remain two issues that might be called “philosophical”:
(i) He puts great stress on “appearing” to be successful, having a “reputation for compassion rather than cruelty”… some have suggested that the only way to appear compassionate is to be compassionate, and that Machiavelli was therefore not really advocating immoral behaviour. (I have already said that I do not agree with this). As I understand Machiavelli, a ruler may be compassionate if they can do so without being weak.
Is it possible, though, to appear to be ‘compassionate’ etc whilst in fact being cruel, or indifferent?
[It does seem to me, though, that Machiavelli has put his finger on a key aspect of political success with this point about ‘appearances’ – he would have understood the use of “spin doctors”!!!
(ii) Perhaps the most important question for political philosophy that Machiavelli raises is: should rulers be “above the law”? If (as so many seem to believe) a state needs a sovereign ruler to keep it in order, isn’t that ruler by definition above the law? (Think of Berlusconi, Nixon and others…). But if the sovereign is above the law, are we not back to Thrasymachus with ‘justice is the will of the strongest’? This philosophical stance was taken up later by Nietzsche: leaders have superior qualities (Übermenschen) that mere citizens cannot understand. I imagine Hitler was under this delusion!
Why do you think Machiavelli’s ideas were met with such horror? Is he not simply describing things “as they are” in the murky world of politics?
Christopher Columbus: 1451 – 1506
Leonardo da Vinci: 1452 – 1519
Nicholas Copernicus: 1473 – 1543
Michelangelo: 1475 – 1564
Cesare Borgia: 1476 – 1507
Thomas More: (1478 – 1535).
Main Sources Used:
Ball, T. and Dagger, R. – Ideals and Ideologies, a Reader – Harper-Collins 1991. 0 321 00539 2
Berki, R.N. – The History of Political Thought – Dent 1977. 0 460 11177 9
Mackenney, Richard; Sixteenth Century Europe: Expansion and Conflict, Macmillan History of Europe, 1993. 0 333 36924 6.
Introduction by George Bull, to Penguin Classics edition of The Prince (first published 1961).
For Pareto and Mosca:
Consciousness and Society: The Reformulation of European Social Thought 1890 – 1930, By H Stuart Hughes, Harvester 1979 (OU Set Book)