Tag Archives: Machiavelli

7. Machiavelli’s The Prince

“Machiavelli, Niccolo, was an Italian statesman and student of politics. His name has long stood for all that is deep, dark, and treacherous in political leadership. In Elizabethan literature, for example, there are hundreds of references that connect him with the Evil One or the Devil.” (The World Book Encyclopedia, 1978, volume 13, page 10)

In the seventh reading of their The Development of Political Theory and Government (volume 2 of The Great Ideas Program, Encyclopedia Britannica, 1959), Mortimer J. Adler and Peter Wolff consider Machiavelli’s The Prince. They discuss the period and place in which Machiavelli wrote–the Renaissance and Florence, Italy; his aims and the means he proposed to reach that end; and whether The Prince is immoral. Here I’ll sketch Machiavelli’s life, summarize Adler and Wolff’s examination of Machiavelli’s aims in writing The Prince, evaluate their discussion of whether it is immoral, and share and comment on two quotations on Machiavelli’s influence.

Machiavelli’s Life

Machiavelli was born in Florence in 1469, the son of a minor official. He became a leading figure in the Republic of Florence after the Medici family was driven out in 1498, serving as secretary to the magistracy which directed foreign affairs and defence for fourteen years. Being in charge of the diplomatic correspondence of his bureau and serving as Florentine representative on nearly thirty foreign missions gave him an insight into the politics of Italy and Europe. He also attempted to organize a citizen militia to replace the republic’s mercenary troops.

When the Medici family returned to power in 1512, they dismissed Machiavelli from his position and shortly afterwards imprisoned him on suspicion of being implicated in a conspiracy against the new government. After being released, he spent the remaining fourteen years of his life in retirement on a small farm near Florence inherited from his father. Despite having to spend most of the day working the farm, he spent up to four hours a night in his study, writing The Prince (in 1513) and various other works in the hope of winning the approval of the government. He died in 1527.

Machiavelli’s Aims in Writing The Prince

Adler and Wolff open the main section of their consideration of The Prince with, “Let us examine Machiavelli’s aims and the means he proposes to reach that end” (page 90). Here is part of what they say in that examination:

“[The Prince] is not addressed to all of mankind; it is rather meant only for a prince or king…. Again, The Prince is not a theoretical exposition of its subject…. Rather, it is a practical political treatise; that is to say, it is directed toward action…. The guiding principle of Machiavelli’s writing is the following statement…taken from another book: ‘Whoever desires to found a state and give it laws, must start with assuming that all men are bad and ever ready to display their vicious nature, whenever they may find occasion for it.’ (Discourses, Book I, Ch. 3)

“This statement is not, of course, very flattering to man. Nevertheless, it may well be correct that practical political action takes its beginning from it. Certainly there is much evidence that states deal with one another in a fashion that is based precisely on some such assumption. Power politics, Realpolitik, ‘brink-of-war-policies’ are all based on the hypothesis that sovereign states (and presumably the people composing them) are concerned solely with survival and domination and respect nothing but force and the threat of force.

“Machiavelli can find support in other writers for his position. [Adler and Woolf give quotes from Plato’s The Republic and Aristotle’s Politics which reflect the same low opinion of man.] Machiavelli, therefore, is simply dealing with men as they are, not as they should be…. Both Plato and Aristotle want to check man’s bestiality. Plato propose to do it through education; Aristotle through the state and law. Both of these, of course, are long-range projects. Machiavelli, concerns with man’s present bestiality, suggests that he combat his subjects’ bestiality by becoming a stronger and more clever beast himself.” (Adler and Wolff, The Development of Political Theory and Government, pages 90-92)

Adler and Woolf close their examination of Machiavelli’s aims in writing The Prince by quoting this famous passage from it:

“…there are two ways of contesting, the one by law, the other by force; the first method is proper to men, the second to beasts; but because the first is frequently not sufficient, it is necessary to have recourse to the second…. A prince, therefore, being compelled knowingly to adopt the beast, ought to choose the fox and the lion; because the lion cannot defend himself against snares and the fox cannot defend himself against wolves. Therefore, it is necessary to be a fox to discover the snares and a lion to terrify the wolves.” (Great Books of the Western World, Encyclopedia Britannica, 1952, volume 23, page 25)

The Morality of The Prince

Adler and Wolff open their discussion of whether The Prince is an immoral book by showing that Plato and Aristotle also advocated that rulers use questionable means to achieve political ends and asking, “Is there any difference…between The Prince, the Republic, and the Politics, or are all three alike immoral books concerned merely with political expediency?” (page 95) They answer that although all three books deal with the means needed to accomplish political ends, they differ greatly in the ends they advocate. They continue:

“Plato’s purpose [in The Republic] was the discovery of justice and the establishment of a perfectly just state. That purpose certainly is highly moral and laudable, whatever we may think of some of the means involved. Aristotle’s Politics is a direct continuation of his moral treatise, the Ethics. Far from considering the state and its laws as things that concern only the rulers, he considers the state necessary for human happiness and thinks that the constitution is man’s salvation. All of his remarks, therefore, must be understood as being governed by the essential moral role which he feels that state plays in man’s life.

“But The Prince is altogether different in its purpose. We can discover no moral end that Machiavelli’s remarks are to serve. There seems to be, in fact, no end that he has in mind except that of success. Machiavelli’s maxim seems to be that everything is permissible as long as it succeeds…. The Prince would seem to be, then, at best an amoral book, and at worst, actually immoral.” (Adler and Wolff, The Development of Political Theory and Government, page 95)

Personally, I consider The Prince to be immoral in that it advocates that rulers use any means, good or bad, to accomplish their purposes. The only condition that Machiavelli places on their doing so is that they give the appearance of doing what is right. This is brought out in this short excerpt from it:

“Therefore it is unnecessary for a prince to have all the good qualities I have enumerated, but it is very necessary to appear to have them. And I shall dare to say this also, that to have them and always to observe them is injurious, and that to appear to have them is useful; to appear merciful, humane, religious, upright, and to be so, but with a mind so framed that should you require not to be so, you may be able and know how to change to the opposite.

“And you have to understand this, that a prince, especially a new one, cannot observe all those things for which men are esteemed, because often forced, in order to maintain the state, to act contrary to faith, friendship, humanity, and religion. Therefore it is necessary for him to have a mind ready to turn itself accordingly as the winds and variations of fortune force it, yet, as I have said above, not to diverge from the good if he can avoid doing so, but, if compelled, then to know how to set about it.” (Great Books of the Western World, Encyclopedia Britannica, 1952, volume 23, page 25)

Machiavelli’s Influence

“Machiavelli’s writings soon became known in Italy and other European countries, particularly France and England, although in 1559 his works were placed on the Index [a list of books that the Roman Catholic Church forbade its members to read]. Generally he was considered an advisor of cruel tyrants, an advocate of evil….

“In the nineteenth century, students of Machiavelli…[b]ecause the last chapter of The Prince contains an appeal for the liberation of Italy from the barbarians…assumed that Machiavelli had permitted the violation of moral rules only for the purpose of a higher ethical goal…the foundation of a unified Italy. Thus…Machiavelli became respectable as the prophet of the national state. In the latter part of the century Machiavelli was also referred to by those who wanted to free man from the oppressive shackles of traditional morality and believed that man’s faculties could be fully developed only if he placed himself ‘beyond good and evil.’” (Felix Gilbert, “Machiavelli, Niccolo,” The Encyclopedia of Philosophy, New York/London: MacMillan, 1967, volume 5, page 121)

“Machiavelli’s advice [that princes fortify their cities] is…tailored to the conditions of the fifteenth century. Nevertheless, the policy which the United States is following in the twentieth century seems to be not too different. Like Machiavelli’s prince, the United States is fortifying itself; i.e., building up its defences so that a potential aggressor will be deterred. At the same time, the United States is trying to keep the good will of allies all over the world.” (Adler and Wolff, The Development of Political Theory and Government, page 93)

What about today? Although Donald Trump is early in his tenure as President of United States, it seems to me that he is following the same policy as Adler and Wolff attribute to the United States of the twentieth century. Adler and Wolff don’t claim that twentieth century United States was influenced directly by Machiavelli, and neither do I claim that President Trump is. However the American “What is good for United States is good for the world” policy is certainly an offspring of the nationalism which the The Encyclopedia of Philosophy article quoted above describes Machiavelli to be the prophet of. Thus I can imagine Machiavelli’s applauding Donald Trump’s first one hundred days.