‘The Prince’: A Splendid Work by Machiavelli

‘The Prince’: A Splendid Work by Machiavelli!

The Prince is a treatise on how a king or ruler should acquire, maintain and perpetuate his rule. Machiavelli suggests that the prince must rely chiefly on the judicious use of force and deceit. As man is the slave of his own selfish passions, it is pointless and unsafe to suppose that subjects may be ruled by obtaining their rational consent or setting them a good moral example.

Wherever there is a choice, men will respond to the dictates of passion rather than to the requirements of moral reason. It is, therefore, by manipulating the passions of others that they can be made to do what one wants them to do. There is, in politics, no such thing as an effective appeal to reason.

Machiavelli writes that there are four passions that govern human behaviour; love, hatred, fear and contempt. Love and hatred are mutually exclusive: clearly it is not possible simultaneously to love and hate someone. By the same token, it is not possible to both fear and despise someone: fear and contempt are also incompatibles. However, love and fear are compatible; so are hatred and contempt, hatred and fear, and love and contempt.

The passions that the prince will most obviously seek to inspire are the compatibles of love and fear. If people hate and despise their ruler, they cannot be controlled and they will, indeed, be anxious to act against him. Love and fear are, therefore, to be induced, and contempt and hatred avoided.

The worst thing that can happen to a ruler in seeking to maintain his power, Machiavelli suggests, is that he be despised. Thus, though love and fear are best, hatred and fear are to be preferred to love and contempt. Any combination with fear will be good because it will mean that subjects can be controlled through their fear.

Any combination with contempt, however, even if that combination is love, is to be avoided because it will rob the ruler of his power to coerce: fear and contempt are incompatibles. It is not essential to be loved, but it is essential to be feared—and it is even more essential not to be despised.

The foundation of the prince’s power according to Machiavelli is force and his willingness to use it ruthlessly. These accounts for Machiavelli s assertion that the only arts that the prince need to acquire are the military arts. Many of Machiavelli’s Renaissance contemporaries, and many of his forebears in the history of political thought, had taken it as a truism that the prince should be a cultivated and humane man: a patron of the arts, godly, wise, learned and so forth.

However, to Machiavelli, the proper study of the prince is the art of war. This is because, for Machiavelli, politics itself is only a kind of muted or ritualized warfare. He takes it for granted that, in quality if not in scale, the relations between a ruler and his subjects are the same as those between sovereign states. It is as if subjects are perpetually at war with their ruler, just as states are always potentially or actually at war with one another.

The prince’s correct general policy, therefore, is to ensure that there is no one who has sufficient power to challenge him, because, if such persons exist, he must assume that lust for power will induce them to challenge him indeed. Moreover, war between states, Machiavelli thinks, can never be avoided, only postponed; the prince who does not realize this is heading for disaster.

If there are neighboring powers capable of challenging the power of the prince, war is inevitable, because neither side can rest secure until the threat from the other is removed. So, it is always best to attack if one has the advantage or to destroy the others advantage by diplomacy if not. War should never be postponed to one’s own detriment.

Above all, if the prince is forced to injure others, he should do it in such a way as to deprive them of power permanently or destroy them altogether. If he does not do this, desire for revenge will augment their natural ambition and they will leave no stone unturned in their efforts to undermine him.

Machiavelli’s view of morality and politics is quite different from the traditional insistence that the good ruler is necessarily also a good man: that he will exhibit moral virtue in his own life and conduct; that he will set a good example to his subjects; that he will seek to secure the common good rather than his own good merely; that he will submit to the guidance of the Church.

Machiavelli’s the Prince demonstrates that politics is simply about getting and keeping power. He attaches to the word ‘virtue’ a quasi-technical meaning. Virtue, to Machiavelli—it is the custom in discussing his view to retain the Italian spelling, virtu—is not moral virtue; rather, it is a particular kind of skill or aptitude, combined, of course, with the will to use it.

One can amplify the idea of virtue as used by Machiavelli by examining its relationship with Fortuna. There is, he remarks, a considerable extent to which all men are in the hands of the fickle goddess Fortuna, and experience teaches them that there is no necessary connection between the traditional moral virtues and the incidence of good and ill-fortune. An honest and skillful merchant may have all his ships sunk in a storm, and his honesty will not help him.

A diligent and god-fearing farmer may still have all his crops destroyed in a storm. Life does not run in comfortable grooves; unpredictable and unexpected things happen, men inhabit a morally incoherent world in which there is no necessary relation between what one deserves and what one gets.

And nowhere is this unpredictability and moral incoherence more evident than in the political forum. Those who occupy the shifting and unstable world of politics are pre-eminently in the hands of fortune. For them, there is certainly no connection between desert and reward.

They do not know from one day to the next what will happen, how loyalties will change, how the balance of force will alter, and so on. Always to act in the same way regardless of the circumstances in which one finds himself is, Machiavelli insists, a recipe for disaster. This is particularly true in case of a ruler or a prince—especially a new prince—trying to survive in the volatile and merciless world of politics.

According to Machiavelli, virtu is thus that quality or prowess, which enables an individual to encounter the blows of fortune and overcome them by whatever means are necessary. Fortune, he writes is like a willful and headstrong woman. A man should cope with her, just as he would with any willful and headstrong woman, by beating her into submission.

In his encounters with fortune, it will not do for the prince to be bound by a rigid moral temperament. He must be adaptable. He must be ready and able to use both the lion and the fox in him: he must be able to be both man and beast. When mercy is appropriate, let him be merciful; but when it is appropriate for him to be merciless, savage and terrifying, let him be these things too. Let him be honest and truthful where necessary; but let him lie and break faith if he must.

The prince must do whatever circumstances require, and if those circumstances require him to disregard traditional moral values and Christian ways of behaving, then so be it. It is self-defeating to behave in ways that will increase one’s chances of losing power or to omit to behave in ways that will increase one’s chances of keeping it.

Many of Machiavelli’s contemporaries held, and many of his subsequent critics have held, that he is a teacher of evil. By the early seventeenth century, Machiavelli’s name had become a synonym for tyranny and perfidy. But it is easy enough to see that Machiavelli does not counsel wickedness and that his prince is not a wicked man. Machiavelli is quite ready to concede that, from the point of view of ordinary morality, necessity requires political actors to do deplorable things.

This may be regrettable, but the fact remains that the prince who cannot alter his mode of procedure to suit the changing circumstances will not be a prince for long. This is a fact of life and there is no point, Machiavelli thinks, in wringing one’s hands about it. Most people cannot deviate from what their character or education predisposes them to; or perhaps, having prospered by walking in one path, they cannot persuade themselves to adopt another.

If one could change one’s mode of procedure and character to suit the varying conditions of one’s life, one’s fortune would never change. The successful prince, Machiavelli thinks, is a man who can do precisely this. The ability by which he counteracts the effects of fortune is the ability to be infinitely flexible, to bend with the breeze.

Everything he does is done because circumstances require it; he does nothing merely because his character or moral principle dictates it. It might, therefore, be most easy to describe the prince as amoral.

He is neither good nor bad, neither wicked nor the reverse. He has no moral character in the traditional sense of the term. He does not have a fixed disposition or habit of mind to act in a certain way.

Unlike most men, who do have such fixed dispositions, he is able to be either completely virtuous or utterly vicious, and he knows how to be both. The traditional moral virtues are simply no part of his character. They are not absolutes to which he adheres through thick and thin. They are simply modes of action, which he can pick up and discard at will.

Submitted by : Dr. Jason, Category : Politics, Tag : Politics