Friday, September 10, 2010

Essay on Machiavelli and The Prince

Essay on Machiavelli and The Prince

Political theory is continuously changing and political writers are continuously adapting to these changes. New political writers have either added to theories previously developed or have completely contradicted these theories and created a new way of thinking. More often than not, philosophers have added to existing theories and in doing so kept them contemporary. While this is the most common kind of change that occurs, there are some who have been bold enough to question the validity of existing theories. One such person was Niccolo Machiavelli who contradicted the ideas and methodology of many well respected philosophers. Machiavelli’s bold ideas served him well as he wrote what was to become a very influential book which he called The Prince.

Machiavelli’s masterpiece, The Prince, begins with a quick introduction explaining the purpose for which he initially wrote the book. He claims the purpose is to provide his prince, Lorenzo, with a guide as to how to become a successful and powerful ruler. In reality, however, Machiavelli knows that Lorenzo is not the person who will become a great Prince. In turn this book becomes a general guide which is written for someone who will one day prove to be the person who can be a great ruler. This guide insinuates that the only thing that should be considered important to a prince is the obtaining and maintaining of power. Machiavelli views the people as an inert mass that must be molded by the prince as the singular desire of people is to acquire. Machiavelli believes that a good prince must use this knowledge of the people to his advantage.


The core of the book is found in Chapter 15 where Machiavelli seems to put forth the idea that God is dead. The central theme of The Prince is that power is not only one of many things that exist but, in fact, it is the only thing that exists. It is in this chapter that we find one of the most important passages in the book which states:

“And many have imagined republics and principates that
have never been seen or known to be in truth; because there
is such a distance between how one lives and how one should
live that he who lets go that which is done for that which ought
to be done learns his ruin rather than his preservation – for a
man who wishes to profess the good in everything needs must
fall among so many who are not good. Hence, it is necessary
for a prince, if he wishes to maintain himself, to learn to be able
to be not good, and to use it and not use it according to the
necessity.” (The Prince, p.93)

This passage sums up many of the ideas that Machiavelli puts forth throughout the book. In the first part of this passage we see that Machiavelli disregards all other possible principates or republics that had been introduced by previous philosophers. He makes it clear that these could not exist by saying that they are “imagined” and have “never been seen or known to be in truth”. When speaking of these “imagined republics and principates” he is referring to those which were written about by such philosophers as Hobbes in his book The Republic and St. Augustine in The City of God and thus, he is implying that what has been said before him cannot be achieved and is unrealistic in theory.

Machiavelli states that “there is such a distance between how one lives and how one should live that he who lets go that which is done for that which ought to be done learns his ruin rather than his preservation”. He believed that if we tried to live in a utopian manner then we would never be successful and would “learn [our] ruin”. Machiavelli believed that since there is such a distance between these two that we should only regard the way things are and forget about how they ought to be. If we strive to do things in the way that most believe it should be done then it will cause us, as well as the Prince, to lose power.

Machiavelli believed that if actions reflected what ought to be, one would fall “among many that are not good”. Since people were not good by nature, he believed that a Prince should take any action whether it is regarded as virtuous or not, which will aid him in the long run. Since people are not good by nature they will not be grateful regardless of how good and virtuous the Prince is. As Machiavelli makes clear, if a prince is always virtuous then he will not be feared and the people will ask more of him and eventually ask for more than he is willing to give; in essence, they will begin to hate him.

The principles which Machiavelli seems committed to in this passage are those of prudence, virtue and human nature. He has suggested throughout the book that in order to be a good prince, one must be prudent and know when and how to act. If a prince is to be successful in obtaining and keeping power he must be virtuous but in the sense that he must act in a way that will get him what he wants. If this is achieved than the actions taken would have been virtuous according to Machiavellian theory. Regarding human nature, this passage provides a clear example of Machiavelli’s views. He believes that people are not good by nature and are selfish in their desires. Their greatest desire being that of acquiring and to a Prince it is this desire which must be use to instill fear in the people in order to keep them loyal, since the main thing people fear is losing what they have.

Machiavelli also goes against the “Great Traditions” of the Greeks and Christians on many accounts, including human nature and virtue, which can also be found in the passage. The explanation Machiavelli gives in order to justify his comment on why previous principates and republics would never have been able to be established contradicts what some philosophers have believed for many years regarding human nature and virtue. He immediately brings up the fact that people do not live how they should and this is what would be necessary in order to create the republics and principates of previous philosophers. Instead, Machiavelli suggests that virtuousness should not be measured in regards to what should be but what is. If one aims to please everyone, because that is what is believed to be virtuous, than he will only harm himself in the long run. Machiavelli believed this to be true because, according to him, humans are not good by nature but, in fact, humans are selfish and this is what is behind all human action; to help your self. Thus, what was regarded as virtue before is no longer the virtue to Machiavelli, instead what was once vice can now be regarded as virtue. For example, before Machiavelli generosity was seen as a virtue and the opposite to this, which is miserliness, would have been the vice. However, Machiavelli puts forth the idea that miserliness can be virtue if in the end it is the cause for reaching your goal. In this case, by being miserly the prince can eventually be seen as a good prince because he will not have to take from the people.

Before Machiavelli, philosophers believed that there were always virtues and vices and these were each others opposite. There was a spectrum in which these co-exist and people live in the middle since they are always striving for virtue but are pulled towards the vice. Machiavelli goes against this and in turn suggests that virtue should be the actions taken which bring about the desired outcome, so if lying and stealing get you what you want then they are in fact virtues.

Throughout Machiavelli’s The Prince a new and influential political thought process is introduced. In the passage in Chapter 15 he brings together his main arguments and presents the core of the book which is the importance of obtaining and maintaining power. It is in this passage that Machiavelli’s arguments concerning virtue and human nature are found. He disregards the theories of previous philosophers such as Hobbes and presents his own understanding of what is virtuous. It is in this passage that Machiavelli changes the political theory of the time and presents a new way of thinking and by doing this he paves the way for future philosophers who will build on his theory and develop it as politics continue to change.

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