Political Science 5


Lesson objectives: Explain Machiavelli’s background and political perspectives and to alsocritically exam Machiavelli’s political philosophy.

1. A very short summary of Italy during Machiavelli’s time

During Niccolo Machiavelli’s lifetime (1469-1527), most of Europe was formed of unified states.In contrast, Italy was dominated by cities and mercantile princes. The Italian principalities weresmall and extremely unstable. The five Italian “city-states” – Florence, Milan, Venice, Naples,and the papal state- were active in the emergent international trade and business, but werealso constantly involved in various conflicts, and could not unite to form a single Italian nation.Divisiveness was the Italian fate at the time. Hardly any principality possessed awell-established moral authority or supporting traditions. These small city-states were rich inart and commerce, but militarily weak and open to exploitation by Spain, France, England, andGermany. In 1494, when Machiavelli was 25 years old, a French army crossed the Alps for amajor invasion of Italy. The peninsula soon became a bone of contention in warfare betweenFrance and Spain. Machiavelli witnessed his home town of Florence being transformed from afirst-rate Italian power into second-rate status under Spanish domination. By 1527, the year ofMachiavelli’s death, the situation in Italy had become still worse: a horde of Spanish andGerman mercenaries fell on Rome and sacked the city. This defeat ended with theimprisonment of the Pope and the public disgrace of his cardinals. For 300 years thereafter,Italy remained a political disaster area.

The following short video is a great summary of Machiavelli’s significance on political thoughtand practice.

Click here to watch a 23 minute video summarizing Machiavelli’s life and the impact ofhis political ideas.

2. Similarities to Plato

Plato and Machiavelli, although separated by almost 2000 years, lived during times of politicalcrisis and witnessed their political orders savaged by invading forces.

Both men looked for power-based solutions to the problems facing their cities. They observedthe fundamental flaws in their political systems. The institutional forms of public representationand leadership proved bankrupt when tested by encounters with Sparta (for Plato) and otherstronger political states (for Machiavelli). Due to these experiences, both philosophersprescribed the consolidation of political power and the replacement of political amateurismwith political professionalism.

Plato and Machiavelli believed strongly in political leadership and recommended that politicalpower should be concentrated in the hands of a leader. For Plato, the leader needed to be aphilosopher-king. Machiavelli advocated that the leader should be a prince.

Both expressed confidence in politics as a salvation for their respective cities. Plato andMachiavelli thought that the key to the solution of bad government was to induce right thinkingamong political leaders, so political command would be knowing and effective.

3. Differences with Plato

A. View of the state.

For both Plato and Aristotle the state was viewed as an agent of virtue.

Machiavelli’s perspective was harsher than Plato’s more idealistic definition of virtue. ForMachiavelli, the state was perceived as an instrument of virtu, or masculine force. Machiavellidid not believe politics should be concerned with the virtue of “living according to reason” anddominated by a sense of duty and responsibility to the polis (as per Plato). Machiavelliadvocated that politics should instead be directed at ensuring security and survival.

It has been said that one could imagine Machiavelli viewing Raphael’s “School of Athens”painting… as you will recall from our last lesson, Raphael’s work depicted Plato pointing to theheavens, while Aristotle responds with a horizontal gesture toward earth… and saying no toPlato “not the Forms” and no to Aristotle “not the golden mean” but instead insisting on thefist, as per Machiavelli’s focus on exercising virtu to ensure security.

B. Realism v. Idealism

Machiavelli warns that the prince will bring himself to ruin if he pursues the ideal state at theexpense of the real.

Read The Prince, Ch. 15 (pages 116 & 117 in your textbook). This chapter illustratesMachiavelli’s emphasis on seeing the world how it really is, rather than dreaming how it mightbe. His advice in The Prince revolves around separating what he sees as “truth v. imagination.”

To summarize his prescription for effective princely rule, Machiavelli believed:

● Politics concerns how we really live, not how we ought to live.● A prince who wants to keep power must learn not to be good, and to either use or

refrain from using that knowledge as necessity requires.● The practice of vice can improve the prince’s and the state’s security and well-being.

Machiavelli makes the clear-cut, political science distinction between “is” and “ought”:

useful v. not useful, useless truth v. imaginationrealism v. idealism really live v. ought to livefact v. value realpolitik v. fantasy

For Machiavelli, politics is about obtaining power, why, when, and how, not who should getpower. He was certain that the way to secure power was by manipulating human nature andinterests.

Machiavelli would see Plato as part of the problem for if one rules according to the ideal world,ruin will be assured.

Machiavelli is not necessarily advocating immorality. Instead, he is advising that one needs todo what is pragmatic. Decide what works and then go with that. Sometimes vice will beneeded because the world is vicious and people need security and safety. A prince’s first job isto safeguard the state, and harboring “bad” characteristics is sometimes necessary for this end.Such vices are truly evil if they endanger the state, but when vices are employed in the properinterests of the state, a prince must not be influenced by the condemnation from other men.

Machiavelli’s philosophy is certainly alive and well in current domestic politics (e.g., negativecampaigning, as just one example!). And, looking beyond our borders, many observerscommenting on international relations share a Machiavellian view that the world is dangerousand stress the need for a strong defense as a means to protect ourselves.

4. Feared or loved?

Machiavelli asks in Ch. 17 of The Prince whether it is better to be loved or feared. Be sureto read the answer as expressed in his own words in your textbook, pages 119 – 121.

Machiavelli’s conclusions regarding this dilemma:

A. A prince must use violence and strength decisively, or he risks losing his power.

B. A prince must not hesitate to act cruelly if cruelty is required to preserve order in his statebecause the alternative – anarchy – is even worse.

C. It is safer for the prince to be feared than loved because people are less reluctant to offendthose they love that those they fear. In this regard, Machiavelli stated that:

1. The bonds of love are easily broken, while bonds of fear endure because they involvethe threat of punishment. The only motivating factor that can guarantee citizens’obedience to a prince’s orders is the threat of punishment.

2. The prince can be feared but it is critical not to be hated, which can be prevented bynot molesting his subjects’ wives or property.

As mentioned above, one contemporary application of Machiavelli’s maxim that it is “better tobe feared than loved” is the perspective many take vis-à-vis international relations: assertivelyuse your nation’s diplomatic and military power or a situation can become worse. (Of course,many others would point to disasters when such policies have been implemented!)

5. Political leadership

Machiavelli addresses how to be an effective leader in Ch. 18 of The Prince. Pleasereview these leadership tips on pages 121-123 in your textbook.

Machiavelli offers the following guidance:

A. Although it is praiseworthy for the prince to keep his word, he is more likely to gain and keeppower by using illusion and deception.

1. Because of the wickedness of human nature, a prudent prince should not hesitate tobreak faith when his interests require such action. Machiavelli does not go so far as toadvise ruthlessness for its own sake, but rather indicates that sometimes it is a necessityof leadership. When having to choose between benevolence and cruelty, the latter ismore reliable.

2. The prince should take as his models the traits associated with the lion and the fox(i.e., that is strength and cunning.) In politics, however, foxlike trickery is preferable tolion-like brute force.

B. There is value in appearance and illusion. A prince may not have admirable qualities, but heshould seem to have them. Machiavelli is pointing out that image is as important as actions.

C. The ends always justify the means. Virtually any action that contributes to the overall goalof maintaining security and safety of the state is acceptable. A prince’s methods will always beconsidered worthy when successfully ensuring the safety and stability of society. The fewcritical of harsh tactics employed by the prince have no influence when the many feel secure.

6. The revolutionary aspect of The Prince

It has been said that the most revolutionary aspect of Machiavelli’s The Prince is not so muchwhat it says, but what it ignores. Before Machiavelli, all political writing had one centralquestion: the ends of the state. Political power was assumed to be a means only… a means inthe service of higher ends, such as justice, the good life, freedom, or God. Classic politicaltheory linked political law with a higher, moral law.

In contrast, Machiavelli ignores this issue regarding the extra political (e.g., ethical, religious,cultural) ends of the state. He assumes power is an end in itself, and confines his advice to themeans best suited to acquire, retain, and expand power. He argues that political action mustalways be considered in light of its practical consequences rather than some lofty idea.Machiavelli separates power from morality, ethics, and religion. From Machiavelli’s perspective,the ruler may violate (and, sometimes, must violate) other value systems, such as religion,ethics, or morality. Power and morality are independent of each other. A good ruler must makedecisions based on politics in the real world, not on ethics in an ideal world. Lying,manipulation, and even violence will sometimes be necessary to protect the interests of thestate.

In fact, he recommends that the rules of power have priority over those of ethics and morality.Good and evil are thus reduced from absolute to relative categories, and it depends on thesituation whether a particular action is good or bad. The decision about whether a particularaction is good or bad depends, for Machiavelli, whether it furthers the gain or retention ofpower. An efficient means of acquiring, consolidating, and expanding power is good; aninefficient means is bad.

7. Critiques

A. Machiavelli presents an overly pessimistic view of human nature.

Machiavelli believes that rulers should not weaken their power by being faithful: “Therefore, aprudent ruler ought not to keep faith when doing so would be against his interest.” Machiavelliis convinced men are by nature “bad, and would not observe their faith with you, so you are notbound to keep faith with them.” People quickly turn selfish and deceitful when confrontedwith adversity. Mankind is essentially viewed by Machiavelli as unchangeable, incapable ofimprovement and reason.

However, history has often recorded the will of men to be free, to put freedom above all othergoods, even life itself. Human psychology is more complex than a strict pessimist such asMachiavelli can admit. Idealist goals and yearnings, civic responsibility, benevolent behaviorand sacrifice, and community commitment are also evident in human nature. A more optimisticview is that while humans are prone to error and bad behavior, they are also improvable andcapable of progress and reason.

B. His lack of concern for the ends of power is shortsighted.

By focusing on the means to power, Machiavelli ignored the relationship between means andends. He was interested only in the means of acquiring, retaining and holding power and not inthe ends or goals of the state. However, the nature of the end determines the means mostsuited for it, but Machiavelli did not focus on this relationship. He devalued the raison d’etre(i.e., reason for existence) of power, as well as the importance of societal and political goals, inhis subordination of the ends to the means.

C. He ignores the institutional framework of politics.

Machiavelli is most interested in rulers, in unique leader personalities, and in the power held byindividual men. He does not delve into the institutional framework of power, focusing narrowlyon the attributes of the outstanding prince. In contrast, many observers have noted thatsocieties flourish when stable and just institutions make it difficult for lawless tyrants to thrive.Peaceful democracies can succeed in creating such societies. By focusing his advice in ThePrince toward a sole powerful leader to the exclusion of other institutions, Machiavelli is shownto be myopic in his approach.

D. Machiavelli’s perspective is too shallow.

Machiavelli is occupied with great rulers, who are supposed to create a community all in onepiece. His primary concern was with founders of new governments. The conception of acommunity as an organic society with an influential past was not acknowledged by Machiavelli.Nor did he recognize that statesmen can only affect a community to a limited extent. Aphilosophy which attributes the successes or failures of politics chiefly to the astuteness orineptitude of a ruler is bound to be superficial.

Now, in the “saving-the-best-for-last-category”, be certain to watch the very entertaining videolinked below. This BBC production entitled “Who’s Afraid of Machiavelli” considers Machiavelli’simpact on society today, with linkages to leaders, celebrities, authors, and businesses. GeorgeMartin (Game of Thrones author), Tupac, 50 Cent, Google, Facebook, and others are allfeatured, along with presidents, prime ministers, and military commanders. Enjoy!

Click here to access the YouTube link to “Who’s Afraid of Machiavelli.”


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