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Summary of Lecture on the Philosophy of Niccolo Machiavelli
Michael Jhon M. Tamayao
“A prince should… have no other aim or thought, nor take up any other thing for his own study, but war and its organization and discipline; for that is the only art that is necessary for one who commands…”
– Niccolo Machiavelli, The Prince
In the epigraph, Machiavelli states with brutal forthrightness the sole requirement for being a ruler: he must be capable of coercing force for the maintenance of the state. Reality is a power struggle. The person’s degree of power identifies his place in the society. Those on top are more powerful than those below. This is the natural order of things, and thus, for a state to exists, the one on top must be the powerful overlord. The ruler need not be moral to lead, all that is required of him is power that could maintain the state.
Who was Niccolo Machiavelli?
Niccolo Machiavelli (1469-1527) was a statesman in the Renaissance city of Florence in 1494, during the overthrow of the Medici family. But his political career ended in 1512 when a Medici ruler (Lorenzo de Medici) again came to power. In this stage in his career, he crafted his most well-known work, The Prince, which he dedicated to the new Medici ruler with the intent of once again assuming a political seat in the government. Unfortunately, the book did not give him the political appointments he had wanted.
Many scholars widely consider him as the Father of Modern Political Theory. He fashioned a radical treatise that separated ethics and politics. His works did not exhibit the typical qualities of a philosophical work such as systematicness and consistency. But the ingenuity and profoundity of his ideas have set the stage for the modern discussions of political philosophy.
What was the primary concern of Machiavelli?
Politics is the primary concern of Machiavelli. Florence, where Machiavelli worked, was then a political battlefield where different ruling families clash for power. Since he was a statesman, he gave prudent counsel to the leadership of his home city. In order to deliver good advices, he studied how a government should be run by its princes. And for him one thing is clear – the nature of political sovereignty gives priority to practicality over morality. His observation of the world and his political experiences made him more realistic and pessimistic than other political thinkers.
What’s the difference between the Good Man and the Prince?
Contrary to the traditional political theories, Machiavelli’s theory is not founded on a pre-established ethical framework. Morality, as he observed, lost its place in the political affairs of his time. Worse still, it often impedes the ruler in carrying out his task of maintaining the state. Thus Machiavelli dichotomized the idea of a “good man” and a “good ruler” saying that a good leader need not be good to lead.
In traditional philosophy, a good ruler must be morally rectified. He is a man of wisdom, that is, someone capable of making prudent and consistent decisions in all human affairs. He also acts according to the established norms of right conduct. His authority and the subjects’ respect for him are won only if he exhibits this virtuous character. But as Machiavelli might have observed, goodness of character does not ensure the success of the ruler. Rulers maintain the government not by being moral but by being powerful.
Power plays a central role in politics. Power is even more important than virtue. This is Machiavelli’s cardinal rule. By power he means, among many others, the ability to induce fear from subjects. If your subjects fear you, they will follow you. Love does not bind people to follow the law, rather it is fear of punishment that impedes them from breaking laws. Power puts you in command and allows the strict implementation of the laws of the state. For Machiavelli therefore a ruler only needs to do things that maintain his power, anything beyond this task is irrelevant. In his work The Prince, Machiavelli laid down his detailed advice for rulers and would-be rulers of states.
What must a ruler do in order to maintain power?
“The Prince must be prepared to vary his conduct as the winds of fortune and changing circumstances constrain him and … not deviate from right conduct if possible, but be capable of entering upon the path of wrongdoing when this becomes necessary”
Machiavelli stresses the need to be realistic in confronting political affairs. Being idealistic is far fetch from the qualities of a leader. He insists that a leader, more than being ethical, must be cunning, deceitful, and very flexible. It is not however the case that the leader must be evil in order to rule. His point is that the leader must know the need of the moment. Since the the people usually want someone virtuous, the leader must “appear” totally honest, fair, and just in the public eyes. But if the moment requires him to do vicious acts, then he must be able to do so.
…The Machiavellian Virtue
According to Machiavelli, the prince must also have virtù. This Italian word could be translated to English as “virtue,” but its meaning however is very different from its original Greek sense. Virtue in the traditional sense stands for human excellence, and, as such, involves the proper cultivation of human faculties. It has been standardized by the ancient philosophers and took its well-known formulation in Aristotle’s theory of the golden mean, which states that a virtuous act (which has been a product of habituation) lies somewhere between the excessive and the deficient. Virtue in the Machiavellian sense stands for the ability to adopt to any human situation. This flexible disposition helps rulers maintain their state and achieve great things. The society is a political battlefield and the ruler is the general with strategic prowess. He knows the best strategy for all battle scenarios. If winning the battle requires killing his closest comrade or enslaving hundreds of women, then the ruler must not think twice to deliver.
…The Machiavellian Fortuna
A ruler must possess the boldness of a young man. He must exhibit this spirit in confronting Fortuna. Machiavelli metaphorically describes Fortuna as a moody woman who could put lives into ruins through the sheer expression of her furious nature. Fortuna is the enemy of political order, which, like the moody woman, destroys the tranquility of the state in the most unexpected times. Rulers must manage Fortuna with the boldness and vigor of a young men. He must be the aggressor, not the victim. He must always be prepared for what Fortuna might do. He must beat and ravage her to tame her and to impose his will. Virtù ensures his victory. It equips him with the necessary disposition in responding to the vicissitudes of Fortuna. A ruler with virtù knows how and is prepared to respond in anytime and at anyplace to the onslaught of man’s unpredictable fortune. Power only stays on a ruler with virtù.
What is the role of ethics in Machiavelli’s political philosophy?
Scholars criticize Machiavelli for having stripped off politics with its ethical foundations. He was called in the sixteenth century as the “apostle of the devil” and “teacher of evil” by Leo Strauss. However, others like Quentin Skinner gave a kinder explanation of Machiavelli’s philosophy. He says Machiavelli’s ethics operates in a different framework. If the conventional ethical norms deem necessary the universality of actions, Machiavelli’s ethics only has one rule: to do the best act for the given moment. The best act is that which accordingly maintains the order in the state. What may appear vicious to the conventions may be the “best act” in Machiavelli’s ethics. Is marrying your own relative in order to maintain your family’s sovereign status a good act? Using Machiavelli’s rule, of course it is not good; it is the best. How about conforming to conventional morals? Machiavelli prefers rulers to conform to them because it is their best front.
Ethics is cultural. The morals followed by individuals are formed and conditioned by the set of principles valued by the family or the community. This is why Machiavelli always speaks of ethics as a convention. It is dictated by the common and habituated practices of the people. Thus, there is nothing wrong in changing these rules because everything is temporary.
Who is man for Machiavelli?
Man is a selfish being. In his natural state, he is “ungrateful, disloyal, insincere and deceitful, timid of danger and avid of profit.” Nothing stops him from pursuing his personal wants – only fear.
Man lives in a jungle of power politics. He struggles for dominance. His end in life is to occupy a seat of power in the society. Virtù leads him up there.
Up to now we are not yet sure about the real intent of Machiavelli. Some say he just wanted to impress and get the sympathy of the new Medici ruler. Others say he satirically exposed the wrong practices of his times. But despite the variety of interpretations, we are certain that Machiavelli only expressed the temperament and belief of his times which other writers failed to do. He saw that his time puts more importance to practicality than morality, to politics than ethics, to science than religion, to power than love.