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“The Prince” Is Machiavelli an Immoralist?

Free Book Reviews An immoralist is generally considered a person, who advocates for habits that can be viewed by society as those going against the accepted way of human beings’ actions towards one another or handling certain issues. Most of the ideas of Nicolo Machiavelli described in his book The Prince portray the author as an unscrupulous, scheming and cunning person. This may push a reader into assuming that he does not subscribe to any form of a moral code. Since he does not make morality or ethics his concern in any of his texts, it may seem that Christian ethics have no place with Machiavelli.

A system based on the power of arms is favoured over the Christian law while, contrariwise, in Machiavelli’s writings, virtue and vice are not expressed as black and white, but rather as the shades of grey. Obviously, in The Prince, the author’s major concern is how a state should be run. In his opinion, virtue, when followed, is the ruin of a great ruler while actions that look like vice offer ruler security and prosperity. Unfortunately, most of the scholars might have misjudged what Machiavelli was trying to express. However, he should not be judged as an immoralist before examining his ideas with more depth. This paper aims to give a different view of Machiavelli as the person driven by the urge to make his state better.

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New Way of Political Thinking

Machiavelli relies heavily on the psychological premises of his predecessors. His form of writing does not take an entirely different path from his predecessors but it is rather a new way of application the ideas of the ancients to statesmen and the political arena. Unlike Plato, Aristotle and Cicero, Machiavelli was highly conscious of his own political intentions and seeking to regain his political status in the Florentine government (Nederman, 2014). For Machiavelli, there is no moral basis to judge the right and wrong use of power while those have to coexist for the best interest of the state; and the authority and the power are coequal. This point of view has led to a clash between his ideas and those of the classical and Christian philosophers. To Machiavelli, it is necessary to distinguish between the individual characteristics and the inclinations common to the human race (Nederman, 2014).

The Prince as a book is a clear program of an ideal Italian regimen. It describes in detail different kinds of the principality and how to hold onto them. To Machiavelli, an improvement of Italian politics is of more concern than social ethics. While his counterparts, like Seneca and Cicero, advised rulers to be clement, tolerant, generous and peaceful, Machiavelli told the family of Medici that to be successful in their rule over Florence, they would have to ‘disregard every traditional Christian virtue’ (as cited in Sabia, 1999, p. 15) when circumstances dictated.

The Stronger Forms of Power

In The Prince, Machiavelli offers advice to the Italian prince, Lorenzo de’ Medici, on how to maintain power. He clearly expresses that a prince should strive to rise to power by his own merits and arms (Lin, 2002). In his opinion, the power gained through friends, good luck and other people’s arms are easy to get but harder to maintain. For instance, Machiavelli dedicates a whole chapter to Cesare Borgia, an Italian prince, who gains power through his father’s help but is clever enough to use his own conniving ways to gain control of the kingdom, though he fails at the end.

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Machiavelli condemns those who rise to power through a crime, though a small tinge of admiration can be sensed in his words (Lin, 2002). He admires the cleverness as to which such rulers apply to ascend to and maintain their thrones. It is like he implies that well-used cruelty can be justified and that, after all, the end justifies the means.

For another thing, Machiavelli discourages rulers from attaining their power through the help of mercenaries and foreign auxiliaries (Lin, 2002). According to him, the power is based on strong foundations of good laws and army. He encourages leaders to read widely about military history, which show that mercenaries are disloyal as they will serve those who pay them more and be intended only to their own gains. Machiavelli clearly states that mercenaries and auxiliaries are ‘useless and dangerous … , and if one holds his state based on these arms, he will neither firm nor safe’ (as cited in Lin, 2002). Even more, mercenaries are disunited, ambitious and indisciplined, disloyal, pretentious before friends and cowardly before enemies (as cited in Lin, 2002). A prince, who does not know the art of war, cannot be respected by his soldiers either can he rely on them. This furthers Machiavelli’s notion that a state is only as good as his army, which means that a lack of the proper army will only lead to the decline of a state (Sabia 1999).

Is it Better to be Loved or to be Feared?

Machiavelli expresses that it would be best for a leader to be feared by his subjects rather than to be loved (Chunsheng, 2005). According to him, fear and love can barely coexist for a leader; it is politically secure to be feared by the populace, and love is not an emotion to be depended upon as love can be used to an enemy’s advantage. Fear of punishment, on the other hand, keeps the subjects loyal to the ruler.

Supposedly, this is a guide to dictators and tyrants, but, nevertheless, it is very logical. If people love their prince, it means that he is a lax ruler and, at some point, people may become disloyal to his authority. On the other hand, if the people fear the prince, they will be obedient to him, which will make the prince’s work of maintaining the state a little easier. Cruelty, therefore, should not be used for the sake of the ruler but rather for the greater good, in this case, for maintaining a stable state.

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According to Machiavelli, it is important for a prince to have his own knowledge on how to do wrong and to take advantage of such a position if necessary (Chunsheng, 2005). Moreover, he should be sufficiently prudent that he may know how to avoid the reproach of those vices that could lead to him losing the state. Machiavelli asked the Medici prince to seek an admiration of his subjects but accomplish this without failing to understand that real power consists in fear as it is an explicit show of admiration for cunning leaders (as cited in Chunsheng, 2005).

Machiavelli moves away from the moral teaching of love. He encourages a leader to move away from the emotions and focus on growing the state via the stiff upper hand. Meanwhile, he emphasizes that cruelty should only be used when it is necessary, which shows he is not immoral.

For another thing, Machiavelli states that power is only as good as the lie (Nederman, 2014). To maintain loyalty to the current regime, people must believe in it or must be made to believe in it. In chapter VI of The Prince, Machiavelli emphasizes that due to the human nature, people can be changed easily, and their views on a particular matter are a subject to persuasion (Nederman, 2014).

Obviously, Machiavelli is preoccupied with political greatness and, in his opinion, a ruler must do all in his power to be a great ruler, to be remembered (Nederman, 2014). Meanwhile, Machiavelli warns the prince against flatterers and advises to chose only wise men as his councillors and give them the liberty to speak only truth to him, and only about the things he asks about (as cited in Nederman, 2014). Other than that, the prince must listen to their opinions and form his own conclusions afterwards. A ruler should take counsel when he wishes to do so (Nederman, 2014). By encouraging the prince to listen to the truth and seek counsel from his advisers before making decisions, Machiavelli ceases to be viewed as an immoral person.

Liberality and Practicality

Machiavelli considered liberalism (free giving) a weakness that could injure a prince’s reign (Chunsheng, 2005). A liberal ruler is obliged to avoid no attribute of magnificence and will be forced, finally, to weigh down his people, to tax them and do everything to get money. Leaders make promises to their subjects all the time, but one promise they should never break is one of keeping the taxes low (as cited in Chunsheng, 2005). According to Machiavelli, a leader, who breaks this promise, becomes unpopular with his subjects and will be despised by everyone. Meanwhile, a wise prince should not mind being called a miser as this way he will govern better and give more to his subjects in the long run. He can be miserly with the wealth of his government but spend freely the spoils of war (Chunsheng, 2005).

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Machiavelli advises the prince to give up liberality towards practicality because he is a realist, who finds conventional standards of morality useless as practical advice. Though miserliness is discouraged in society, Machiavelli’s support for this vice is justified since a free-spending will only lead to a poor nation, which further proves that he is not immoral.

Fortune and Free Will

According to Machiavelli, rulers should not entirely depend on fortune for the continuance of their rule. A prince’s character will bring him success or failure depending on how he uses this to the current circumstances. ‘Fortune is the arbiter of one-half of our actions, but she still leaves us to direct the other half’ (as cited in Nederman, 2014). Here, Machiavelli does not rule out the role of a free will in influencing the human action as the free will and the character do not fit together in a wholly satisfying fashion. Modern times require a different approach compared to ancient times, and this is why Machiavelli favours a republican form of government over the monarchy. In his opinion, a republican government, though slow to adapt to change, is better guarded (Nederman, 2014). However, this is not to say that human beings cannot conduct themselves in a firmly rooted manner, but the changing times make their response to events unpredictable. Machiavelli cannot be judged as immoral from this statement since he supports independent thinking.

Conclusion

It is easy to conclude that Machiavelli is an immoralist, but this is just a misunderstanding of his intentions. He did believe in right and wrong, but the most important thing to him was the success of the state, not a claim of innocence. According to Machiavelli, what makes a ruler fit as a leader is not based on Christian ethics but is based on what is better for his state. This could, perhaps, be used to draw attention to the fact that there are necessary evils. Maybe it is impossible to lead a nation and to uphold Christianity at the same time. However, the wicked Machiavelli’s ideas are, he is not a villain, as the modern culture portrays him. For Machiavelli, it is better to give advice based on what the world is like rather than to give idealized advice based on Christian morality. Machiavelli should not be judged as an immoralist, rather scholars should try and see the things from his realistic point of view. Machiavelli’s ideas, as portrayed above, are justified despite the fact that they may not fall on the right side of the moral values.

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