This is a man who believed the ends justified the means. Niccolo Machiavelli was born in Florence in the late 15th century, and became Chancellor of the Florentine republic and a master of diplomacy. He was removed from public office when the Spanish installed the Medici as hereditary dukes, and would never work in politics again. His most famous work, ‘The Prince’ was a failed job application – an attempt to return to Florentine politics under the Medici. He outraged public opinion then and now by insisting that political success demands morally obnoxious acts. His aim was to instruct a new Prince in how they should rule a successful state, which is not always the same as a morally virtuous state. He was unique in not bothering to seek justification for behaviour other than political success.
Machiavelli is influenced by classical imperialism when he suggests that it is a natural human desire to want to conquer territory. The first half of The Prince is an explanation of how to acquire and maintain power over different types of states. For example in a ‘mixed’ state (where the Prince annexes a new territory intended to combine it with their present state), it is easier to retain control is the new territory is culturally similar. Former republics are the hardest to hold as their people are used to political freedom. To avoid dissention the Prince should remove any partisans of the deposed ruler, and install their own administrative model and people, rather than leaving the old administration in power. It is also sensible to give land to your soldiers in the new territory, so that they can act as a self-sustaining garrison. Those that lose their land will be relatively few and scattered about the countryside, so unable to provide organised resistance. This concern to avoid resistance is summed up in his famous quote; “It should be observed here that men should be either observed or crushed; because they can avenge slight injuries, but not those that are very severe. Hence any injury done to a man must be such that there is no need to fear revenge.” A similarly famous quote is that it is better to be feared than loved, since people are less likely to be revolt if they fear lethal consequences.
The second half of the Prince is a commentary of the objectives of a Prince, which is military effectiveness and clear policy forming. Machiavelli could not be clearer when he says the Prince should have no other concern than war and its methods and practices. A knowledge of social graces is nice to have, but the Prince’s only real job is to protect his subjects from foreign aggression. Machiavelli analyses the ideal Prince’s ‘virtu’. This does not mean virtue, but rather any quality that makes for political success. While honesty and loyalty are virtues, the Prince must be both honest and deceptive depending on the situation. He should be able to deploy the ferociousness of a Lion to frighten the wolves, and the cunning of the fox to recognise traps. Machiavelli does not directly answer the question whether political success is worth the price of acting unpleasantly. However the rewards of political success for the people are peace from foreign powers, and the rewards for the Prince are power and glory.
Machiavelli’s second great work is the Discourses. This is in broad terms a commentary on Livy’s history of Rome, which covers the rise and fall of the Roman Republic. This had contemporary relevance given that Machiavelli wanted the Medici to expel the ‘barbarians’ from Italy and create a new Roman Republic. Machiavelli’s political ideas are the same as in the Prince, and he often uses classical Roman examples to reinforce his ideas. However in Discourses, he is following Polybius in his discussion of the perfect republican state, and to what extent this was achieved by ancient Rome. Machiavelli is a fervent republican, but approved of the short term Roman Dictatorship system as a good solution to political crisis. He also approved of Roman religion, and was damming of contemporary Christianity. Roman religion was a practical social cement, useful for urging courage in battle and reinforcing respect for ancestors. A relaxed view of the truth of religion allowed Roman statesmen to manipulate religious rituals as they needed. Christianity on the other hand is other-worldly, taking people’s minds of their social duties and causing them to focus only on their personal salvation. Machiavelli refers to the Papacy specifically as a corrupt and politically inept institution, who he blames for inviting foreign powers into Italy.
Inspired by the slow death of the Roman Republic, Machiavelli insists that all the works of men are destined to decay. Successful republics acquire more territory and therefore more power and wealth. This leads people to be concerned about the preservation of their wealth rather than the republic. The very rich will work to turn their wealth into personal power at the expense of the republic. The ordinary people will stay uncorrupted for longer, but they too can be persuaded to follow those who offer a share of their wealth. This fatalism caused Machiavelli to favour a bold approach to politics, with half measures believed to lead to ruin.
If you are interested in finding out more about this topic, I strongly recommend getting a copy of Alan Ryan’s ‘On Politics’, which this blog is predominantly based on. Here are a few links you can use to find it: