Why did Machiavelli’s views on politics and human nature in his book ‘The Prince’

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Last updated: November 7, 2019

Machiavelli was extensively reviled by his contemporaries because of his views on politics and human nature in his book ‘The Prince’. They believed he put forward the principle that the laws of politics and princes were above those of God. This principle frightened them because they did not want to admit that the manner in which religion and politics worked together was in a different dimension, one they were not prepared to acknowledge. However, his philosophies were admired by many, especially rulers of the day.

‘The Prince’ would probably never have been written if the political situation in Florence had not changed so radically in 1512 when the Republic fell. Therefore, it is necessary to examine the events that led up to Machiavelli writing ‘The Prince’. For the 14 years prior to this Machiavelli served in the government in a variety of capacities that included being a member of the Ten of War Committee and carrying out numerous diplomatic missions throughout Europe.

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These missions brought him into contact with Louis XII of France, Cesare Borgia of Romagna, Pope Julius II, and the Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian I of Germany. Machiavelli was able to observe close-up the most prominent leaders of his era. Although always observant, Machiavelli would most likely have continued on with his life as a diplomat if he had not been expelled from Florence when the Republic fell and Giovanni de Medici took control of Florence.Medici was in exile for 18 years when he triumphantly returned to Florence and established himself as the ruler.

He immediately set about ridding himself of the members of the Republican government that stood in his way. As a result, Machiavelli was first imprisoned and then banished from Florence into exile at his farm seven miles outside of the city. Machiavelli’s ‘principle interest lay in politics and he wanted above all else to be employed at the centre of affairs.’ 1He wanted to return to Florence so he set his intellectual abilities to work to find the best way to do this. He realised he must convince the Medici Lords that those once considered enemies could in fact become allies.

In his book ‘The Prince’ Machiavelli states ‘ men whom they had regarded with suspicion in the early stages of their rule proved more reliable and useful than those whom they had trusted at first are.’2Machiavelli decided the best way to prove his worth to Medici was by writing a guide on how to be not only an effective ruler, but to rule in a way that would ensure the survival of his government in future generations, ensure ‘the well-being of its citizens’3 and would keep Italy free from foreign occupation and invasion. His guidelines would prove to be offensive to so many because they were truths that had not been seen on paper before and they went against contemporary thinkingIn the mid-sixteenth century medieval thinking still prevailed with the Church heavily influencing not only Italian politics but politics throughout Europe. It was the accepted belief that ‘Christian living, which they all prized so highly, must pervade every aspect of life: politics as well as private attitudes.’ 4 Machiavelli did not believe this was a true reflection of how governments operated.

He believed politics had ‘its own laws of existence’5 separate from the Church.Up until Machiavelli wrote ‘The Prince,’ politicians and rulers wanted not only the Church but also the people they ruled to believe they were moral and ethical, more concerned with being good on earth so they would pass to heaven in the next life. But because there were evil people on earth, politicians and rulers who wanted to continue to rule could not follow religious doctrine and maintain their position in society. A ruler would be considered a great failure if he knelt in Church all day praying for peace while the enemy broke through the gates and captured the city.Whereas a ruler would be heralded a great ruler if he led his army in a bloody battle that cost many lives on both sides but defeated the enemy. In the first case the ruler was pious and in the second case the ruler set aside piety.

However, it is the non-pious ruler who wins the loyalty of his subjects. Machiavelli said, ‘the gulf between how one should live and how one does live is so wide that a man who neglects what is actually done for what should be done learns the way of self destruction rather than self preservation.’ 6 Machiavelli’s contemporaries were appalled to see this humanist approach put in print.

Machiavelli in fact believed that politics and religion should work together as they had in ancient Roman times. He believed in looking at history to learn lessons for the future. Hence, he admired the Romans because they were so successful in uniting not only Italy but also other Mediterranean countries. He believed that by following these principles the five Italian states that were constantly at war with each other could become united and hence put up a strong enough defence to keep foreign powers such as France and the Hapsburg Empire from using Italy as a battlefield. Machiavelli was working ‘forward to secular totalitarianism. He was mainly concerned with what was expedient for the Italy of his time.’ 7According to the Romans they were so successful because they achieved the proper combination of their ‘fortuna’ with ‘virtu’, which led Rome to be a great state. Machiavelli defined ‘fortuna’ as ‘the element of chance, of capriciousness in human affairs which must be harnessed to political life.

Basically, it represents the element of change which means a struggle to control unpredictable events, and here is where ‘virtu’ is necessary.’ 8 He defined ‘virtu’ as denoting ‘the strength and vigour which was necessary in order to construct a politically successful society.’ 9 While ‘fortuna’ is good or bad luck which uncontrollably change events in our lives, it is with our ‘virtu’ that we take the good or bad luck, and guide events to ensure luck (particularly bad luck) is beneficial to the state. ‘Machiavelli overturns the Christian interpretation of previous centuries, which turned Fortune into either a blind chance or divine (but unknowable) Providence. He returns to the pagan classical view that Fortune can be influenced, and even mastered, albeit not forever.

‘ 10Through ‘virtu’ Romans were more concerned with ensuring the good of the whole instead of just the good of an individual. They believed in patriotism above anything else and used their religion, and pagan gods, to enforce patriotism. The Roman doctrine said that loyalty to the state was loyalty to one’s gods – whereas Christianity did not teach ‘virtu’ and said God should be first and foremost in anyone’s actions. The Roman’s pagan gods ‘provided objects for sworn oaths that men feared to break; and divinatory omens which, when positive, filled armies with the assurance of victory.

‘ 11The importance to Machiavelli of patriotism and the survival of the State resulted in his writings emphasising how critical it was for a ruler to achieve his goals. Probably the most famous saying that evolved from his writings is that the end justifies the means. This had to be seen as a very unchristian outlook, and would be offensive to any truly pious person, but to Machiavelli, the survival of the State was the primary responsibility of any ruler, no matter what means he took to ensure this survival.Machiavelli’s views on the ends justify the means began to develop before his exile from Florence, during his years as a diplomat, when he observed many governments at close range and assessed how they maintained power. What he learned was ‘that the business of a ruler must be to protect and strengthen his state, and that all his actions must be judged by the extent to which they further these objects, and not by the criterion of right on moral conduct.

Earlier princes no doubt behaved like this, but did not say so; what is new is not the principles, but their open acknowledgement.’ 12 Again, many of Machiavelli’s contemporaries were horrified to see their true actions written down for all to see how truly impious they were.A number of means were used by Machiavelli to guide a prince on how to be a successful ruler. The use of his analogy of beast and man was one when he said a leader can act in two ways, ‘the first appropriate for men, the second animals.

’13 However, he believed the one appropriate for men was ineffective because men could not be depended upon to keep their word, and thus he expounded on animals. He said a prince should choose the lion and the fox to aspire to because ‘the lion cannot defend himself against snares and the fox cannot defend himself against wolves.’ 14 By working together the lion and the fox bring together the brain of the lion and the craftiness of the fox, both vital elements in out smarting one’s foes when they do not keep the agreements they made.Another means for a prince to be successful is to raise his armies only from citizens from his principality. It was the practice of the times for princes to hire mercenaries to fight their battles for them. Machiavelli found mercenaries to be ‘useless and dangerous.

…disunited, ambitious, undisciplined, and treacherous.’15 On the other hand he found citizen militias would fight harder in a battle because it was their owncauses at stake. He sums up his thoughts on this by saying a ruler is a ‘complete master of his own forces.’16 The Duke of Borgia made a lasting impression on Machiavelli when he disbanded his mercenaries and formed an army from his territories to ensure loyalty from his army.

Machiavelli also believed a means for successful rule was when a ruler changed ‘one’s character to suit the times and circumstances.’17 Often leaders are rigid in their approach to crisis, always wanting to resolve the crisis in the same style he always has. This will work for a time, but if a ruler is in power for an extended period he must be able to adapt changing social circumstances to his thinking when putting forth solutions to a crisis. A prince must have the characteristic of triangulation because ‘he must be prepared to vary his conduct as the winds of fortune and changing cirucmstances.’18 A ruler must not stagnate.

Machiavelli could not name any rulers of his day who possessed the characteristic of triangulation. However, many modern politicians appreciate the importance of changing with the time to stay in power. Throughout his political career, Bill Clinton changed as the political winds changed, continuing to be re-elected gaining the name the ‘Come Back Kid’ in the process.Although his views shocked many of his contemporaries, Machiavelli’s philosophies were embraced by many, especially rulers who knew they needed to adopt a humanist approach to create strong sovereign nation states.

Phillip II of Spain who was ruling a very diverse country that had not been united for long, kept a copy of ‘The Prince’ at his bedside. ‘Charles V, Catherine de’ Medici, Henry III and Henry IV, and William of Orange all possessed the book and probably studied it.’19 Henry VIII of England was very Machiavellian in the stance he took against the Roman Catholic Church over their refusal to let him divorce and remarry. Henry, not wanting the Church of Rome to dictate to him what he could do in his own country, established the Church of England appointing himself as the leader on earth.Machiavelli was eventually accepted back into the Medici government of Florence but not as a political advisor but as a historian to write the history of Florence. Machiavelli became a broken man when Florence was overrun by troops of the Emperor Charles V who ransacked cities in Italy after a challenge from the King of France. The Medici family lost their power in Florence at this time when a republican government replaced their government. Although Machiavelli leaned strongly towards republican views, the new government did not accept him because they believed he had too closely aligned himself with Medici.

Machiavelli was devastated to once again be on the outside of the government and died a broken man not long after the take over.Within 75 years of the publication of ‘The Prince’ ‘the word “Machiavellian” had entered the speech of Italy, England, France and Spain.’20 In fact, Shakespeare and other Elizabethan authors used the word ‘Machiavel’ in their plays.The philosophy of Machiavelli was not accepted as pivotal during his lifetime. ‘Italy was considered to be a political backwater’21 at the time, which made it more difficult for Machiavelli to spread his theories. However, the relevance of his teachings are apparent simply because they have lasted for more than 500 years and are a cornerstone of political thought today.

Although Machiavelli was seen as a realist in his views of how governments work, leaders do not like to be identified as having a Machiavellian approach to leadership. When someone suggested to Henry Kissinger (Secretary of State for President Nixon) that he was a Machiavellian, he was quick to deny it.One of Machiavelli’s pious adversaries wrote that ‘Out of his surname people had coined a word for knave and out of his Christian name a word for the devil.’22 Machiavelli’s contemporaries would undoubtedly be stunned to know that five centuries later that his philosophy on leadership is taught at all levels when teaching leadership styles. They would probably also be shocked to find the word Machiavellian in the dictionary, although they would probably be delighted with the definition: ‘elaborately cunning; scheming, unscrupulous.

’23 None of these are ways that many of us would like to be remembered. However, many of Machiavelli’s contemporaries would probably find great satisfaction in knowing the man that they reviled so greatly went down in history in such a negative context.

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