Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Machiavelli: The Prince and Political Philosophy

Is The Prince an amoral or immoral book, or just misunderstood?

Machiavelli said that sometimes a prince must disregard accepted standards of virtue and "enter into evil as necessitated". However, if maintaining the State is the prince's most important job, then can we really say that anything he does is wrong? After all, if the State falls then we could lose everything (freedom, property, our culture and laws) so shouldn't we let the prince do whatever it takes to maintain power? The prince is intimately linked to the state, as the French king Louis XIV famously articulated, L'État, c'est moi" ("I am the State"), therefore if the prince falls, the state falls.  Likewise, as Aristotle said in Politics, the chief aim of any government is the preservation of the State. Therefore we should expect that a successful  prince will do anything he needs to do to stay in power. 

Cesare Borgia - the ideal prince
Machiavelli dedicated The Prince to Lorenzo di Piero de' Medici, grandson of "Lorenzo the Magnificent", of the ruling Florentine Medici family. However, Machiavelli's ideal "prince" would have been Cesare Borgia (Chey-zer-ay Bor-zheh). A member of the notorious Borgia family (Cesare's father was Pope Alexander VI), Cesare conquered territories using both the art of war as well as guile. He found trusted advisers (even hiring Leonardo da Vinci as a military architect and engineer) and ruled fairly. However he could be duplicitous when necessary and dealt out punishment quickly and brutally. For this, Machiavelli admired him, saying that Cesare's only downfall was that he depended too much on his father (the Pope) since when he died Cesare's fortune was lost.

Comparing Machiavelli with classical political philosophy

Machiavelli's political treatise The Prince at first appears a significant departure from the political philosophy passed down from Plato and Aristotle. Machiavelli assumed that all men wanted power and could not be trusted. The sovereign must be prepared for these challenges and do anything he needs to do to maintain power. Because of this he said a prince must have the character of both a fox and lion, "It is necessary to be a fox to discover the snares and a lion to terrify the wolves"


Aristotle thought that men should be civil and avoid acting like beasts. He says in Politics that man "when perfected, is the best of animals, but, when separated from law and justice, he is the worst of all". However, Machiavelli could say that by maintaining the power of the State, the prince is protecting men from injustice.  In addition, the prince acting like a beast means that his subjects won't have to.


In the Republic, Plato has Glaucon talk about the story of the Ring of Gyges which could make a man invisible. Although all men claim to be honorable, if we could get away with something unbeknownst to others, wouldn't we try? Glaucon continues saying that the unjust man who appears just will not be punished while "the just man who is thought unjust will be scouraged, racked, bound....then he will understand that he ought to seen only, and not be, just." Mind you these are not Socrates or Plato's words.

Machiavelli says that the Prince should be like the Ring of Gyges; he should appear honorable and just, but, unseen, he should do whatever he needs to stay in power. Even Plato said that in an ideal state it was OK for the sovereign to lie. This is the "royal lie" which allows the ruler to give the impression of being just but allows him the freedom to pursue ulterior agendas. 

Thomas Aquinas

Aquinas said that laws should be written with the common good in mind. Machiavelli would say that that laws serve only to help keep the ruler in power. However, if keeping the ruler in power is the best end for the people, then technically Machiavelli is fulfilling the ideas promulgated in the Summa Theologica.

At first the ideas of Machiavelli may seem to disagree with earlier political thought, however, Machiavelli can find support and justification for his theories using the same works he seems to be contradicting. Although we should recognzied that justifying every action of a prince may only apply in extremis, when the very survival of the society is at stake. 

1 comment:

  1. Good insight. Read also an Interview with Niccolo Maciavelli (imaginary) in http://stenote.blogspot.com/2018/02/an-interview-with-niccolo.html