Niccolo Machiavelli was an Italian philosopher who lived between 1469 and 1527 and had an immense influence on modern philosophical and political thought with his writings. He was a political thinker and a political figure as the Civil Servant of the Florentine Republic and later on the Second Secretary of the Republic of Florence. He is considered the father of modern political theory nowadays. His ideas made a huge difference in modern political thought because they were practical and aimed at changing and not just theorizing which as a result shaped the intellectual atmosphere of Western Civilization. His personal journey influenced his philosophical thoughts in a significant way. His arrest and torture for instance after the dissolution of the Florence Republic, impacted his views and desire for a republican form of government with liberty and self-governing as main features. These ideas that are dominantly present in the current forms of governments around the world are especially well presented in his famous work The Prince. (Morgan 477).This book helped transform the discourse of political thought from idealism to realism. Machiavelli’s work brought the discourse of political thought that had been mainly dominated by the Greek idealistic form of philosophy, to another more realistic and modern level that has continued to be part of our modern philosophical thinking up to the present day.
To grasp the significant impact Machiavelli’s book The Prince made it is crucial to understand first the difference between realism and idealism. Philosophical realism states that the external world exists independently from the mental consciousness of the human brain. Idealist like Antiphon believed that everything was a state of perception including time which Antiphon once argued to be an internal process rather than an external object:”Time is a thought or a measure, not a substance”.(Time) Political realism puts emphasis on national interest and security and its system is usually anarchic. It is more concerned with the state than with the individual and therefore more with power than morals and ethics. The Prince is concerned with how the political figure symbolized in the prince was only interested in gaining more power at the expense of any other social institutions including religion. Idealism as a philosophical movement on the other hand argues that reality as a whole is based in the mind or ideas and that everything is linked to the world of the brain. This is thus in stark contrast to realism that separates between the external world and the mental world claiming that the external outside exists independent of knowledge or consciousness. Greek political thought on the other hand tended to concentrate on the isolated individual rather than explore his connection to the state. It argued in favor of ideal utopian political states as for example Plato’s republic and the last two books of Aristotle’s Politics prove. Both Plato and Aristotle were heavily concerned with the issue of social stability which again sets their ideology in opposition to the anarchic realistic form of government presented by Machiavelli. Ethics to these Greek philosophers was very important as their strong defense of the polis state, with its ideal emphasis on morals and human bonding as main features, exemplifies. Idealism and realism are thus two very different forms of political and philosophical reasoning and Machiavelli’s contribution in shifting the balance in favor of realism is a clear illustration of his significant importance as a modern philosophical thinker.( Idealism versus Realism)
A Machiavellian individual is one who is a manipulator and for whom morality is only a method through which to gain more power. Though the book The Prince received more negative than positive feedback at its publication its importance lies in the distinction it drew between political realism and idealism. Its realistic depiction of the required approach to maintain power as the ruler was not devoid of violence or cynicism and broke away from the Aristotelian polis state with its ideal moral emphasis on social human connections. The Prince broke also away from the conventional approach to morality by viewing it as only useful and good if it could help maintain stability and the power of the ruling class. The power figures were thus allowed to use morality as a concept to help them achieve their aim of a calm and successful political state. The methods through which to stay in power were not important as long as the aim was achieved whether through the law or preferably through force. Those ideas were quite radical at Machiavelli’s time and distinguished him from the other philosophers of that age as will be illustrated further through a deeper analysis of his most controversial and renowned work.
Machiavelli explores several aspects of the successful political state in his book The Prince. The defense and the military, the reputation of the prince, cruelty versus mercy, generosity versus parsimony and many other critical themes that are necessary to keep into consideration as the ruler. Machiavelli after all wrote the book in the hope to be reinstalled in the political arena after his expulsion and exile. He therefore did not forget to discuss all the dimensions of the ruler’s main dilemmas and responsibilities. He gives advice on how to be powerful and feared but nevertheless not hated or abhorred. He discusses fortune and fate as critical aspects of the ruler’s destiny since outside factors like illness can bring about the failure of even the strongest and wisest rulers. His book is an all encompassing guide for leaders and has had significant influence in the West. It has been said that the authoritarian Joseph Stalin read it regularly before bed time and was heavily influenced by it.
In his discussion of the factors that make a ruler successful and loved or hated and despised Machiavelli defended his belief in the un-necessity of good actions at all times with his words
The gap between how people actually behave and how they ought to behave is so great that anyone who ignores everyday reality in order to live up to an ideal will soon discover he has taught how to destroy himself, not how to preserve himself. For anyone who wants to act the part of a good man in all circumstances will bring about his own ruin, for those he has to deal with will not all be good. So it is necessary for a ruler, if he wants to hold to power, to learn how not to be good, and to know when it is and when it is not necessary to use knowledge.(Morgan 508)
Machiavelli argues that a prince or a ruler needs to display the good qualities like mercy, humanity and honesty to win the admiration and love of his subjects but should not possess those qualities or at least adhere strictly to them as he might have to act against them in times of need to preserve the only thing that is worth preservation which is his power and the stability of his state. This view dramatically illustrates the huge difference in thought style between the idealist Greek philosophers who emphasized morality and humanity and were in favor of a state similar to utopia and Machiavelli and his power authoritarian figure who needed to succeed at all costs.
This is further elaborated on in the section entitled generosity versus parsimony where Machiavelli exemplifies that too much generosity will cause a loss of appreciation and increase greed and immorality. It also will lead to the exhaustion of the resources in a short time and therefore the economical downfall of the state that would only be corrected through higher taxes in times of financial need which in its turn would lead to the people’s rebellion and hatred of the previously loved ruler. As the author himself states: ” A ruler should not care about being thought miserly, for it means he will be able to avoid robbing his subjects, he will be able to defend himself, he will not become poor and despicable and he will not be forced to become rapacious.”(Morgan 509) What is however recommended to avoid this scenario is keep in mind the consequences of the generous actions and to consider that the role of the prince is not gaining the love of his subjects but rather preserve the respect and continuity of his rule. (Morgan 508)
The prince is allowed to deceit and conceit if it will keep him his power. He is allowed to resort to force and is preferred to be cruel rather than merciful and generous. His role is not that of the public loved figure but the ruler who should never become connected with the public since what does matter is not the individual within the state but the general good and prosperity of the majority at all costs. He is therefore allowed to break the rules if that will just help his cause. For instance when it comes to keeping a promise a prince is allowed to pretend he will but does not need to. He should at all costs maintain the illusion that he does keep his word but in reality can use even this for furthering is goals. When it comes to cruelty and mercy or whether it is better to be loved or feared Machiavelli asserts as might be predicted that it is better to be feared than loved since commitments made in fear are usually kept better than those made in love and peace. The ruler should again maintain the illusion of compassion and humanity but in reality does not need to if it hinders his goals: “A ruler ought not to mind the disgrace of being called cruel, if he keeps his subjects peaceful and law-abiding, for it is more compassionate to impose harsh punishments on a few than, out of excessive compassion, to allow disorder to spread.”( Morgan 509)
It is safe to conclude after all that has been discussed so far regarding his work The Prince that Machiavelli was an unconventional and new voice in the discourse of political thought and philosophical approach towards the state and the individual within it. His ideas have shaped the discourse of modern politics and therefore of our lives and broke dramatically away from the idealistic Greek school of philosophy.
Idealism versus Realism. Viewed 9 July, 2009 http://kingswayfalcon.tripod.com/writings/idealismvsrealism.html
Morgan, Michael. Classics of moral and political theory. Indianapolis: Hacket Publishing, 1992.
Time. Viewed 8 July, 2009 http://www.exactspent.com/time.htm