Niccolo Machiavelli

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Niccolo Machiavelli



Niccol˛ Machiavelli, born in 1469, wrote The Prince during 1513 while living in political
exile at his country house outside of Florence. He had served as head of the second
chancery of the Florentine republic, but was dismissed after it fell in 1512. The Medici
family was again ruling Florence, and a Medici also sat on the papal throne in Rome.
Machiavelli tried unsuccessfully to use this treatise to gain an advisory appointment
either to the papacy or the court of the Duke. The Prince was published in 1532, five
years after Machiavelli died.


The Prince aroused controversy from its first appearance, and in 1559, joined the works of
Erasmus and other humanist scholars on the papal Index of Prohibited Books. As a guide to
princely behavior, the work falls into a genre common to the renaissance and to the
classical periods. As a work of humanist scholarship, it shows a thorough grasp of
classical writing style, and draws examples from a wide variety of classical and biblical
texts. Yet to describe The Prince as belonging to either of these categories understates
its power and originality. Critics have praised Machiavelli for his sophistication,
clarity, realism, subtlety, irony. Some see his work as supporting a republican form of
government by exposing the faults of princedoms, and praise his ability to separate
political from moral issues. Other critics condemn him for being naive, promoting fraud,
force, and immorality in politics, using beneficial ends to justify evil means, and
betraying republican ideals. Each group of critics draws on the chapters of The Prince
that are reproduced here to support its conflicting appraisals.


Important contemporary Machiavellian scholarship has emphasized the influence of humanist
rhetoric on Machiavelli (Q. Skinner, 1981), and the relevance of Machiavelli's rhetoric to
his political views (V. Kahn, 1994). P. Kain (1995) recently re-examined ethical
ambiguities in The Prince and other works by Machiavelli. The topics these authors discuss
are closely related to an appraisal of The Prince as a masterpiece of critical thinking.


Machiavelli expresses the highest respect for Latin classical authors such as Cicero and
Seneca. Yet, The Prince takes a critical stance towards these sources while emulating
them. For whereas Cicero and Seneca advise rulers to always tell the truth, be generous,
and honor their promises, Machiavelli points out the negative consequences (for the state)
when rulers adhere without exception to these moral standards. Machiavelli says that
rulers should be truthful, keep promises, and the like when doing so will not harm the
state, and that they should generally appear to have the traditional virtues. But since
the goal of the ruler is to conquer and preserve the state, he should not shrink from
wrongdoing when the preservation of the state requires this. Thus, the classical concept
of civic virtue, which is a moral code applicable to rulers and subjects alike, is
critically transformed in Machiavelli's concept of virt˙ , which pertains to rulers of
states and can be at odds with moral virtue.


Another departure from classical and humanist models occurs in Chapter XVIII when
Machiavelli urges rulers to take on the characteristics of animals (the fox and the lion)
by using cunning and force when the situation requires. Although Machiavelli refers to
classical accounts of rulers being trained by centaurs, his suggestion that rulers be less
than fully human critically challenges the humanist tradition which would never have
humans behave as beasts.


Machiavelli critically analyzes the crucial characteristics of successful rulers,
distinguishing, for example, between standards of discipline appropriate for military
campaigns and for rulers when they are not commanding armies. Similarly, when Machiavelli
discusses the concepts of cruelty and mercy, he presents examples to show that actions
which might seem at first glance to be cruel are merciful in the circumstances, and vice
versa.


Following the classical authors he admires, Machiavelli employs the conditional patterns
of argumentation developed by the Stoic logicians. He frequently uses the dilemma form
since this is useful for presenting alternative courses of action along with their
consequences. He skillfully avoids being caught in false dilemmas, however. For example,
when considering whether it is better to be loved or feared, he first points out that it
is desirable--though not easy--to be both loved and feared.


Although Machiavelli continually warns rulers to consider carefully the particular
circumstances in which they find themselves, he does not shrink from generalizing about
human behavior (e.g., "armies are never kept united ... unless their leader is thought to
be harsh"). Although Machiavelli follows the classical model of presenting exemplars of
the princely behavior he recommends, his generalizations are not drawn from single cases.
Instead he draws on his own years of political experience along with his broad and intense
study of history and politics. Unlike many of today's humanists, Machiavelli apparently
would not reject social scientists' attempts to frame general principles of human
behavior. Indeed, he can be seen as following Mill's recommendation to begin to construct
a science of human behavior by first studying history in order to develop a stock of
generalizations that can be further tested and used to develop higher level principles and
laws. Machiavelli's carefully chosen examples serve to make vivid and to bring down to
earth his abstract generalizations.


The advice in The Prince must be read critically and not as a collection of recipes for
success. In the first place, rulers cannot employ classical exemplars in an uncritical
fashion because their own circumstances will always differ to some degree from those of
the models. In the second place, because of unforeseen and uncontrollable circumstances,
the practice of virt˙ may not result in success. Cesare Borgia, for example, whom
Machiavelli often cites as a model of virt˙, nevertheless lost his state. Machiavelli
attributes Cesare's failure not to the superior virt˙ of his formidable opponent Pope
Julius II, but to fortuna--Cesare's father, who was Julius's predecessor on the papal
throne and his bitter enemy, died before Cesare's own power was sufficiently consolidated
to withstand this stroke of bad luck. Just as Machiavelli's concept of virt˙ differs from
the classical notion of virtue, his concept of fortuna departs from traditional uses of
"fortune" or "fate." In classical works, such as the tragedy of Oedipus, the hero's fate
is predetermined and unavoidable. Machiavelli, however, believes that when rulers exercise
virt˙, they encourage good luck and discourage bad. Nevertheless, since fortuna is to some
degree unpredictable and uncontrollable, superior virt˙ does not always triumph.


The lessons then that Machiavelli offers to princes are lessons in critical thinking.
Rulers must learn how to make distinctions, how to consider alternative courses of action
and evaluate their consequences, how to assess critically conflicting advice from various
sources. If they are to preserve and maintain their states, they need to know how to apply
general information about human nature to the particular circumstances that they face
before taking any action.


The Prince

Niccol˛ Machiavelli

(translated by Russell Price)

Chapter XV

The things for which men, and especially rulers, are praised or blamed

It remains now to consider in what ways a ruler should act with regard to his subjects and
allies. And since I am well aware that many people have written about this subject, I fear
that I may be thought presumptuous, for what I have to say differs from the precepts
offered by others, especially on this matter. But because I want to write what will be
useful to anyone who understands, it seems to me better to concentrate on what really
happens rather than on theories or speculations. For many have imagined republics and
principalities that have never been seen or known to exist. However, how men live is so
different from how they should live that a ruler who does not do what is generally done,
but persists in doing what ought to be done, will undermine his power rather than maintain
it. If a ruler who wants always to act honorably is surrounded by many unscrupulous men,
his downfall is inevitable. Therefore, a ruler who wishes to maintain his power must be
prepared to act immorally when this becomes necessary.


I shall set aside fantasies about rulers, then, and consider what happens in fact. I say
that whenever men are discussed, and especially rulers (because they occupy more exalted
positions) they are praised or blamed for possessing some of the following qualities. Thus
one man is considered generous, another miserly (I use this Tuscan term because avaro in
our tongue also signifies someone who is rapacious, whereas we call misero someone who is
very reluctant to use his own possessions); one is considered a free giver, another
rapacious; one cruel, another merciful; one treacherous, another loyal; one effeminate and
weak, another indomitable and spirited; one affable, another haughty; one lascivious,
another moderate; one upright, another cunning; one inflexible, another easy-going; one
serious, another frivolous; one devout, another unbelieving, and so on.


I know that everyone will acknowledge that it would be most praiseworthy for a ruler to
have all the above-mentioned qualities that are held to be good. But because it is not
possible to have all of them, and because circumstances do not permit living a completely
virtuous life, one must be sufficiently prudent to know how to avoid becoming notorious
for those vices that would destroy one's power and seek to avoid those vices that are not
politically dangerous; but if one cannot bring oneself to do this, they can be indulged in
with fewer misgivings. Yet one should not be troubled about becoming notorious for those
vices without which it is difficult to preserve one's power, because if one considers
everything carefully, doing some things that seem virtuous may result in one's ruin,
whereas doing other things that seem vicious may strengthen one's position and cause one
to flourish.


Chapter XVI

Generosity and meanness

To begin, then, with the first of the above-mentioned qualities, I maintain that it would
be desirable to be considered generous; nevertheless, if generosity is practiced in such a
way that you will be considered generous, it will harm you. If it is practiced virtuously,
and as it should be, it will not be known about, and you will not avoid acquiring a bad
reputation for the opposite vice. Therefore, if one wants to keep up a reputation for
being generous, one must spend lavishly and ostentatiously. The inevitable outcome of
acting in such ways is that the ruler will consume all his resources in sumptuous display;
and if he wants to continue to be thought generous, he will eventually be compelled to
become rapacious, to tax the people very heavily, and raise money by all possible means.
Thus he will begin to be hated by his subjects and, because he is impoverished, he will be
held in little regard. Since this generosity of his has harmed many people and benefited
few, he will feel the effects of any discontent, and the first real threat to his power
will involve him in grave difficulties. When he realizes this, and changes his ways, he
will very soon acquire a bad reputation for being miserly.


Therefore, since a ruler cannot both practice this virtue of generosity and be known to do
so without harming himself, he would do well not to worry about being called miserly. For
eventually he will come to be considered more generous, when it is realized that, because
of his parsimony, his revenues are sufficient to defend himself against any enemies that
attack him, and to undertake campaigns without imposing special taxes on the people. Thus
he will be acting generously towards the vast majority, whose property he does not touch,
and will be acting meanly towards the few to whom he gives nothing.


Those rulers who have achieved great things in our own times have all been considered
mean; all the others have failed. Although Pope Julius cultivated a reputation for
generosity in order to become pope, he did not seek to maintain it afterwards because he
wanted to be able to wage war. The present King of France has fought many wars without
imposing special taxes on his subjects because his parsimonious habits have always enabled
him to meet the extra expenses. If the present King of Spain had a reputation for
generosity, he would not have successfully undertaken so many campaigns.

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