The word Niccolo Machiavelli, author of The Prince, has become synonymous with deception and cunningness. What Machiavelli advises his new prince to do in order to achieve success is deceitful and evil. Machiavelli has very different views on human nature and the purpose of the state and its citizens.
Machiavelli understands political power through the study of ancient political thinking and observation of his contemporaries. But his assumptions on human nature may not always be correct. A prince needs to have a profound political skill in using power, known as virtù, in order to tame the utterly changing circumstances of political life, known as fortuna.
She shows her power where virtù and wisdom do not prepare to resist her, and directs her fury where she knows that no dykes or embankments are ready to hold her. (The Prince)
For Machiavelli, the state exists to serve the prince and not the people. In contrast, for Aristotle, the state exists for the people and the purpose of the state is ideally to secure the good life for the people. While Aristotle sees the people as the very reason for the existence of the state, Machiavelli sees the people rather as a means to an end.
How can Machiavelli justify using the people as a means? The prince celebrates war by increasing and maintaining the power of the state. The interest of the people is secondary. A prince needs to be practical, pragmatic and effective for his state. He does not need to distinguish between legitimate and illegitimate ways of using that power.
In discussing this subject, I draw up an original set of rules. But since my intention is to say something that will prove of practical use to the inquirer, I have thought it proper to represent things as they are in real truth, rather than as they are imagined. Many have dreamed up republics and principalities which have never in truth been known to exist; 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 to self-destruction rather than self-preservation… Political life is, at bottom, a gladiatorial arena where the strong subdue the weak and obtain preferential access to the limited number of goods. (Machiavelli, The Prince)
Whoever is in power has the right to do what he wants to do as long as he is aware of external threats. He needs to be aware of how to keep his people in check. That is usually achieved through state- and warcraft.
For Machiavelli, there is no separation between politics and ethics. The prince is cruel and authoritarian. Machiavelli brutally recommends for the prince to kill the family of the former ruler. The people do not matter at all. The goal of the prince is to increase external power and not satisfy the people.
It is important for the prince to stay in control. For that he must not be hated by the people.
The prince must nonetheless make himself feared in such a way that, if he is not loved, at least he escapes being hated. (The Prince, Penguin, 54)
Generally, Machiavelli’s emphasis on military shows that the people are not valued highly. He argues that a prince needs to study history, master geography, be strategic, engage in domestic politics and work diplomatically. He does not really refer to making the life of the citizens better.
Machiavelli favors a system of deception over one that treasures transparency. For example, if it advances the prince’s agenda he may make promises even if he cannot keep them. Alas, a theme that we are all used to in modern day politics.
A prince also needs to be self-reliant, but he relies on internal support by the nobles. He must keep the people and nobles dependent to him. But not for a minute does he really care what they think or want, as long as they don’t rebel.
Thee prince is more likely to sustain the loyalty of the people by building his power by prowess and not on good fortune. A prince needs to be like a fox to recognize the traps and like a lion to be ruthless. The prince also needs to be suspicious of nobles that are ambitious. Those might challenge the authority of the prince.
Machiavelli emphasizes that the prince needs to think independently. Not thinking independently can seriously damage the welfare of the people, especially if the prince is influenced by a handful of nobles. The equivalent today are lobbyists and interest groups that try to influence politicians heavily. Not much has changed.
The success of the prince depends on the degree he is able to think independently. Self-reliance is the motto here.
Machiavelli mentions Cesare Borgia who “acquired his state through the good fortune of his father, and lost it when it disappeared.” (The Prince, Penguin, 23) A prince that acquired power through his own strength is far more likely to maintain it.
A new prince is prepared to vary his conduct as the winds of fortune and changing circumstances constrain him and… not deviate from right conduct if possible, but be capable of entering upon the path of wrongdoing when this becomes necessary.
Machiavelli’s book, however, is not a handbook of wickedness. Machiavelli tells one story.
Agathocles became king of Syracuse by committing horrendous acts of violence, countless crimes and using brutal methods of cruelty.
Unfortunately, Machiavelli’s advice has a flip side. He does not want the prince to be to cruel in order to prevent a revolution by the people, or nobles. Therefore it is in the interest of the prince not to oppress his people.
Machiavelli says that a prince cannot conform to the ancient philosopher’s conceptions of virtue. Aristotle’s concept of a “good life” was such a one. Human nature only reveals itself fully when humans are faced with a crisis.
Yet it cannot be called prowess to kill fellow citizens, to betray friends, to be treacherous, pitiless, irreligious. These ways can win a prince power but not glory. (The Prince, Penguin, 29)
The ordinary rules of justice do not apply during times of instability and revolution. Therefore, the only way that people will obey the prince during those times is if they fear punishment.
Machiavelli suggests using violence in a limited way, high in intensity but short in duration. People will forget these crimes, but will remain loyal. One could say the same thing about citizens today. They obey the law not merely out of a sense of moral obligation, but mainly because they fear punishment.
One can say this in general of men: they are ungrateful, disloyal, timid of danger and avid of profit… Love is a bond of obligation which these miserable creatures break whenever it suits them to do so; but fear holds them fast by a dread of punishment that never passes.
The prince needs to appear virtuous. Being compassionate and generous are not vices. Therefore the prince cannot spend generously. People cannot be trusted, according to Machiavelli. They are selfish and naïve.
He who neglects what is done for what ought to be done, sooner effects his ruin than his preservation; for a man who wishes to act entirely up to his professions of virtue soon meets with what destroys him among so much that is evil.
Machiavelli’s prince is very practical. He uses a realistic rather than idealistic approach. He needs to think independent, and should not rely on other people.
As a disclaimer: Machiavelli wrote this book to strengthen Italy and not as a framework of political theory. One could think it’s all bad for the people. However, fortune determines half of human action, the other half is determined by free will. The prince — through foresight — can protect himself and his state against fortune’s slings and arrows.