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Machiavelli and the Stability of the State

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    In two aspects, Niccol� Machiavelli’s The Prince has become of the most infamous literary works of all time. Machiavelli’s work is often used to bookmark the beginnings of liberalism and modern Western political thought. In addition to this magnitude – it has also maintained longevity. Even today, some five centuries after it was published, it remains relevant in political study. There is little ambiguity in regards to its place in political and philosophical literature. However, The Prince is often misunderstood as a work that encourages impure and corrupt values for the sake of the gain and maintenance of political power.

    The very term, Machiavellian, is used synonymously with the themes of deceit and lies. In this aspect, The Prince is infamous for being inaccurately interpreted as often as it has as immoral or evil in the context of other thinkers and their values. There is no disputing that Machiavelli does not shy away from advocating cruelty and punishment for the purposes of maintaining control of the states, or what he calls principalities – areas ruled autocratically by a “prince.” However, Machiavelli does not readily encourage these apparently immoral activities.

    He offers them as real suggestions in handling the matters of the state as he feels that they are the only way to maintain political stability. The fact that he sets limits on these seemingly unethical activities indicates, at least, some concept that he is also working within an ethical system – as appalling as it may seem to the reader. For Machiavelli, the underlying goal of the state, and politics, is to maintain stability and create security. These ends justify the activities he proposes. Given this context, where the ends of the greater good are drastically different than of the classical thinkers before him, such as Aristotle or Plato, Machiavelli’s idea of virtue may be difficult to ascertain at first – but not inconceivable.

    Machiavelli’s purpose for politics is central to his justification of the way the state should be controlled. The art of warcraft plays a large role in the success of a stable state. For Machiavelli, warcraft is more than the military aspect of running, maintaining, defending and expanding a state. Warcraft also includes statesmanship and diplomacy within the state and within the region. It is a large sphere of study that it is as much tactical or logistical as it is administrative and diplomatic. Machiavelli links warcraft with central political power. Of note, war itself is a constant in society for Machiavelli, there is no allusion to the possibility or hope of a war-free world. While he does not claim that war and violence is necessary in every situation or should be looked upon hastily, he does feel that all matters of the state should be viewed through a militaristic paradigm. This ensures the preservation of a strong ruler and government. A strong military indicates a strong state through the appearance of pragmatic laws and political stability:

    “The two most essential foundations for any state, whether it be old or new, or both old and new, are sound laws and sound military forces. Now, since the absence of sound laws assures the absence of sound military forces, while the presence of sound military forces indicates the presence of sound laws” (XII, 46).

    Here it is apparent that aside from the practical assurances that a strong military provides, Machiavelli feels that it also creates a real image for both domestic and interstate affairs that the state is a healthy stable environment.

    It is the responsibility of the Prince, or ruler of that state, to ensure that he is well versed in the matters of warcraft – that is, all military related matters and diplomacy and politics. It is not enough that the ruler simply be familiar with its tasks or assign them to others under his rule. The ruler must rule himself, and he well educated in the field, without the need to confer with others on decisions incessantly. Machiavelli insists that this top-down model is the way to administer control and in turn stability in the state. It makes little sense to have a leader commanding his troops and subjects in matters he, himself, has little knowledge and skill in:

    “A prince must have no other objective, no other thought, nor take up any profession but that of war, its methods and its discipline, for that is the only art expected of a ruler. And it is of such great value that it not only keeps hereditary princes in power, but often raises men of lowly condition to that rank” (XIV, 53).

    As opposed to having a worldly ruler with skills in various arts and subjects, Machiavelli’s Prince is singular in his scope. Stability is the all important end, and as such, the ruler must ensure that skill sets match this end. A well-rounded or cultured ruler is irrelevant.

    The role of power and the responsibilities of the ruler are justified with stability as an end. The ruler’s power is not a means to end in itself. Machiavelli does not essentially promote or encourage violence and cruelty to a ruler’s own population, but sees it as necessary at times. There are two paths a ruler can take with respect to how a population perceives him. He can try to be loved by his subjects, or feared by his subjects. Both conditions can result in a fairly submissive or orderly populace that maintain loyalty toward their leader. This creates stability within the political powers and within the populace – Machiavelli’s desired political end. A loved ruler may seem like a more respectful and honourable choice, and more morally sound, but Machiavelli does not see it as the preferred option.

    His views toward human nature become clear here in two aspects. Firstly, Machiavelli perceives human nature as changeable (VI, 22). That is, people can be brought around to follow the wishes of the ruler or be led to believe one viewpoint from another. This aspect is not difficult. Maintaining this change in beliefs, however, is the challenge. If people cannot be held to one position through persuasion alone, then the need to force them to hold it is necessary. Human nature is fickle for Machiavelli and left unchecked cannot maintain political stability.

    An obedient and loyal populace is essential in a stable state. Secondly, not only are people unable to maintain a position through persuasion, they will become disloyal if they feel the situation warrants such a response. People, inevitably, are only loyal as far as their loyalty does not interfere with their personal ends and desires. As he states: “People are loyal as long as the need for them to act upon it is far. As soon as the needs of loyalty become apparent, they will desert you” (XVII, 66). No one will willingly put their life at risk for the state or ruler out of love or respect. As such, Machiavelli sees love for a leader with severe limitations to maintaining stability. With these assumptions toward human nature, Machiavelli excludes the possibility of a ruler being loved by his subjects.

    Love cannot maintain loyalty and the obedience of the populace. Fear is more reliable as Machiavelli states: “Fear preserves you by a dread of punishment which never fails” (XVII, 67). Fear will motivate people to stay in line in a way that love cannot. However, there are limits. It is possible to administer too much fear and cruelty. A ruler should not administer punishment without just cause for the sake of the state. Although his power many grant him the ability, a ruler should generally stay away from seizing property or womanizing among his populace, for example, “because men more quickly forget the death of their father than the loss of their patrimony” (XVII, 67).

    Furthermore, a ruler should not be hated. As long as the purposes are to maintain stability in his populace, the use of fear and cruelty is allowed. Although Machiavelli also suggests that cruelty be administered suddenly and all at once, so that the population may forget it as soon as possible. As an example, Machiavelli describes the rule of King Agathocles of Syracuse, who used cruelty incessantly. As a result, he is not remembered upon the merits of his reign, but as a cruel ruler. Machiavelli does not dispute that using cruelty is evil, but acceptable only to gain and maintain control. Again, Machiavelli is not encouraging this activity, only suggesting that at times it may be unavoidable to maintain order in the state which is of the greatest common good.

    In examining Machiavelli’s warcraft principles, it is apparent that his perception of virtue and a higher moral end is largely different than of the classical philosophers before him. Machiavelli defines virtue as something that is generally accepted as good (VI, 24). However, this does not automatically suggest that the act or principle is then on some higher moral level. Not all virtues are good for their own sake. With the application of personal interests, virtues may be used non-virtuously. Virtues must be applied practically to the greater good to determine their real value. As Machiavelli states in the following, a ruler will not be hated for protecting the interests of the state, only the interests of his personal virtues not applied practically:

    “Only the expenditure of one’s own resources is harmful; and, indeed, nothing feeds upon itself as liberality does… it is better to have a name for miserliness, which breeds disgrace without hatred, than, in pursuing a name for liberality, to resort to rapacity, which breeds both disgrace and hatred” (XVI, 64).

    The greatest common good, to Machiavelli, is political stability. As such, virtue is essentially anything that is a means to this end. Furthermore, even among those virtues that are applied to the greater good of the state, there are no absolute virtues. Honesty as a virtue, for example, may prove beneficial to the state if a ruler uses it in one instance, but harmful to the interests of the state in another instance.

    As far as personal virtues, one of primary concern to Machiavelli with respect to the interests of the state is that of self-reliance (VI, 22). When applied to the ruler, self-reliance promotes the interests of the state. A self-reliant ruler has achieved power through his own skill. He is not worried about appeasing the interests of those that helped him acquire power.

    In short, he will be a more capable and confident leader, that will translate into a more stable state. As aforementioned, some virtues employed for the purposes of the state and its stability would be conventionally deemed unethical on a higher moral plane. Here lies the fundamental difference in Machiavelli from those from before him, he moral ground is not an absolute position. As previously mentioned, honesty may be virtuous in one case, but not in another. Furthermore, there is no greater good past the stability of the state. That alone is the pragmatic and attainable condition within the humankind as Machiavelli sees it. As such, that alone is the ultimate end that justifies any means necessary.

    The difference in Machiavelli’s ethics with respect to politics is of some importance to his ultimate political end. Looking at the classical thinkers before him, particularly the likes of Plato or Aristotle – Machiavelli’s ethical plane is undoubtedly different. Plato and Aristotle developed some absolute moral ground on which political activity was to work, or more specifically – the way humankind ought to live. There was a general higher end of living. That life was to be lived to some standard that would be beneficial to some greater good. The political society would allow this end to be pursued and reached. That was the premise and justification for these political designs.

    Machiavelli removes this connection between ethical necessity and political reality. Before now, the two were intertwined as one design. Machiavelli does not acknowledge a higher moral plane. There is no absolute ethical groundwork. Aristotle’s idea of a ethically good life is unattainable in the real world, and as such, irrelevant. The struggle is not to maintain ethical standards, but to reach a certain reality that Machiavelli feels is attainable. Machiavelli’s higher moral end is stability because he feels it is the most immediately necessary to existence. As such, his ethics and virtues are adjusted according to justify the end.

    There are two perspectives to looking at Machiavelli’s ethics/politics dichotomy. First, there is the viewpoint that his ideas force the large separation between ethics and politics. That is, to act politically one cannot act ethically, and to act ethically one cannot act politically. From a classical philosopher’s perspective, this rings true. Acting politically to maintain the state means accepting the possibility of employing (if not acting upon) seemingly unethical practices. The higher ethical mould is broken outright. It cannot be kept intact within the political system.

    From Machiavelli’s perspective, there is no separation. As noted, his primary concern is the good of the state. The best means to meet that objective is political stability. Therefore, Machiavelli’s ethical plane is solely achieving political stability. Acting politically, despite using traditionally unethical practices if necessary, then is acting ethically – using Machiavelli’s version of ethical. In Machiavelli’s non-absolute moral world, his ethics and virtues meet his end. Ethics and politics are one. The good of the state is the good of the world for Machiavelli – despite his seemingly unconventionally set of ethical standards. His justification comes in two aspects.

    First, as mentioned, the ends justify all means. Secondly, the state is the only real or practical aspect of the world that one can dictate a set of values to – the state is a practical microcosm of the world. It is irrelevant to create a set of ethics for an unattainable political reality. Any argument to the effect that Machiavelli’s perspective is either amoral or decidedly evil is incorrect. Machiavelli believes in varyingly degrees of punishment and conditions where it is not appropriate to use cruelty. While cruelty may not be a virtue, for example, the ability of the ruler to use cruelty when appropriate would be considered virtuous by Machiavelli. He too, has a moral plane; it is simply different and more practically based upon his specific end.

    Machiavelli’s unique perceptive on ethics and virtue in his state creates a similarly unique role of the citizen. Here, again, the good of the state is the Machiavelli’s priority. Essentially, the question here is how do the populace live virtuously in the state? Machiavelli has already established that while personal virtues may by mutually accepted as good, they cannot be applied to the state’s greater good.

    As such, there is the potential of an immediate divide between individual interests or virtue and the good of the state. Machiavelli deals with this in his assumptions and perception of the populace. As opposed to the active citizenry that Aristotle describes, Machiavelli’s citizen has seemingly little concern for the political mechanisms dictating the society. There is no living the “good life.” Machiavelli has already established that the populace is by nature not loyal to the ruler, and only follows as long as it requires nothing risky of them. They are not engaged in the betterment of the state as it conflicts with their personal ends. Again, in contrast, to classical thinkers, there is a lack of engagement between politics and the citizen.

    Machiavelli paints an image of a populace largely uninterested in the state. It is up to the ruler to create and maintain the stability that they need. While Machiavelli describes how to take over an existing state from an old ruling family he states:

    “When cities or countries are accustomed to live under a prince, and his family is exterminated, they, being on the one hand accustomed to obey and on the other hand not having the old prince, cannot agree in making one from amongst themselves, and they do not know how to govern themselves” (V, 21).

    It is then apparent, that Machiavelli sees little reason to assume meaningful political participation from the populace. In a sense, the goal of stability is meant to be upheld by the populace along with the ruler. A greater purpose for politics, a stable state, does not seem to be created for the benefit of the populace. As a citizen, living virtuously means living submissively under a ruler that is interested in the greater good of stability. The level of compliance, according to Machiavelli however, is voluntary in a sense that the populace is uninterested and unwilling to play a role – not necessarily unable.

    A final point that only reinforces the idea that Machiavelli’s The Prince is a primer to achieve political stability lies within its historical context. There is some relevance in the times and conditions in which Machiavelli wrote the work. Readily apparent is the dedication to the then ruler of Florence, Lorenzo de Medici, which introduces The Prince. The dedication was intended to win the favour of the ruler so that Machiavelli could re-enter the political world after a forced absence. As much as the work was intended to persuade the favour of the ruler, it was written under the intent of being studied and having its suggestions considered.

    In addition, Italy in the 15th century was a region in political turmoil. There were numerous historical family powers vying to keep and expand their reigns, as well as widespread corruption and diplomacy and alliances with other powers such as France and Spain. All this political activity and unrest created an extremely unstable climate. It was within this context that Machiavelli wrote his work. As well as references to some historically significant leaders such as Alexander the Great, Machiavelli includes numerous references to the domestic political landscape of the times. More often than not, he uses these references in his arguments in how to rule. While his arguments clearly extend beyond the context of the time and provide an essential aspect of political thought, it is important to remember their original basis.

    Machiavelli broke the mould set in classical political thought. His perception of ethics and politics are starkly different than of those before him. So much so that many – to this day – perceive him as preaching evil and immoral activities in the pursuit of political power. This is not so. Machiavelli’s set of ethics are varied and not absolute. He does not set a higher moral standard that is impossible and too idealistic to strive for. Machiavelli writes in a politically unstable climate, and views the world as one that requires a set of real and practical values that a state can achieve. His primary goal in that pursuit, and the underlying goal of politics, is the stability of the ruler and the state. To achieve this, it is not possible to rely closely on set ethical standard. Central then, to this is Machiavelli’s idea of virtue.

    Virtue is anything that promotes the stability of the state. In a sense, this is the only absolute ethical consideration Machiavelli has, and as such, it replaces the classical ethical standards that he readily discards. Machiavelli is not necessarily immoral. In fact, he too has limits on punishment and how and when it should be used. He never encourages power and punishment to be used for personal ends, only for his greater good. Always of utmost importance is the state’s stability, and Machiavelli sees that as full justification for any actions required to achieve that end. Instead of working with ethics and then proceeding to apply it to how the world should work, Machiavelli examines how the world does work, and how to achieve the best in it.


    Machiavelli, Niccol�. The Prince. New York: Penguin Books, 2003.

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