Machiavelli's Prince Is Merely an Exercise in Cynicism

Machiavelli is a character that has gone through history despised, demonized and reviled - Machiavelli's Prince Is Merely an Exercise in Cynicism introduction. To have one’s actions deemed “Machiavellian” is no great compliment. However, while some have proclaimed him to be “the preceptor of Barabbas” (Butterfield 1955), I believe that they seek to take Machiavelli out of context, and also to purposefully misinterpret his arguments to create emotive appeals to a morality that Machiavelli rejects (Parkinson 1955, Lukes 2001, Butterfield 1940).

To call Machiavelli cynical is to say that he holds an overtly scornful, or jaded negativity ; instead Machiavelli holds a view of human nature that, while undeniably not optimistic, is pragmatic, and from which he forms an alternative moral code that is far more reliant upon the realistic and concrete, than the intangible and “moral” (Lukes 2001 p. 561). Machiavelli is easily characterised as a cynic by those who choose to casually interpret his work, and who hold him up as a paragon of immorality and shady dealings.

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For such people Machiavelli is a cynic because he rejects the notions of morality and any lofty ideals of an international code of ethics which should govern the actions of statesmen; instead they argue he appeals to our basest emotions, power-grabbing and exploiting whenever there is personal gain to be made. They “indict his claims of success by exposing what are thought to be his shallow aspirations” (Lukes 2001 p. 61), and make it seem as if Machiavelli is “the source of the miser’s sins and ingenuities” (Butterfield 1940 p. 104). However this is a shallow reading of his work, and one that I believe is in many cases plagued by misinterpretations and a lack of context (Parkinson 1955). The relationship between Machiavelli’s ethics and politics is less startling than is supposed (Parkinson 1955). As Professor Butterfield argues it takes “only one twist of the screw-and a touch of spite-to turn [Machiavelli] into the preceptor of Barabbas”.

Machiavelli indisputably treads a very thin line between the acceptable and the downright unethical, and therefore it takes little for us to misinterpret him, especially when one criticises from “a standpoint which is different [from Machiavelli’s]” (Parkinson 1955). However, accounting for the context within which Machiavelli wrote, and the aims of his work, it becomes clearer where he stands.

Machiavelli “had seen Italy overrun by the foreigner” (Parkinson 1955), describing it as “more enslaved than the Hebrews, more oppressed than the Persians and more scattered than the Athenians” (Machiavelli [c. 1513] 1985 chapter 26). For Machiavelli, who sometimes describes himself as a physician, what he is administering is the tough medicine that is necessary during difficult times. It is not cynicism that drives him, instead his “political science is a technology of survival” (Forde 1995).

This “technology of survival” (Forde 1995), is the underlying foundation behind “the Prince”. Machiavelli’s awareness that most states fall short of the ideal of rational policy shapes his whole intellectual project (Forde 1995 p. 145), and at times the harshness of his prescriptions can be attributed to ensuring that at the very least leaders will come close to achieving his policy aims: the severity of such advice is to enable the rulers to create a “strong and lasting state” (Parkinson 1955).

For Machiavelli this “strong and lasting state” (Parkinson 1955), cannot be held with a light touch, it must be gripped with an iron-fist, and what he provides for his reader is a methodology grounded in pure pragmatism and reason. His work is not cynical, but cold, methodical, and logical, and while at times it may jar with our perceptions of right and wrong, of good and evil, it is nonetheless borne out of the necessity for survival, especially important during the turbulence of 16th Century Italy.

The key criticism lodged with Machiavelli is his a-morality, his willingness to plough through accepted codes of conduct in his self-interested drive for power. This argument falls short on two levels: firstly because Machiavelli’s key concern is not with power for it’s own sake, but instead with survival, of which the acquisition of power is in many cases a necessary evil that must be pursued to ensure survival (Machiavelli [c. 1513] 1985 Chapter 11 pp. 11-13).

Secondly the argument falls short because it implies that there is an accepted moral code which Machiavelli is in fact breaking, whereas it has been argued that Machiavelli’s endorsement of power politics is no less than an alternative morality (Lukes 2001 p. 561), and that he rejects the validity of distinctions of good and evil in international politics (Forde 1995 p. 148). Therefore it can be seen that arguments that ground his cynicism in a rejection of morality in favour of all out power are in fact moot, and tend to gloss over key points made by Machiavelli.

If we take Machiavelli to epitomise a foreign and domestic policy of security-maximisation then the ends of such policy always justify the means. Parkinson (Parkinson 1955) argues that the most undervalued word in the whole of “The Prince” is the word “necessity”. Machiavelli does not espouse policies of power grabbing, breaking ones word, or duplicity for their own sake, but only when these policies fall in line with that of ensuring the “strong and lasting state” (Parkinson 1955).

For example let’s take Machiavelli’s much cited argument that at times one must “break faith” with another. This argument, if taken to it’s logical extreme, that we should make promises with others, but always break them if there is any gain to be made, is surely an incredibly cynical and a-moral one. However this is not the argument that Machiavelli makes. Instead he only advocates, “breaking faith”, when “the observance of it may be turned against him” (Machiavelli [c. 1513] 1985 Chapter 18).

When couched in these terms we see that Machiavelli is not demanding that all ethical perceptions be thrown away verbatim, but instead they should be seen through a light of transparency; there are times when it is necessary to get rid of them (Parkinson 1955). While Machiavelli criticizes the stoic and idealist moral philosophy of some humanists, he borrows from the more flexible pragmatism of others, according to whom truth is governed by an intrinsically ethical standard of decorum and consensus (Khan 1986 p. 4). In this case Machiavelli is not cynical, he is practical, and driven by the inherent necessity of circumstances. Contextually it is also important to remember that Machiavelli believed he lived in a society that “only paid lip service to morality” (Parkinson 1955), and therefore when necessity compels one to “break faith” (Machiavelli [c. 1513] 1985 Chapter 18) it is not cynicism, but pragmatism that drives one. Machiavelli is also not cynical in his belief about the role of fortune on a good leader.

For him “fortuna” is a key aspect to good rule, and Machiavelli makes it clear that a good prince is not so much brilliant as opportunistic (Lukes 2001 p. 570). Machiavelli, in dictating the two key qualities needed by a good ruler points to “Virtu” and “Forutuna” (Machiavelli [c. 1513] 1985). Virtu is in a sense the pragmatism that we have discussed above, the ability to see that when the time comes it is both necessary, and inevitable that one will have to go against lofty principles, and do what best ensures your own survival.

Virtu is not gained by forgoing all moral principles, and as Machiavelli makes the case with Philip of Macedon, his actions, while “expedient” are “repugnant to any community”, a clear indication that Machiavelli does not espouse a-morality for its own sake, but only when it is completely necessary (Machiavelli [c. 1513] 1985). Parkinson states “he does not think that the strong and successful ruler puts himself beyond the reach of moral disapproval” (Parkinson 1955).

Again we can see a case in which a cynical interpretation of Machiavelli’s arguments misses the point, as for Machiavelli a good ruler cannot act in a “repugnant” fashion, when it is “expedient”, as he is not beyond moral reproach, he could only act thus, when truly necessary. Machiavelli is no cynic. If we take Khan’s argument that “Machiavelli scandalizes his readers not because he advises the prince to act in ways previously unheard of, but because he refuses to cloak his advice in the pieties of scholastic or Christian humanist idealism” (Khan, 1986 p. 3), then perhaps it is just the severity of his language, and the harshness of his prescriptions that have led us astray into believing that he is this demonic figure; beholder of the deepest levels of cynicism. In response to this I feel it is best to leave Machiavelli to justify himself, “the gulf between how one should live and how one does is so wide that a man who neglects what is actually done for what should be done moves towards self-destruction rather than self-preservation” (Machiavelli [c. 1513] 1985 chapter 15 pp 50); he is no cynic, instead he wishes that we accept our inherent natures and ensure that we survive.

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