Machiavelli’s View on Morals and Politics in “The Prince”

Machiavelli’s masterpiece The Prince is one of the most polemical texts on political theory. Since its publication in 1532 there has been widespread debate among political theorists about his political morality. Today the term ‘Machiavellian’ used in everyday speech and has extremely negative connotations; a person so described is deemed as ‘cunning, scheming and unscrupulous’. [1]Is this a fair representation of Machiavelli? In order to fully analyze his views on morals and politics in The Prince it is important to look at the historical background at the time he was writing, before determining how radical his views were. After looking at the complete picture it will be possible to realize the exact nature of Machiavelli’s political morality.

The age in which Machiavelli was writing the Prince greatly influenced his work. He wrote the book after the collapse of the Florentine Republic in 1512 as a manual for Lorenzo de Medici. He had spent his time in political office serving the Florentine Republic and so he had a background in republicanism. In order to understand Machiavelli’s stance on politics it is important to look at what the word precisely meant at this time. The main idea of politics in early modern Europe is described by Maurizio Viroli in Machiavelli and the Republican Idea of Politics: “The word politicus and its correlatives were used to refer exclusively to the civitas which was understood as a community of men gathered together to live in justice under the same laws.”[2]

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The Italian city republics of the Quattro cento created an ideal environment for the rebirth of the art of civitas. The humanists of this era felt that politics was never divorced from civitas which included the rule of law, justice, liberty, self-government, concord and virtue.

Machiavelli did not completely reject the conventional meaning of politicus. He recognized that it still was intrinsically related to civitas but in order to maintain political stability it was not enough to just simply rely on the rule of law. The state had to be defended as well. This is demonstrated in The Art of War where he explains that a good ruler must “love peace and know how to make war”. (Machiavelli: 42) Machiavelli does not reject the republican view of politics. In The Prince he never uses the word politica as he associates this with civitas and the city. Instead he is looking at principalities and how they should be ruled and preserved. Therefore, instead of being concerned with the art of the city he starts to look at the art of the state, which he sees as separate from traditional politics.

Having determined the republican idea of politics in the Quattro cento, it is important to look at the humanist ideals of princely government and how far Machiavelli agreed with them, before the Prince can be fully understood. To humanists in the late fourteenth century the ideal ruler was the vir virtutis, the virtuous man. For them virtuosity was having the combined qualities of honor, glory and fame obtained through one’s own deeds. Machiavelli fully agrees with these terms and insists that a prince must find a historical figure who has been praised and honored as a model for his own behavior. In Chapter XXI he sees Ferdinand of Aragon as a good model, since “from being a weak king he has become, the most famous and glorious king in Christendom”. (Page 76) Again he makes his views on glory clear when he denounces Agathocles of Sicily for his criminal methods which brought him only power and not glory.

Another topic on which Machiavelli agreed with the humanists was their view of the role of fortuna in politics. Many of the humanists wrote about fortune, for example, Castiglione in his work The Book of the Courtier. They both describe the fickleness of fortune. Machiavelli fully agrees with the importance of fortune in politics. He cites the example of Cesare Borgia who “attained his position through the favor and help of his father, and lost it when these disappeared” (Page 23) He later describes fortune as “one of those violent rivers that, when they become enraged, flood the plains”(page 85). Both Machiavelli and the humanists acknowledge the possession of virtue; as a means of combating the uncertainty of fortuna. Patrizi demonstrates this by stating “it is only by means of virtue” that a prince can hope to overcome the malice of fortune and achieve the goals of “honor, glory and fame” [3]Machiavelli suggests at the beginning of The Prince that if a man possessed virtue then he could never be completely overwhelmed by fortune. In Chapter XXV he concedes, ‘fortune is the arbiter of half of our actions, but that it lets us control roughly the other half” (Page 85). Therefore, we see that both the humanists and Machiavelli view virtue as an essential weapon against the onslaught of the problems which fortuna brings.

The purpose of government is also an area where both the humanists and Machiavelli agree. There was a shift in priorities by the civic humanists at the beginning of the Quattro cento. At that time they thought that the government’s role was to preserve liberty and justice, however, this had changed by the late Quattro cento period. Humanists then felt that maintaining security and peace was more important. Castiglione believed that the purpose of a good ruler was “to establish his people in such laws and ordinances that they may live in ease and peace.” [4]Machiavelli agrees with this throughout the Prince. He firmly believes that a good ruler’s main aim is to preserve the security and strength of his nation.

It is possible to see, therefore, that in many areas, the Prince does agree with the political thought of the age. However, the main point of contention is not the aims of the ruler but the process of reaching those aims. The main difference between Machiavelli and the Quattro cento humanists is their different interpretation of virtue. The humanists connected virtue with Christian morals and with morals that had been emphasized by classical writers such as Plato. Plato points out that the four main virtues are prudence, temperance, fortitude and justice. Patrizi adds that these are all supplemented by having the greatest virtue – Christian faith. He states that without this the leaders “wisdom will be in vain and lying”. [5]Other important virtues included liberality, magnificence, clemency and honor. These values, which were seen as important for a prince, vary greatly from the values that Machiavelli proposes.

Much of Machiavelli’s advice can be seen as a critique of the humanists’ view of virtue. Although he agrees with the importance of attaining honor, glory and fame he disagrees with the conventional virtues. From Chapter XV to Chapter XXIII he looks at how a ruler should conduct himself towards others. This is the main part of the text which deals with morals or lack of them. He begins this section with the statement:

‘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.’ (Page 54, 55)

This sets the tone for the following chapters which discuss generosity and miserliness, clemency and cruelty, faithfulness and whether it is better to be loved or feared.

He finds generosity completely detrimental. Although it is beneficial to appear generous he states that if a ruler does act in this way he will ‘eventually be compelled to become rapacious, to tax the people very heavily…thus he will begin to be hated by his subjects.'(Page 56)He goes on to argue that if a ruler does act miserly he should not worry as his parsimony will be beneficial when he needs the extra money to defend himself and he will not need to impose taxes on his subjects. He uses the King of France, Louis XII, as an example of a ruler who ‘fought many wars without imposing any special taxes on his subjects, because his parsimonious habits have always enabled him to meet the extra expenses.'(Page 56) He goes on to explain that the result of being too generous will lead to eventual hatred. This view contrasts sharply with Cicero’s view in De Officis that ‘nothing more benefits the nature of man’ (I, 1, 422). Machiavelli goes on to explain that generosity leads to being loved by the people whereas miserliness leads to their hatred. Here we see Machiavelli completely disregarding classical thought and explaining more exactly what he means by being ‘prepared to act immorally’.(Page 55).

With regard to cruelty and clemency he again clearly goes against classical political morality. In Seneca’s De Clementia, describes cruelty as the vice of tyrants, an evil which should be avoided by virtuous princes (I, 26, i). Whereas Machiavelli contradicts this completely by advising that:

‘If a ruler can keep his subjects united and loyal he should not worry about incurring a reputation for cruelty; for by punishing a very few he will really be more merciful than those who over-indulgently permit disorders to develop, with the resultant killings and plunderings.’ (Page 58)

Machiavelli continues by assessing that it is much better to be feared than loved. Since fear inspires the dread of punishment whereas the bonds of love are weak and can easily be broken. [6]He uses the example of Cesare Borgia whose cruelty did lead to stability. He maintains that it is preferable to make an example of a few and maintain stability than be merciful and completely endanger the state. He contends that it is essential not to be hated and so a prince should avoid ‘laying hands on the property of his citizens and subjects, and on their womenfolk.’ (Page 59) Here he agrees completely with Aristotle in his Politics in contrast to his rejection of Seneca’s view on cruelty.

Appearance is extremely important in The Prince. Machiavelli implies throughout the work that nothing matters more. He promotes counterfeit virtue and states that the prince ‘need not actually possess all the above mentioned qualities but he must certainly seem to.'(Page 64) He continues to explain that the Prince should not worry about his actions as they are not being closely watched and therefore only appearances matter. He emphasizes that fraud and deceit are often necessary:

‘Experience shows that in our times the rulers who have done great things are those who have set little store by keeping their word, being skilful rather in cunningly deceiving men; they have got the better of those who have relied on being trustworthy.(Page 61)

Machiavelli clearly believes that what a man ought to do and what he does are very different matters. He systematically goes through established princely values of compassion, generosity and being faithful and destroys them. But does he completely divorce morality from politics? He agrees with the humanists in that the aim of the prince should be to maintain the state, achieve great things and seek for the highest goals of glory, honor and fame. The differences are clearly his methods of attainment which are due to his belief 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.'(Page 54) He sees his contemporaries as having ignored the fundamental issue which is the moral character dilemma which rulers face. That is that if a ruler truly wants to ‘maintain his state’ he must be able to adapt to a new sort of morality.

He also does not abandon moral standards with complete willingness. At the beginning of his discussion he is careful to recognize that ‘everyone knows how praiseworthy it is for a ruler to keep his promises, and live uprightly and not by trickery’ (Page 61). He feels that a leader should be as good as conditions permit which is nevertheless very different from the humanist belief that rulers should never compromise. Machiavelli sees that the best way to approach governing is to become half man and half beast. In Chapter XVIII he uses his famous analogy of the lion and the fox:

‘Since a ruler, then, must know how to act like a beast, he should imitate both the fox and the lion, for the lion is liable to be trapped, whereas the fox cannot ward off the wolves. One needs, then, to be a fox to recognize traps, and a lion to frighten away wolves.’ (Page 61)

This advice to act like part beast has caused huge commotion among Christian moralists, such as Macaulay and Gentillet, who see Machiavelli’s comparison as evil. Can this assumption fair? Machiavelli definitely does use a very cold, technical way of describing something with huge moral significance. He also makes very scandalous assumptions about human nature saying that ‘one can make this generalization about men: they are ungrateful, fickle liars and deceivers, they shun danger and are greedy for profit’ (Page 59) However, it is clearly a vulgarization of his work to label it as ‘evil’ as we have seen that he does promote acting honestly when possible He also heavily condemns the unnecessarily cruel actions of Agathocles, the tyrant, and argues that his ruthlessness gave him power not virtue.

From looking at Machiavelli’s work in context with the humanists it is possible to see how far he challenges humanist heritage. We can see that the Prince does fit in with Quattro cento political thought but has its own very individual morality. Virtue for the humanists meant being virtuous in the traditional sense but for Machiavelli it meant being a lion and a fox and doing everything in one’s capability to ‘maintain his state’ and ‘achieve great things’. Overall Machiavelli’s view on politics and morality in The Prince is that circumstance is the most important element and therefore a ruler must act in accordance with necessity.

Machiavelli’s writings are important because they analyze the features a strong Prince in the Renaissance from an amoral and objective perspective. Niccolo Machiavelli wrote The Prince as a guide for those who wish to rule or who were already in possession of a principality. It was written for the European Context and constantly refers to the European States in the ‘Modern’ times. Machiavelli’s treatise was an account of how to act and react against negative pressures internally and externally. The Prince is an intensely practical guide to the exercise of raw political power over a Renaissance principality. Most political journals of the time spoke reflected more upon the establishment and traditions of a government. Machiavelli’s writing was of particular note due to the relevancy and amoral perspective that he took. The examples he used were written in for the environment that rulers of the day were living in.

The book was a result of previous Italian incompetence and the tragedy of the Italian cause, and more importantly the Florentine cause. However Machiavelli’s writing was designed to be applied to any state, and thus the importance of Machiavelli’s arises from the relevance of his work in the European Context and the observations therein. A Prince’s major responsibility is the protection of his rule and the defense of his subjects. Machiavelli states, “A prince therefore, must have no other object or thought, nor acquire skill in anything except war, its organizations, and its discipline.” (p. 47)

On the subject of fortune Machiavelli states, “Private Citizens who become princes purely by good fortune do so with little excretion on their own part; but subsequently they maintain their position only by considerable excretion”. (p. 22) His point is that when you encounter fortune, you must approach it aggressively. Machiavelli said that the ruler must be able to imitate both the lion and the fox. These characteristics are crucial for a new ruler. That way he can get the respect from the people right away. Another quality of a ruler should be that he is both loved and feared. In actuality, he states it is almost impossible to be both, so it is better to be feared. Love can lose effectiveness because of human nature. When something conflicts, love can easily be overcome for one’s own private interests. In being feared one needs to be careful. A prince should want to be feared but should not want to be hated. Hate will lead to a rebellion. Machiavelli made it very clear why it is better to be feared than loved.

Another quality of a prince is that it is better to be considered merciful than cruel, but mercy must never be misused. Machiavelli said that the art of war was the subject of most importance to the ruler. A prince can be attacked in two ways: internally, by conspiracies, and externally, by enemies. A prince can defend himself from external attacks by having good armed forces and good friends. Machiavelli states, “A prince must not worry if he incurs reproach for his cruelty so long as he keeps his subjects united and loyal” (p. 53) He can defend himself from conspiracies by avoiding hatred. It is also stated that no prince should disarm his subjects or else he will have to resort to mercenary troops. Mercenaries are from foreign countries and are not fighting for their country so they are not loyal and they will not care whether they win or lose. They are in it for the money so they are not reliable. Machiavelli says the only way to have security is raising troops within the country. They would be loyal soldiers who would be defending their home and families. He also felt it was necessary to study history. This way he can focus on successful rulers’ victories and defeats and analyze them for his own well being. He states, “Men are ungrateful, fickle, liars, and deceivers, they shun danger and are greedy for profit; while you treat them well they are yours. (p. 54).

Machiavelli’s writings were important for two reasons in the Making of Modern Europe. Firstly, it illustrates the behaviors and skills required by a Prince to retain and increase his own holdings. It dwells upon stratagems of power and military organization that will maintain a state and perhaps increase it. Secondly Machiavelli’s writings were important in the making of Modern Europe due to the secular perspective that he took. His approach towards ethics and politics influenced future leaders making in an important writing in making of Modern Europe.

A modern leader’s integrity shows to the people that their leader is not afraid to tell the truth. To have integrity means that one no matter what, one stays true to their word under any circumstances. Machiavelli’s thought of a leader being untruthful would not work today because if a leader was found lying, it would be printed on the presses the next day. With the media following so close to every word a politician says, it would be demeaning for a leader to have his people find out that he is a hypocrite. So Machiavelli’s idea of being strong, unchangeable and positive would be some ideal qualities of a good leader. Maintaining a strong and positive image of oneself is what enables one to be a good leader.

His argument was primarily based on the character, vitality or skill possessed by the individual leader that is able to determine the success of any state. Over time, history has observed that princes have accomplished great deeds, nevertheless still caring little about keeping their oaths due to them possessing the skill of trickery and manipulation of the minds of men. By doing this, they are abusing the qualities of honesty and integrity. However, one can acquire and maintain the principality and evaluate it solely by reference to its likelihood of augmenting the glory of the prince while sewing the public interest. Unfortunately, today and in Machiavelli’s period, it is evident that the only path to success is brought by the means of abandoning traditional moral values and adopting the ways of ruthlessness, deception and cruelty.

In Niccolo Machiavelli’s The Prince, a number of aspects of becoming an effective and successful ruler were discussed in depth very thoroughly. He focused on all aspects of life and discussed each in great detail. He studied human nature, fortune, military tactics, virtue, and personal qualities of past rulers and analyzed why each one’s rule failed. He discussed being a ruler with both the lion and the fox qualities; who would be able to have a successful rule. Machiavelli book was in essence a guideline that would be enabling others to conquer fortune, human nature, conspiracies, battle, and to rule a politically unified Country or State. The themes in The Prince have changed views on politics and leadership to this day.

Machiavelli’s ‘reason of state’ was fundamental for the development of the modern state. He stated that it was necessary to possess virtue in order for the prince to have control over the state. Virtue was considered the possession of great skill and ability. He had the most profound impact on the question of the individual. By elevating interest in politics and society, individuals defined themselves as seeking self-interest. This provided apparatus for the creation of the modern state. The newly autonomous individual was defined by a newly emerging nation state. Individualism was something in which people tried to assert against powers of the centralized state. Due to the destruction of the feudal hierarchy and Church, ‘states’ came into an existence that created a powerful central authority whereby people increasingly defined the limits of autonomy and individualism.

Machiavelli’s writings influenced the making of modern Europe by explaining the many difficulties faced by princes, both new and hereditary. He claimed that if a prince loses his ‘average powers’ due to excessive force, then he must usurp and regain his power. Here, we see that he is making the push for a new wave of individualism – standing up to yourself in order to achieve and maintain power and thus maintain the ‘modern state.’ On the contrary, a prince who has inherited his kingdom is less likely to be overthrown due to his subjects thinking well of him and to inherit the customs of his ancestors with few or no significant changes. Again, Machiavelli outlines the importance of the self that came to be popular in this period, leading to new radical ideals being shaped by the individual forming the modern Europe. [7]

His argument was primarily based on the character, vitality or skill possessed by the individual leader that is able to determine the success of any state. Everyone understands how important it is for a prince to remain true to his word and to live with no sense of scheming. However, over time, history has observed that princes have accomplished great deeds, nevertheless still caring little about keeping their oaths due to them possessing the skill of trickery and manipulation of the minds of men. By doing this, they are abusing the qualities of honesty and integrity. However, one can acquire and maintain the principality and evaluate it solely by reference to its likelihood of augmenting the glory of the prince while sewing the public interest. Unfortunately, today and in Machiavelli’s period, it is evident that the only path to success is brought by the means of abandoning traditional moral values and adopting the ways of ruthlessness, deception and cruelty.

Machiavelli was in complete agreement with the humanists when concerning glory and honor. He provided two reasons of dissimulation and simulation that lead to the concept of honor. First, one must remember that men are simple minded and second that rulers have a certain kind of majesty. For example, Pope Julius managed to convince Borgia that his intentions and deeds were in fact honorable.[8] This sense of majesty appeared to enlarge the distance between the subject and the ruler. Unfortunately, many princes are not seen for what they really are and it comes to the people’s realization that they cause more harm than good. Machiavelli also presented a moral world which was gray and that this grayness could never behave in good or bad ways. By taking self-interest into consideration, the human character has been guided fundamentally by this concept, leading to the creation of the modern individual.[9]

Of all the versatile philosophers associated with the Modern Era of political philosophy, only Niccolo Machiavelli can be described as “the personification of the transformation from the medieval to the modern era.” Machiavelli’s aggregate view of politics focuses on the individual. Machiavelli establishes a separation between personal morality and necessary political practice.

Works Cited

Castiglione, Baldesar The Book of the Courtier, trans. Charles S. Singleton New York (1959): 311

Cicero De Officis (44BC) trans. P G Walsh Oxford: Oxford University Press (2000) (I, 1, 422).

Donaldson, Peter S. Machiavelli and Mystery of The State Cambridge: Cambridge U. 2001. Pg. 233-41

Johnson, Paul; the Renaissance a Short History; Modern Library Edition, Copyright 2000: 121-26

Kocis, Robert A. Machiavelli Redeemed. Bethelem: Lehigh University Press. 2004. 81-96

Laven, Peter; A Comprehensive History of Renaissance Italy 1464- 1534 Copyright 1966 G.P Putnam and Sons, New York. 118-25

Machiavelli, Niccolò: The Prince. Translated by Harvey C. Mansfield. University Of Chicago Press; 2nd edition. 184 p. 1998.

Patrizi, Francesco The Founding of the Republic (De Instituzione Reipublicae) Paris (1585) 228, 338

Seneca, Moral Essays: De Providentia, De Constantia, De Ira, De Clementia translated by John W Basore. Loeb Classical Library (Jan 1 1928) (I, 26, i)

Viroli, Maurizio: Machiavelli and the republican idea of politics in Machiavelli and Republicanism Cambridge: Cambridge University Press (1990): 145

[1] Fowler The Concise Oxford Dictionary Oxford: Clarendon Press (1995 ed.)

[2] Viroli, Maurizio: (1990): 145

[3] Patrizi: 1585:228
[4] Castiglione, Baldesar (1959): 311
[5] Patrizi: 1531: 358
[6] Kocis, Robert A. 2004. 81-96

[7] Johnson, 121-26
[8] Laven, 118-25
[9] (Johnson, 121-26)

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