The Prince, Machiavelli’s Economy of Violence
Machiavelli was an Italian historian, statesman, and political philosopher, whose amoral, but influential writings on power building have turned his name into a synonym for cunning and duplicity. I personally feel he is a genius.
Niccolo Machiavelli was born on May 3, 1469, in Florence, Italy. He eventually became a man who lived his life for politics and patriotism. Right now, however, he is associated with corrupt, totalitarian government. The reason for this is a small pamphlet he wrote called The Prince to gain influence with the ruling Medici family in Florence. The political genius of Niccolo Machiavelli was overshadowed by the reputation that was unfairly given to him because of a misunderstanding of his views on politics.
Machiavelli’s life was very interesting. He lived a nondescript childhood in Florence, and his main political experience in his youth was watching Savanarola from afar. Soon after Savanarola was executed, Machiavelli entered the Florentine government as a secretary. His position quickly rose, however, and was soon engaging in diplomatic missions. He met many of the important politicians of the day, such as the Pope and the King of France, but none had more impact on him than a prince of the Papal States, Cesare Borgia. Borgia was a cunning, cruel man, very much like the one portrayed in The Prince. Machiavelli did not truly like Borgia’s policies, but he thought that with a ruler like Borgia the Florentines could unite Italy, which was Machiavelli’s goal throughout his life. Unfortunately for Machiavelli, he was dismissed from office when the Medici came to rule Florence and the Republic was overthrown. The lack of a job forced him to switch to writing about politics instead of being active. His diplomatic missions were his last official government positions.
When Machiavelli lost his office, he desperately wanted to return to politics. He tried to gain the favor of the Medici by writing an essay of what he thought were the Medici’s goals and dedicating it to them. And so The Prince was written for that purpose. Unfortunately, the Medici didn’t agree with what the book said, so he was out of a job. But when the public saw the book, they were outraged. The people wondered how cruel a man could be to think evil thoughts like the ones in The Prince, and this would come back to haunt him when he was alive and dead. However, if the people wanted to know what Machiavelli really stood for, they should have read his “Discourses on Livy,” which explain his full political philosophy. But not enough people had and have, and so the legacy of The Prince continues to define Machiavelli to the general public.
A few years later the Medici were kicked out of Florence. The republic was re-established, and Machiavelli ran to retake the office he had left so many years ago. But the reputation that The Prince had established made people think his philosophy was like the Medici, so he was not elected. And here the sharp downhill of his life began. His health began to fail him, and he died months later, in 1527.
Machiavelli had been unfairly attacked all of his life because of a bad reputation. But it only got worse after he died. He was continually blasted for his “support” of corrupt ruling. In fact, Machiavellian now means corrupt government. Only recently has his true personality come to light. The world must change it’s vision of the cold, uncaring Machiavelli to the correct view of a patriot and a political genius.
Throughout his career Machiavelli sought to establish a state capable of resisting foreign attack. His writings are concerned with the principles on which such a state is founded, and with the means by which they can be implemented and maintained. In, The Prince he describes the method by which a prince can acquire and maintain political power. This study, which has often been regarded as a defense of the despotism and tyranny of such rulers as Cesare Borgia, is based on Machiavelli’s belief that a ruler is not bound by traditional ethical norms. In his view, a prince should be concerned only with power and be bound only by rules that would lead to success in political actions. Machiavelli believed that these rules could be discovered by deduction from the political practices of the time, as well as from those of earlier periods.
Machiavelli first states that power is the dominant mark of the state, and the politician is an actor which, “must be a skillful pretender and dissembler, he must seem to have the virtues of good faith, charity, humanity and religion.” Secondly, that the use of violence must be like a controlled science, “being able to administer the precise dosage appropriate to specific situations,” and that the republican systems is the most ideal in its use of violence. Thirdly, Machiavelli emphasizes the importance of virtú in power.
Machiavelli states that “the hard core of power is violence and to exercise power is often to bring violence to bear on someone else’s person or possessions,” assuming that “Machiavelli believed that the vitalities of politics could not be controlled and directed without the application and the threat of at least violence.” This is true, but incomplete because when following the teachings of The Prince; the core of power maintenance is the masquerade. How should the Prince act in particular situations; should the Prince punish his subjects, should the Prince reward his subjects, should the Prince attack his enemies, should the Prince utilize diplomacy, etc. The hard core of power is really what “masque” the ruler utilizes at a certain time, be it the mask of a good man or a bad man.
“The control of violence is dependent upon the new science’s being able to administer the precise dosage appropriate to specific situations.” Every application of violence must be considered very carefully, “because the indiscriminate exercise of force and the constant revival of fear could provoke the greatest of all political dangers for any government, the widespread kind of apprehension and hatred which drives men to desperation.” Machiavelli’s economical violence is necessary because the use of repeated violence causes hatred. Hatred is counter productive to the political actor because it causes the people to experience a loss of self for vengeance. A “prince should try to avoid anything which makes him hateful or contemptible, when he has avoided actions that will have this effect, he has done his best and will run no risks.” “A prince’s best protection lies in not being hated or despised, and keeping himself in popular favor.”
Machiavelli’s concept that “popular consent represents a form of social power which, if properly exploited, reduces the amount of violence directed at society as a whole.” So therefore the political system, whose violence is most economical, is the republican system. The reason for the “superiority of the republican system consisted in its being maintained by the force of the populace, rather than force over the populace.”
“Machiavelli is posed by the word virtú, which can mean anything from strength, ability, courage, manliness, or ingenuity to character and wisdom.” Virtú is a statement of modernity, a person with virtú is one who accumulates power and maintains their position. The Prince is really a model to be followed by individuals who seek to be successful in today’s competitive society. After reading The Prince, I feel that “virtú” is a way of living, which must be followed by those seeking power.
“Machiavelli, Niccolò,” Microsoft® Encarta® 97 Encyclopedia. © 1993-1996 Microsoft Corporation. All rights reserved.
Sheldon S. Wolin, Interpretation of Machiavelli’s The Prince. Pg. 175
Sheldon S. Wolin, Interpretation of Machiavelli’s The Prince. Pg. 170
Sheldon S. Wolin, Interpretation of Machiavelli’s The Prince. Pg. 169
Sheldon S. Wolin, Interpretation of Machiavelli’s The Prince. Pg. 170
The Prince, On Avoiding Contempt and Hatred. XIX
Sheldon S. Wolin, Interpretation of Machiavelli’s The Prince. Pg. 172
Discourses I, 9.
The Prince, Translators note XVIII