What is Machiavelli’s View of Political Power? Is the Prince an Immoral Text?
Indeed, the Prince is a seminal treatise on governance and the concept of the nation state. In the treatise, Machiavelli provides an illuminating conception of the state and governance. In his composed and combative approach, Machiavelli offers a viewpoint that essentially departs in a radical manner from what at that time was the typical conception in the mindset of the societies in question. The brief of this paper shall be to briefly examine Machiavelli’s view of political power and by extension assess whether the Prince is an immoral text. While the former task requires a discussion, the latter may as well be answered straight away although the justification for the same shall be provided in the ensuing discussions.
It is the postulation of this paper that from the analysis, the Prince is indeed an immoral text. The perfect justification for the same can be seen in Machiavelli’s own position that the end justifies the means. In as much as the end justifies the means, it is often required that a moral rectitude is ascribed to. However, the recommendations and arguments by Machiavelli looks the other way and he sees no need for morality. In fact, according to Machiavelli’s philosophy, the stability of the state is what is essential. It is irrelevant whether the same is acquired through illegitimate or legitimate means. From thence, one may conclusively sum up that Machiavelli has no consideration of morals and it is up to the incoming thinkers to digest his wisdom and introduce moral connotations to his teachings and philosophies. That notwithstanding, the illumination Machiavelli offers positions him to the level of political scholarship and it is from that fact that he is affirmed by many as the father of political science and political thought. This paper’s brief shall be to examine Machiavelli’s view of political power basing on his main treatise on governance, The Prince.
Machiavelli’s approach to political power is brutally realistic. He prefers an open and realistic approach that lays the fact as it is rather than as it supposed to be. For that reason, Machiavelli advocates for real politics in what he refers to as realpolitik. Ideally, he postulates that the prince, a term referring to the political leader should acquire power and maintain the power in whatever means necessary. To that extent, Machiavelli appreciates the need for violence and bloodshed. He appears to embrace the concept of ‘power is to be grabbed and taken and not merely given.’ One interesting aspect of this particular Machiavelli’s conception is the need for the state to remain stable. According to Machiavelli the state has to be stable and this stability has to be attained through any means possible. This thought is captured in Machiavelli’s appreciation of violent leaders. He appreciates and appears to adore leaders such as Cesare Borgia, Agathocles of Sicilian and Liverotto of Fermo. He observes that such leaders established their rule through violence and that the fact of violence does not reduce the value of their leadership. Machiavelli compares this approach that is colored by violence to the Florentian approach that was devoid of violence. He observes that while the earlier category employed violence and maintained stability in the respective states, the latter category was obsessed with peaceful approaches and ended up with the ruin of the City. This line of thought is further given taste by the justification of, ‘the end justifies the means.’ A typical example provided relates to Machiavelli’s advice to the Prince (read Borgia) over how to deal with the rebelling widow and her people. Machiavelli advocated for feigned peace and eventual capture followed by the humiliation of the widow in the eyes of her people. It is said that the approach sparked fear in the people effectively stopping further rebellion.
That aspect leads us to yet another conception by Machiavelli. This relates to the need to be feared over that to be loved by one’s subjects. According to Machiavelli, it was necessary that the leader be feared. In fact, Machiavelli confirms that in the case fear and love are to be traded, it is better for the leader to be feared rather than loved. This approach deviates from the previous conceptions in political thought. In the previous conception, it was required that the leader earns his respect among his subjects. For that to be attained, it was necessary that the leader observe tenets of justice, honesty and kindness. It was out of these observations that the leader would be respected and loved as a consequence.
Machiavelli sharply disagrees with this conception. He offers a good explanation for his position. He avers that the love by subjects of the leaders is conditional and is achieved at the pleasure of the citizens. In other words, the subjects have to receive something and as a consequence find the leader good and love him. In the event the preconditions are not met the subjects would not necessarily love the leader. Machiavelli charges that such a conditional position that gives the subjects the power would injure the stability of the state. This raises the risk of instability. This according to Machiavelli is not the best approach to governance. For that reason, he advances a concept that protects the stability of the state. It is on that premise that he prefers the prince to be feared and hated rather than loved. The fear, he says is conditional on the prince and not on the subjects. Such an approach, Machiavelli reports would contain the citizens and ensure the stability of the state. In the end, as Machiavelli roundly puts it, the end justifies the means. Interestingly, Machiavelli offers some empirical evidence of leaders who employed the concept of fear to get the state to operate. He contrasts the survival of the state led by Cesare Borgia to Florence. He observes that while the former employed fear and resulted into a longer lasting stable state, the latter feared the thought of instilling fear on the subjects and hence the state collapsed. In overall, Machiavelli appreciates the role of fear in retaining power.
In advancing his arguments on the state and political power, Machiavelli opens a Pandora’s Box on the role of religion. First, it needs to be appreciated that at the time of his writing, the states were primarily based on a religious conception. At that time, the people subscribed to the thought of divine leadership. This is to say that the leaders at that time were thought to be emissaries of God. For that reason, these leaders ruled on behalf of God and were the anointed servants of God. From that premise, the people thought that leaders were not supposed to be questioned and that the onus was on the subjects to obey the divine leadership. However, Machiavelli sharply departs from this conception. He observes that religion is the worst ingredient in modern political thought. He observes at some point that religious leaders in the political leadership were ineffective and lackluster. This he attributes to their moral inclinations that tended to mislead them into inefficiencies. For instance, Machiavelli observes that religious philosophy advocated for passivity, subservience and deferral of punishment to the next world. According to Machiavelli, this set of conception was misleading and would not yield the requisite results. Indeed, while religion offered and advocated for subservience and deferral of punishment, in real politics, to contain rebellion, manage the state and ensure stability, it was essential to enforce punishment and get everyone to obey the laws. From the onset it can be seen that this cannot be achieved with a religious approach.
However, while that limb of argument has logic and remains true, the other limb is worth contesting. This is to the extent that, ‘the end justifies the means.’ This is because this approach in essence betrays the conception of justice, honesty and kindness. This approach sees power as the ultimate object. In that vein, one is justified in looking the other way and applying any method to acquire and retain the same. In fact, it is this conception that the scholarship of Machiavelli has been centered on. A lot of literature has postulated Machiavelli has an advocate of illegitimacy, deceit and all other unorthodox conceptions. According to Machiavelli acquiring power and maintaining the same is the ultimate price. He postulates that the leader should be ready to pay the price for power acquisition and that the same must not be let out.
This conception, commonly referred to as Machiavellism perhaps best represents what Machiavelli himself would have done to acquire power. Sadly, he never had the opportunity to lead and his conceptions are seen in the leadership of the princes he advised. Machiavelli’s path is devoid of an ethical base and could be argued to be morally morass. He advocates for unorthodox methods of acquisition and retention of power. He believes the game of politics has no known friends and neither does it have permanent enemies. To Machiavelli, the prince may as well pretend to afford him a good opportunity to take on his enemies. Machiavelli suggests that the prince should employ tactics to calm and fool his enemy and then strike at the most unexpected time.
He equally advocates for the rise to immortal fame. According to Machiavelli, political power is acquired for purposes of acquiring absolute control and management of territory including the subjects of the said territory. Under that premise, the ruler acquires some form of absolute immortality. He appears as the siege representative of God on the earth. The ruler must thus create an impression. In extreme cases, to earn the impression, invoking fear on the subjects is justified. He observes that it is better to create an appearance of virtue than the virtue itself. According to the conception by Machiavelli, what is really essential is not what actually exists on the ground; it is what appears to be the position. This is what would dictate the stability of the state and in turn assure the leader of continual reign.
However, from the reading of the Prince, one equally appreciates some of the noble ideas and courses advanced by Machiavelli. Unfortunately, as has been previously mentioned, most of these are lost due to the overconcentration on the unorthodox presentations. In this section the paper shall briefly examine some of the positive arguments by Machiavelli centering on political power. Foremost, Machiavelli advocates for the militarization of the citizenry. He believes the leader should invest the security of the state on the citizenry rather than rely on mercenaries. In this Machiavelli secretly affirms his belief in civil liberties for the citizenry. For through militarization of the people, with the passage of time, the people would start advocating for self-rule and governance. According to the script by Machiavelli, the people eventually need to gain self-rule and control of the socio-economic aspects of the nation. Indeed, this feeling is captured in Machiavelli’s adoration for the republics. He believes that eventually after stability has been attained, it is necessary that the people gain civil rights and acquire self-rule. One observes the example offered by Machiavelli in the leadership by Romulus in Rome. Machiavelli appears to shed contempt on the approach by Romulus who collected the rich in the senate and militarized the poor. This way, Romulus failed to secure the stability of the state.
Secondly, Machiavelli stresses on the stability of the state. He appears to give much consideration to the need for stability. From a political science point of view, the stability of the nation state cannot be overlooked. Indeed, from the historical and current political contexts, one appreciates the need for the nation state’s stability. One agrees with Machiavelli that the growth of the state depends not on the level of democracy practiced in the said society but on the level of stability the state has. It is, therefore, necessary that the nations embrace stability first and later yearn for the democratic space. While Machiavelli may have conveyed this message in a discouraging manner, the truth remains that stability is essential for the long term development of the state.
In conclusion, Machiavelli’s view of political power needs to be appreciated in the context of leadership. His view of the prince needs to be appreciated in the context of the dicey nature of the relationships in leadership. While Machiavelli is brutally honest with his views and postulates the situation has it is and not as it should be, his oversight of an ethical premise is regrettable and need to be corrected. In addition, Machiavelli must appreciate the need for morality in leadership. That notwithstanding, his appreciation of the need for stability of the state is worth recognition and appreciation. His argument of the end justifies the means needs also to be examined from a wider context. Ultimately, it must be appreciated that maintaining political power is a difficult conception given the competing interests that pervade the political fold. On that context, Machiavellism needs to be appreciated and perhaps adopted partially. In addition, scholarly studies need to appreciate the positivity in the work of Machiavelli. Instead of concentrating much on the negative attributes in the philosophical thought by Machiavelli, some audience should be given to the evaluation of the positive attributes.
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