1. How does Machiavelli view human nature?
Machiavelli differs from the many political theorists who offer conceptions of a “natural state,” a presocial condition arising solely from human instinct and character. But while Machiavelli never puts forth a vision of what society would be like without civil government, he nonetheless presents a coherent, although not particularly comprehensive, vision of human nature.
Machiavelli mentions explicitly a number of traits innate among humans. People are generally self-interested, although their affections for others can be won and lost. They remain content and happy so long they avoid affliction or oppression. They might be trustworthy in prosperous times, but they can turn selfish, deceitful, and profit-driven in adverse times. They admire honor, generosity, courage, and piety in others, but most do not harbor these virtues. Ambition lies among those who have achieved some power, but most common people are satisfied with the way things are and therefore do not yearn to improve on the status quo. People will naturally feel obligated after receiving a favor or service, and this bond is usually not broken capriciously. Nevertheless, loyalties are won and lost, and goodwill is never absolute.
These statements about human nature often serve as justification for much of Machiavelli’s advice to princes. For example, a prince should never trust mercenary leaders because they, like most leaders, are overly ambitious. At the same time, while many of Machiavelli’s remarks on the subject seem reasonable, most are assumptions not grounded in evidence or popular notions and can easily be criticized. For example, a Hobbesian might argue that Machiavelli puts too much faith in people’s ability to remain content in the absence of government force. A related issue to explore, then, might be the extent to which Machiavelli’s political theory relies too heavily on any single, possibly fallacious depiction of human nature.
Is Machiavelli’s book “evil”? What role does virtue play in Macchiavelli’s state?
Some of the advice to rulers found in The Prince—most famously, the defense of cruelty toward subjects—has led to criticism that Machiavelli’s book is evil or amoral. Moreover, the explicit separation of politics from ethics and metaphysics seems to indicate that there is no role for any kind of virtue in Machiavelli’s state.
However, Machiavelli never advocates cruelty or other vices for their own sake. He advocates them only in the interests of safeguarding the state, which, in Machiavelli’s view, is a kind of ultimate good in its own right. Nor does he advocate that virtue should be shunned for its own sake. Indeed, Machiavelli states several times that when it is in the interests of the state, a prince must strive to act virtuously. But virtue should never take precedence over the state. Thus, generosity, which might be admired by others, is actually detrimental to the future prosperity of the state. It is for this reason alone that a prince should avoid it.
Machiavelli’s conception of virtue as defined in The Prince is not quite the same as that of classical theorists. Whereas Aristotle and others defined virtue in relation to some highest “good,” Machiavelli settles for a much more simplistic definition: that which receives the praise of others. Thus, generosity is a virtue, in the Machiavellian sense, only because other people praise it.
Compare and contrast the different ways in which a prince can rise to power.
According to Machiavelli, there are four main ways a prince can come into power. The first way is through prowess, meaning personal skill and ability. The second is through fortune, meaning good luck or the charity of friends. The third way is through crime, such as through a coup, conspiracy, or assassination. The fourth way is constitutional, meaning through the official support of either nobles or common people.
The most important comparison to be made is that between prowess and fortune. Obtaining a state through prowess is clearly more demanding than benefiting from simple good luck. But a prince gifted with his own prowess is possessed of a strong foundation to maintain that rule, whereas fortune is unpredictable and may lead as easily to a prince’s deposition as it had to his rise. Thus, maintaining rule is much easier when a prince has used his own skill. Because the maintenance of rule is most important to Machiavelli, he concludes that prowess is a better route to become a prince.
A second comparison might be made between criminal and constitutional means of achieving power. Here, the main point of difference is not the skill and experience of the prince but popular attitudes toward the prince. A prince who comes to power through crime runs the greatest risk because he may be forced to commit some cruelty toward his subjects, endangering himself by breeding hatred and resentment among the populace. A constitutional prince, however, comes to power with the support of either the nobles or commoners, and his job consists mainly of keeping the unsupportive group satisfied with his rule.
To sum up, prowess is to be preferred over fortune because prowess leads to a more effective ruler who is likely to garner lasting glory. Constitutional princes are preferable to criminal princes not only because they are more effective, but also because a criminal prince can achieve nothing other than power. A constitutional prince can achieve both power and glory.
Suggested Essay Topics
1. What are Machiavelli’s views regarding free will? Can historical events be shaped by individuals, or are they the consequence of fortune and circumstance?
2. In Discourses on Livy (1517), Machiavelli argues that the purpose of politics is to promote a “common good.” How does this statement relate to the ideas Machiavelli presents in The Prince?
3. Do you agree with Machiavelli’s thesis that stability and power are the only qualities that matter in the evaluation of governments? If not, what else matters?
4. Discuss class conflict in The Prince and its relationship to successful government.
5. Discuss The Prince’s historical context. In what ways do the arguments and examples of the The Prince reflect that context?
6. Discuss the form, tone, and rhetoric of The Prince. Does Machiavelli’s choice in this area lead to a persuasive argument? Why or why not?
7. How much of The Prince is relevant to contemporary society in an age when monarchies no longer are the primary form of government?
If you’re a political outsider who wants to move fast to the top job in a democracy, how to do it? You could start by dipping into a book written 500 years ago by an out-of-pocket Italian civil servant. The quickest way, it says, is to have fortune on your side from the outset, with plenty of inherited money and a leg up through family connections. If lying and breaking your oaths help you crush the opposition, so be it. Make the people your best friend. Promise to protect their interests against predatory elites and foreigners. Fan partisan hatreds so that you alone seem to rise above them, saviour of the fatherland.
Machiavelli's The Prince, part 1: the challenge of power | Nick Spencer
The book is The Prince, its author Niccolò Machiavelli. Minus television and Twitter, it seems the techniques of ambitious “new princes”, as he calls them, haven’t changed a bit. But why did Machiavelli write a whole book about them, peppering it with men who soared to power by greasing palms and exploiting weaknesses: Julius Caesar, Pope Alexander VI, Cesare Borgia?
Most people today assume that Machiavelli didn’t just describe their methods, he recommended them – that he himself is the original Machiavellian, the first honest teacher of dishonest politics. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the adjective has come to mean “cunning, scheming, and unscrupulous, especially in politics”. Along with our daily news, popular culture has brought legions of Machiavellian figures into our homes and made them both human and entertaining: Tony Soprano, Frank and Claire Underwood in House of Cards, Lord Petyr Baelish fromGame of Thrones. These Machiavellians are scoundrels, but subtle ones. In watching their manoeuvres on screen we, like their victims, can’t help being a little seduced by their warped ingenuity. So it no longer shocks us to think that a highly intelligent man who lived five centuries ago, in times we imagine were far crueller than ours, spent night after night at his desk in the Tuscan countryside, his wife and children sleeping nearby, drafting the rulebook for today’s cynical populists and authoritarians.
But what if we’re overlooking Machiavelli’s less obvious messages, his deeper insights into politics? Until about a decade ago, it never occurred to me to ask this question. It was part of my job to teach Plato-to-Nato courses in the history of ideas, and Machiavelli came up early in the year, squeezed between Augustine and Hobbes. Like thousands of overworked lecturers, I had my shortcuts. Picking up The Prince or Discourses, I’d highlight all the attention-grabbing Machiavellian phrases and skim the rest. Academic summaries told me that Machiavelli was devoted to the salvation of his native city, Florence, and his country, Italy, at a time when both were ravaged by wars. Yes, he made sinister excuses for violence and hypocrisy. But his reasons were patriotic, well-meaning, human.
Yet the more I read, the more I questioned this story. I started noticing that Machiavelli’s writings speak in different voices at different times. At one moment he seems to applaud men who break their oaths at will, caring little for just dealings. But he also says – in a passage most scholars pass over – that “victories are never secure without some respect, especially for justice”. For every cynical Machiavellian precept, I found two or three others that clashed with it.
I began to doubt that Machiavelli believed his own advice. These doubts grew as I delved into his life and times, trying to understand what made him say what he did. The usual story is that he wrote The Prince as a job application, when he was seeking work as an adviser to Florence’s first family, the super-wealthy Medici. But as a leading civil servant in charge of foreign affairs and defence, Machiavelli had been one of the republic’s stoutest defenders. Just a year before he finished the first draft of his “little book”, the Medici swept into Florence in a foreign-backed coup after spending years in exile. They were deeply suspicious of his loyalties, dismissed him from his posts, then had him imprisoned and tortured under suspicion of plotting against them.
If Machiavelli did send the Medici The Prince, which seems unlikely, he could not have expected them to take its “advice” – to bribe, swindle, and assassinate one’s way to power – as gifts of friendly wisdom. Nor would it have helped his cause that he addresses the Medici as “princes” in his dedication, and insists on their remoteness from the people. Just like modern dictators, the Medici were keen to keep up the fiction that they were mere “first citizens” in Florence’s republic, not monarchs or tyrants. Calling them princes was an audacious piece of cheek. No wonder readers of The Prince in the early modern era – philosophers such as Francis Bacon, Spinoza and Rousseau – had no doubt the book was a cunning exposé of princely snares, a self-defence manual for citizens. “The book of republicans,” Rousseau dubbed it.
Don’t judge by reputation or appearances. “Take nothing on authority.” These are among Machiavelli’s less-known maxims, and we should apply them to his own words. If we look again at how he lived his life and how that life shaped his thoughts, it looks as if we’ve got Machiavelli all wrong.
And it’s time we got him right, because no contemporary writer is a better guide to understanding and confronting our own political world. Both as secretary to the republic and through his writings – which include reams of poetry, risqué comedies and a quietly tragic history of Florence – he spent his life fighting to defend his city’s republican government against threats from within and without. It was a hard fight, with battles on many fronts. It took Machiavelli on a long journey across France with King Louis XII, and to the court of Cesare Borgia, where he spent nerve-racking months trying to dissuade the violent youth from attacking Florence.
Machiavelli was convinced the real threats to freedom come from within – from gross inequalities on the one hand, and extreme partisanship on the other. He saw first-hand that authoritarian rule can take root and flourish in such conditions with terrifying ease, even in republics like Florence that had proud traditions of popular self-government.
His city’s tempestuous history taught Machiavelli a lesson he tries to convey to future readers: that no one man can overpower a free people unless they let him. “Men are so simple,” he tells us, “so obedient to present necessities, that he who deceives will always find someone who will let himself be deceived.” To each of us, he says: don’t become that someone. Citizens need to realise that by trusting leaders too much and themselves too little, they create their own political nightmares. “I’d like to teach them the way to hell,” he told a friend toward the end of his life, “so they can steer clear of it.”
So what can citizens can do to preserve their freedoms? For one thing, they can train themselves to see through the various ruses in the would-be tyrant’s handbook. Machiavelli’s The Prince describes most of them, in ways that mimic their disorienting ambiguity. On the day Donald Trump signed his executive order on immigration from seven countries, for instance, these comments were painfully apt:
Between his double-edged lines, Machiavelli makes it clear why popular government is better than authoritarian rule
Nothing makes a new prince so esteemed as to carry on great enterprises and give rare examples of himself. In our times we have Ferdinand of Aragon. If you consider his actions, you will find them great and some of them extraordinary. He kept the minds of the barons of Castile preoccupied with war; so they did not perceive that he was acquiring reputation and power over them. Besides this, to undertake greater enterprises, always making use of religion, he turned to an act of pious cruelty, expelling the Marranos [forcibly converted Muslims and Jews] and purging them from his kingdom; nor could there be a more wretched example than this. And so he has always done and ordered great things, which have always kept the minds of his subjects in suspense and admiration and occupied with their outcome. And his actions have followed one upon another so that men never have time to work steadily against him.
When we know that these words are Machiavelli’s, we tend to let his reputation colour how we read them. But if an anonymous poster were to put up this passage online, how would you take it: as lavish praise for a great leader’s statesmanship, or deadpan sendup of his grandiosity and cheap tricks? You might suspect that it’s all a braintease, a test of whether you can smell trouble behind big talk and manic hyperactivity. And you might wonder: can distraction tactics like these ever bring states lasting security? Machiavelli’s answer is, no, they can’t. True political success needs completely different methods: low-key diplomacy, long-range solutions to complicated problems.
Alongside his lessons for citizens, he also has a message for new populist princes. You might, he tells them, rise with ease to the top by using divide-and-rule tactics and other stock manipulations. People might believe your self-serving version of reality – the world of us-versus-a-thousand-predators – for a while. But in the daily grind of governing, harder realities bite. Then you’ll be tempted to show everyone who’s boss, and try to ascend from a civil order to an absolute one. But be warned: citizens who are used to being governed by laws and magistrates are not ready, in these emergencies, to obey a despot. And if you do steal their freedoms, they never forget them. “The memory of their old liberty cannot let them rest.” They’ll fight you down to the scorched and bloody earth. Oh, and don’t bother building walls to keep out foreigners. Poisonous inequalities, citizens who hate each other, government that lacks legitimacy: these are what make states vulnerable. Walls just advertise your failure to deal with them.
Today, yet again, old and new democracies are fighting for their lives. Between his double-edged lines, Machiavelli makes it clear why law-governed popular government is always better than authoritarian rule: “A people who can do whatever it wants is unwise, but a prince who can do whatever he wants is crazy.” His life and words inspire us to become sharper readers of political danger signs, and ruthless warriors for our freedoms.
• Erica Benner’s Be Like the Fox: Machiavelli’s Lifelong Quest for Freedom is published by Allen Lane.