Machiavelli's Prince

by Robert James Reese, 1999

Niccolò Machiavelli wrote, in his novel The Prince, that strong central political leadership was more important than anything else, including religion and moral behavior. Machiavelli, writing during a period of dramatic change known as the Italian Renaissance, displayed attitudes towards many issues, mostly political, which supported his belief that strong government was the most important element in society. These attitudes and ideas were very appropriate for the time because they stressed strong, centralized power, the only kind of leadership that seemed to be working throughout Europe, and which was the element Italy was lacking. Machiavelli understood that obtaining such a government could not be done without separating political conduct and personal morality, and suggested that the separation be made. The Prince, written to the Medici family over five hundred years ago contained many truths, so universal and accurate that they still influence politics today.

To understand the writings of Niccolò Machiavelli, it is necessary to understand the world of Niccolò Machiavelli, Renaissance Italy. The region was not one nation as it is today, rather a collection of several city-states, which contained internal fighting between powerful families, fighting with each other. This era differed from the preceding middle ages in many respects, the pope's power was weakened, money controlled power instead of noble birth, and there was a revival of ancient Greek and Roman literature, architecture and art by a new breed of people, the humanists. These changes created the environment in which Machiavelli lived. He saw how the quarrelling was weakening the area, leaving it unable to withstand French attack. He witnessed the corrupt popes of Rome attempting to gain power just as the wealthy families did. These events and people left impressions on him that would become recommendations for strong, ruthless, central government in his writings.

Machiavelli stated that princes needed to be harsh in their treatment of both mixed principalities (new and old principalities combined) and new principalities. There is in all new and mixed principalities a "natural hazard... the willingness of men to change one lord for another, believing thus to improve their lot." To avoid against rebellions, the prince must be very harsh, disarm the populace, and always be cautious. It is easier for a prince to hold control after he has already subdued one rebellion, for he can use it as an excuse to establish himself more solidly, by strengthening his power.

To retain control of a city is much more difficult than acquiring control of a city according to Machiavelli. After a city is acquired, there are three ways of keeping control of it, "the first is to destroy it, the second is to go there in person, and the third is... setting up a government composed of a few men who will keep it friendly to you." Once a prince takes control of a city, he must not forget it, for it can easily be lost. Even if following one of Machiavelli's three ways to keep a city, it is still possible to lose control. Rebellions were commonplace in Renaissance Italy, and to protect against them it was necessary to constantly keep the city under the prince's power, a task easier said than done.

According to Niccolò Machiavelli, law was one of the two most important parts of a nation. "The two most essential foundations for any state... are sound laws and sound military forces." The military force's most important function is to defend and implement the laws, for without something to back them up, laws are nothing. He goes onto say that "Nothing so much honors a man newly come to power as the new laws and new ordinances he brings into being." If a prince is able to create and enforce new laws that bring good, then he will be known as a capable ruler. There is, however, a flip side; if a ruler cannot create beneficial laws he is quickly labeled unworthy of his position. It is laws that make a state and its ruler what they are.

As was mentioned earlier, Machiavelli lived in an era and location that allowed him to witness corruption in the Christian church in its height, causing him to view the pope as just another prince on a quest for increased power. In the year 1513, the year The Prince was written, Pope Alexander VI, the Borgia pope, was sitting on the throne. He used the papacy to promote the careers of his children, caused a French invasion of Italy, and focused on nothing but his quest for more power. Viewing this, it would have been hard for anyone, including Machiavelli, to view the papacy or any other ecclesiastical power in a positive light. Instead, he saw the popes as nothing more than princes attempting to strengthen and expand their empires.

With a pope as corrupt as Alexander VI sitting on the throne, one living in the early sixteenth century must have had difficulty seeing the importance of avoiding evil and morality. The church didn't avoid it, so why should everyone else? In The Discourses, Machiavelli writes, "Nor will any reasonable man blame him for taking any action, however extraordinary, which may be of service in the organizing of a kingdom or the constituting of a republic... Reprehensible actions may be justified by their effects." It was not the means that were taken to accomplish something, or whether they were moral, that was the issue of importance; instead it was the end result that mattered.

Mercenaries and auxiliaries were often as dangerous as the enemy itself. They are "disorganized undisciplined, ambitious and faithless" wrote Machiavelli about hired troops, because "they have no tie of devotion, no motive for taking the field except for their meager pay." The problem with the use of mercenaries was that a lack of money could lead to their raiding the hiring nation for loot or being hired by an enemy that could offer more money. Troops assisting from foreign lands were even less reliable because mere words created even weaker ties than money. Auxiliary troops could easily be bribed or persuaded to join the enemy. The only way to properly and safely fight a war is to do so with your own troops.

War was not something to be taken lightly. "A prince must have no other objective, no other thought, nor take up any profession but that of war... for that is the only art expected of a ruler." No matter how much his subjects like him, or the vastness of kingdom and wealth, a prince is nothing unless he can withstand foreign invasion. Nations and states are constantly trying to expand, and according to Machiavelli, a prince must protect his kingdom from these encroachments.

To Machiavelli, fear was the emotion that a successful ruler caused in people. The excellent rulers also inspired love and avoided being hated, but without the element of fear, this was worthless. "It would be best to be both loved and feared. But since the two rarely come together, anyone compelled to choose will find greater security in being feared than in being loved." Fear forces subjects to comply with the prince's laws, no matter how harsh. Love makes subjects comply with prince's laws, but only when it is convenient. Hatred often causes rebellion, but if the prince can instill enough fear in his subjects, he can subdue them. Therefore, it is necessary for the prince to be able instill fear in his subjects.

Truthfulness is a nicety, not a necessity in the eyes of Niccolò Machiavelli. He writes that people have higher regard and respect for princes who are able be honest all the time, but "princes who had little regard for their word and had the craftiness to turn men's minds have accomplished great things and, in the end, have overcome those who governed their actions by their pledges." If it was not possible for the prince to be honest, so be it. Again we see that to Machiavelli, it is the end result that matters, not the path that leads there.

Princes had to constantly be on their guard against subversions and rebellions. The height to which a prince was worried about rebellions could be easily seen in his housing. Machiavelli writes, "The prince who fears his subjects more than he fears foreign foes should erect fortresses; but the prince who fears foreign foes more than he fears his subjects should disregard them." The threat of rebellion and subversion was so great in some areas that the princes were forced to create fortresses protecting against their own subjects. Machiavelli clearly displays that princes must always be on their guard against rebellions and subversions.

To Machiavelli, power and leadership were of the greatest importance. His entire book, The Prince, focused on how to gain power and leadership, how to keep power and leadership, and what proper power and leadership was. A prince able to hold on to power and lead his subjects, must "adopt [the nature] of the fox and that of the lion; for a lion is defenseless against snares, and a fox is defenseless against wolves. Hence a prince ought to be a fox in recognizing snares and a lion in driving off wolves." Those who held power and leadership were the most important in the mind of Machiavelli, he wrote an entire novel on what they should strive to be.

Niccolò Machiavelli's ideas about principalities and governments that he expressed in his book, The Prince, were incredibly appropriate to the time in which he was living, for he was suggesting the only kind of government that was seeming to work, and the type of government which Renaissance Italy was suffering from a lack of. Less than a century before the publishing of The Prince, the world witnessed the effectiveness displayed by the ruthlessness of Louis XI of France. Throughout his reign, he was able to secure a strong monarchy, double the size of his nation, and create a more prosperous France, while making choices that paralleled Machiavelli's suggestions. In contrast, Italy was split into several small city-states, with no strong leadership emerging, leading to the invasion of the French. If a leader like Machiavelli suggested had emerged in Italy, the nation would have unified, and could have easily repelled the French. This is just one example of many; clearly the words of Machiavelli were very appropriate for his time.

One of the reasons that Machiavelli's ideas are able to create powerful governments is that he creates a separation between politics and personal morality. "Princes who had little regard for their word and had the craftiness to turn men's minds have accomplished great things and, in the end, have overcome those who governed their actions by their pledges." As mentioned earlier, Machiavelli saw truthfulness along with other moral actions merely as something to practice if possible. In The Discourses, he justifies Romulus' murder of his brother and many others because it brought a unified kingdom that was able to prosper. If he saw murder as an acceptable means of gaining political power, then he had certainly created a cleavage between personal morality and political behavior.

The Prince contained ideas so universal that they can be applied to politics even today. A perfect example would be World War II, which displayed the positive consequences that following Machiavellian ideas can have. The leader of Nazi Germany, Adolf Hitler, is a reasonable place to start considering most credit him with the start of the war. Through instilling fear in the German people and harshly punishing his opposition, he was able to create the largest empire Europe had seen for centuries. The United States followed a different suggestion of Machiavelli, one that allowed them to defeat the mighty empire that Hitler had created, they formed an alliance and chose sides in the war rather than staying neutral. This decision to create an alliance would result in Allied victory, and can be credited for checking and destroying the Nazis' power. Almost five hundred years after The Prince was written, the ideas in contained proved themselves to be very useful in the government of people.

Niccolò Machiavelli was born into a world of drastic change, Renaissance Italy, that would cause his mind to conjure ideas about many political issues transferred into books that the entire world has profited from since. His ideas were incredibly relevant to his time, because they suggested harsh governments, the only kind of governments that seemed to be working. He proposed creating these harsh governments through a separation of personal morality and political behavior. His ideas were so relevant and so universal, that they still influence politics today. Niccolò Machiavelli proposed the creating of strong central government more powerful than anything else, including religion and morality.

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