From Machiavelli



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From Machiavelli

Since the 1532 publication of The Prince, an uncompromisingly frank handbook on political power, the name of Italian political philosopher Niccolò Machiavelli has become synonymous with brutal and deceptive means of grasping and retaining power. The amoral tone of Machiavelli’s work, which was modeled after the Italian politician Cesare Borgia, starkly contrasted with earlier works on leadership, which tended to glorify humanistic and moral virtues. Author Quentin Skinner provides an overview of the historical context and political philosophy behind The Prince.

From Machiavelli

By Quentin Skinner

…[A] prince who aims to scale the heights of glory must cultivate the right qualities of princely leadership. The nature of these qualities had already been influentially analysed by the Roman moralists. They had argued in the first place that all great leaders need to some extent to be fortunate. For unless Fortune happens to smile, no amount of unaided human effort can hope to bring us to our highest goals. As we have seen, however, they also maintained that a special range of characteristics—those of the vir [man]—tend to attract the favourable attentions of Fortune, and in this way almost guarantee us the attainment of honour, glory and fame. The assumptions underlying this belief are best summarised by Cicero in his Tusculan Disputations. He declares that, if we act from a thirst for virtus [physical and moral courage] without any thought of winning glory as a result, this will give us the best chance of winning glory as well, provided that Fortune smiles; for glory is virtus rewarded.

This analysis was taken over without alteration by the humanists of Renaissance Italy. By the end of the fifteenth century, an extensive genre of humanist advice-books for princes had grown up, and had reached an unprecedentedly wide audience through the new medium of print. Such distinguished writers as Bartolomeo Sacchi, Giovanni Pontano and Francesco Patrizi all wrote treatises for the guidance of new rulers, all of which were founded on the same basic principle: that the possession of virtus is the key to princely success. As Pontano rather grandly proclaims in his tract on The Prince, any ruler who wishes to attain his noblest ends 'must rouse himself to follow the dictates of virtus' in all his public acts. Virtus is 'the most splendid thing in the world', more magnificent even than the sun, for 'the blind cannot see the sun' whereas 'even they can see virtus as plainly as possible'.…

It is often complained that Machiavelli fails to provide any definition of virtu, and even that … he is 'innocent of any systematic use of the word'. But it will now be evident that he uses the term with complete consistency. Following his classical and humanist authorities, he [Machiavelli] treats it [virtu] as that quality which enables a prince to withstand the blows of Fortune, to attract the goddess's favour, and to rise in consequence to the heights of princely fame, winning honour and glory for himself and security for his government.

It still remains, however, to consider what particular characteristics are to be expected in a man of virtuoso capacities. The Roman moralists had bequeathed a complex analysis of the concept of virtus, generally picturing the true vir as the possessor of three distinct yet affiliated sets of qualities. They took him to be endowed in the first place with the four 'cardinal' virtues of wisdom, justice, courage and temperance —the virtues that Cicero (following Plato) begins by singling out in the opening sections of Moral Obligation. But they also credited him with an additional range of qualities that later came to be regarded as peculiarly 'princely' in nature. The chief of these the pivotal virtue of Cicero's Moral Obligation—was what Cicero called 'honesty', meaning a willingness to keep faith and deal honourably with all men at all times…Finally, the true vir was said to be characterised by his steady recognition of the fact that, if we wish to reach the goals of honour and glory, we must always be sure to behave as virtuously as possible. This contention—that it is always rational to be moral—lies at the heart of Cicero's Moral Obligation…

This analysis was again adopted in its entirety by the writers of advice-books for Renaissance princes. They made it their governing assumption that the general concept of virtus must refer to the complete list of cardinal and princely virtues…Next, they unhesitatingly endorsed the contention that the rational course of action for the prince to follow will always be the moral one, arguing the point with so much force that they eventually made it proverbial to say that 'honesty is the best policy'. And finally, they contributed a specifically Christian objection to any divorce between expediency and the moral realm. They insisted that, even if we succeed in advancing our interests by perpetrating injustices in this present life, we can still expect to find these apparent advantages cancelled out when we are justly visited with divine retribution in the life to come.

…[In The Prince] Machiavelli starts to discuss the princely virtues and vices, and warns us that although 'many have written about this' already, he is going to 'depart very far from the methods of the others'. He begins by alluding to the familiar humanist commonplaces: that there is a special group of princely virtues; that these include the need to be liberal, merciful and truthful; and that all rulers have a duty to cultivate these qualities. Next he concedes—still in orthodox humanist vein—that 'it would be most praiseworthy for a prince' to be able at all times to act in such ways. But then he totally rejects the fundamental humanist assumption that these are the virtues a ruler needs to acquire if he wishes to achieve his highest ends. This belief—the nerve and heart of humanist advice-books for princes—he regards as an obvious and disastrous mistake…

He argues that, if a ruler wishes to reach his highest goals, he will not always find it rational to be moral; on the contrary, he will find that any consistent attempt to 'practise all those things for which men are considered good' will prove a ruinously irrational policy. But what of the Christian objection that this is a foolish as well as a wicked position to adopt, since it forgets the day of judgement on which all injustices will finally be punished? About this Machiavelli says nothing at all. His silence is eloquent, indeed epoch-making; it echoed around Christian Europe, at first eliciting a stunned silence in return, and then a howl of execration that has never finally died away.

If princes ought not to conduct themselves according to the dictates of conventional morality, how ought they to conduct themselves? Machiavelli's response—the core of his positive advice to new rulers—is given at the beginning of chapter 15. A wise prince will be guided above all by the dictates of necessity: 'in order to hold his position', he 'must acquire the power to be not good, and understand when to use it and when not to use it' as circumstances direct…Moreover, he must reconcile himself to the fact that 'he will often be necessitated' to act 'contrary to truth, contrary to charity, contrary to humanity, contrary to religion' if he wishes 'to maintain his government'…

By now it will be evident that the revolution Machiavelli engineered in the genre of advice-books for princes was based in effect on redefining the pivotal concept of virtu. He endorses the conventional assumption that virtu is the name of that congeries of qualities which enables a prince to ally with Fortune and obtain honour, glory and fame. But he divorces the meaning of the term from any necessary connection with the cardinal and princely virtues. He argues instead that the defining characteristic of a truly virtuoso prince will be a willingness to do whatever is dictated by necessity—whether the action happens to be wicked or virtuous—in order to attain his highest ends…

Machiavelli takes some pains to point out that this conclusion opens up an unbridgeable gulf between himself and the whole tradition of humanist political thought, and does so in his most savagely ironic style. To the classical moralists and their innumerable followers, moral virtue had been the defining characteristic of the vir, the man of true manliness. Hence to abandon virtue was not merely to act irrationally; it was also to abandon one's status as a man and descend to the level of the beasts. As Cicero had put it in Book I of Moral Obligation, there are two ways in which wrong may be done, either by force or by fraud. Both, he declares, 'are bestial' and 'wholly unworthy of man'—force because it typifies the lion and fraud because it 'seems to belong to the cunning fox'.

To Machiavelli, by contrast, it seemed obvious that manliness is not enough. There are indeed two ways of acting, he says at the start of chapter 18, of which 'the first is suited to man, the second to the animals'. But 'because the first is often not sufficient, a prince must resort to the second. One of the things a prince therefore needs to know is which animals to imitate. Machiavelli's celebrated advice is that he will come off best if he 'chooses among the beasts the fox and the lion', supplementing the ideals of manly decency with the indispensable arts of force and fraud. This conception is underlined in the next chapter, in which Machiavelli discusses one of his favourite historical characters, the Roman emperor Septimius Severus. First he assures us that the emperor was 'a man of very great virtu'. And then, explaining the judgement, he adds that Septimius' great qualities were those of 'a very savage lion and a very tricky fox', as a result of which he was 'feared and respected by everybody'.

Machiavelli rounds off his analysis by indicating the lines of conduct to be expected from a truly virtuoso prince. In chapter 19 he puts the point negatively, stressing that such a ruler will never do anything worthy of contempt, and will always take the greatest care 'to avoid everything that makes him hated'. In chapter 21 the positive implications are then spelled out. Such a prince will always act 'without reservation' towards his allies and enemies, boldly standing forth 'as a vigorous supporter of one side'. At the same time, he will seek to present himself to his subjects as majestically as possible, doing 'extraordinary things' and keeping them 'always in suspense and wonder, watching for the outcome'.

In the light of this account, it is easy to understand why Machiavelli felt such admiration for [Italian politician] Cesare Borgia, and wished to hold him up—despite his obvious limitations—as a pattern of virtu for other new princes…

The new morality

Machiavelli is fully aware that his new analysis of princely virtu raises some new difficulties. He states the main dilemma in the course of chapter 15: on the one hand, a prince must 'acquire the power to be not good' and exercise it whenever this is dictated by necessity; but on the other hand, he must be careful not to acquire the reputation of being a wicked man, because this will tend to 'take his position away from him' instead of securing it. The problem is thus to avoid appearing wicked even when you cannot avoid behaving wickedly.

Moreover, the dilemma is even sharper than this implies, for the true aim of the prince is not merely to secure his position, but is of course to win honour and glory as well…

Finally, Machiavelli refuses to admit that the dilemma can be resolved by setting stringent limits to princely wickedness, and in general behaving honourably towards one's subjects and allies. This is exactly what one cannot hope to do, because all men at all times 'are ungrateful, changeable, simulators and dissimulators, runaways in danger, eager for gain', so that 'a prince who bases himself entirely on their word, if he is lacking in other preparations, falls'. The implication is that 'a prince, and above all a prince who is new' will often—not just occasionally—find himself forced by necessity to act 'contrary to humanity' if he wishes to keep his position and avoid being deceived.

These are acute difficulties, but they can certainly be overcome. The prince need only remember that although it is not necessary to have all the qualities usually considered good, it is ‘very necessary to appear to have them'. It is good to be considered liberal; it is sensible to seem merciful and not cruel; it is essential in general to be 'thought to be Of great merit'. The solution is thus to become 'a great simulator and dissimulator', learning 'how to addle the brains of men with trickery' and make them believe in your pretence…

Machiavelli cannot have been unaware, however, that in recommending the arts of deceit as the key to success he was in danger of sounding too glib. More orthodox moralists had always been prepared to consider the suggestion that hypocrisy might be used as a short cut to glory, but had always gone on to rule out any such possibility…

Machiavelli responds, as before, by rejecting such earnest sentiments in his most ironic style. He insists in chapter 18 that the practice of hypocrisy is not merely indispensable to princely government, but is capable of being sustained without much difficulty for as long as may be required. Two distinct reasons are offered for this deliberately provocative conclusion. One is that most men are so simple-minded, and above all so prone to self-deception, that they usually take things at face value in a wholly uncritical way. The other is that, when it comes to assessing the behaviour of princes, even the shrewdest observers are largely condemned to judge by appearances. Isolated from the populace, protected by 'the majesty of the government', the prince's position is such that 'everybody sees what you appear to be' but 'few perceive what you are'. Thus there is no reason to suppose that your sins will find you out; on the contrary, 'a prince who deceives always finds men who let themselves be deceived'.

…[I]n the notorious chapter on 'How princes should keep their promises'…Machiavelli begins by affirming that everybody realises how praiseworthy it is when a ruler 'lives with sincerity and not with trickery', and goes on to insist that a prince ought not merely to seem conventionally virtuous, but ought 'actually to be so' as far as possible, 'holding to what is right when he can', and only turning away from the virtues when this is dictated by necessity.

However…Machiavelli is somewhat quizzical about whether we can properly say that those qualities which are considered good, but are nevertheless ruinous, really deserve the name of virtues. Since they are prone to bring destruction, he prefers to say that they 'look like virtues'; and since their opposites are more likely to bring 'safety and well-being', he prefers to say that they 'look like vices'.

This suggestion is pursued in both the succeeding chapters. Chapter 16, entitled 'Liberality and stinginess', picks up a theme handled by all the classical moralists and turns it on its head. When Cicero discusses the virtue of liberality in Moral Obligation, he defines it as a desire to 'avoid any suspicion of penuriousness', together with an awareness that no vice is more offensive in a political leader than parsimony and avarice. Machiavelli replies that, if this is what we mean by liberality, it is the name not of a virtue but of a vice. He argues that a ruler who wishes to avoid a reputation for parsimony will find that he 'cannot neglect any kind of lavishness'. As a result, he will find himself having 'to burden his people excessively' to pay for his generosity, a policy which will soon make him 'hateful to his subjects'…

A similar paradox appears in the following chapter, entitled 'Cruelty and mercy'. This too had been a favourite topic among the Roman moralists, Seneca's essay On Mercy being the most celebrated treatment of the theme. According to Seneca, a prince who is merciful will always show 'how loath he is to turn his hand' to punishment; he will resort to it only 'when great and repeated wrongdoing has overcome his patience'; and he will inflict it only 'after great reluctance' and 'much procrastination' as well as with the greatest possible clemency. Faced with this orthodoxy Machiavelli insists once more that it represents a complete misunderstanding of the virtue involved. If you begin by trying to be merciful, so that you 'let evils continue' and only turn to punishment after 'murders or plunder' begin, your conduct will be far less clement than that of a prince who has the courage to begin by 'giving a very few examples of cruelty'. Machiavelli cites… Borgia, who 'was thought cruel', but used 'that well-known cruelty of his' so well that he 'reorganised the Romagna [region of Italy]', united it and 'brought it to peace and loyalty', achieving all these beneficial results by means of his alleged viciousness.

This leads Machiavelli to a closely connected question which he puts forward—with a similar air of self-conscious paradox—later in the same chapter: 'is it better to be loved than feared, or the reverse?'. Again the classic answer had been furnished by Cicero in Moral Obligation. 'Fear is but a poor safeguard of lasting power', whereas love 'may be trusted to keep it safe for ever'. Again Machiavelli registers his total dissent. 'It is much safer', he retorts, 'for a prince to be feared than loved.' The reason is that many of the qualities that make a prince loved also tend to bring him into contempt…

The other line of argument in these chapters reflects an even more decisive rejection of conventional humanist morality. Machiavelli suggests that, even if the qualities usually considered good are indeed virtues—such that a ruler who flouts them will undoubtedly be falling into vice—he ought not to worry about such vices if he thinks them either useful or irrelevant to the conduct of his government.

Machiavelli's main concern at this point is to remind new rulers of their most basic duty of all. A wise prince 'will not worry about incurring reproaches for those vices without which he can hardly maintain his position'; he will see that such criticisms are merely an unavoidable cost he has to bear in the course of discharging his fundamental obligation, which is of course to maintain his state …

Lastly, Machiavelli considers whether it is important for a ruler to eschew the lesser vices and sins of the flesh if he wishes to maintain his state. The writers of advice-books for princes generally dealt with this issue in a sternly moralistic vein, echoing Cicero's insistence in Book I of Moral Obligation that propriety is 'essential to moral rectitude', and thus that all persons in positions of authority must avoid all lapses of conduct in their personal lives. By contrast, Machiavelli answers with a shrug. A wise prince 'protects himself from such vices if he can'; but if he finds he cannot, then 'he passes over them with little concern', not troubling himself about such ordinary susceptibilities at all.


Source: Skinner, Quentin. Machiavelli. Past Masters series. © 1981. Reproduced by permission of Oxford University Press.
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