Professor Carter

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Shin-Yee Yu

Poli 210

Professor Carter


In Machiavelli’s writings, he describes how the state should be an “autonomous system of values independent of any source” (Ebenstein, p. 285). In order to understand whether the state can have an autonomous system of values, it is important to identify the different sources of values that usually control the state. Machievelli wanted the state to be free of the different value systems like morality, ethics, and religion. The state’s only purpose is to gain, retain, and expand its power as much as possible with no concern for other value systems. However, it is very difficult to keep the people under the state by not appealing at all to their value systems. The power of the state needs the support of the people. Hence, the question at hand is whether the state can truly be of the influence of other value systems.

Niccolo Machiavelli “entered public service” in Florence at the age of twenty-nine and continued in his position for fourteen years until the “absolutist regime of the Medici” took over with “papal help” (Ebenstein, p. 284). He was then accused of crimes which he was later acquitted for. Machiavelli was later exile to a farm near Florence. During his exile, he wrote The Prince, a book that celebrated the absolutist regime which was complete opposite of the republic government which he had served under. His intention of the writing of The Prince was to gain a new position under the Medici regime. His attempt failed, and Machiavelli could only continue with on with his political aspirations through writing.

It is easy to understand why Machiavelli strayed from his republican roots to supporting an absolutist regime. He had lost his job due to the waning of the republican government. He must have lost faith in the republican government and saw the absolutist regime as the only way to actually have secure power. In The Prince, he describes how the state should be free of the influence of any other influence systems in order to fulfill its purpose of gaining, retaining, and expanding power. He goes on to further to state the supremacy of this power-based value system over any sort of moral codes or religious beliefs. However, the state, according to Machiavelli, is still attached to moral, religious, and ethical systems.

Machiavelli never “praises immorality” in his works (Ebenstein, pg. 84). However, when moral codes come in conflict with the power principals of the state, the state will also reign supreme. Though morality may not always be the top priority, it is important for the prince to know how to be good and how not to be good, though he may conduct himself in anyways accordance to moral principles. In that sense, the system of moral codes still influences the state.

Machiavelli describes how a prince should not seek goodness for it is not realistic goal for the prince to have for “how we live is so far removed from how we ought to live’ (Ebenstein, p.292). Machiavelli believed that it was important for the prince to differentiate between being good and not being good and to use this knowledge if necessary, but never to actually apply it.

In place of the usual conventional moral system, Machiavelli develops his own definitions of “goodness” as related by the power-based principals of the state. To Machiavelli, a prince’s virtue likes in his military valor. Machiavelli also redefines the words ‘good and evil’ from simple conventional moral values to relative terms. In Machiavelli’s definitions, these words have lost their original meaning in the moralistic perspective. They are instead used to define the efficiency in the power of a ruler. The word, ‘good’ is now an efficient action that “helps to further the gain, retention, and growth of power” (Ebenstein, p.286). An inefficient action that does not help the increase of power thus would be considered ‘bad’.

Religion, conventionally, is a set of beliefs that unite people on their thinking about the ways of the universe. It is used as unite people with similar beliefs as a support for spiritual development. Machiavelli does not view religion conventionally. He has a unique take on religion in the state. For him personally, he has no “sense of religion” but sees religion as a powerful tool for the ruler (Ebenstein, p. 287). Religion is a combination of a man’s “reason, ethics, and morality” (P.287). Religion can be said to be the essence of the man which Machiavelli believes the ruler can use as “a tool of influence and control” over his subjects (Ebenstein, p. 287). The ruler can use the religion to his advantage for “where religions exists it is easy to introduce armies and discipline” (Ebenstein, p. 287).

Machiavelli also encourages the ruler to support and spread religious “doctrines and beliefs in miracles that he knows to be false” (Ebenstein, P. 287). The validity of the religious texts is not really important as the goal of keeping people “well conducted and united” is reached (Ebenstein, p. 287).

It would not be valid to say the state “is set up as an autonomous system of values independent of any other source” (Ebenstein, p. 285). The supposedly autonomous system of values of the state is very much derived from the conventional value of morals and religion. Though Machiavelli’s definition of morals and religion stray from the conventional definitions; his integration of the two values into the state is still based off the original definitions of the words.

Machiavelli sees morals as being relative especially in distinguishing between the words: “good” and “bad”. What’s good and what’s bad is all relative on the action’s effectiveness to expand the power of the state. Rather than seeing religion as a purely spiritual activity, Machiavelli views religion as a valuable political tool for rulers to control their subjects. The original usage and meanings for these separate words have been the basis of Machiavelli’s new usage of them. He has reinvented the meaning and usage of morals and religion and integrated them to his idea of a state whose only aim is power.

The goal and the sole purpose of a state is to gain, retain, and expand power. In order for a ruler to effectively accomplish this goal, the state must appeal to the subjects’ sense of morals and their religious beliefs. They must appeal to the essence of man, the basis of their being.

Thus, it cannot be said that the state that “is set up as an autonomous system of values independent of any other source” (Ebenstein, p. 285). Though it is true that the focus of the state is on the obtaining of power, the state still needs the support of the people. Power is the sense of domination. If the people did not support the ruler, the ruler would then not have any power. Even Machiavelli warns the prince of “incur[ring] the hatred of the people” (Ebenstein, p. 295). Thus, the state needs to appeal to their morals and religions and manipulate them for the good of the state. By appealing to the different value systems, the state is no longer an autonomous system. And the state is certainly not independent of any other source. It is influenced by the value systems of morals and religion, albeit with completely different contexts and definitions.

Machiavelli, due to his experiences with failures of the republican government and with the Medici family coming into power, came to the conclusion that a strong totalitarian government with one strong and able ruler would be the only viable way to sustain the state. He wanted to secure the power for the ruler, and believed that a state with an “independent system of values” as the only viable way (P. 285). What he did not realize was how much the state depended on different systems of values for the support of the people. He did not realize that these different systems of values such as religion and morals, albeit redefined in his texts, are necessary for not only the acquisition of power but also its expansion and retention. In conclusion, the construct of the state is depended on multiple systems of values integrated together to tie the ruler and the subjects together to form a strong state.

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