Machiavelli is remembered even today after 500 years for his famous work “The Prince”. His book is about the tools of government and the power play that rulers can implement to retain power. He quite explicitly describes the ways of state and government. Machiavelli has my appreciation for he is among the few people who talk about politics in such depth.
This paper criticizes Machiavelli and his evil teachings of gaining and retaining power. My major concern is Machiavelli’s famous book “The Prince”. The aim of this paper is to elucidate different understandings of Machiavelli and its critiques.
In this paper, firstly I will talk about the time period and historical context in which Machiavelli lived and wrote the book. Then I will explain my arguments that include importance of Ethics in Politics, implementation of Machiavellian ideas nowadays and impracticality of Machiavellian ideas when taking the circumstances or social context under consideration. Furthermore, I will analyze my arguments and then I will discuss some shortcomings of my arguments. Finally, I will conclude the entire work with objectivity.
Machiavelli was a famous writer, political philosopher, historian, diplomat and humanist of his time. He was born in 1469 in Florence, Italy. Florence was also the place where Renaissance was initiated. It was a time considered as Renaissance (revival or rebirth of ancient Greek ideas) time period i.e. 14th to 17th century. (Montesquieu, n.d.) Renaissance appeared as a foundation for development in the entire Europe. It was a time when there were both Catholic and Protestant church established and introduced. During this time period, human life was considered sacred because of the strong religious beliefs they held. Machiavelli also wrote poetry and comedy writings which gives us a clue that he was also a humanist. (Wilde, n.d.)
The most important aspect of Machiavelli’s life is his keen interest in occupying political office. He remained the secretory in Second Chancery in Florence for 14 years from 1498 to 1512. He met politicians and statesmen (also outside Florence and Italy) and he looked at Politics quite contemplatively. He also played his role in military affairs of Florence. He was arrested in 1512 for having links with Medici’s rival factions. It is stated in some histories that Machiavelli’s arrest was a revenge. As the chief diplomat of Florentine republic, he overthrew the Medici family. With their return in power he was disappeared from the public sphere and sent to prison. In 1513, he wrote his famous “The Prince” in prison. (Emachiavelli.com, n.d.) The prince is basically a guidebook for a young ruler to learn how to rule. It gives the reader a guide for gaining and retaining of power. Machiavelli justifies in his book all the cruelties of a ruler in terms of rationality of the state i.e. violence is done to put down any rebellion and to maintain power. He argued that lust for power is a human instinct and a ruler can only fulfil his desire if he is fox, feared and brave enough to take big decisions. He excludes the notion of morality from Politics and claims that the meaning of “virtue” is different in the world of Politics. (NovelGuide, n.d.)
It is also believed that Machiavelli wrote The Prince to get freedom from prison. He firstly wanted to dedicate the book to Lorenzo’s uncle Giuliano for his release from jail. But unfortunately, he died before the completion of the book and Machiavelli had to alter the dedication to Lorenzo just at the last moment. He tried to convince Medici family that they needed him if they wanted to retain power. He made himself appear to be the wise advisor who knew all the secrets (Yentob, 2016). This was a calculated attempt to win over Lorenzo who he knew would fall prey to flattery. He immensely wanted to hold the position of political advisor under Lorenzo, however he was unable to succeed in his attempt. (Emachiavelli.com, n.d.)
After providing historical background, now I will provide three arguments and their analyses to criticize the approach of Machiavelli about power and its maintenance in next three paragraphs.
My first argument is about the relationship between Ethics and Politics. I don’t agree with Machiavelli when he says that Ethics has nothing to do with Politics (ruler or political leader). He is condemning the view of great ancient genius Aristotle who views that best society would be that which is better at Ethics. Aristotle says “at the beginning of the Ethics that Politics is the science or art of the practical good”. We really can’t achieve practical good or welfare of a society if there is immorality or unethical attitude found. Aristotle argued “only matters of the common good are right; matters for the rulers’ good are wrong”.[i] (Lee, n.d.) So, we can say if a leader is making efforts for gaining power and causing violence for such purposes, he might be thinking only for his own self. Because if he were thinking for the society, he would not cause violence as killings are not a sign of a society aiming towards welfare.
Another important point in this regard is that if a leader is immoral and unethical, it’s possible that the whole society would be moral and ethical. Leaders are influential personalities and people do follow them. If a ruler is unethical, society might be unethical and if a ruler is ethical, society might be ethical. The definition of ethics differ for everyone but some concepts like truth and honesty are universal to some extent and every normal person has some common idea about such concepts. If a society consists of people who are truthful, honest, there is a great chance that society would lead towards development as goodness leads towards an ideal state. It is important for a society to have elements of morality to achieve a status of a best possible state. (Miller, 1998)
Machiavelli when talks about power, only takes the negative aspects of human nature under consideration i.e. lust for power. He utterly ignored the positive aspects of human beings i.e. loving and kind beings. A ruler might be generous and kind-hearted whose only aim is the welfare of the state and he might leave his position when he far sights that he’s not giving his best to the state.
My second argument is about Machiavellianism and the modern world. We can see the implementation of Machiavellian ideas to today’s capitalist world. Self-interest is the most important thing in capitalism, so we can say that all countries’ foreign policies primarily focus on their national-interests and they do whatever they want to increase their wealth and control. Modern business strategies and competitions are also quite Machiavellian in nature as their sole purpose is to deceive rivals. For instance, we can see how business executives use Machiavellianism i.e. “A prince should have no objective but war (to beat the competition).” He further says “Whoever desires to found a state (company) and gives it laws, must start with assuming that all men (other executives, shareholders etc.) are bad and ever ready to display their vicious nature, whenever they may find occasion for it.” (Emachiavelli.com, n.d.)
My question is that if power is such a good thing and if its demand is justifiable and its struggle is within human nature, then why do USA hides that they want power over the entire world and they use manifestos like World’s Health, Education, Sustainable Development, Global Equality and World Peace programs for achieving their political aims? Why do they do this under the umbrella of these manifestos? The answer of this question as I believe is USA doesn’t declare that they want absolute power because they know it’s evil and if someday they declare this, they may be in trouble and they might lose all they have (super power). No country might trust them as they would be able to know the reason behind America’s diplomacy. The fox quality of a leader which Machiavelli suggested can be seen in America’s diplomacy and their tactics to retain power throughout the world. Their ways of developing consent are a proof of American’s diplomacy. Some important fox leaders include Tony Blair, Obama, David Cameroon, Napoleon, Stalin and Tim Collins. Tim Collins was an army commander of USA during Iraq war and he kept a copy of “The Prince” with him as a guideline. Such fox leaders have the basic Machiavellian principle in their minds that states as “Ends justifies the means and action is accused and outcome excuses it”. (Yentob, 2016)
As my argument is about the connection between Machiavelli and the present world, so I will talk about the basics of capitalism that can be related to Machiavellianism. Capitalism increases human wants by supplying goods in excess and in variety. It provides ways to fulfil human desires. While Machiavelli also teaches the fulfilment of human lust for power in his famous work (The Prince). So, we can say that capitalism and Machiavellianism have something in common i.e. fulfilment of human wants.
My third argument is about constructivists and their emphasis on social context and circumstances in which one behaves. They argue that man is always bound to his social environment and every single act of a human being is affected by the place he lives at, the time period he exists in, the political and social conditions of a country and the social class and the gender he belongs to. (Maina, 2012) So, as it is mentioned in the introductory paragraph, Machiavelli wrote “The Prince” in prison, we can conclude that when he wrote his famous “The Prince”, he might be affected by his environment in prison. Generally, a man in jail feels alone and rarely meets anyone. He feels bored and suffers both physically and mentally. Researches show that more than half of the people who live in prisons are mentally ill or not in their normal conditions. (Glaze, 2006) They suffer from schizophrenia, schizoaffective, bipolar disorder, major depression and brief psychotic disorder. About 20% of the prisoners face such diseases. (Torrey EF, 2014) My viewpoint is if 50% of prisoners are mentally ill and 20% of them face hazardous diseases, there is a possibility that Machiavelli was not normal while writing “The Prince”. He might be one of those abnormal people who suffer from these mental conditions. If he were in prison, he might not have written “The Prince” as every act of a person is affected by his social environment. If we assume Machiavelli abnormal, we can say the relation between Machiavellianism and today’s world might be a co-incidence.
Talking about the critique of these arguments, we can say Aristotelian ideas are more inclined towards Idealism while Machiavellian towards Realism. When Machiavelli talks about power, we can say that he is talking about reality as everyone wants power and domination over the other. Aristotle’s thoughts about Ethics and their importance to run a state look somewhat unreal as Morality and Ethics seem rare in the modern Politics. Though Aristotelian ideas are fine and look fascinating and hold a position of how society ought to run but Machiavelli’s views are close to reality and hold an argument which emphasizes how a society actually runs. (Harrison, 2011) (Kraut, 2011)
While concluding, I can say what I wrote in this paper is the crux after looking at a particular direction. I, after researching on Machiavellian ideas, find him to be an extremist i.e. do whatever you want to gain and retain your power and it’s justified in Politics. On the other hand, Aristotelian ideas are also found on the opposite extreme i.e. they lack reality and are more idealistic.
We cannot judge as a History student what’s right or wrong. Voltaire says “History is a lie commonly agreed upon” and it’s a social construct and truth is constructed by Historians. They take into account all their social environment and their writings are affected by their countries, social classes, genders, places and religion. Some historians also claim “The Prince” was written as a satire to convince people and Machiavelli just threw light on reality in his book. His purpose to write “The Prince” might be different from teaching evil. All my arguments that include Aristotelian Ethics and Politics, relationship between Machiavellianism and today’s Politics and Constructivists (for whom social context is important) are just a collection of information and we really cannot know what the purpose was of writing “The Prince”.
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