The ancient Greeks were the first to introduce philosophical thought to mankind. When one thinks of Greek philosophy, three individuals come into mind – Socrates, Plato and Aristotle in this order. Plato was Socrates’ protege and Aristotle that of Plato. These men not only enlightened men with their brilliance but also helped provide moral guidance to society for this was the role of philosophers whose wisdom was valued and sought for from the lowliest citizen to that of kings. This was all but forgotten during the time of the Romans and the Middle Ages.
The Renaissance saw the return of classical Greco-Roman culture in most respects but it fell short when it came to philosophical thought especially in the purview of politics. It was here that a new political thought emerged courtesy of Niccolo Machiavelli. Through his work, The Prince, Machiavelli did not only provide a theoretical framework for his patron, but would also be employed by future leaders who found his ideas not only practical, but very useful in helping them achieve their goals. The Renaissance period was the result of the Humanist movement that emerged during the waning years of the Middle Ages.
Prior to this, secular political philosophy was already existing during the Holy Roman Empire but the extent of its influence was rather limited because the academic field was wholly influenced by Christian scholasticism. The Humanist movement picked up momentum as it brought back classical ideas to supplant scholasticism. Those who held on to Christian values saw the Renaissance as the “return to paganism” which was not only evident in the art but in philosophy as well and Machiavelli was the one who stood out during this period with virtually no peer.
Machiavelli was born in a tumultuous era of the Renaissance. This was the time the Popes, heads of the Catholic Church were influential enough to raise their own armies and waged war; wealthy Italian city-states, though enjoying relative autonomy from the prosperity they enjoyed were susceptible to attack and conquest by foreign powers such as Spain, France and even the Holy Roman Empire and this was further made complicated and to an extent convoluted with series of political-military alliances which continually changed as erstwhile allies and confederates changed sides on a whim and at any given time.
Moving forward beyond Machiavelli’s lifetime, this was also a similar occurrence in later centuries, thereby validating Machiavelli’s observations and ideas. This period was also characterized by political instability and volatility as governments rise and fall even though it had barely been around after its installation. This was the world of Machiavelli. Ironically, he himself was its victim when he was part of the republican faction that saw the expulsion of the Medici family from power and was banished into exile by the same family when it was restored to power.
It was during this time of exile that he wrote The Prince which he dedicated (ironically) to the Medicis, the very same people who banished him, as a way of currying their favor in ending his exile. The Prince emphasizes how a ruling prince, the title of the rulers of the city-states, can maintain control over all he governs. This is a rather tough balancing act as the prince needs to exercise control over the resources of the state in order to maintain it and at the same time meet the needs of his people.
That requires the prince being someone above reproach almost to the point of being infallible, whilst privately acting amorally to meet the goals of the state. Machiavelli based these from his observations as a Florentine diplomat, and his study of ancient history, particularly the history of the Roman Republic. It can be inferred here that by the time Machiavelli wrote The Prince, the ideas embodied here are not exactly new but something he revived based on his studies.
In this social and political milieu, Machiavelli observed the way people lived and had in mind a plan to “educate” or “enlighten” leaders how they should rule and even define their lifestyles if they wanted to stay in power longer. During his time, he noticed that most people were obliged to live virtuously as according to Aristotelian ethics. However, he dared to challenge this belief, saying that living virtuous lives does not necessarily lead to happiness. Machiavelli, in a sense of irony and apparently going against the norms, viewed misery as something useful which prince should capitalize on if they wish to rule longer.
Machiavelli states boldly in The Prince, “The answer is, of course, that 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. As long as you serve their interests, they are devoted to you…Men are less nervous of offending someone who makes himself loveable, than someone who makes himself frightening…A ruler should make himself feared in such a way that if he does not inspire love, at least he does not provoke hatred. For it is perfectly possible to be feared and not hated.
” (quoted from Morgan 510) From this statement alone, one might think Machiavelli was trying to corrupt minds and undermine the virtues being practiced during his time by entertaining such a thought. But if one would only take an empathic look, The Prince does not dismiss morality, entirely. It somehow redefines morality in more pragmatic terms which is characterized by what is considered “acceptable cruel action,” but it must be decisive, swift, effective, and short-lived. It can be further inferred that Machiavelli saw how ironic it is to yield good results by performing “evil” actions.
However, one caveat here is that the “evil” Machiavelli used is not the same as ”evil” in the Judaeo-Christian sense of the word. For Machiavelli, cruelty should not be taken at face value or in absolute terms as had shown in one observation: “He (duke) put Mr. Remiro d’Orco, a man both cruel and efficient, in charge, and gave him absolute power. D’Orco in short order established peace and unity, and acquired immense authority. The duke decided such unchecked power was no longer necessary, for he feared the people might come to hate it. So he established a civil court, placing an excellent judge in charge of it.
” (quoted in Morgan 493-494) What this means is that “evil” or in this case, cruelty should not be taken at face value for what it denotes. Rather, cruelty is defined as repressive actions taken by the state, more often than not manifested in the use of force to make things happen. But in so doing, the prince, or any ruler for that matter, is justified in his actions because it accomplishes a goal which in this case it to see to the preservation of the state and society as a whole, thus giving meaning to the Machiavellian adage, “the ends justify the means.
” As a treatise, its primary intellectual contribution to the history of political thought is the realistic approach which sees how political realism clashes with political idealism and based on Machiavelli’s observations, the former prevails as the ideals based on classic Greek ideas of Plato and Aristotle tended to find no place in modern society where they used to emphasize the need for “enlightened” leadership or rule.
Modern-day rulers do not have that luxury of being enlightened and they find Machiavelli’s ideas making more sense. It is only rather ironic and unfortunate that those who subscribed to these ideas are those Machiavelli would not want to – tyrants, despots and dictators. His idea of a leader using “acceptable cruel action” came from the dictators of the ancient Roman Republic. If there is something this paper has proven, Machiavelli is not so bad after all.
It would appear that most of his ideas were taken out of context and given the impression he encouraged rule by tyrants when he actually was not. It was only a matter of pragmatism and to an extent prudence though not in the same level as Platonic and Aritstotelian thought. Works Cited Morgan, Michael L. Classics of Moral and Political Theory 4th Edition. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing, 1992.
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