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Essay: In ‘The Prince’, Machiavelli puts a twist on the notion of virtue

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The idea of virtue can best be described as someone who strives to have high moral standards. A person who is virtuous possesses characteristics such as integrity, perseverance, and humility; all qualities that are considered admiral in those who can achieve them. Machiavelli presents a twist on virtue in his work, The Prince, placing before the reader this idea of virtue that doesn’t fit it’s with today’s understanding of the concept. Virtue, to Machiavelli, aligns more closely with a leader doing what is necessary to attain and maintain a state. Doing what is necessary can require a number of things, both good and bad. According to Machiavelli, cruelty is necessary can be considered virtuous as long as the ends justify the means. Machiavelli offers up the notion that people have fickle and selfish tendencies that a prince must play to his advantage. Throughout the novel, he offers up a number of men throughout history that have possessed his definition of virtue and consequently found great success, to achieving greatness by conquering and holding control over states.

Human nature is a major theme throughout the novel. Machiavelli presents humans as being innately changeable, self-serving, skeptical, and lukewarm. These natural qualities would make it difficult for a prince to win over his people and maintain their loyalty. Machiavelli often mentions the behavior of the common people in times of prosperity and in times of adversity. When times are good, the people will support their prince, but when times are hard, the people will grow to dislike the prince. Humans will often choose to preserve their lives and property and advance their interests over maintaining their loyalty to the prince of their state. By recognizing and exploiting these selfish tendencies, a prince can maintain his state through fear. By threatening lives and property, and reminding the people just how much they depend upon the mercy of their prince, the prince can persuade his subjects to remain loyal to him. A prince should, however, take care not to exploit these fears too much lest he become not lonely feared, but hated. Machiavelli puts forth the argument that due to these tendencies of human nature, a prince appears to be virtuous. A prince should gain a reputation over time that allows him to seemingly possess the qualities that men admire, but tend to take advantage of such as generosity and liberality. A prince that successfully appears to be what the people want while completing means necessary to maintain their state fits Machiavelli’s definition of virtue.

Machiavelli offers up a few examples throughout the novel to illustrate his idea of virtue. He describes Caesar Borgia as a leader who has virtue. Borgia

“acquired his state through the fortune of his father and lost it through the same, notwithstanding the fact that he made use of every deed and did all those things that should be done by a prudent and virtuous man to put his roots in the states that the arms and fortune of others had given him” (Prince, 27).

Borgia maintained his state through use of a henchman, Remirrio, who was tasked with terrorizing his subjects. When the people grew to hate and fear Remirrio, Borgia swept in pretending to be their hero and publically placing Remirrio’s dead body in the square for all to see as proof of his ability to protect the people. Borgia used the people’s fear to trick them into being loyal to him. Machiavelli states that “if one considers all the steps of the duke, one will see that he had laid for himself great foundations for future power, … for I do not know what better teaching I could give to a new prince than the example of this actions. And if his orders did not bring profit to him, it was not his fault because this arose from… extreme malignity of fortune” (Prince, 27). Even though Borgia was not successful in leaving a legacy, to Machiavelli he was a virtuous man who took all the right steps and was afforded all the right opportunities to attain, protect, and provide for his state and that his ultimate failure was through no misstep of his own.

Continuing with Machiavelli’s examples of virtuous men, he offers a parallel of two men that were virtuous in different ways and died with a legacy of glory or cruelty. Hannibal has made a name for himself in history due to his inhumane sense of cruelty. Although not necessarily a prince, Hannibal’s story is employed by Machiavelli as an example of vice can actually be a virtue. Hannibal does everything in his power to achieve his goal of military success. Machiavelli writes, “this could not have arisen from anything other than his inhuman cruelty which, together with his infinite virtues, always made him venerable and terrible in the sight of his soldiers; and without it, his other virtues would not have sufficed to bring about this effect” (Prince, 67). Hannibal’s means of cruelty combined with his military prowess are what allowed him to find success, though his legacy remembers him as cruel. Hannibal’s less cruel counterpart is Scipio, who similar to Borgia, completed his dirty work through the actions of others. Scipio was seen as agreeable and well-liked, but also was seen as merciful. His mercy “would in time have sullied Scipio’s fame and glory if he had continued with it in the empire; but while he lived under the government of the Senate, this damaging quality of his not only was hidden, but made for his glory” (Prince, 28). His compassion combined with his manipulation of others to complete unscrupulous tasks made him virtuous at least according to Machiavelli’s definition. Ultimately, Machiavelli concludes that “returning to being being feared and loved, that since men love at their convenience and fear at the convince of the prince, a wise prince should found himself on what is his, not on what is someone’s else’s; he should only contrive to avoid hatred, as was said” (Prince, 68). Through this, Machiavelli believe that one with a mixture of good fortune, can achieve the status of a successful prince.

Machiavelli puts a twist on the notion of virtue. To a modern audience, it seems rather bizarre due to cruelty not being synonymous with virtue, but I think Machiavelli’s version of virtue can be reasonably applied to the time period in which he was writing. During this time, the majority of the population didn’t enjoy the same luxuries and stability of life that we do today. These selfish qualities would be much more prevalent in an environment where survival is a daily task for everyday people. They would respond to cruelty and punishment because they valued their lives during a time period where life wasn’t always guaranteed. In modern times, a clear pattern of successful people implementing a watered down version of Machiavelli’s concept of “by any means necessary” is evident. Ruthlessness and selfishness are often seen as prerequisites to extreme success. Cruelty in the way conceived by Machiavelli may not be deployed, but Machiavelli’s idea of “by any means necessary” is still prevalent in today’s society.

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