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Essay: Niccolo Machiavelli’s The Prince – leadership and power

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Niccolo Machiavelli’s, The Prince, is one of the most controversial books of its time. Because of its contents, Machiavelli is seen by many as symbol for evil and vice. The book was thought to be so abhorrent that it was banned by the Catholic church, and harshly critiqued by many of Machiavelli’s contemporaries. The Sixteenth Century treatise was meant as an advice book for princes on how to gain power and maintain it, but the methods he proposed for achieving these aims were unsavory to many. In the years following its publication, The Prince, horrified and shocked the general populace due to its challenging of the current view that a leader had to be virtuous and moral, asserting that it was better for a leader to be feared than loved, challenging the idea that a ruler gained his power from divine right alone, and its proposition that a ruler might employ unethical actions to secure his position and better his country.

One of the first of things that Machiavelli tried to do in his treatise is to separate ethics from princes. While, many of his contemporaries believed that a successful prince would be one filled with the usual virtues, like honor, purity, and integrity, Machiavelli threw this idea out a window. He did not believe that being simply having the “right” value system would grant a leader power and security. In fact, he argued that often, being tied down by such morals would be counterproductive to one maintaining their position. Moreover, “if a ruler wishes to reach his highest goals he will not always find it rational to be morale” (Skinner 42).

So, what characteristics did Machiavelli think would actually make a strong leader? His ideal prince is one who is cunning and ruthless. Machiavelli believed that, “a ruler who wishes to maintain his power must be prepared to act immorally when this becomes necessary” (26). A ruler should also not be worried about being miserly, for overall this will help rather than hurt his control (Mansfield). If a prince is too generous his people will also become accustomed to such generosity and be angered when it is not forthcoming, and in the long run he will have to tax his people to make up for what he has given away. Such ideas went directly against the Christian and humanist ideas about morality in Machiavelli’s time.

Another major point of interest that Machiavelli discussed throughout The Prince was the concept of fortune and its role in a princes rule. He believed that it was of the utmost importance that a prince try to win fortune to his side as best he can. Here again, Machiavelli differentiates from his predecessors. Many past philosophers believed that fortune would smile upon a ruler who was just and virtuous. Machiavelli disagreed with such notions. Morales had nothing to do with pleasing fortune. Instead, it was the more violent and ambitious ruler, who would seize the moment, that would have a better chance of winning fortune (Spencer). Machiavelli went so far as to compare fortune to a woman and stated that, “If you want to control her, it is necessary to treat her roughly” (87).

While Machiavelli did not think it was in a prince’s best interest to always be kind and good, he did note the importance of his subjects thinking him to be so. It is very hard to hold control a region, in which the people believe their ruler to be completely immoral. However, they may put up with questionable actions of a ruler if once in a while he does something that appears to be in their best interest. The crueler a ruler is the more crucial it is to appear to the public as being the opposite. Once the people are convinced of a ruler being virtuous, he will be able to get away with the most unscrupulous behavior.

Most people would consider it essential for a ruler to keep his promises and appear trustworthy, maintaining a good relationship with his subjects, not Machiavelli. Sometimes it is not realistic for a ruler to be able to make good on every promise. It may even be better for the people in the long run if he does not. A prince should not have qualms about breaking his word, “plausible reasons can always be found for such failure to keep promises” (Machiavelli 62). Moreover, if a prince prides himself on always keeping his word the people will always expect this. When unfortunate circumstances force him to deviate from what he swore to do, the people will be outraged, whereas if they expect promises to be broken it will not garner as much anger.

Another stable argument of Machiavelli’s book is the power of fear. Machiavelli believes fear is one of the best way to keep subjects in line. Fear is strongest of all the emotions and will give a ruler the most control. Striving for the people’s love is not as fruitful, due to mankind’s fickle nature. Andrew Curry of the Washington Post notes that for Machiavelli, “ Man’s weak nature was a constant as unchanging as the bright sun that rose above his beloved Tuscan hills.” A leader who relies on love to gain loyalty from his subjects, will find his people nowhere to be found when hard times come. Men tend to what they think is best for them, and due to this they will changes sides quickly. They will adopt a new prince quickly and shed their old one if they believe it will be prosperous for them. However, if the subjects greatly fear their leader they are more likely to obey him. If they believe their ruler to be lax they will think they can get away with some disobedience, but if a prince has made it clear that the consequences will be great they will hesitate (Machiavelli .

One of the main ways Machiavelli demonstrates the power of fear, is through generals and their handling of the troops under them. He praises the Carthaginian general, Hannibal, for his ability to lead such a large army of various peoples with little discord or trouble among his troops. Despite going through many lands unknown to his soldiers, and enduring times of trial, Hannibal was able to keep his soldiers in order because of their respect and fear of him (Machiavelli 60). How did Hannibal make his troops fear him? Through great cruelty, which made him the perfect Machiavellian leader. It was this cruelty that was key of his success according to Machiavelli. He argued that, “if he had not been so cruel, his other qualities would not have been sufficient to achieve that affect” (60).

Scipio was another general of the same period as Hannibal. Like Hannibal he was a brilliant military mind, and one of the greatest leaders of the era. Unlike Hannibal however, he did not exercise brutality with his troops to keep them in check. Whereas Hannibal’s troops would have never dreamed of revolting, for fear of the consequences, Scipio did lose control over his soldiers at fort Sucro, in Spain. Machiavelli harshly critiqued Scipio for this mutiny and no one else. It was Scipio’s easiness with his soldiers that had caused them to grow rebellious. Had he have been more severe in his command they would have been better disciplined (Machiavelli 60). Machiavelli praises Hannibal’s cruelty, while condemning Scipio’s friendliness with his soldiers.

Another aspect of the power of fear, which Machiavelli touched on was with the capturing of new regions. Under most circumstances successfully maintaining control over a newly vanquished city, and keeping its citizens in check can be quite difficult. However, in cases where subduing a city takes great force and bloodshed it will actually be much easier to keep. Most would think the opposite to be true, but Machiavelli argues that those who have been defeated will be to imitated to revolt, due to knowing what the conquerors are capable of (Mansfield). Machiavelli has complete faith in the power of fear. Essentially he believes that a prince should not be concerned about being excessively brutal when trying to defeat the defenders of a town, because in the long run it may actually help him keep dominances over said town. With advice like this, advising one to be cruel, it is no surprise that Machiavelli’s contemporaries were so shocked by his treatise (Spenser).

All of Machiavelli’s pondering about fear begs the question how far should a ruler go to be feared by his people? Machiavelli does acknowledge that there is a lined that can be crossed. A prince must strive to be feared without being completely hated by his subjects (Machiavelli 59) . It is fine for a leader to exercise extreme ruthlessness for the greater good as long as he is able to redeem himself in the eyes of the people. At a certain point, if pushed too far, a prince’s subject’s fear of their ruler will turn to anger and they will grow unruly. Therefore it is important for a prince to be calculated with his cruelty, and not just unnecessarily brutal.

A major issue during Machiavelli’s time was that of Divine right to rule. Essentially, king’s could justify their rule by it supposedly being God’s will, and they had to answer only to him. Only those chosen by God could rule. Machiavelli did not fully agree with this doctrine. He thought that almost anyone should have the right to rule as long as they were cunning enough to do so. Machiavelli cares most about leaders being competent. The foxes and lions should rise above the lambs. That is the best way for country to be assured of gaining strong leaders. With divine right there is no guarantee that a prince will be capable of ruling, and do what is best for his people. In his own region of Florence Machiavelli wanted a ruler who was effective, not one that was supposedly endowed by the creator. All of the advice given in the book is a challenge against divine right, as it shows how someone may gain power by his own actions and not divine right.

Machiavelli’s key argument against any sort of right to rule is that it is power alone that guarantees a prince his control. “a Machiavellian perspective directly attacks the notion of any grounding for authority independent of the sheer possession of power. For Machiavelli, people are compelled to obey purely in deference to the superior power of the state” (Nederman). Simply having the right virtues, divine right, or any other quantifiers of rule do not matter if one does not have true power. A prince’s subjects will stay in line if they know he has great power over them, but not always so if he his relying on their respect of his “divine right” alone.

One of the main themes running throughout all of Machiavelli’s advice seems to be that the ends always justify the means. Now even though Machiavelli never directly states this, he comes very close, and despite his advice being a bit more nuance than that simple phrase, it is not out of line to say that it represents his key ideas on princeship. Machiavelli was one of the first pessimistic realists of his time, and he based his advice on the negative side of humanity. He argued that a prince’s subjects will not always do the moral thing and so a prince should not either. Instead, he should take what actions he believes to be best for securing his rule and his province. Sacrificing a few is a necessary evil if it guarantees the safety of many (Machiavelli 58).

Machiavelli base much of his advice on the topic on real life rulers of his time. History.com points this out saying, “Machiavelli’s guide to power was revolutionary in that it described how powerful people succeeded—as he saw it—rather than as one imagined a leader should operate.” While his contemporaries where dreaming up the qualities of an ideal leader, Machiavelli believed he was giving a guide based on those he had seen be successful. Almost all of the leaders Machiavelli studied, he found to have exercised cruelty and brutality. Mansfield says thus of Machiavelli’s points on necessary evil, “The amoral interpretation fastens on Machiavelli’s frequent resort to “necessity” in order to excuse actions that might otherwise be condemned as immoral.”

One of the main ruler’s who Machiavelli based much of his advice on was Cesare Borgia. Borgia was the perfect Machiavellian leader. He was, “a crude, brutal and cunning prince of the Papal States” (History.com Editors). He lived in a chaotic time, and the entirety of his rule was face with challenges and uncertainty. Machiavelli admired his ability to handle the problems of his times with such decisive ferocity. He embodied all the traits the Machiavelli was advising the readers of his book to adopt.

Cesare was a man with many enemies and part of his genius lay in his ability to get rid of them. Where others would hesitate to move against powerful men, Borgia did not. He would kill remorselessly if he thought it would help him maintain his land. One of the main examples Machiavelli used to point out Borgia’s cunning, was his luring of the Orsini leaders to the town of Senigallia. He lured them with lavish gifts and lulled them into a false sense of security, promising treaties of peace, but once they had delivered themselves into his hands he killed them (Machiavelli 25). Machiavelli praised this exploit thinking it an exceptionally clever deception.

Borgia also proved his competence as a leader to Machiavelli in his handling of the land he inherited from his father, Pope Alexander VI. The people dwelling there were disorderly and defiant. They had not been well disciplined by their previous ruler, and were not used to really having to obey a leader. Borgia set out to right this wrong. He put an utterly ruthless man, Remirro de Orco, in charge of the area (Machiavelli 26). Many rulers would have told Orco to use caution when dealing with the subjects of the region. He should slowly begin to discipline them so that they would grow use to it over time. However, Borgia did the exact opposite. He gave his new governor complete control to be as severe and merciless as he saw necessary. He new that the cruelty the people would endure under de Orco would be for the better down the road as there would be more order and less lawbreakers.

Even the he knew that it was necessary to use brutality when dealing with his newly acquired land, Borgia did not plan on taking the blame for that cruelty. de Orco’s harsh regime had served to bring discipline to the region, but Cesare Borgia was not blind to the growing anger in those who were suffering under it. Here, in Machiavelli’s mind, Borgia showed his true genius and heartlessness. He killed de Orco and displayed his body in a town, successfully wining the favor of his subjects and getting rid of a possible rival. It Borgia who had put de Orco in charge in the first place, knowing fully well that he was a cruel man, and told him to be a harsh ruler, but the people seemed to forget this and saw Borgia as a hero for killing their oppressor. Those subjects who still had a dislike for Borgia, where too terrified by the execution to cause any discord (Machiavelli 26). So Borgia was able to make his people both love and fear, Machiavelli’s ideal situation. It is clear that much of Machiavelli’s arguments for doing immoral things comes from him having observed Borgia and his callous methods.

Borgia may have been brilliant in the handling of his lands and his enemies, but it was not his own cleverness that gained him his territory in the Romagna. Instead it was the cunning of his father, Pope Alexander IV. Alexander wanted to give his son a state in Italy to help him grow more powerful and, hopefully, eventually make him into a great ruler. However, he knew that he would not be able to do this through peaceful negations, as there were too many other factions who would have been opposed to it. Instead, the Pope would have to use force to size a state. First he sought out to make the states of Italy unstable, by aiding a French invasion of Milan. Doing this helped cause chaos, and the French gave the Pope troops to conquer the Romagna with. The Pope was able his transfer the newly captured states to his son (Machiavelli 24). These actions by the Pope where highly immoral; he helped sow ruin in his own country of Italy to gain a province for Cesare to rule, and he misused the power given to him by his position as Pope to do so. However, Machiavelli praises his ability to take actions that are deemed unethical by society to attain success.

In one chapter of his treatise, Machiavelli addresses those who gained the power from evil deeds. The first example he gives is of Agathocles, of Syracuse. Agathocles is the epitome of doing whatever it takes to get what you want. He was a mere ordinary man, but by his own actions he was able to rise to a position of power in the city of Syracuse. Wanting to become the king of Syracuse he began scheming how this could be accomplished. Eventually he was able to execute a successful coup, and have all his soldiers kill any opposers. He was dishonorable, a murderer, and a traitor, but he did achieve what he set out to do. Machiavelli does point out that these methods wont exactly win someone glory and fame, or at least not the positive kind, but he did commend Agathocles ability to gain power. He also mentions that Agathocles used evil “well” since he had to use it at all (Machiavelli 30-33). Statements like this, that a murdering traitor used evil admirably, are what make Machiavelli’s writing so controversial.

Machiavelli did not stop with Agathocles, he also gave an example more current with the time of a similar situation. Oliverotto of Fermo. Oliverotto had the same cunning and ambition as Agathocles. He too wanted to become the ruler of his hometown Fermo. So, with his mentor he conspired to overthrow the current ruler, his own uncle, Giovanni Fogliani. Oliverotto used his relation to Fogliani to lure him into a trap where he assassinated him, as well as the other leaders of Fermo. With no one else in his way he took control of the region. His immoral actions would have been condemned by most, but Machiavelli’s main issue seems to be that he was not able to keep the power that he gained, as he was killed himself later on. Oliverotto did not use evil well as Agathocles did (Machiavelli 32-32).

Few books have the ability to stir up as much controversy as The Prince. With it Machiavelli tried to set a new example how a prince should act and think, but one that would be found troubling by many in the decades that followed its publication. Its readers would shun it, ban it, mock it, and even go so far as to say that it was satire, because surely there was no way that Machiavelli had actually meant what he wrote. The main cause of all animosity towards the book, came from Machiavelli’s attempt to separate ethics from politics. In the treatise he argued that princes need not be virtuous, and that fear was a great tool to be used to control one’s subjects, better even than love. Furthermore, the book challenged divine right, which put at odds with the churches of the time, and lastly, it promoted the idea of using scrupulous methods to gain power. It is the combination of these four arguments, that were so against the current ideologies of the sixteenth century, that caused many to look at the book with disgust, and the reason why Machiavelli became known as an embodiment of evil.


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