The Renaissance era of Europe produced a great multitude of political thinkers. Among this plethora is perhaps the most controversial philosopher of his age, Niccolò Machiavelli. The Florentine politician, known most famously for his work, The Prince, discusses, among other things, the relationship between morality and political action. However, unlike the vast majority of his European predecessors, who often argued that political power should be in the hands of the morally virtuous ruler, Machiavelli produces a contrary argument, in which morality plays no role in judging the difference between legitimate and illegitimate uses of power. To this end, he argues that a ruler’s only concerns ...view middle of the document...
With this in mind, Machiavelli then launches into a series of discussions where he methodically breaks down the impracticalities of maintaining certain qualities as the sovereign. Generosity, or liberality, ought to be avoided, as it results in raising taxes on the people. Parsimony, or the act of being miserly, is more fortuitous in the long run for a sovereign, allowing for excess funds which can be put toward the benefit of the state. Mercy, like money, is also a precious commodity which Machiavelli cautions should not be given freely.
Using the case of Cesare Borgia’s rise to power in Romania as an example, Machiavelli argues in favor of using cruelty as a political tool. By making an example of traitors and malcontents early on in one’s reign, the loyalty and unity of the people can be won. Cruelty directed toward a few is, in fact, merciful to the masses, as crime will affect everyone, but executions affect only individuals. However, he cautions that the prince should, “proceed in a temperate manner with prudence and humanity.”
Following this example, Machiavelli then presents his most infamous argument in which he debates whether it is better for a prince to be loved or feared. Unlike love, which must be constantly maintained, and can be abandoned at any time, fear is a deeply instilled emotion, which does not easily break. A prince, should, therefore, inspire fear in such a way that, if he cannot win love, he will avoid hatred. Hatred, something no prince would ever want, can be avoided if the prince can, “keep his hands off the property of others, because men more quickly forget the death of their father than the loss of their patrimony.” With this attitude in mind, Machiavelli concludes that a prince can choose to be either feared or loved, provided he fulfills the criteria of avoiding hatred.
Despite convincing arguments in favor of Machiavelli supporting a prince capable of performing evil in the defense of his power and state, there is, however, a group of scholars and historians who believe Machiavelli’s work to present a different message. Rather than separate morality from political action, there is evidence, they claim, that supports the theory of Machiavelli believing the two to be inexorably linked. Rather than a “teacher of evil”, Machiavelli is merely a realist taking a new approach to politics.
In Chapter 8 of The Prince, Machiavelli recounts the tales of rulers throughout history who rose to power through cruelty and criminal behavior. When speaking of their actions, he acknowledges that their cruel actions were done properly, but is quick to remark, “If it be permitted to speak well of things evil, which are done once for all under the necessity of self-preservation, and are not afterwards persisted in.” Machiavelli, it seems, does not delight in evil, but believes that it should be allowable in times of necessity, and, even then, kept to an appropriate minimum. All actions undertaken should be for the...