Machiavelli’s Limitations

November 3, 2020 by Essay Writer

Machiavelli’s The Prince is an ambitious attempt to outline the steps necessary to ensuring success in leadership. The work dissects the elements of power; it identifies the sources from which it springs and the tactics required for its maintenance. His position rests on the claim that power is “acquired either through the arms of others or with one’s own, either by fortune or virtue” (Ch. 1, pg. 6), and he asserts that success in politics cannot exist outside of this basic framework. Centuries later, the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. would rise from the masses as a leader, armed only with the candor of his objectives and their means. King is generally accepted by those who are familiar with his career in politics as a successful leader – one who’s ends were steadily achieved through the perserverence of his spirit and the support of his people. Yet Machiavelli states plainly that “all the armed prophets conquered, and the unarmed ones were ruined” (Ch.6, pg. 24). Machiavelli’s failure to account for the success of a leader as antithetical to his beliefs as King betrays a fundamental flaw in the former’s reasoning. Machiavelli’s understanding of true leadership and success is limited; he is short-sighted in assuming that all power must be absolute power, and fails to acknowledge that the oppressed and the great can ofttimes converge to strive toward an end greater than mere material acquistion.

King manifests none of the qualities Machiavelli identifies as virtuous. Rather than relying on cunning and ingenuity to manipulate or eliminate his adversaries and constituents, King achieves his goals “openly, lovingly…with a willingness to accept the penalty” (pg.294). Machiavelli would then assert that his rise would necessarily have to be precipitated by fortune. As he states, “the result of becoming a prince from private individual presupposes either virtue or fortune” (Ch. 6, pg. 22). Yet again, King neither relies on his own wealth, nor is he funded by any outside party throughout the entire duration of his career. And he certainly does not invoke the use of arms. King’s basic guideline for response is “non-violent direct action.” King emerges from the people as a leader, which at once distinguishes him from any of Machiavelli’s princes. According to Machiavelli, the interests of the governed are only important insofar as they affect the governor’s ability to lead. King however, rather than using the backs of the people as stepping stones, takes their burden on his shoulders and brings then to the forefront of public attention. Thus he is loved by the people he leades. Machiavelli warns leaders against this supposed danger. According to him, love can only be maintained through the continous expenditure of the leader on his people, their affections are bought. Yet, as he states,” friendships that are acquired at a price…are bought, but they are not owned and when the time comes cannot be spent…Love is held by a chain of obligation, which, because men are wicked, is broken at every opportunity for their own utility”(Ch. 17, pg. 66-67). However, the esteem King’s followers hold him in is different from that which Machiavelli warns leaders of; its perpetuation is not dependant on generosity and the doling out of material goods. King inspires a sort of love that is unconditionlal because it is based on intangibles. It is a genuine appreciation for the efforts and leadership provided by one of their own. When a leader such as King undertakes the struggle for such intangible conditions as justice and freedom, and for the exclusive benefit of the poplulace, he becomes endeared to the people, and thus gains a fortune that Machiavelli fails to identify: the undying, unconditional support of the masses.

As these two types of leaders originate from two opposite ends of the social spectrum, their views on fundamental elements of politics also differ drastically. Machiavelli and King differ almost antithetically in their views on positive law. To the prince, laws are but tools used to control the masses, not codes by which leaders must themselves abide. Furthermore, the existence of laws allows a means by which the Prince can both impress and terrify the populace through the callous breaking of them. The ability to transcend law makes the prince an awesome and powerful image to the people. King, on the other hand, holds laws in the highest possible respect: “In no sense do I advocate evading or defying the law…an individual who breaks a law his conscience tells him is unjust, and willingly accepts the penalty…is in reality expressing the very highest respect for the law” (pg.294). King endeavors only to break unjust laws after carefully examining whether they truly ought to be broken. He operates within the bouds of the law, establishing himself further as a man of the people.

The most fundamental difference however, lies in each man’s definition of success, their ultimate end. To Machiavelli, the prince himself is his own end. Machiavelli’s ultimate goal is to find the means of securing stability throught the entire region of italy, and ensure its security. He believes this is only accomplished through the establishment of a powerful absolute sovereign. Thus, he guides his prince to use fortune and virtue to look out for himself at all costs, so as to rise above all obstacles to achieve total power. This definition of success is measured largely in material acquisition; the prince is to acquire and maintain control over a body of land, and it is the essence of his nature to do so: “…it is a very natural and ordinary thing to acquire, and always, when men do it who can, they will be praised or not blamed” (Ch.3, pg. 14). In such a political atmosphere, the prince operates alone: all others with any ambition toward leadership are but competitors after the same set of acquireable goods, and any objectors to his methods are obstacles to his goals. Thus rivals are eliminated and the people are terrified or manipulated into silence. To King, however, the people are an end in themself. According to him, “law and order exist for the purpose of establishing justice” (pg. 295), so that the people may enjoy the highest degree of happiness in a society that treats all men as equal. He fights to bring justice and equality to the most oppressed sector of the population, and his success is measured by intangibles: the exposure of injustice, and the establishment of a “substance-filled positive peace” in which his people are recognized as equal members of society; in other words: justice. King’s end is entirely outside of himself, he is but an agent of and for the people; any ideas of personal gain are subjugated to the benefit of the greater good. By this definition, and through the knowledge of all that he did accomplish, Martin Luther King Jr. was indeed successful.

Machiavelli’s problem lies in that he identifies but two humors: “the people desire neither to be commanded nor oppressed by the great, and the great desire to command and oppress the people”(Ch.9, pg.39). From this conflict of interests stems the constant state of distrust between leaders and their people.

However, Machiavelli does not presuppose any condition in which the people might wish to work in harmony with a leader; namely, that instance in which a leader promises to rescue the oppressed from further injustice at the hands of the great. In such a case, the people do in fact desire to be commanded by a leader who does not ultimately wish to oppress them. King is the prime example of such a case. His end was genuine, just, and for the people, and the willing masses provided enough reinforcement even in the absence of fortune and Machiavellian virtue, that as an unarmed prophet he was able to succeed.

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