Machiavelli’s Perspective On Politics In The Prince
What is Machiavelli’s understanding of the nature of politics in The Prince?
The thesis of this essay is that Machiavelli’s understanding of the nature of politics comprises of both the ideological and tangible effects necessary for a state to endure. This essay will attempt to discuss both, including Machiavelli’s thoughts on warfare, the methods of behavior of the Prince and how he must inhabit the traits of beasts. Following this, his ideas of rationality, fortuna and virtu and thoughts on the common people are discussed.
A large part of the Prince focuses on the importance of the state, warfare and how to fortify and acquire new states. Machiavelli entails the methods of acquiring new principalities and how to maintain them. He claims in Chapter XII of the Prince that the foundations of all states are good laws and good arms, indicating the importance that the military and usage of force holds in strengthening the state. Althusser (1999: 83) insists that the ‘instruments’ of force, consent and conflicting humours (the army, religion and laws respectively) are parts of the state and help in maintaining it. To apply each of these accurately whenever needed to fit the state’s requirements is what fashions popular politics. Following this, the army is seen as a state apparatus: essentially, the primary attribute of state power is that of armed force. The supremacy of arms over ideology is epitomized when Machiavelli insists that whereas an unarmed prophet will fail, an armed prophet is likely to succeed. From this it can be deduced that although ideology and the methods of behavior of a prince are clearly relevant to Machiavelli, the conduction of warfare and a possession of a strong army base are even more significant. In his understanding of politics, the formation and action of the army is essential and may be considered a tool to ensure the state is upheld. Hence, ideology and army act as components of politics rather than as stand-alone institutions.
Machiavelli instills great importance into how the Prince should act and insists that the Prince must have a duality of appearance, conducting himself as such that he arises public goodwill. As claimed by Gilbert (1984: 170) Machiavelli tried to formulate “rules of behavior” deduced from his own experiences. These rules, often in the form of deception, help the Prince garner the admiration of the public. Such deception is part of what Althusser (1999: 99) calls the ideological policy of the prince, and allows the prince to manipulate the common people with means that are justified by the ends, that is control of their thoughts. There is no question of it being ‘ideological demagogy,’ he claims, and is constricted to politics only, consisting of the Prince’s conduct and practice. Machiavelli asserts that fraud should be “well concealed: one should be a great feigner and dissembler.” This refers to the duality of appearance and how it is achieved: Machiavelli theorizes that the Prince will occasionally be forced to do evil, and when the case is so, the Prince should still disguise his immoral conduct as moral conduct (Althusser, 1999: 99.) Furthermore, Machiavelli believes that it is “much safer to be feared than loved” and only insists that if the prince cannot do both as it is “admittedly difficult,” he must at all costs avoid being hated by the common people. Additionally, although virtues are encouraged, they must not ensnare the Prince, Althusser points out, as necessity might require the Prince to relinquish these acts. Machiavelli’s underlying claim is that the Prince needs to do whatever is necessary to protect the state and ensure that it is stable. Political morality and morals are thus two very different things: the prince must be prepared to commit immoral acts if it facilitates the stability of his rule. Hatred by the people must be avoided at all costs as it implies class significance, as noted by Althusser, (1999: 101) who describes the ideological Prince as better suited to supporting the people rather than the nobles. Thus, a large part of Machiavelli’s political thought consists of ideology and the Prince’s actions rather than intentions (which, if not always virtuous, must always support the state.) It is emphasized that morality is irrelevant in the very separate notions of political morals and must be kept aside so that the idea of the Prince and his actions can arise public goodwill.
Machiavelli’s political thought includes his analogies between the Prince and animals and the characteristics they must share. He states that one must be a “fox to recognize traps, and a lion to frighten away wolves.” Althusser (1999: 95) explains this dual personality: one must become the master of both fraud and force. The lion is seen to be very fierce whereas the fox is very cunning. If a Prince possesses these qualities, he can ensure that he is a master of deception who is consistently one step ahead of others, and simultaneously one to exert fear. Additionally, Machiavelli relates the Prince and the centaur. The centaur is man as well as beast and thus employs the characteristics of both, allowing the Prince to exercise moral virtues that are predominantly seen as human while contemporaneously doing what is necessary, whether it be underhanded or ‘evil’, the trait of the animal. Machiavelli’s argument allows us to separate the character of the Prince into two halves, which we can see as advocating both moral and immoral behavior. He insists that it is important to use both for the state’s advantage, as virtues will arouse popular support and obligatory deceit naturally follows a level of cunning a prince must inhabit. His usage of animals in characterizing the acts a Prince must perform purport that human nature can be a hindrance when in a position of power and cannot survive alone.
The aforementioned aspects of Machiavelli’s thought tie in to his ideas of rationality and the greater good. As the prince’s dual personality infers, he must often commit acts of violence that cannot be seen in any way as morally virtuous but may on the other hand be viewed as politically moral. Althusser (1999: 92) claims that the Prince belongs to a “different realm of existence” and is thus not subject to the typical ideas of vice and virtue. For him, he must do whatever is necessary in order to ensure the consolidation of the state and is judged solely by his success. Henceforth the Prince is morally virtuous “through political virtue.” Machiavelli’s ideas of cruelty and rationality propagate a dispassionate brand of violence, one that is used simply in order to achieve the ends, that is a strengthened state. Once notions of morality are removed, the violence is observed to be impersonal and orchestrated, rendering it an act of practicality. Gilbert (1984: 176) further explains this idea of rationality by stating that Machiavelli follows the line of thought believing politics to be an ‘exacting mistress’ which man’s entire behavior and action must be adjusted towards. The commands of politics therefore reign supreme and man should be entirely ‘homo politicus.’ Essentially, this requires man to answer to and obey the commands of politics whether they be laden with deceit and underhanded behavior that cannot be morally justified. Machiavelli must then be regarded as a proponent of a “rational psychology,” adds Gilbert, (1984: 190) – meaning that he believes a Prince’s acts can be rationalized if one considers the positive effect they will have on the state. Machiavelli redefines the ethics of statesmanship and governance by justifying occasional violence, as in his opinion this is entirely impersonal and serves a larger purpose. However, it must be noted that he does not by any account favour violence over peace and morally just actions, even as he deems it necessary at times. Although he continually claims that amoral action might often be the most effective when dealing with various political issues, Gilbert (1984: 196) reminds us that he did not in any way show a “preference for amoral actions” and was not a conscious advocate of evil. It is determined that it was not Machiavelli’s intention to upset moral values, but as previously mentioned, simply irrelevant in the context of active politics.
Machiavelli also employs the ideas of ‘fortuna’ and ‘virtu’ when analyzing the accession of power by a Prince and the maintenance of it. Gilbert (1984: 179) defines Machiavelli’s usage of the word virtu as the “fundamental quality of man” which enables him to achieve great deeds and works. Virtu is described as an innate quality free of external circumstances and is necessary for leadership, and is a single minded will which leads to victory for those who possess it. Machiavelli insists that it is a prerequisite for a successful state and is not restricted solely to the Prince – for example, it is also possible for the army to have virtu. According to him, governments cannot function without it. Virtu is followed by fortuna – these are the external circumstances that virtu is free of and is essentially good fortune. In relation to virtu, Machiavelli insists that although fortuna may be regarded as the ruler of half of an individual’s actions, it is entirely possible for humans to oppose it and act as a counterweight. Gilbert (1985: 194) describes virtu and fortuna as two entirely different forces that are pit against one another and are in constant competition to determine one’s situation. As countering fortuna is an opportunity only offered fleetingly, man must take charge in a “meeting between circumstance and individuality.” Althusser elucidates the meeting of virtu and fortuna in three stages: correspondence, non-correspondence and deferred correspondence. In correspondence, fortuna and virtu meet to form a “durable principality.” In non-correspondence, fortuna alone determines one’s fate and is seen as highly undesirable as the individual in question is not adequately endowed with virtu. Deferred correspondence refers to a situation when the individual is favoured by fortuna and is able to meet it with his virtu. Thus, Machiavelli’s political theory delves into both the microcosm and macrocosm and how they play part in determining the Prince. He renders this crucial to the state: as the figurehead, the Prince’s ability and fortune have a direct impact on the stability of his rule and the state he leads. Natural environment and free will, although competing forces, can be met by foresight. This is similar to the ideas of determinism versus agency – in this situation, Machiavelli believes human control can only get one so far and is not a concrete force.
Although much emphasis is placed on the Prince and his methods of behavior, Machiavelli similarly examines the beliefs and actions of the common people. He claims it is not of much significance to analyze them as individuals but more relevant to study them as a mass – what Machiavelli calls ‘il volgo.’ Althusser (1999: 97) narrates that the majority of the people Machiavelli refers to are law-abiding citizens that primarily desire safety and security and did not reek of ambition and greed for power. However, there is a small minority that “will stop at nothing to satisfy them.” The people are described as easily swayed and manipulated and often trust appearances more than reality, and Machiavelli believes the Prince ought to take advantage of their blindness. The individuals who see the reality of the situation will not dare oppose popular rule in fear of persecution. Subsequently, every political action must be carefully structured so as to not arouse the peoples’ suspicion and maintain their trust and goodwill. The prince must respect the peoples’ ideology, reminds Althusser, (1999: 97) if he wants to transform it. This will produce effects beneficial to his politics. As mentioned above, ideology plays a key role in determining people’s thought processes, and from this one can see just how malleable Machiavelli maintains that the common people are. Their tractable nature is crucial in the stability of the Prince’s rule, as if they are subject to the truth, they will undeniably disagree with the political morality the Prince practices.
Conclusively, this essay discusses the many elements of Machiavelli’s political thought. It details his ideas of state and warfare, the methods of the Prince and the dual nature he must possess, that is of the human and the beast. Furthermore, Machiavelli’s analyses of rationality alongside fortune, goodwill and the common people’s role in the state are explored.
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