The Ends Justifies The Means: No Excuse

February 25, 2019 by Essay Writer

Niccolo Machiavelli advocates many cutthroat policies in The Prince in his effort to model the perfect leader, one who would place the utmost importance on preserving his power and his state rather than dealing with moral dilemmas. He presents throughout the book a philosophy of practicality, and because of this, his words may sometimes give the impression that ethics should play no role in government affairs. Still, Machiavelli attempts to reconcile religious beliefs with political actions whenever possible. Although some have interpreted his words to essentially dictate that “the ends justify the means”, Machiavelli’s political philosophy is far too complex and dependent on situation to reduce to this vague statement. Machiavelli believes fortune and virtú are the two main forces guiding the success of a prince, virtú being the ability of a leader and fortune representing fate or God’s influence. While “dominions…are acquired either by fortune or by ability” (Machiavelli 13), he writes, the “degree of difficulty” that a prince encounters bases itself upon “the degree of ability” he possesses (Machiavelli 25). Machiavelli’s ideal leader is one with the skill to take advantage of any opportunity and reap its benefits. He reiterates that those who “depend on their own resources” “rarely fail” (Machiavelli 26). Machiavelli argues mainly that without initial virtú, any good fortune will go to waste. He admires men such as Moses and Cyrus because they owed to fortune “only the opportunity” to shape their ideals into reality (Machiavelli 26). He admits that the prince will need some fortune, but Machiavelli expects him to have the virtú necessary to capitalize on any good chance. To Machiavelli, fortune and virtú are two integral parts of the successful creation and maintenance of a strong principality. Machiavelli also urges a policy of adaptability for the prince, defending the opinion that each situation requires a different response. According to him, if the prince “were able to adapt…to changing times and circumstances”, his “fortune would not change” (Machiavelli 86).This flexibility makes sense, showing that Machiavelli does not intend for his words to encompass every political situation, but only to be used as a model for one course of action. Machiavelli uses an extended metaphor about “torrential rivers” to present another example of a time when willingness to change is necessary (Machiavelli 84). Men must “make provision” when “fortune…enraged,” “assaults” (Machiavelli 84). Machiavelli obviously feels that the ability to react to and cope with fortune is what shows true leadership and virtú. When talking of hereditary principalities, he says that “it is sufficient” if the prince “proves adaptable” when “unforeseen events” occur (Machiavelli 13). Machiavelli never contradicts his belief that flexibility is a necessity for a qualified leader. To Machiavelli control and reputation are two important elements in the upholding of a strong principality. He greatly admires Duke Valentino as a leader, especially appreciating the day when he had his minister’s “body, cut in two, placed” “in the public square” as a form of intimidation (Machiavelli 32). This action apparently showed the people that the leader had authority while also developing a reputation of cruelty. Machiavelli makes a great deal of reputation in The Prince, devoting numerous chapters to how a prince should appear. He goes to great lengths to discuss being “reputed generous” or “miserly” (Machiavelli 57), being “loved” or “feared” (Machiavelli 59), having “candor” as opposed to “craft” (Machiavelli 62), even “how to avoid contempt” (Machiavelli 64). Seemingly to Machiavelli, the prince should painstakingly plan each decision as part of a public face. He emphasizes that having a certain reputation can lead either to the downfall or the salvation of the leader. By making one small mistake, such as being excessively generous, the prince “will lose the respect of everyone”, claims Machiavelli (Machiavelli 57). Control and reputation directly connect, and they are both extremely important in the success of a ruler. Machiavelli’s ideal leader combines virtú, fortune, reputation, control, and adaptability with one more trait: preparedness. All these traits are in some way intertwined as fortune leads to the need for preparedness, preparedness and virtú lead to capitalization of fortune, capitalization leads to the necessity for adaptability, and so on. Machiavelli praises Philopoemen, who “would set out all…situations” with which “an army might be confronted” so that “no problem could ever arise” that he would not have already have solved (Machiavelli 55). This constant work would obviously eliminate some problems an army might otherwise encounter; Machiavelli’s support of this shows his belief that fortune cannot benefit anyone without effort accompanying it. He also declares that the ruler should “accustom his body to hardships”, “learn the topography of places”, and “read history and reflect upon the deeds of outstanding men” (Machiavelli 55). These words quite plainly show what Machiavelli later states, that “every wise prince should…never submit to idleness” (Machiavelli 55). Machiavelli expects the perfect prince to do everything possible to succeed, depending on fortune only when unavoidable. This work ethic is an important part of the prince improving his virtú to accomplish great things. The majority of people recognize Machiavelli’s name because of what seems to be his support of cruelty; however, Machiavelli apparently sees his use of cruelty more as result of a necessary division between idealism and realism. Many have regarded The Prince as ruthless and cold-blooded, but Machiavelli intends only to “stick to the practical truth of things” rather than “fancies”, he says (Machiavelli 56). He is at least partially right when declaring that “a man who strives after goodness…is sure to come to ruin, since there are so many men who are not good” (Machiavelli 56). Machiavelli is not necessarily promoting a senselessly cruel kind of government; instead, he seems to be trying to portray how a government could realistically succeed. One must also bear in mind that Machiavelli condemns those who “become princes by evil means”, showing him to have some moral compass (Machiavelli 35). He sets to the reader the idea that “the way men lived is so far from the way they ought to live” that it is ridiculous to keep up a pretense of a completely ethical government (Machiavelli 56). His commonsense attitude and straightforwardness about any moral codes that his ideal prince may break make those violations less offensive. One must keep in mind that Machiavelli’s purpose in writing The Prince is to create a government and ruler that can withstand time, bad fortune, and change. This shows why he writes that the prince “need not be concerned” if he “acquires those vices without which he would be unlikely to save the state” (Machiavelli 57). Machiavelli considers many crimes excusable if the prince committed them for the greater good. He qualifies this again by saying that things “though seeming evil, will result in…safety and well-being” (Machiavelli 57). People should interpret his words to mean that Machiavelli is not trying to defy morality, but instead thinking of the overall welfare of the majority. He asserts that it “is necessary for a prince” to “learn how not to be good and to use this knowledge” “according to necessity” (Machiavelli 56). Machiavelli in no way recommends cruel means whenever desired and actually denounces those using “wicked and nefarious means” (Machiavelli 35). This once again proves Machiavelli’s desire to realistically establish a government while at the same time remaining as ethical and moral as possible. These two ideas are not entirely compatible, which is why occasionally government must take precedent over ethics. Since Machiavelli wrote this treatise with the main goal of creating the long-lasting state, it seems reasonable that at times morals must be overridden. After carefully recounting the political philosophy Machiavelli expresses in The Prince, it seems unreasonable and oversimplified for people to claim that Machiavelli is advocating the idea that “the ends justify the means.” There is only one sentence in the novel that could in any way resemble this statement, that being one stating “in all men’s acts, and in those of princes especially, it is the result that renders the verdict when there is no court of appeal” (Machiavelli 64). However, this continues to say, “Let the prince conquer a state, then and preserve it; the methods employed will always be judged honorable” (Machiavelli 64). These words express the idea that when the ends are noble and the means are at worst, questionable, it is acceptable to do what is necessary for the good of the state. When there is no clear-cut right or wrong, sometimes it is the result that will finally decide whether the action was acceptable. From studying Machiavelli’s ideas throughout the rest of his book, it is illogical to conclude that he would condone any activity or allow people with their own interests at heart to use his book as an excuse for their actions. From witnessing his ongoing belief in adaptability, it is obvious that Machiavelli has no one axiom that can apply to every situation. “The ends justifies the means” is a blanket statement that in no way gives justice to the complexity of Machiavelli’s political concepts. After looking closely at Niccolo Machiavelli’s writings in The Prince, it seems an injustice for people today to consider him nothing more than an immoral writer giving justification to ambitious politicians. Any person unfamiliar with The Prince would probably think of only “the ends justify the means” when asked of Machiavelli, though this actually has little relevance to the kind of ruler and government he desired to establish. People have unfairly degraded Machiavelli’s fascinating and innovative thinking to a single phrase that ignores most of his real ideals and leads to a completely different message than Machiavelli was trying to convey.

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