Some thoughts on Niccolò Machiavelli, The Prince and The Discourses on the First Decade of Titus Livius by Stuart Christie

Niccolò di Bernardo dei Machiavelli (3 May 1469 – 21 June 1527)

The Renaissance consigliere and political thinker Niccolò Machiavelli has for centuries been portrayed, indeed demonised, as the ideological father of political duplicity, manipulation, amorality and cold selfishness. All of these are identifiable traits common not only among the “political” and mandarin classes but also among those individuals and institutions who pursue their interests, i.e. money, power, market-share, sex, etc., as though in a “society in which the individual stands alone, with no motives and no interests except those supplied by his own egoism”.

The view that Machiavelli’s analysis of the nature and mechanics of political power reflects the values of an individual motivated by a self-interest that overrides all other considerations is not, I believe, one that can be sustained by a careful consideration of his writings. In fact, the very opposite can be said to be the case … Machiavelli argues in both The Prince and The Discourses that all well-ordered principalities and republics are based on mutual understanding between rulers and ruled, and that the state is no more than the sum of the individuals who comprise it. In addition, the state has characteristics and responsibilities that cannot be explained in terms of the properties and ethical relationships to one another of the individuals within society.

Machiavelli’s humanist approach to the study of politics, unique in an age in which legitimacy or the right to rule was largely held to be divinely ordained, was an expression of the time, place and atmosphere in which he lived — Renaissance Italy in crisis:

“Living at a time when the old political order in Europe was collapsing and new problems, both in state and society were arising with dazzling rapidity, he endeavoured to interpret the logical meaning of events, to forecast the inevitable issues, and to elicit and formulate the rules which, destined henceforth to dominate social action, were than taking shape among the fresh forming conditions of national life.” (L. A. Burd, Cambridge Modern History, Vol 1., 1903)

Feudal Italy, under the “barbarous dominion of the foreigner” (The Prince, Ch. XXVI) and the debilitating anomie which resulted from the corruption and conflict endemic to such systems, was experiencing its death throes. Machiavelli, self-appointed spokesman for the increasingly dissatisfied mercantile bourgeoisie of the progressive city states such as Venice and Florence, which were suffering badly under the hegemony of the great unitary states of France and Spain, believed the time had come to challenge the disintegrating power of the papacy and the feudal principalities, the strongest barrier in the way of a united Italy. Machiavelli, in The Prince, hoped that Lorenzo de Medici might be the man capable of turning such a vision into reality and establishing a new power independent of Rome. He urged Lorenzo to take up this challenge forthwith:  “[S]o far as I know, no previous time was more favourable for such a change.” (The Prince, Ch. XXVI)

Machiavelli hoped, by a careful study of history, particularly that of ancient Rome, from which he drew most of his examples, to discover empirical generalisations from past experiences from which useful causal maxim could be derived. These would help him to identify, as precisely as possible, those features of political power that were constant and immutable.

What is implicit in Machiavelli’s theory is the search for optimum social harmony and progress, an ideal that has existed as long as social discord has been a reality. The only means by which this aim could come close to being achieved, in Machiavelli’s view, was by establishing a unitary and enduring nation state to which all classes had accorded the maximum degree or legitimacy. This involved, Machiavelli realised, not only identifying and strengthening that which was enduring, permanent and healthy in the body politic, but more importantly isolating and destroying that which corrupted and weakened it.

The two principal factors which Machiavelli identified as sources of corruption which undermined healthy political behaviour and limited the social and economic progress of the class Machiavelli represented were: excessive and unchecked or absolute power in the hands of one or a few self-interested individuals lacking “civic virtue”; the other was wealth based on unearned income. By targeting these two elements Machiavelli was challenging, directly, the power basis of the feudal nobility and the church.

The dynamics of wealth, Machiavelli argued, led those who possessed it to strive to increase, or at least preserve, that which they held; this involved acquiring control of the state apparatus and the manipulation of political organs, inevitably to the detriment of the common good. Machiavelli was unequivocal as to the class nature of this corruption and where its source lay, with the residues of feudalism — the “gentry”:

To make it clear what is meant by the term “gentry”, I would point out that the term “gentry” is used of those who live in idleness on the abundant revenue derived from their estates, without having anything to do either with their cultivation or with any other forms of labour essential to life. Such men are a pest in any republic, and in any province…”

Machiavelli reserved his particular venom for those nobles with retainers who owed allegiance to no one and who were bound by no constraints:

 [B]ut still more pernicious are those who, in addition to the aforesaid revenues, have castles under their command and subjects who are under their obedience. Of these two types of men there are plenty in the kingdom of Naples, the Papal States, the Romagna and Lombardy. It is owing to this that in those provinces there has never arisen any republic or any political life, for men born in such conditions are entirely inimical to any form or civic government. (The Discourses 1.55)

Any attempt to establish a stable and lasting government, whether a republic or a kingdom, was doomed to failure, according to Machiavelli, until the political and economic power of the feudal nobility or “gentry” was broken. The wealth, rank and privileges of the nobility emanated not from the sovereign, but from the “antiquity of their lineage”. Such nobles were autonomous units with “estates and subjects of their own, which recognise them as liege lords and have a natural affection for them.” (The Prince, Ch. IV).

Machiavelli was, however, careful to distance his own class of mercantile “gentlemen” from the landed “gentry“:

With my thesis that where there are gentry it is impossible to set up a republic, the experience of the Venetian republic may, perhaps, appear to be incompatible, for in that republic no man may hold office unless he be a “gentleman”. To which the answer is that this case in no way conflicts with my thesis, since “gentleman” in this republic are so in name rather than in point of fact; for they do not derive any considerable income from estates: their great wealth is based on merchandise and moveable goods. Moreover, none of them have castles, nor have they jurisdiction over men. (The Discourses. 1.55)<

The class of feudal lords and nobles were, according to Machiavelli, not only a source of corruption which weakened the body politic, but an ever-present threat to the state itself: “The worst that a prince may expect of a people who are unfriendly to him is that they will desert him; but the hostile nobles he has to fear, not only lest they abandon him, but also because they will turn against him. For they, being more far-sighted and astute, always save themselves in advance, and seek to secure the favour of him whom they hope will he successful.” (The Prince. Ch. IX)

Excessive and unchecked or absolute political as well as economic power in the hands of one man or a small group of individuals also had to be resisted, argued Machiavelli. Power granted, unchecked, for long periods of time to men unconcerned with the common good led either to severe social unrest or tyranny:

very often either a citizen is allowed to acquire more power than is reasonable, or corruption is introduced in the administration of some law on which the nerve and life blood of freedom depends; and this blunder is allowed to go on until it reaches such a pass that to attempt to remedy it is more harmful than to let it take its course. (The Discourses 1.33).

For Machiavelli the main object of political power was the maintenance of political order and general prosperity, but he was always sensitive to the essentially negative influence it had on those who wielded it:

When unrestricted authority is given for a long time, where by a long time I mean a year or more, it may always be dangerous, and will produce good or bad effects according to those to whom it is given are evil or good. (The Discourses. 1.35)

Having identified those aspects of political life, which nourished and sustained the rule of privileged minorities to the detriment of the common good, Machiavelli set about devising a methodology that would limit or eradicate corruption and provide wise rulers with the maximum control over “fortuna”.

The Prince and The Discourses were the two principle works in which Machiavelli set about dispersing the cant which surrounded political power and the light of divine providence in which it was bathed. In keeping with his holistic world view Machiavelli argued that the actions and “behaviour of statesmen in pursuit of the common good, cannot be judged by the ethical or moral standards of private individuals in their everyday social relationships.”

The standards of political behaviour that Machiavelli discussed openly and unapologetically for the first time, had of course been practised by ruling elites since the rise of organised religion — but never admitted. Affairs of state, Machiavelli insisted, transcended all morality and were independent of the power of the church. The only standard by which affairs of state could be judged was that of successfully defending itself, thus guaranteeing the safety of its citizens. For this reason Machiavelli emphasised that those who aspired to be good statesmen should first learn ‘how not to be good‘:

For the manner in which men live is so different from the way in which they ought to live, that he who leaves the common course for that which he ought to follow will find that it leads him to ruin rather than to safety. For a man who in all respects will carry out only his profession of good, will be apt to be ruined among so many who are evil. A prince, therefor, who desires to maintain himself must learn to be not always good, but to be so or not as necessity may require… I am well aware that it would be most praiseworthy for a prince to possess all of the above named qualities that are esteemed good; but as he cannot have them all, nor entirely observe them, because of his human nature which does not permit it, he should at least be prudent enough to know how to avoid the infamy of those vices that would rob him of his state; and if possible to guard against such as are likely to endanger it. But if that is not possible, then he may with less hesitation follow his natural inclinations. Nor need he care about incurring censure for such vices, without which the preservation of his state may be difficult. For, all things considered, it will be found that some things that seem like virtue will lead you to ruin if you follow them; while others, that apparently are vices, will, if followed, result in your safety and well being. (The Prince, Ch. IV)

The security and wellbeing of the state overrode any moral or religious considerations. Behaviour which offended against morality or religion, in the defence of the state, should not be considered blameworthy or evil, wrote Machiavelli, because these actions were not deliberate. They were, rather, determined by the necessity of protecting the state against those who do not act according to “charity and religion“:

For when the safety of one’s country wholly depends on the decisions to be taken, no attention should be paid either to justice or injustice, to kindness or cruelty, or to its being praiseworthy or ignominious, On the contrary, every other consideration being set aside, that alternative should be wholeheartedly adopted which will save the life and preserve the freedom of one’s country. (The Discourses. III. 41)

Machiavelli started from the premise that other men were naturally bad — or self-interested — and would not normally act selflessly in the common interest. It was, therefore necessary for wise rulers to be sufficiently flexible in their responses to such people in order to beat them on their own terms:

A sagacious prince then cannot and should not fulfil his pledges when their observance is contrary to his interest, and when the causes that induced him to pledge his faith no longer exist, If men were all good, then indeed this precept would be bad; but as men are naturally bad, and will not observe their faith towards you, you must, in the same way not observe yours towards them; and no prince ever lacked legitimate reasons with which to colour his want of good faith … And therefore it is necessary that he should have a versatile mind, capable of changing readily, according to the winds and changes of fortune bid him; and as has been said above, not to swerve from the good, if possible, but to know how to resort to evil if necessity demands it…”
A prince then should look mainly to winning, and to the successful maintenance of the state, The means which he employs for this will always be accounted honourable, and will be praised by everybody; for the common people are always taken by appearances and by results, and it is the vulgar mass that constitutes the world. (The Prince, Ch. XVIII)

Machiavelli recognised that the keystone of any state was its ability to enforce its will, if not by reason and law then by the firm application of force and violence. Uppermost in Machiavelli’s mind was the disastrous effect the mercenary armies of Condottieri had had on Italian life. If a state aspired to national unity, stability and continuity, and to eliminating corruption, dissension and conflict, the first step was, Machiavelli insisted, the formation of a citizen army:

The main foundations which all states must have, whether new, or old, or mixed, are good laws and good armies. And as there can be no good laws where there are not good armies, so the laws will be apt to be good where the armies are so… Mercenary and auxiliary troops are both useless and dangerous: and if anyone attempts to found his state upon mercenaries, it will never be stable or secure; for they are disunited, ambitious, and without discipline, faithless, and braggarts among friends, but among enemies cowards, and have neither fear of God, nor good faith with men; so that the ruin of the prince who depends on them will be deferred only just so long as attack is delayed; and in peace he will be spoliated by his mercenaries, and in war his enemies . . . Experience has shown that princes as well as republics achieve the greatest success in war when they themselves direct the movements of their own armies, while mercenary troops do nothing but damage; and that a republic that has armies of her own is much less easily subjected to servitude by one of her own citizens, than one that depends upon foreign troops. (The Prince, Ch. XII)

The option for violence and force, for Machiavelli, was not simply a means of acquiring and retaining power; it was, rather, a calculated and surgical decision necessary for the preservation and stability of the state. Machiavelli carefully distinguished between those who sought dominion over their fellow citizens for its own sake, and these concerned with the common good. Referring to the example of Agathocles, Machiavelli noted: “And yet we cannot cell it valour to massacre one’s fellow citizens, to betray one’s friends, and to be devoid of good faith, mercy and religion; such means nay enable a man to achieve empire, but not glory.” (The Prince, Ch. VIII) Where violence was deemed to be necessary, in pursuit of “political success”, then it should be used carefully and with foresight:

Whence it is to be noted that in taking possession of a state the conqueror should well reflect as to the harsh measures that may be necessary, and then execute then at a single blow, so as not to be obliged to renew them every day; and by thus not repeating them, to assure himself of the support of the inhabitants, and win them ever to himself by benefits bestowed. And he who acts otherwise, either from timidity or from being badly advised, will be obliged ever to be sword in hand, and will never be able to rely upon his subjects, who in turn will not be able to rely upon him, because of the constant fresh wrongs committed by him. Cruelties should be committed all at once, as in that way each separate one is less felt, and gives less offence; benefits, on the other hand, should be conferred one at a time, for in that way they will be more appreciated. (The Prince, Ch. VIII)

The role of the healthy state, in Machiavelli’s view, was the maintenance of the social equilibrium by whatever means necessary, including fraud, coercion or force. It was a world incompatible with and independent of the moral and ethical precepts that guided individual behaviour:

You must know, therefore, that there are two ways of carrying on a contest: the one by law, and the other by force. The first is practised by men, and the other by animals; and as the first is often insufficient, it becomes necessary to resort to the second… A prince should be a fox, to know the traps and the snares; and a lion, to be able to frighten the wolves; for those who simply hold to the nature of the lion do not understand their business. (The Prince, Ch. XVIII)

Machiavelli was well aware, however, that dissension and conflict were inevitable in a property-owning and class divided society:

For in every state there will be found two different dispositions, which result from the fact that the people dislike being ruled and oppressed by the nobles, while the nobles seek to rule and oppress the people.

For Machiavelli this feeling and conflict of interests sprang from the two irreconcilable positions that he described as the Roman or Spartan and Venetians. The Roman position was expressed thus:

[I]f we ask what it is the nobility are after and what it is the common people are after, it will be seen that in the former there is a great desire to dominate and in the latter merely the desire not to be dominated. Consequently, the latter will be more keen on liberty since their hope of usurping dominion over others will be less than in the case of the upper class… On the other hand, the defenders of the Spartan and Venetian systems say that to place the guardianship in the hands of the powerful has two results. First it satisfiestheir ambition more … they play an important part in the republic. Secondly, it prevents the restless minds of the plebs from acquiring a sense of power, which is the cause of endless squabbles and … desperate measures. (The Prince, Ch. IX)

The matter was expressed more simply in The Discourses: “Either you have in mind a republic that looks to founding an empire, as Rome did; or one that is content to maintain the status quo…
Machiavelli accepted the assumption that one class was destined to rule while the other was to be ruled and that there should be a constant struggle between the two opposing political classes, each locked in a perpetual struggle to gain dominion over the other:

Thus the desire for liberty thus caused each party to oppress the other insofar as it got the upper hand. And the sequence in which these events occur is such that men seek first to be free from apprehension, then make others apprehensive, and that the injuries of which they had ridded themselves, they proceeded to inflict on others. It was as if it were necessary either to treat others ill or to be ill-treated. (The Discourses. 1.46)

In the interests of orderly government, Machiavelli proclaimed it necessary to break this cycle of violence, not only by curtailing the power of the aristocracy and the nobility, but also by endeavouring to contain all manifestations of class violence while encouraging compromise and consensus among the citizenry. To Machiavelli, social equilibrium was the only viable foundation tor a healthy and enduring state that could defend property rights, encourage trade and commerce and defend the “national” interest. The dialectic of controlled class conflict, with recourse to the “economic” and calculated use of violence was, then, a useful and beneficial device in Machiavelli’s view:

To me those who condemn the quarrels between the nobles and the plebs seem to be caviling at the very things that were the primary cause of Rome’s retaining her freedom, and that they pay more attention to the noise and clamour resulting from such commotions than to what resulted from them, i.e. to the good effects which they produced. Nor do they realise that in every republic there are two different dispositions, that of the populace and that of the upper class and that all legislation favourable to liberty is brought about by the clash between them. (The Discourses 1.4)

Although Machiavelli was a committed enemy of the temporal power of the Church, believing that Christianity had been a major contributory factor in the decline of Western civilisation, he was first and foremost a realist who understood that political could only take root and flourish when it was perceived to be endowed with divine authority:

And, as the observance of divine worship is the cause of greatness in republics, so the neglect of it is the cause of their ruin. Because where the fear of God is wanting, it comes about either that a kingdom is ruined, or that it is kept going by the fear of a prince, which makes up for the lack of religion. And because princes are short-lived, it will happen that when a kingdom loses its prince, it loses also the virtue of its prince. Hence kingdoms which depend on the virtue of one man do not last long, because they lose their virtue when his life is spent, and it seldom happens that it is revived by his successor… The security of a republic, therefore, does not depend upon its ruler governing it prudently during his lifetime, but upon his so ordering it that after his death, it may maintain itself in being. (The Discourses, 1.11)

Machiavelli saw in religion, then, a tool of the state, the source of legitimacy and the means by which the state transcended the lives of individual and mortal governors:

Numa, finding the people ferocious and desiring and desiring to reduce them to civic obedience by means of the arts of peace, turned to religion as the instrument necessary above all others for the maintenance of a civilised state, and so constituted it that there was never for so many centuries so great a fear of God as there was in this republic. (The Discourses 1.11)

Religion in the service or the state was a means by which a new authority could he imposed on the people without recourse to violence and oppression:

Nor in fact was there ever a legislator who, in introducing ordinary laws to a people, did not have recourse to God, for otherwise they would not have been accepted, since many benefits of which a prudent man is aware, are not so evident to reason that he can convince others of them. Hence wise men, in order to escape this difficulty, have recourse to God.

It also served other purposes as well, such as boosting the morale of the army:

It will also be seen by those who pay attention to Roman history, how much religion helped in the control of armies, in encouraging the plebs, in producing good men, and in shaming the bad. (The Discourses. 1.11)

Fortune and virtue were other important factors which influenced human affairs, argued Machiavelli. While agreeing that “fortune” removed a substantial amount of control from people’s lives, he did believe that the worst excesses of providence could be overcome, or contained, by the power of “virtue” or the will to succeed combined with intelligence and foresight:

I judge that it may be assumed that fortune to the extent or one half is arbiter or our actions, but she permits us to direct the other half, or perhaps a little less, ourselves. I compare this to a swollen river, which in its fury overflow the plains, tears up trees and buildings, and sweeps the earth from one place and deposits it in another. Everyone flies before the flood, and yields to its fury, unable to resist it; and notwithstanding this state of things, men do not when the river is in its ordinary condition provide against its overflow by dykes and walls, so that when it rises it may flow either in the channel thus provided for it, or that at any rate its violence may not be entirely unchecked, nor its effects prove so injurious. It is the same with Fortune, who displays her power where there is no organised valour to resist her, and where she knows that there are no dykes or walls to control her. (The Prince, Ch. XXV)

Machiavelli stresses that Fortune is the one is the one constant and unpredictable factor in the equation of power politics, as his hero, Cesare Borgia, discovered to his detriment:

Cesare Borgia, commonly called Duke Valentine, acquired his state by the good fortune of his father, but lost it when no longer sustained by that good fortune; although he employed all the means and did all that a brave and prudent man can do to take root in that state which had been bestowed upon him by the arms and good fortune of another. (The Prince, Ch. VII)

Cesare Borgia’s virtues were not, however, of a sufficiently high standard to sustain him through the crimes that eventually led to his downfall. Machiavelli urged the wise ruler not to succumb to the belief that Fortune was omnipotent but to resist and overcome it:

… on the whole, I judge impetuosity to be better than caution; for Fortune is a woman, and if you wish to master her, you must strike her and beat her, and you will see that she allows herself to be more easily vanquished by the rash and violent than by those who proceed more slowly and coldly. (The Prince, Ch. XXV)

Throughout The Prince and The Discourses we see an overriding concern with questions of morality. In order to emancipate the state from the ecclesiastical framework of the middle ages, Machiavelli had to establish the difference between private and public morality, without undermining the idea of morality itself, or exposing it to intolerable strain. After all, as Machiavelli was only too aware, morality and ethics were the very glue without which the individual stood alone in society “with no motives and no interests except those supplied by his own egoism.”

The main thrust of Machiavelli’s theory is directed against the moral decadence that permeated and impacted deeply on the political and social life of the time, decadence brought about by a system that was founded on the principle that personal salvation or self-interest was more important than the world. Hannah Arendt points out that Machiavelli’s attitude to religion, which reflected his view of life itself, was not “whether one loved life more than the world, but whether one was capable of loving the world more than oneself.” The essence of Machiavelli’s philosophy is captured in a telling phrase in a letter to his close friend Vetteri towards the end of his life, a thread which can be traced through all his writings: “I love my native city more than my soul.”