The significance of Machiavelli’s ‘The Prince’ in the history of political thought

John Gilley, 2015

Niccolo Machiavelli authored one of the most renowned texts in the history of political thought. The Prince was written at a time of political instability: Italy was experiencing internal division and this resulted in threats from opportunist neighbours, and consequently Machiavelli saw a need to advise rulers in the art of successful leadership (Gilbert, 1939: 453).  The text was banned by the Holy Church as it was dismissive of cardinal values and promoted anti-Christian ideas, and in a sense this is what makes Machiavelli’s text significant: its purposeful approach to political problems as an alternative to the previous theological and theoretical outlooks and his proposed separation of ethics from politics.

Pre Machiavellian political thought was built upon the idea that there was a greater reality than the one we know. Ancient and medieval political thought was rooted in morality and a search for the ‘truth’. Early political thinkers like (Plato, 2000: 12) who argued ‘human virtue [was] justice’ and (Augustine, 2009: 5) who asserted that virtue and victory is obtained through ‘perfect peace’ focused on ideas grounded in virtue and integrity. Plato’s emphasis was on abstract ideas, exploring insights into the nature of reality and the capacity of the human mind to attain the truth in the search for a harmonised society where true virtue exists, whereas Augustine’s theological approach saw the state as serving a divine purpose and considered such a perfect regime unattainable on earth but present in the next (Griswold, 2002: 92).  Machiavelli changed this theoretical outlook to something more purposeful, advocating unsentimental realism thereby offering tangible solutions to real world leadership rather than pondering over theoretical ideas that had little impact on the real world. One illustration being to avoid using mercenary troops and rely instead on domestic troops which are more likely to offer themselves wholly in defence of ‘their’ city (Machiavelli, 2009: 40).

Plato did not look to answer questions about what type of soldier should be used to defend the city; his political thought was grounded on reason rather than empiricism. Similarly, Augustine’s message was centred on biblical doctrines. Machiavelli rejected the idea of Christian morality in politics arguing that Christian values weaken humans, making them passive and preventing men from understanding the true world (Forde, 1992: 386). Both former arguments were preoccupied with ethics and morality, incommensurate with practical decision making regarding management of a state at a time of shifting fortunes. Unlike his predecessors, Machiavelli devised his treatise from experience attained during his diplomatic career that saw him negotiate with powerful figures such as Louis XII of France, Cesare Borgia, Pope Julius II and the Holy Roman Emperor Maxamillion (Skinner, 2008, 00:03:02), where he asserted that of necessity ethical concerns must be foregone for the sake of stability; his intention to gain a lasting unconditional power (Plamanatz, 1992: 39). The significance of The Prince is clear as it is the work of a man who experienced the reality of leadership. His message is based on real world experiences rather than ideals and assumptions, and as a consequence advocated the sacrifice of certain principles in order to achieve success.

Indeed, Machiavelli is recognised for advocating an immoral course of action, but he was not the first political thinker to pursue such an approach regarding raison d’etat (Korab-Karpowicz, 2013). However, his motivation for writing The Prince was not entirely unprincipled but personal and born of a desire to attain employment under the new Medici regime which had been reinstated in 1512 (Strauss, 1958: 212). Writing during a time of volatility, both for himself as well for Italy, he understood the battlefield of politics. He offered the Medici solutions to further his claim as his intention was to promote himself as a useful tool for Florentine diplomacy in order reclaim a position of authority and help defend Florence from foreign dominance. This was significant since it was in contrast to the motivations of both Plato and Augustine whose ideas emanated from a desire to add meaning to the world and to their lives of serenity, somewhat removed from the toils of everyday life that Machiavelli had endured. It was essential for Machiavelli, who had been tortured following his removal from power, to ‘appl[y]…the methods of realism to the realm of political thought’ (Gilbert, 1939: 450) as he aimed to persuade Lorenzo de’ Medici that he could show him how to best rule Florence in the hope that the young Lord would put an end to Machiavelli’s own ‘continual and undeserved suffering’ which he had acquired from the ‘malignity of Fortune’ (Machiavelli, 2009: 4).

The Renaissance era saw the rebirth of ancient Greek and Roman values which suggested that there were certain ideals people should live by, summed up in the cardinal virtues of wisdom, courage, temperance and justice. In The Prince, Machiavelli guides his reader away from the idea that ruling in accordance with these virtues is necessary, directing them instead to an unscrupulous approach to leadership. His leader need not be ‘merciful, faithful, humane, religious, upright’ (Machiavelli, 2009: 139) but must appear so.  He says leaders should possess the ability ‘to know how to act as…the fox and the lion’ (Machiavelli, 2009: 51); the fox is able to ‘see [and avoid] snares’ while a lion can ‘frighten off wolves.’ In order to be a successful leader, one must be able to see the way things are and employ the use of cunning to manipulate reality favourably towards oneself. Machiavelli highlights the importance of a leader to use deception, pointing out that Cesare Borgia was successful because ‘he was so good at disguising his intentions’ (Machiavelli, 2009: 24), and significantly the cultivation of public opinion as a tool for successful leadership makes his approach noteworthy in its legacy in contemporary politics (Leung, 2001: 13).

Furthermore, Machiavelli points out that to attain glorious victory as a leader is to acknowledge that power is not concerned with an a priori concept of moral judgement (Khan, 1986: 63). Khan highlights the significance of The Prince in determining a difference between how things ought to be and how they actually are and her focus on Machiavelli’s disregard of a priori morals highlights his view that a leader cannot alter the way of the world but must manipulate it so that it favours him. Machiavelli offered a pioneering new approach to political thought, asserting that leaders cannot be blamed for accepting and living according to the rules their world dictates them.  (Butterfield, 1955: 101).

Although Machiavelli’s approach has been criticised for its lack of cogent and compassionate statesmanship, his ‘prince’ has relevance as a selection of different qualities presented in examples through time, united in one man rather than a product of his imagination. Suggesting that the world cannot be altered by leadership, his model elucidates our ability to manage our own personal circumstances in order to achieve the most we can out of our situation. If we fail to manage our conditions adequately we will suffer at the hands of what Machiavelli calls Fortuna. Based on the Roman goddess of fortune, Fortuna is unpredictable and destructive. Machiavelli states that we have some control over Fortuna but much of our lives are shaped by factors out of our control. He compares Fortuna to a ‘raging river…[yet] when the weather becomes fair [men are able] to make provision, both with defences and barriers’ (Machiavelli, 2009: 71).  The ability of some good leaders to make provision in order to manage the raging currents of Fortuna and even take advantage of it is achieved by the application of virtu which is the ability of a ruler to adapt himself to the situation in which he finds himself, in the interests of the state regardless of the price that had to be paid (Plamenatz, 1992: 66).

The significance of virtu is that it is directly applicable to the rule of a Prince in overcoming inevitable hardships inflicted on him by Fortuna. This guidance reaffirms the significance of Machiavelli’s treatise because it shifted the emphasis of political thinking from an abstract discussion of virtue and justice to an objective discussion of the real machinations of governance, presenting solutions to problems facing leaders that were arising in the real world of 16th Century Europe and not contemplations about how 16th century Europe ought to be.  More significantly, his discourse is designated as ‘a true reflection of practices within international relations in the 21st century’ (Leung, 2001: 11), and his opportunist philosophy has been evident in political manoeuvring throughout time even to the extent of war and conflict offering opportunities to cement power for both leader and state, conflict being another practical tool for the maintenance of power, ‘a prince must have no other objective, no other thought, nor take up any profession but that of war’ (Machiavelli, 2009: 53).

In conclusion, The Prince is significant to the history of political thought because it advocates a purposeful approach to problems. Because he believed that the world could not be changed by leadership he proposed a system of governance based around making the most of what was available. His focus was on real-life decision making that helped leaders capitalise on opportunities presented to them, and although resulting in an immoral approach to politics, the practical manifestation of an ideology often results in harsh and uncomfortable realties. Thus although The Prince is seen as unscrupulous, it nevertheless provides a concrete model for leaders when dealing with reality which is still relevant in the contemporary field of international relations. Because his thesis was borne of a practical desire to gain employment it holds weight in the real world of men, and although he offers solutions based on abstract qualities such as cunning and deviance, his tangible examples offer solutions to complex problems. In the words of Francis Bacon, ‘we are much beholden to Machiavelli [who wrote about] what men do and not what they ought to do’ (Machiavelli, 2009).


For more from John Gilley, visit his Twitter: @johngilley96



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