Written in the 16th century, The Prince is regarded as one of the earliest political science treatise. Earlier works such as Plato’s Republic were founded on theoretical and moral considerations, ideals not founded in reality. Machiavelli examines what it takes to maintain political power and concludes unstained morality and political competence are contradictory traits in many cases. While The Prince was not original in terms of genre1, it brought shocking content for its readers. Previous works would place the moral character of the ruler as the most important quality. Machiavelli, suffering no illusions about man’s nature, deems power to be most important. Without maintaining power a prince will lose his kingdom placing him and his subjects at the mercy of their conqueror. Those who place private morality over political expediency are at a severe disadvantage. Not all men are good and Machiavelli illustrates this uncomfortable truth for the reader.
Machiavellianism predates Machiavelli, and I think that’s an important point to understand. Machiavelli is describing what he has seen and read, coming to conclusions based on evidence. Political advice at the time suggested cultivating traditional virtues and neglects subterfuge. This puts naturally good people at a disadvantage. Some people will resort to wicked deeds to obtain their ends and they will ignore moral guidance. Where as people that are naturally good will not consider all the possibilities becoming easier to deceive and more vulnerable to unethical behavior. The Prince provides examples of people doing contemptible acts to gain power, Machiavelli does not endorse these actions but shows the extremes potential adversaries may stoop to. Pretending that wicked deeds never pay is misleading and The Prince deals with when and how wickedness is useful. I think the examples Machiavelli provides are educational for a potential ruler.
What impressed me most about Machiavelli is his use of scriptural principles not typically talked about in church. Machiavelli claims that it is better to be feared than loved. The bible uses the word fear over 300 times2. Yahweh understands the use of fear as demonstrated in the Old Testament numerous times. It is important to note the difference between being feared and being hated however. Conflating these terms will cause ruin to the prince. The prince must exercise fear without being hated by his people. This is simple, don’t take people’s women or their property is a good rule of thumb. Men who will oppose you motivated by ambition alone are rare so avoiding a reputation that makes you hated will protect you from most internal threats by itself. Also Machiavelli understands that the root of fear (violence) must be within the prince’s power to inflict. Patriotic troops dedicated to a national cause are the most sure way to maintain political power. At the time Italy was reliant on mercenaries and foreign troops which will never fight dangerous battles and will turn on you whenever it become profitable to do so. Machiavelli provides a direct biblical illustration. Before David fights Goliath he turns down Saul’s armor3. A nation must rely on its own arms for security.
What seems to go largely unmentioned in the analyses I’ve read is Machiavelli’s focus on being accepted by the people as a solid foundation for your political body. A good ruler will not interfer with its citizens property and will allow them to earn a comfortable living. People who like being ruled by the prince will not conspire to kill him and the prince enjoys great protection from being overthrown. People need to strongly dislike the prince before they will cooperate with others in conspiracy since the risks are so great and the rewards are questionable. Also Machiavelli praises the French king for implementing a consititution that helps check the power of the nobility against the prince under the guise of people’s rights. This leads into the most fascinating part of Machiavelli’s legacy. In Maurice Joly’s “Dialouge In Hell” (1864) Joly uses Machiavelli as the revealer of Napolean the third’s despotic reign.
Disclaimer: This next part is not about Machiavelli’s historical writtings but rather his role in a piece of fiction I find interesting.
“The Dialouge in Hell” is a fictional dialouge between Machiavelli and Montesquieu in an attempt to speak out against a tyrant manipulating a modern government. The fictional elements are an attempt to sidestep censorship laws against poltically motivated material. Fictional Machiavelli is too accurate desribing the Emporer’s methods, causing Dialouges to be censered almost immediately5. From what I can tell Dialouges accurately describes Napolean III methods he used to declare himself emporer of France with a military coup. Napolean was the President of France at the time. This was a new concept to me, why would the preseident stage a coup? Then I found out he couldn’t be reelected so he decided on re-writing the constitution. Napolean III is an educational example for the fascists of the next century in an indirect way because of another book.
Let us take a detour to examine “The Protocols of the Elder’s of Zion”’s dark role on the historical stage and its connection to “Dialouges” before further examining Machiavelli’s legacy.
Protocol’s notorious legacy is from the purposes Hitler used it for. Protocols supposedly revealing Jewish schemes of global hegemoney. It is often discredited as being a literary fiction but still readers find it has a feeling of truth to it. Looking at Dialouges, which Protocols have been shown to be plaguerized from reveals why this is the case4. Hitler was able to use the Protocols to justify war while he himself studied and employed its principles. Even though Protocols is fictional, it plagurized so heavily from dialouges it takes on Dialouges essence. Protocols is an interesting book by itself, but it owes its “success” by plagurizing Dialouges so heavily. Let us examine the Dialouges to better understand Machiavellianism, leaving The Protocols for another discussion.
“Unfortunate are they that love the truth, and do not seek it out at its source”~ Giacomo Casanova6
The Dialouges features Machiavelli conversing with Montesquie. Montesquie assumes that it is impossible for a despot to gain despotic levels of power in a modern state and he argues with Machiavelli who proves him wrong. Machiavelli provides an accurate desciption of how Napolean III came to and maintains power. Thats why “Dialouge in Hell” was imediately confiscated and only a few orginals survived while Joly was arrested for his labours. Dialouges ends very powerfully, but it provides no ambiguity to the nature of the work. Dialouges describe the very Machiavellian censorship that repressed it, while tragic, illustrates Joly’s political genius.
There are various ways Machiavelli can be interrperated in the Dialouges7. Machiavelli understands despotism and we might first be led to believe Machiavelli is advocating despotism himself. Upon deeper consideration however we see Machiavelli’s knowledge being used to expose the emporer’s excessive power. Machiavelli’s words make us suspect that he is evil, while he is actually the revealer of evil. Machiavelli’s works allow people to better understand the world we live in and his cameo in “The Dialouge in Hell” attests for the value of understanding Machiavelliaism. Accurate assesment of people’s nature is a very important skill in many walks of life. Everyone, in various degrees, possess a Machiavellian nature. People care for their own personal benefits more than they value similar benefits for others. Machiavelli gives an important percepective of politics that modern readers still find insightful. Machiavelli is a frequently read author considering he wrote in the 1500’s, his popularity throughout the ages is understandable by the quality of his writtings.
- 1 Samuel 17:39
- “The Story of my Life” I think he’s quoting someone himself here, which would make me ironic quoting a quotation of this quote. This aside is worth suffering some irony for. I feel Giacomo Cassanova is another representation of how your legacy is only one small facet of your personality. His prison escape, his duel and his scam of the old lady are all examples of excellent stories. Cassanova is a polymath who has some crazy stories to tell, while his legacy equates him to a seducer. While being a playboy is a good legacy to leave in my opinion, Casanova is a much richer personality than is often suggested. Machiavelli’s legacy suffers a much darker yet similar distortion and this is why I am interested in him. Casanova is an entertaining read, the most impressive auto-biography I’ve read, by the way.
- http://www.amazon.ca/Dialogue-Hell-between-Machiavelli-Montesquieu/dp/0739106996 John Waggoner does an excellent job in his commentary which helped illuminate the Dialogue for me. I owe my perspective on the work to him.
Please leave a comment discussing what you gained from this essay at the bottom of the page!
If you enjoyed this article I recommend The Decline of Honour