Machiavelli was shocking, but other philosophers would be equally shocking if they were free from bullshit. Such honesty about political dishonesty would have been hardly possible in another age, except perhaps in Greece during the time of the sophists.
When Savonarola dominated Florence in his twenties, his miserable end made an impression on Machiavelli, for he said that ‘armed prophets have conquered and unarmed ones failed’, proceeding to give Savonarola as an instance of the latter class. On the other side he mentions Moses, Cyrus, Theseus, and Romulus.
His most famous work, The Prince, was written in 1513, and dedicated to Lorenzo the Second, since he hoped (in vain) to win the favor of the Medici. The Discourses was more republican and more liberal. He says at the beginning of The Prince that he will not speak of republics in this book, since he has dealt with them elsewhere. Those who do not read also the Discourses will get a one-sided view of his doctrine.
The Prince is concerned to discover, form history and contemporary events, how principalities are won, how they are held, from history and from contemporary events, how principalities are won, how they are held, and how they are lost.
Many examples existed in 15 thcentury Italy, both great and small. There were few legitimate rulers. Even the popes gained power through corruption. The rules for achieving success were not the same as when times became more settled. No one would have been shocked by treacheries which would have disqualified a man in the 18 thor 19 thcenturies. The 20 thand 21 stcenturies can better appreciate Machiavelli, for some of the biggest successes in our time have been achieved by methods employed in Renaissance Italy.
Machiavelli, as an artistic connoisseur in statecraft, would have applauded Hitler’s Reichstag fire, his purge of the party in 1934, and his breach of faith after Munich.
The Prince repudiates received morality where the conduct of rulers is concerned. A ruler will perish if he is always good; he must be as cunning as a fox and as fierce as a lion.
‘But it is necessary to be able to disguise this character well, and to be a great feigner and dissembler; and men are so simple and so ready to obey present necessities, that one who deceives will always find those who allow themselves to be deceived. I will mention only one modern instance. Alexander VI did nothing else but deceive men, he thought of nothing else, and found the occasion for it; no man was ever more able to give assurances, or affirmed things with stronger oaths, and no man observed them less; however, he always succeeded in his deceptions, as he knew well this aspect of things. It is not necessary therefore for a prince to have all the above-named qualities [the conventional virtues], but it is very necessary to seem to have them.’
In politics, there is the question of means. It is futile to pursue a political purpose by methods that are bound to fail; if the end is held good, we must choose means adequate to its achievement. The question of means can be treated in a purely scientific manner, without regard to the goodness or badness of the ends.
‘Success’ means the achievement of your purpose, whatever it is. If there is a science of success, it can be studied just as well in the successes of the wicked as in those of the good-indeed better, since the examples of successful sinners are more numerous than those of successful saints. But after the science has been established, it will be just as useful to the saint as to the sinner. For the saint, if he concerns himself with politics, must wish, just as the sinner does, to achieve success.
The question is ultimately one of power. To achieve a political end, power, of one kind or another, is necessary. This plain fact is concealed by slogans, such as ‘right will prevail’ or ‘the triumph of evil is short-lived’. If your side prevails, that is because it has superior power. It is true that power, often, depends on opinion, and opinion on propaganda; it is true, also, that it is an advantage in propaganda to seem more virtuous than your adversary, and that one way of seeming virtuous is to be virtuous.
Sometimes, that political side that wins is the one that the general public considers virtuous. This was an important element in growing the power of the Church during the 11 th, 12 th, and 13 thcenturies, and in the success of the Reformation in the 16 thcentury. But there are limitations. Those who have received power can control propaganda and make their party appear virtuous — no one can mention the suns of Alexander VI. Second, there are chaotic periods during which the treacherous are victorious, such as the period of Machiavelli. These times are punctuated with rapidly growing cynicism, which makes men forgive anything provided it pays. But even in such times, as Machiavelli says, it is desirable to present an appearance of virtue before the ignorant public.
The world has become more like that of Machiavelli than it was, and the modern man who hopes to refute his philosophy must think more deeply than seemed necessary in the nineteenth century.
Originally published at https://unearnedwisdom.com.