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Machiavelli

Essay by 24  •  November 13, 2010  •  2,574 Words (11 Pages)  •  940 Views

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"And if all men were good, this teaching would not be good; but because they are wicked and do not observe faith with you, you also do not have to observe it with them" (69). Niccolo Machiavelli's The Prince is arguably the most famous and controversial political science book of all time. Many think of Machiavelli as synonymous with evil.

The father of the idea that the ends will always justify the means, the term Machiavellian has become connected with selfish, brutal, or immoral actions. Machiavelli has long been associated with totalitarianism, conquest, and tyranny. But is this label deserved? Is The Prince a book that expresses evil? Many argue that Machiavelli is not a teacher of evil, but bases his teachings on a pragmatic realism that has long been a part of politics. He would certainly not be the first to have such a view, and he is certainly not the last. In promoting his realistic view of power and politics, Machiavelli does not teach evil, instead, he uses necessity and practicality as the criteria in which his thought is based on. In this way we see that he does not put the matter of good or evil as a priority in his actions, but uses practical methods to make his choice in each instance as to what is necessary and beneficial. Through the exploration of the basis for Machiavelli's treatment of ethics and his agenda for writing The Prince we see that his teachings are not evil, but based on political pragmatism and necessity. He himself makes it clear as he advises the Prince on how to be able to do what is necessary whether it is good or evil. "And so he needs to have a spirit to change as the winds of fortune and variations of things commanded him, and as I said above, not depart from good, when possible, but know how to enter into evil, when forced by necessity " (70).

Machiavelli treats morality and prudence not as guides for a Prince, but as tools to use for political gain. In this way we see that Machiavelli is not preaching evil, which would be to encourage the opposite of virtue and morality, but to use them in different ways depending on the situation. Virtue is a key concept when discussing moral living and actions, and vice is the opposite of virtue. The concepts of virtue and vice are age-old ideas ingrained within human society. But the traditional view of virtue and vice, laid out by such thinkers as Aristotle and Plato, is changed to fit the pursuit of power in Machiavellian's The Prince. Classic virtue comes from a criterion based on just and beneficial interaction, while pursuing an end, within a civil society. This interaction can involve the impact of an individual on another individual, a citizen and a state, or even an impact an individual has upon himself. Thus a man who sacrifices his life to save his friend, city, or beliefs is thought of as virtuous. On the other hand the reciprocal of this action would be vice, a man who sacrifices his friend, city or beliefs to preserve his life may be viewed as possessing a vice. Virtue finds its anchor in morality and ethics, and upholds that, it is focused on preserving qualities like justice and harmony. The change in the Machiavellian code of morality comes as a result as result of an entire shift in what the foundation of this morality is built on, namely the ends being pursued. The Machiavellian concept of virtue not only divorces virtue completely from its ethical foundation, but places it on a foundation of ability to execute what is necessary in order to achieve what is desired. In this case what is desired is power, which is to be strictly maintained and used to achieve glorious ends, whatever they may be. From this foundation of the pursuit and maintenance of power comes the Machiavellian outlook on everything else, and is the reason in which he is able to separate ethics from politics. Morality in its classical sense would only serve to get in the way of power and prudence; it creates unnecessary dilemmas between what is politically necessary and morally correct, interfering with being a wise ruler. Therefore the Prince must take the necessary actions regardless of their moral ramifications. "Ð'...[If] one considers everything well, one will find something that appears to be virtue, which if pursued would be one's ruin, and something else appears to be vice, which if pursued results in one's security and well-being" (62).

Machiavelli removes the foundation of prudence and virtue from morality, and reinterprets them in regards to necessity and power. Correct policy within The Prince is based on the Machiavellian conception of virtue and prudence. Stemming from this, Machiavelli at times refers to virtue and prudence in their classical definitions, pertaining to high morality, and just actions. But at other times in The Prince, he refers to them as directly pertaining to the proper execution of power. For example he often compares a ruler's success, not morality, with virtue. No matter how brutal the ruler, if he is able to hold power well then he is virtuous. Prudence is thought of as being careful, observant and logical in the classical sense. But Machiavelli uses it to describe a ruler who is very sharp, decisive, and makes the correct choices. "A prudent lord, therefore, cannot observe faith, nor should he, when such observance turns against him, and causes that made him promise have been eliminated" (69). It therefore would be prudent for a ruler to massacre a rebellion, if it meant the ultimate preservation of power. In this case necessity calls for action, even if those actions go against classical morality. A ruler, who has correct judgment and knows what is the best course of action, would take the proper measures to stop the rebellion and pay no attention to the morality of his actions. The ends in this case change the conception of the codes in which the means are to be judged by; no longer is the end such universally beneficial ideas of peace and justice, but power and conquest. Virtue and prudence to Machiavelli hold meaning only in the sense of ability and accomplishment. To Machiavelli cunning would be a virtue, as would decisiveness while wielding power. A vice for a ruler would be stupidity, or ignorance of ones own subjects. Something that is virtuous in the classical sense would only be followed if it were deemed compatible with the situation, and did not in anyway undermine the ends being pursued.

The Machiavellian view is based on and around a realism seen in politics and history, and is amoral. The entire intent of the book was to write a pragmatic and realistic approach to dealing with power, not a lesson in high virtue and morality. He states, "But since my intent is to write something useful to whoever understands it, it has appeared to me more fitting to go directly to the effectual truth of the thing than to the imagination of it"

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