Niccolo Machiavelli is no doubt one of the most important philosophers of all time. He lived between 1469-1527 in Florence. He is known with his masterpiece “The Prince” which he wrote on 1513. In this precious work, he profited from the ideas of ancient Greek philosophers like Aristotle and created a unique place for himself in Renaissance thinkers. He was affected by the disunity of his country at his time thus; created a theory that supported complete unity and absolute power. He was also criticized because of his ignorance of morality and obsession of power. He was even claimed to write a handbook for gangsters. Although his ideas can be found very severe and undemocratic, we should be aware of that he formed these ideas in order to maintain political unity of his country in a patriotic way and in 15th and 16th centuries. Machiavelli is also important as the founder of political realism and affected many important philosophers including Karl Marx and Antonio Gramsci. In this assignment, I am going to explain some aspects in Machiavelli’s “The Prince” and show why he is the vanguard of political realism and secularism
Machiavelli in his famous book basically tells us about five important and necessary qualities of a successful prince in order to rule a principality in a successful way. The first and most important characteristic of a prince should be the security and power according to Machiavelli. Power is the most dominant aspect of Machiavelli’s theory and it should come first for a safe, united princedom. A prince should use all means to acquire and to preserve his power. Without the existence of a powerful, central management a state should never keep its existence. This is because a power-lacking state would be the target of both internal and external enemies. People of a principality should have respect, loyalty and fear towards the prince. A united society that has respect and loyalty towards their prince will always act together bravely against dangers and will support their prince’s policies. This should be based on the belief and trust of the citizens to their princes. Power is the first and absolute condition of security. “From this arises the following question: whether it is better to be loved than feared, or the reverse. The answer is that one would like to be both the one and the other; but because it is difficult to combine them, it is far better to be feared than loved if you cannot be both” (Machiavelli, p. 54). By this quotation we can understand Machiavelli’s passion of a strong, merciless prince that will create security for his country. He also claims that a prince should avoid being hatred by playing both “the fox and the lion” (Machiavelli, p. 56).
Other important requirements of a prince are human nature, fortuna, virtu and amoralism. Machiavelli thinks that human nature is fickle so, people cannot be relied on. A role of the prince should not be to satisfy all changing desires of his community but instead to create a strong, safe and united country. In Machiavellist approach, desires of humans are the outcome of their fickle nature and thus, could not be predicted. Another aspect of being a good ruler is related to the fortuna. According to Machiavelli fortune is the mixture of luck, divine events (fate) and our preparations for upcoming events. Although most of the people believe that their failures or satisfactions are related to fortuna, luck or destiny that is the produce of God, half of creating fortune is in our hands. Machiavelli makes a perfect analogy for luck issue. He compares the luck with an overflowing river that will destroy all things that it will face. He accepts that the strength of the wild river will be detrimental to environment and people living around but if a person is aware of the fact that river has chance to overflow in rainy, bad weather conditions, this person has chance to reduce the negative effects of the flood. The fourth characteristic of a good ruler is his necessity to have virtu. By virtu, Machiavelli means skills and virtuosity. Those are qualities, abilities like arts of war that will appear in specific conditions and help a prince to have legitimacy and fear. These abilities can be very negative for moral issues but a prince should think of the security of the state before morality. From there we can pass to fifth condition of being a good ruler: amorality. Ignoring morality and making bad, violent things for the sake of the security of the country will be a virtu, a skill for a prince not a mistake in his way to maintain power. As we can understand from these four requirement items, what is important and virtuous for Machiavelli is to maintain power and security for the society. We should also mention that in Machiavellist perspective any citizen who knows how to collect power in his hands and creates an absolute authority could become a ruler without any specific education. Moreover, Machiavelli does not object to the severe acts of the Prince since he creates the unity in the country. That is why; he favors a very strong centralized leadership instead of a problematic democratic rule.
Although Machiavelli’s ideas seem disturbing, we can claim that his perspective is realist and he offers solutions for problems of his epoch. Philosophers generally try to establish the ideal just state like the ancient Greek philosophers. Their theories are generally stayed in the paper and never transformed into reality. However, Machiavelli’s ideas are very valid and realistic. We know that politics is not a clean game which is based on fair-play. There are many corruptions, wars, sufferings related to politics and this is the reality. We can find many examples even from today’s so-called “democratic world” to substantiate this argument. Unfortunately, due to descent human nature people do not always act honestly and politics is the reflection of people’s nature since people choose their rulers by voting in elections. That is why; we must try to understand Machiavelli rather than criticizing him for his realistic and pessimistic views. Machiavelli unlike other philosophers says the truth and makes conclusions from real event instead of creating utopia. That is why people hate Machiavelli and despise his views. However, many important philosophers including Karl Marx and Antonio Gramsci focused on Machiavelli’s views in order to understand the nature of competitive capitalist society. Another importance of Machiavelli is that although he lived in the 15th century at the start of Renaissance, he thinks and writes in a very secular way and does not deal too much with religion. We know that the Middle-Age was the darkest period of European history because of the pressure of the Roman Catholic Church. However, Machiavelli was able to think beyond borders probably affected by the novelties of Renaissance which started in Italy. Machiavelli is a realist philosopher and he does not try to bring an ethical dimension to politics but just makes an analysis of the real. We can claim that Machiavelli deals with the necessary characteristics of the Prince because he is a realist and he wants the unification of Italian princedoms. Whereas for instance Plato as an idealist philosopher has interest in justice, virtues and ideal state, Machiavelli deals with realities and bases his “virtu” conception on the ability of the Prince. Machiavelli writes for a specific political cause which is to unite all Italian princedoms and to create a strong, well-ordered state. He writes this directly to the Prince and does not deal with the Church. This shows that in his mind politics and religious affairs are separated and even political authorities are more important than religious authorities. Thus, we can say that he is one of the vanguards of laicism in Europe. Machiavelli’s list for a successful Prince shows one thing very clearly; politics is a game about power and those who do not play the game according to its rules would certainly lose the game.
Finally, in my opinion Machiavelli is a great realist philosopher who affected many people and philosophers by showing the dirty side of politics. He can be considered as the vanguard of secularism by not addressing to the Church and thus, the early symbol of Reformation and Enlightenment. Although he is severely criticized by many people, he writes for the unification of Italian principalities and he has a strict political cause.
- Machiavelli, 1994, “The Prince”, Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company