Machiavelli and Ethics

Topics: Political philosophy, Niccolò Machiavelli, Politics Pages: 9 (3471 words) Published: December 28, 2012
He who lets himself in for politics, that is, for power and force as means, contracts with diabolical powers and for his action it is not true that good can follow only from good and evil only from evil, but that often the opposite is true. Anyone who fails to see this is, indeed, a political infant. -          Max Weber, “Politics as a Vocation” (1946: 122-123) Even if, and precisely if we are forced to grant that his (Machiavelli’s) teaching is diabolical and he himself a devil, we are forced to remember the profound theological truth that the devil himself is a fallen angel. -          Leo Strauss, “Thoughts on Machiavelli” (1958: 13) The sheer infamy Niccolo Machiavelli has drawn to himself in the five centuries since he wrote The Prince underscores the fact that he was no political infant. On the contrary, he has been called, amongst other things, a ‘great sinner’ (Dostoevsky, cited in Frank 2003:13), a ‘teacher of evil’ (Strauss 1958: 11), a ‘quintessential tactician’ (Lukes 2001: 562) and a ‘utilitarian moralist’ (Wilde 1928: 222). After all, against the ecclesiastical backdrop of the post-Augustinian Christianity of his time, Machiavelli boldly challenges religious morality in politics, lambasts older traditions of political thought, exposes the harshest truths of political life and extols a realistic understanding of the intractable nature of mankind (Major 2007: 171). Though they are all intricately interconnected, it is the first that this paper aims to explore; in light of the entirety of his life and works, does Machiavelli justify departures from canons of morality in politics, and if so, to what extent and in what circumstances? In the following, I will argue that in politics, far from being the devil’s literal advocate for immorality, Machiavelli was an apostle for a superior morality of prudence that trumps all other conceptions of morality.[1]  In turn, I will delimit the pertinent scope of ‘morality’ and demonstrate how this thesis corroborates with Machiavelli’s work and relates with relevant contemporary scholarly literature. Morality

General definition and a critique of Berlin’s dichotomy
‘Morality’ is generally defined as ‘a code of conduct’; the term can be used either descriptively or normatively and has been recognised as potentially ambiguous in meaning (Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy 2008). In approaching the question of morality in relation to Machiavelli’s work, Isaiah Berlin’s landmark treatise ‘The Originality of Machiavelli’ (1998) must be considered. In it,Berlin (1998: 43) challenges simplistic conceptions of moralities and proposes divergent pagan and Christian ideals. He argues (1998: 43-56) that Machiavelli did not strictly divorce politics from morals; Machiavelli merely adopted the ethical stance of pagan antiquity, which lauded ‘courage, vigour, fortitude in adversity, public achievement, order, discipline, happiness, strength, justice and above all assertion of one’s proper claims and the knowledge and power needed to secure their satisfaction’, as opposed to that of a Christian morality, which esteems ‘charity, mercy, sacrifice, love of God, forgiveness of enemies, contempt for the goods of the world, faith in the life hereafter, and belief in the salvation of the individual soul as being of incomparable value’. Berlin’s dichotomy is a mostly persuasive one and is supported by significant scholarly recognition. However, it does not explain Machiavelli’s commendation of the ‘greatness of mind’ of Liverotto for, amongst other heinous deeds, inviting the principal nobles of Fermo, including Giavanno Fogliani, his maternal uncle and foster father, to a banquet only to have them slain in order to gain control of the city in Chapter 8 ofThe Prince. McIntosh (1984: 185) convincingly supposes that such an act must stand condemned by even ‘the most savage pagan code’, as it violates two of the most sacred obligations of any traditional ethic, namely, the honour due to parents and...
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