The Art of Being a Prince, Niccolo Machiavelli

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Discuss the nature of Machiavelli’s new political morality in relation to being a Prince.

Niccolo Machiavelli was born on 3 May 1469 in Florence, Italy and at the age of twenty-nine he became a public servant in the service of his city. He was one of most pre-eminent political characters in Florence during the Renaissance although major recognition of his works came after his death. The Renaissance represented a period of changing social and technological evolution for Western civilization as it helped to revive the rational, secular scientific spirit that had lain dormant through many centuries of medieval encasement. Machiavelli is recognized for being a political realist but most famously for being an amoral political thinker of his period who shocked imagination. He counsels a prince who is exempt from moral standards to achieve his ends by whatever means necessary. Machiavelli’s subtle conception of politics even embraces deception by lying and cruelty, but the prince is not necessarily without understanding of justice. Good and evil become superfluous when Machiavelli introduces the concept of political statecraft and the notion of ‘just political action’ to preserve the country.

Machiavelli wrote The Prince (1513) in troubled times when Italy was constantly being invaded and looted by foreigners while Italian city-states failed to unite in defense the country. The Prince, considered as Machiavelli’s most influential work is considered by some as a masterpiece because it depicts the “real human beings” and how a prince (or leader) ought to govern his subjects. Contrarily, others find in Machiavelli an unparalleled wickedness and perversion for a ruthless leader to achieve his ends by any means possible: ‘In the action of rulers, the end justifies the means’. The term Machiavellian is commonly associated to a cold-blooded, crafty, unscrupulous and amoral person ready to do whatever it takes in order to succeed in anything he is involved and ultimately justifying the most malignant means. Scandalously, Machiavelli retorts the ‘ends’ of such actions are justified as long as they have fulfilled their purpose, that is, ‘the means will always be judged honorable’. He cites Cesare Borgia, whose cruel actions have shown that he was able to keep his subjects united and faithful.

The art of being a prince implies what princes should do according to present circumstances rather than ‘how one ought to live’. Machiavelli was also aware that the demise of any leader would come when he ‘who abandons what is done for what ought to be done learns his ruin than his preservation’. Machiavelli is irrevocably associated to a type of political thinking coined as political realism. His inquiry of the state differs from Plato and other political thinkers before him because he marks a shift into realistic political thinking. He criticizes that in the past ‘many have imagined republics and principalities which have never been seen or known to exist in reality’. This is a possible reference to the Republic of Plato as a utopia, not a reflection of reality. The state imagined by Plato lacks the characteristics of human imperfection and social problems which lead to chaos. A leader does not need all the qualities of a good human being to become a good leader nor does Machiavelli advocate the idea of a perfect prince. The difference between good and evil becomes erroneous as the real political motivation of a leader becomes ‘what course will save the life and liberty of the country?’ The rules of power have an absolute priority over moral values and ethical considerations as the statesman “cannot afford the luxury of practicing morality in his situation”. Plato’s Republic supports such realism explicitly when he says ‘only the rulers of the state should have the privileged of lying’.Machiavellian thinking presupposes a leader has the privilege of lying and cruelty over his population in whatsoever case to preserve the stability of the...
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