A humanist is defined as one who is concerned with the interests and welfare of humans. Niccolo’ Machiavelli can be thought of as a humanist. Although opinions on this differ greatly depending on whom you speak with. Machiavelli’s life consists of so many examples and lessons that he has learned throughout his life. Through my paper, I intend to examine his perception of morality based on his political writings and life experiences.
Niccolo’ Machiavelli was born on May 3, 1469 and died in 1527. Although we do not know much about his early life, we know that he was educated according to the humanist ideals of the Renaissance. He was trained at an early age by a latin teacher named Paolo da Ronciglione. He spent his youth in the city of Florence which suffered from continuous political instability. Machialvelli, a humanist, had a practical approach to politcs. He came up with the idea that “the end justifies the means”. He argued that whether a government is “good”, can only be determined by looking at whether it is effective. 5
Machiavelli worked under the Republican government led by Piero Soderini. In 1512 when the Spanish troops defeated the republican army the Medici family took over rule of Florence. As a result Machiavelli was put into internal exile. In 1513 he was wrongly accused of conspiring against the Medici family. He was then imprisoned and tortured for several weeks. Afterwards he lived in a small town outside of Florence. It was then that he began his literary career by writing one of his most remembered and debated books called “The Prince”. It is also one of the most famous works in the history of political philosophy. His experiences as a young man were reflected in his work. “The Prince” has often been read as a book that promotes a sly and mean way of attaining political power. 5 However, he discerns that morals are very important even though political action sometimes go beyond moral considerations.5 He also wrote poems and plays and other well known books such as, “The Art of War”.
In “The Prince”, he asks the question who is a better ruler, the one who is loved by his subjects or the one who is feared by them? 5 Machiavelli felt that it would be good to be both of them but if you had to choose then fear would be the best choice out of the two. He made observations about the conduct of political leaders and whether or not they were able to achieve their goals. He then gave recommendations based on these considerations. It is not obvious what he expected to achieve by writing “The Prince”. According to his writings, he did not believe that Christianity should play a role in government. He believed that it hindered the states power to govern. Machiavelli asserts, the state needs to restrict the power of the church, allowing it to exercise its office only in the spiritual realm. 4 Traditional political theory incorporated “God” as a way of ensuring stability. Machiavelli did not agree with this. He believed that the power of the state was more important than the moral law of God. One of his most famous passages from his book “The Prince” reads, “If all men were good this precept would not be a good one but as they are bad and would not observe their faith with you, so you are not bound to keep faith with them.” 4 It was because of such bold statements that “The Prince” was put on a prohibited book list by the Catholic church and possibly why today the word “Machiavellian” means devious or unscrupulous in political dealings. 4 Machiavelli believed that power is best kept intact when the ruler understands that it is power that keeps them strong and not external influences such as religion. He did not promote violence for the sake of itself. He promoted doing whatever it took to keep the state strong and powerful. This was a view similarly shared by one of our modern day activists, Malcom X. In approximately the last 500 years “The Prince” became a...
Cited: 1. Viroli, Maurizio. Niccolo’s Smile: A Biography of Machiavelli. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2000. 13
3. The political Calculus: Essays on Machiavelli’s Philosopy, edited by Anthony Parel, University of Toronto Press, 1972, pp.157-78
7. Machiavelli, N., 1988, The Prince, Q. Skinner and R. Price (eds.), Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
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