Machiavelli/King Comparison Essay

Topics: Letter from Birmingham Jail, Martin Luther King, Jr., Political philosophy Pages: 9 (1653 words) Published: April 1, 2013
Niccoló Machiavelli, in The Qualities of the Prince, gives the qualities a prince should have to

maintain his power, or for an aspiring prince to acquire the throne. Martin Luther King, as a leader

in the African-American Civil Rights Movement, did not aspire to the throne but to freedom and

justice for the African-American community. In this context, he wrote Letter from Birmingham Jail

which was addressed to the clergymen who had previously sent him a letter that criticized his

protestations. This letter can be in some points compared to Machiavelli's treatise. Those points are

the notions of love and fear; that of integrity; and the notion of war.

Is it better for a leader to be loved or feared ? According to Machiavelli: "one should like to be

both one and the other; but since it is difficult to join them together, it is much safer to be feared

than to be loved when one of the two must be lacking." This judgment is based on the fact that men

are not trustworthy, and that they will harm you if you do not make them fear you. Machiavelli

then comes to say that a way to make people fear you, and thereby respect you, is to be cruel: "a

prince must not worry about the reproach of cruelty when it is a matter of keeping his subjects

united and loyal". But King, facing a 'Machiavellian' government that used violence and fear against

black protestations, chose pacifism over violence in his protestations against segregation: "We need

emulate neither the do-nothingism of the complacement nor the hatred and despair of the black

nationalist. For there is the more excellent way of love and nonviolent process." This shows the

contrast between King's belief in the power of love and his trust in men's against Machiavelli's

belief in the power of fear and his distrust in men. But on the other hand, although King's pacifism

relieved his oppressor from the fear of a physical harm, the fear of a social crisis was real. As he

explains in Letter from Birmingham Jail, King wanted to create a social tension that would urge the

government to negotiation: "I must confess that I'm not afraid of the word «tension».[...] The

purpose of our direct-action program is to create a situation so crisis-packed that it will inevitably

open the door to negotiation." This shows that Machiavelli and King both agree on the use of fear as

a way to attain their goals but they do not agree on how to use it: Machiavelli recommends cruelty

in order to impose fear, while King prefers using tension.

This leads to believe that Machiavelli's philosophy and King's rhetoric are close, but diverge on a

moral perspective. This nuance is also present in their approach of the question of integrity. In his

paragraph dedicated to this question, Machiavelli first admits "how praiseworthy it is for a prince to

keep his word and to live by integrity and not by deceit", but then he refutes this idea by saying that

"the princes who have accomplished great deeds are those who have cared little for keeping their

promises and have known how to manipulate the minds of men". That is why Machiavelli assures

that you can break the law if you have to: "There are two means of fighting: one according to the

laws, the other with force; [...] but because the first, in many cases, is not sufficient, it becomes

necessary to have recourse to the second." King, however, states that you can only disobey an

unjust law: "One has not only a legal but a moral responsability to obey just laws. Conversely, one

has a moral responsability to disobey unjust laws." Those two different aproaches concerning the

respect of the law reinforce the moral contrast between Machiavelli and King. However, while

Machiavelli approves cruelty and disobedience to the law, he strongly recommends that the prince

avoids being hated. To do so, the prince should appear "to...
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