Home » Niccolo Machiavelli, one of the great political minds of the 15th century

Niccolo Machiavelli, one of the great political minds of the 15th century

Niccolo Machiavelli, one of the great political minds of the 15th century, accomplished what many mathematicians today only dream of, having one’s name used as an adjective. To be Machiavellian is to demonstrate characteristics of expediency, deceit, and cunning and as Machiavelli wrote in, The Prince, these are the qualities of a great leader. The Prince was published in 1531, creating great controversy with other political thinkers of the time.

Machiavelli completely ignored the popular religious teachings of the era and erased the moral and ethical considerations from the leadership equation; the actions of a ruler should be governed solely by necessity. “Since I intend to write something useful to an understanding reader, it seemed better to go after the real truth of the matter then to repeat what people have imagined” (221). The predominate theme of The Prince is that it is the responsibility of any leader to secure and maintain the political power of their state by any means necessary.

One can consider many leaders in history who took this to heart, some into success and some into infamy. Using the cold light of pure reasoning, Machiavelli analyzed human behavior and concluded that man is not good. Therefore, it is necessary for a leader who wishes to remain in power to learn how to not be good and to use this behavior and knowledge and bring it to bear on the decision he is making. “Hence a Prince who wants to keep his post must learn how not to be good, and use that knowledge, or refrain from using it, as necessity requires” (222).

Machiavelli not only wanted people to let go of the idealistic fact that man is not pure at heart, but to take it a step further and embrace this assumption. Those who do embrace this assumption as a fundamental given’ will be the ones with the power to manipulate and control the masses. “Men are so simple of mind and so much dominated by their immediate needs, that a deceitful man will always find plenty who are ready to be deceived” (228). Decades of thought about religion and politics are intertwined in this thought.

The common man willing to give up their free will to that of a higher power and many a deceitful theologian willing to exploit that ignorant passivity for their own purposes. Why does Machiavelli has such a low view of man? Was he just cynical or did he have his own experiences to draw on? While his logic behind human behavior is quite sound, most great thinkers focus on the good points of man and form Pollyanna-ish ideal views. Machiavelli does not directly condemn those who study and espouse the ideal; he condemns them for failing to study the real as well and claims that this oversight will lead to their ruin.

In other words, hope for the best and plan for the worst, a quite depressingly, realistic world view. One of the most colorful analogies that Machiavelli makes is when he describes the teacher of Achilles. A brilliant example of man’s inherent paradox, Chiron, the centaur, was significant to Machiavelli because he was half man and half beast making the argument that one without the other has no lasting effect. “As the lion cannot protect himself from traps, and the fox cannot defend himself from wolves, you have to be a fox in order to be wary of traps, and a lion to overawe the wolves.

Those who try to live by the lion alone are badly mistaken” (228). According to Machiavelli the lion represents the beast, proud and powerful but vulnerable. The fox represents the aspect of man Machiavelli values most, the ability to deceive. This is yet another example of Machiavelli looking down on man, he takes what in his opinion is man’s greatest ability and compares it to an animal that does it better. A great leader has both the strength and charisma of the lion and the cunning of the fox; these are the qualities of a great leader according to Machiavelli.

The way Machiavelli describes the ideal prince as compared to the men he rules, he makes the prince sound more than human. Machiavelli’s ideal prince not only does not have any of man’s inherent weaknesses but instead his superior intellect and cunning gives him the power to exploit and rule man because the people are weak-minded and greedy. This view of the prince is ironic because in the first passage of The Prince says that his aim is to describe the real and not the ideal, something he condemns.

Machiavelli’s ideal leader is also ironic in the sense that it could be seen as greedy to desire to maintain your power at any cost and greed is a quality that the prince should exploit not posses. Machiavelli also says a great leader need not have any of these qualities provided he can deceive his people into believing he does. Machiavelli uses irony to support his logic on how a prince should, and most of all should not, spend his money.

There is nothing that wears out faster than generosity; even as you practice it, you lose the means of practicing it, and you become either poor and contemptible or rapacious and hateful” (224). Generosity is something one usually considers a good quality in a leader. Machiavelli insinuates that generosity promotes and exposes weakness in a leader. A leader who wants to be thought of synonymously with generosity will eventually run out of resources and will no longer be able to do so with out exorbitantly taxing his citizens. Becoming a miser or taxing the citizens?

Both will lead to citizens hating the leader. This ideology of living on the knife edge, neither being one nor the other is the great and lonely irony of leadership. One of the core value’s Machiavelli visits over and over in The Prince, no matter what a leader does, he must never be hated by his people; he may feared or viewed as cruel but never hated. “.. Then when his generosity has angered many and brought rewards to a few, the slightest difficulty will trouble him, and at the first approach of danger, down he goes” (223).

Machiavelli describes being miserly as a necessary vice of leadership because it may bring shame but not hate. Take for example President Bush’s tax cuts, it would hurt his image far more if he were to repeal the tax cuts than if he had never given them in the first place. One of the most controversial ideas Machiavelli puts fourth in The Prince, is when he describes how one must be judicious in the use of mercy. “I must say that every prince must desire to be considered merciful and not cruel.

He must however take care not to misuse this mercifulness” (224). Machiavelli gives an example when being cruel is more merciful than showing mercy. Cesar Borgia was considered to be one of the cruelest leaders of his time, through the use of violence and fear he united and brought together the city of Romagna in peace. It was the fear of more violence that kept order. On the other side of the spectrum we see the people of Florence who allow the city of Pistoria to be destroyed to avoid the label of cruelty.

In the end, one society lives in peace and the other is ruined but kept their morals intact. Once again Machiavelli would say morals have no place in politics because they prevent the ruler from doing what must be done to maintain control. “No prince should mind being called cruel for what he does to keep his subjects united and loyal; he may make examples of a very few, but he will be more merciful in reality than those who, in their tenderheartedness, allow disorders to occur, with their attendant murders and lootings” (225).

Cite This Work

To export a reference to this essay please select a referencing style below:

Reference Copied to Clipboard.
Reference Copied to Clipboard.
Reference Copied to Clipboard.
Reference Copied to Clipboard.