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The Morality of The Prince Part III

So now perhaps we should look at what becomes necessary to the prince who is trying to gain or to keep his state, and first we come back to our familiar themes of simulation and dissimulation, and appearance and reality, which we have already seen in Castiglione but which take on a new meaning in Machiavelli. We see how Machiavelli’s prince must be a chameleon, able to adapt to any circumstance, any environment, any change of fortune. He must be able to become whatever is necessary, pretend to be whatever is useful, disguise his true nature while keeping up certain appearances. Machiavelli uses the image of the centaur to illustrate the dual nature of the prince, that of man and beast. He says that “a prince must know how to make good use of both the beast and the man.” The prince then must be like Chiron the centaur who is half man and half beast. In particular, the prince must imitate the fox and the lion. He must have the strength and ferocity of the lion and the cunningness of the fox. Neither one alone will suffice, because, as he rightly points out, “the lion cannot protect himself from traps, and the fox cannot defend himself from wolves.” And this is where simulation and dissimulation come in, because the prince must be able to assume these two natures, but he must also disguise the fact that he is assuming them. Machiavelli says, “But it is necessary in playing this part that you conceal it carefully; you must be a great liar and hypocrite.” These words may seem strong, but here if you go back to the original Italian you may be surprised at what Machiavelli is saying. He says, “Ma è necessario questa natura saperla bene colorire, ed essere gran simulatore e dissimulatore:” “and to be a great ‘simulator’ and ‘dissimulator’.” So here we go back to our simulation and dissimulation, and when we discussed it in Castiglione you probably did not think of it as lying and hypocrisy, it was just a necessary part of being a cortegiano, a courtier. And here it is just a necessary part of being a prince.

The prince must also be able to appear to have all good qualities even if he does not really have them, and Machiavelli discusses this at length in this same chapter. He says, “In actual fact, a prince may not have all the admirable qualities listed above, but it is very necessary that he should seem to have them. Indeed, I will venture to say that when you have them and exercise them all the time, they are harmful to you; when you just seem to have them, they are useful.” (Here again he is not talking about what is good or bad but what is harmful or useful.) “It is good to appear merciful, truthful, humane, sincere, and religious; it is good to be so in reality. But you must keep your mind so disposed that, in case of need, you can turn to the exact contrary. This has to be understood: a prince, and especially a new prince, cannot possibly exercise all those virtues for which men are called ‘good.’ To preserve the state, he often has to do things against his word, against charity, against humanity, against religion. Thus he has to have a mind ready to shift as the winds of fortune and the varying circumstances of life may dictate. And as I said above, he should not depart from the good if he can hold on to it, but he should be ready to enter on evil if he has to.” And as he continues he stresses the necessity of seeming to have these qualities, and he explains why the appearance is more important than the reality. He says, “Men in general judge more by the sense of sight than by the sense of touch, because everyone can see but only a few can test by feeling. Everyone sees what you seem to be, few know what you really are; and those few do not dare take a stand against the general opinion, supported by the majesty of the government.” And in this way, using these techniques of simulation and dissimulation, it is possible to hold on to power, to preserve the state.

There is another necessary element of power which you may have noticed in reading The Prince and which may at first seem disturbing, and that is the element of violence and cruelty. It is very interesting, what Machiavelli has to say about violence and cruelty, sometimes they are acceptable and sometimes they are not.

Violence is acceptable when it is necessary, and the nature of power requires a certain amount of violence, either explicit or implicit. After all, in the end it is all about power, how the prince gains and maintains power, and power necessarily involves some form of violence or the threat of violence. Machiavelli says that it is “another natural and ordinary necessity [...] that a new prince must always harm those over whom he assumes authority” and later he states that “A new prince, above all others, cannot possibly avoid a name for cruelty, since new states are always in danger.” But what is important to remember about violence and cruelty is that they must be controlled, they must be necessary, and they must be well used. Because Machiavelli even admits that cruelty is evil, but it is one of those necessary evils which the prince must be prepared to use. In fact we were discussing this last week when we spoke about Rabelais and his views on cruelty; perhaps we may wish to re-read Machiavelli’s views on cruelty. Machiavelli says, “Cruelty can be described as well used (if it is permissible to say good words about something evil in itself) when it is performed all at once, for reasons of self-preservation; and when the acts are not repeated after that, but rather are turned as much as possible to the advantage of the subjects. Cruelty is badly used, when it is infrequent at first, but increases with time instead of diminishing.” And later he adds, “In a word, injuries should be committed all at once, because the less time there is to dwell on them, the less they offend; but benefits should be distributed very gradually, so the taste will last longer.” Machiavelli speaks at length about cruelty in Chapter 17, which I have referred to several times already, “on cruelty and clemency: whether it is better to be loved or feared,” and he shows us in this chapter that what seems to be cruelty can actually be merciful when it is used to maintain peace and order in the state, using the example once again of Cesare Borgia.

There is another instance in which cruelty is necessary, and that is when the prince is commanding his troops in war. Here he uses the example of Hannibal, whose “inhuman cruelty” enabled him to hold together and maintain control over his army. Machiavelli points out that the same people who praise Hannibal for his accomplishments also condemn his cruelty, and yet without the cruelty he could not have accomplished everything he did. This is just another example of how you cannot separate the ends from the means. You cannot disassociate the end result from the methods used to obtain it, and violence and cruelty are merely means to an end.

But Machiavelli stresses that the prince must be very careful to avoid being hated by those he governs, and the excessive use of violence and cruelty could quickly result in hatred. We see in the example in Chapter VII of Remirro de Orco, how effective it can be for a prince to disassociate himself from any cruelty or violence that my be necessary, and how Cesare Borgia was able to avoid the hatred of the people by putting to death the man who had committed the acts of cruelty which had been necessary. Cruelty and violence must be very limited and controlled, used when necessary and avoided when possible.

So to sum it up, I would just like to say that however you may feel about the morality of The Prince, Machiavelli has arrived at these conclusions and recommendations from a scientific observation of what has proven effective and necessary for the prince to gain and maintain political power.

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