The Morality of The Prince Part I

The Morality of Machiavelli (text of oral presentation)

This evening I would like to discuss the morality of Machiavelli. Because the name of Machiavelli has come, in our time and even before our time, to have very negative connotations, and to be associated with amorality, unscrupulousness, deceitfulness. If you call someone a Machiavellian, they will probably not take it as a compliment, unless of course you are speaking to Dr. Falvo or myself. These ideas have come down to us through all of Machiavelli’s interpreters, and I am glad that we have this opportunity, in the true humanist spirit, to go back and read Machiavelli’s original words, to examine his text and to judge for ourselves if Machiavelli was as, well, Machiavellian as his reputation would lead us to believe.

So I shall begin our discussion of the morality of Machiavelli with the statement that in Machiavelli we find first and foremost an ethic of practicality and pragmatism. Machiavelli is a great student of human nature, as we see throughout The Prince. He is always citing historical examples to back up his arguments and showing that these lessons come from experience, especially the experience of history. He will often say “we see from recent experience....” or “experience teaches us....” He finds these examples in ancient as well as modern history, going back to ancient Greece and Rome and also finding examples among contemporary rulers.

From these observations Machiavelli arrives at many conclusions about human nature, and we find these kinds of generalizations throughout The Prince. These observations often lead Machiavelli to be exceedingly pessimistic, and this pessimism goes a long way in explaining some of the more drastic measures he recommends at times. If Machiavelli’s prince seems at times harsh and cruel, deceitful or hypocritical, it is because this is how he must be in order to govern men as they are. We see this pessimism especially in Chapter XVII concerning whether it is better to be loved or feared. Here we can see clearly Machiavelli’s exceedingly pessimistic view of man: he says “that they are ungrateful, fickle, liars and deceivers, fearful of danger and greedy for gain” and he also says that “they are rotten.” So you may be able to understand why, given this view of man which Machiavelli has developed from his study of history as well as from observing the men of his time, Machiavelli made some of the radical recommendations he did, because his prince would have to deal with men like this and must be able to act accordingly.

Machiavelli recognizes the necessity of understanding human nature in order to be able to govern. The prince must know men in order to be able to use them, to manipulate them and to control them when he is in the process of seizing power, to govern them once established in power, to deal with other rulers, and to carry out all the duties of government. The men he proposes as models all have this understanding of human nature, for example Cesare Borgia. Of Cesare Machiavelli writes, “Yet the duke was a man of such savagery and courage [virtù], and he understood so perfectly how to win men over or ruin them....” So it is important to understand what men are really like and then one can act accordingly.

The prince must govern in the real world with men as they are, and not in some ideal world where men behave as they ought to. This is important to understand because so much of what Machiavelli recommends may seem to us today, in a different political context, to be shocking or immoral, but he sees it differently because he has seen what has happened to men who acted in a “virtuous” way, using the word in the sense in which we use it today, he has seen that these men were not successful. So, basically what he is saying to the prince is this: it would be a fine thing to be good in a world where all men were good, but since this is not the case, since this is the world we live in and since men are not good, this is what you must do in order to succeed. Machiavelli brings out this distinction between the real and the ideal explicitly in Chapter XV. On page 42 he says: “But since I intend to write something useful to an understanding reader, it seemed better to go after the real truth of the matter than to repeat what people have imagined. A great many men have imagined states and princedoms such as nobody ever saw or knew in the real world, and there’s such a difference between the way we really live and the way we ought to live that the man who neglects the real to study the ideal will learn how to accomplish his ruin, not his salvation. Any man who tries to be good all the time is bound to come to ruin among the great number who are not good. Hence a prince who wants to keep his authority must learn how not to be good, and use that knowledge, or refrain from using it, as necessity requires.”

And he continues, “Putting aside, then, all the imaginary things that are said about princes, and getting down to the truth....” It is the truth, reality, what Machiavelli calls “la verità effettuale della cosa” that Machiavelli is after and this reality will provide the milieu within which the prince must govern. Machiavelli even says later on that if all men were good, some of the rules he prescribes would be bad, but since they are not the prince must deal with men as they are.

Part II

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