Niccolo Machiavelli has claimed his prestige by the shocking and vivid description of how power is acquired, lost, and consolidated using the actual experiences of the rulers of his time. The political positions revealed in his book “The Prince” present one of the most controversial questions in the realm of politics and leadership: Is ethics relevant in political rule? While Plato and the Judaeo-Christian and Islamic religious traditions give particular attention to ethics as a necessity in strong leadership, Machiavelli concentrates on an ethics of expediency in the real world application of political power and leadership. This essay discusses Machiavelli’s views as stated in “The Prince” and a comparison of his views to the traditional religious perspective, Plato’s views on moral justice, and Hobbesian theory.
Ethics of Expediency in “The Prince”
From the verses found in “The Prince”, it is easy to arrive at a judgment that Machiavelli recommends immorality as a necessity in the pursuit of power. This is untrue because the issue of morality and ethics is not completely disregarded in his treatise. However, as Machiavelli opines, politics is staged in a world full of corruption, violence, and social evil so that the ruler’s political choices essentially become one between two or more evils. In Machiavelli’s view, the strongest leaders that have influenced the direction of history have not accomplished great feats without a dose of treachery, political chicanery, and even violence. Still, he acknowledges how ideal it must be that a prince would be good and righteous but given the evil proclivities of men in general, being, “fickle, ungrateful, pretenders and dissemblers, evaders of danger, and eager for gain” (70), the ruler must be able to force and disregard moral guidelines in order to stay in power.
Machiavelli teaches how ethics and morals should be used by the ruler to consolidate power. Ethics could be a weapon used for appearance’s sake. A prince can choose to appear “merciful, faithful, humane, honest, and religious” (73). Applying these virtues however, would weaken him in the eyes of his enemies and constituents. The trick is to appear to be virtuous but being able to change outright to the contrary. This deception, according to Machiavelli, works because “Men in general judge more by their eyes than by their hands, because seeing is given to everyone, touching to few” (74). The notion that the moral prince can maintain his good virtues as well as his political power is illusory in Machiavelli’s view. In Chapter XVIII, while he praises the virtuous ruler, he says that his political fate is doomed,
How praiseworthy it is that a prince keeps his word, and governs by candor instead of craft, everyone knows. Yet, the experience of our own time shows that those princes who had little regard for their word and had the craftiness to turn men’s minds have accomplished great things and, in the end, have overcome those who governed their actions by their pledges. (72)
To Machiavelli, the end of political leadership is security that can only be achieved through particular forms of violence or treachery. If the ruler hesitates out of moral conscience to maintain the unity of his army and the stability of his territory, he is essentially subjecting his constituents to misery. Cruelty is a practice he regards as beneficial in the interest of political security. In deciding that a ruler must be feared rather than loved, Machiavelli says that a fearsome leader will keep his army united. He cites the example of Hannibal, whose inhuman cruelty made him a revered figure among his soldiers that they fought by and stood with him no matter the circumstance (71). In saying that a leader would be better when feared, Machiavelli cautions against being “hated” and advises that the leader must not steal from his citizens their property or their women. Like Marcus Aurelius, the ruler must be neither hated nor despised. In this manner, the rule assures his political survival.
Conflict with Religious Morality
Ethics of the major religions – Christianity, Islam, and Judaism – all value the divine qualities of virtue, morality, and goodness in any leader. What Christianity, Judaism, and Islam have in common is the idea of theocratic rule, meaning, that the ideal government is one governed by God. The temporal leader then, is one that exudes the qualities that resemble the Supreme Being. Moral virtue, then, is an indispensable requirement in the leader. Deriving from natural law, St. Thomas Aquinas holds that the fundamental role of beings is “good is to be done and pursued and evil is to be avoided” (“Thomas Aquinas”). Christian morality then rules out Machiavelli’s end-justifying-the-means claim and insists on consistent righteousness and morality. In Christian moral guidelines, the use of violence, betrayal, treachery and other forms of evil even in furtherance of the noblest aims is not justifiable. Christian religious doctrine teaches that leaders must be virtuous and follow Christ’s humility and selflessness. As exemplified by Christ, the leader must “provide example to the flock” and lead with “godly rather than selfish motives” (qtd. in “Thomas Aquinas”). Using the example of the leadership of the Catholic Church, Machiavelli insists that not even the Church can escape the use of violence and treachery. In Chapter XVI, Machiavelli debunks the Church’s hypocrisy by saying that the greatness and wealth of the Church had been achieved with war-mongering, betrayal, and force. Machiavelli accounts how Julius II and Pope Alexander VI consolidated the wealth of Church by weakening other factions and encouraging factionalism and how Pope Leo X used violence to sustain the Church’s wealth and position. In this manner, Machiavelli argues that the process in which the Church strives to build God’s kingdom is no different from how temporal rulers pursue and consolidate power.
Plato’s Moral Justice
Plato would rebuke Machiavelli in his determination that evil used for political power benefits the citizens in the long-term. In The Republic, Socrates says that the virtues of justice and morality are necessary requirements in pursuit of the “Good.” The just ruler is someone who possesses a soul “guided by a vision of the Good, someone in whom reason governs passion and ambition through such a vision” (“Justice as a Virtue”). In Machiavelli’s view, what is just is what allows the stronger to stay in power and rule over the weak. Using violent and treacherous means to maintain the survival of political rule is the “Good” and the just to Machiavelli. Such a conception of justice is what Plato considers “artificial” justice. Justice should not be a right that belongs solely to the stronger, but to the whole of society. Plato’s conception of justice lies not on the strength of one individual but to the harmony of the whole. Political leadership must lead to the harmonious functioning of the whole.
The just man, in Plato’s view, has a good soul and would not commit acts which are socially proscribed – betrayal, murder, thievery – as those Machiavelli would consider to be expedient for the ruler (“Justice as a Virtue”). Further, certain characteristics are possessed by the just man. In The Republic, Socrates says that,
Justice implies superior character and intelligence while injustice means deficiency in both respects. Therefore, just men are superior in character and intelligence and are more effective in action. As injustice implies ignorance, stupidity and badness, it cannot be superior in character and intelligence. A just man is wiser because he acknowledges the principle of limit (qtd. in “Justice as a Virtue”).
Plato’s concept of the just ruler contradicts Machiavelli’s. While the former values character and the internal soul, the latter does not. The former emphasizes on justice not only as an individual virtue required to obtain the highest personal end, but on social justice, an order where functions are specialized and labor is divided among the citizens, leading to a harmonious society.
Resemblance with Hobbes’ “Leviathan”
With English philosopher Thomas Hobbes, Machiavelli shares a realist’s perspective on the nature of man, the role of political leadership, and the strength of absolute monarchy. To understand Hobbesian theory, we examine first how Hobbes views man in his book “Leviathan”. Hobbes argues that man is inherently selfish and weak. In their natural state (that without a government), each person would pursue his right to acquire resources or destroy everything in his path in order to survive. This barbaric state would engage men in perpetual conflict. Moreover, Hobbes believes in man’s inherent wickedness, as “Ambition, and Covetousnesse are Passions that are perpetually incumbent, and pressing” (155). Hobbes considers that without a sovereign power, or a Leviathan, the world would have “No arts; no letters; no society; and which is worst of all, continual fear, and danger of violent death: and the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short (xiii). To escape what he calls “the war of each against every man” (xx), every man must consent and give up their natural rights in exchange for protection. By building a social contract and a civil society under the rule of a Leviathan, there would be order and happiness.
Hobbes agrees with Machiavelli for a strong ruler to have dominion over the weak. Hobbes’ idea of ruler possesses beast-like qualities like the fox-lion hybrid in “The Prince”. The Leviathan is a powerful sea creature which he likens to the state. Like the Leviathan, the state must have absolute power in order to suppress acts of rebellion that would threaten the state’s stability and force the return to a state of nature. This absolute power however, must not be governed by brute or senseless force, but by intelligence or reason. Hobbes believes in the strong ruler to be personifications of the true God, as in Moses and Jesus Christ. Like Machiavelli, he believed in the hypocrisy of established religion, and argued that religious authority must not be allowed to wield political power (xliii). All citizens must be obedient to the sovereign power of the state so that the laws become functional and order is established.
From this analysis, we have established that “The Prince” prescribes an ethics of expediency dictated upon by political necessity. Machiavelli’s “The Prince” outlines a political program that justifies the use of treachery, violence, and chicanery to ensure political survival. The virtues of the good and moral ruler, however edifying and admirable, have little place in the real world of politics that is beset by corruption and immorality. This is in direct contrast to the value held by religious conventions on morality as well as Plato’s concept of justice. However, it shares striking resemblances with Hobbes’ concept of the powerful Leviathan to govern the affairs of men. The state’s use of deception and even massacre is sanctioned so long as it secures the stability of the state. In essence, ethics in “The Prince” is merely a secondary weapon that can be used to the ruler’s advantage and one that is easily overthrown by political necessity.