It’s undeniable that one’s first thought of Machiavelli is his thoughts coined in The Prince on the calculated use of violence and his belief that it is better to be loved than feared. Machiavelli was a realist and unabashed in his opinion of the world and of man and the inherent cruelty of both.
With this in mind, one can see that although frank in his statements, that the position he took on the use of violence by rulers in maintaining their rule and state is qualified. Violence, as stated by Machiavelli in The Prince, as so far as it is used in politics should serve the purpose of maintaining stability of a country, the position of a ruler, and should benefit the state. The use of violence beyond this scope by a ruler is self-destructive to both the ruler and country. Thus violence has a necessitated practical and moral use is politics.
In discussing Machiavelli’s use of violence we first must discuss his view of human nature which will give some insight on where he derives his attitude on the use of violence: “And if all men were good, this teaching would not be good; but they are wicked and do not observe faith with you” p.3
If all men were good, rulers would not need to use violence. But men are not good, they are evil, so the use of violence by rulers is necessary. The innate evil in all men makes violence a necessity for rulers.
In The Prince, Machiavelli focuses on how a ruler can acquire and maintain territory. It is within the context of these two actions that Machiavelli speaks of the necessity for political violence. Machiavelli wrote that “truly it is a very natural and ordinary thing to desire to acquire” p. 7 Thus, he believed that every ruler had an innate and natural desire for acquisition. It is this desire that necessitates violence. But a ruler’s selfish acquisition to satiate his desire is not what Machiavelli had in mind. A ruler who has a public end in mind when satisfying his desire for ambition is the end that he would have political violence aim for. With the public good in mind when exercising ambition, a ruler will increase the esteem in which his rule is held. Therefore, when personal ambition is connected to the achievement of public ends both the ruler and the ruled benefit. As he points out, it is for this reason acquisitions occur: to increase the esteem of a ruler, for the benefit of the state and out of a natural tendency and ambition belonging to all men. All of these reasons with the exception of the last increase the overall standing of the state. The last one, Machiavelli says, is often destructive and beast-like but when done with the public in mind it can be instrumental in bringing about good. Violent acts, although not moral, in light of the ends they achieve, Machiavelli stated, could be either criminal or excusable. Political violence, with the good of the public in mind, is excusable and thus good.
Machiavelli approved of violence to maintain order within the territory which a ruler ruled. The case of Cesare Borgia is the best to show how political violence can achieve the end of both consolidating and maintaining a ruler’s power. Borgia had impressed Machiavelli by the clever and conniving way he was able to centralize his authority by his selected use of violence, both limited and calculated. Borgia appointed Remirro d’Orco chief minister in the Romagna to help bring peace and unity to the land. Although Remirro was successful in doing so, his methods garnered the hate of the public. Borgia was afraid that the public’s hate for Remirro would result in instability as well as the public’s hatred of him. In light of this, he had Remirro executed in the most gruesome way; cut in two pieces and left in the public square. Borgia’s actions, in Machiavelli’s opinion, exemplify how when a ruler uses violence it must have an element of spectacle to it so that the power of the ruler is impressed upon the people. Borgia’s execution of Remirro not only helped hold together the unity of his state but also increased his prestige and the respectful fear of the Romagna’s citizens. If Borgia hadn’t executed Remirro, inevitably he too would have become hated and there could have been the possibility of a destabilizing rebellion as “one of the most powerful remedies that a prince has against conspiracies is not to be hated by the people generally.” p. 21 Remirro’s execution not only satisfied the public, it reduced the risk of instability and produced an appropriate amount of fear of Borgia.
For Machiavelli, the use of violence is a necessity. The case of Girolamo Savonarola speaks to that point. In Machiavelli’s opinion, Savonarola wasn’t able to maintain his power because he was “unarmed.” If Savonarola had employed the use of violence he would have been able to instill an appropriate amount of fear within the people. “He was ruined in his new orders as soon as the multitude began not to believe in them, and he had no mode for holding firm those who had believed nor for making unbelievers believe.” Savonarola’s inability to maintain his supporters and force others to his side resulted in his loss of power. If he had used violence to impose and maintain order he could have survived. Savonarola believed in the “good will of men” which in Machiavelli’s opinion was his undoing as men are evil and untrustworthy.
Machiavelli’s The Prince central concern was the proper acquisition and maintenance of the state. He believed that man is innately evil and because of that violence was needed to bring order and stability. In the context of acquisition, he believed that all men had a natural desire for it and went on to distinguish between a ruler’s selfish desires for acquisition versus that with the interest of the public in mind. The former, he said, could be destructive while the latter would lead to prestige. Machiavelli believed violence could also be used to maintain a state by instilling the proper amount of fear of the ruler in the public and ensuring order and observance of laws. Any ruler who failed to use violence to attain these aims would fail due the innate evil of man which necessitates violence. It is in the context of the public good in mind calculated precision that a ruler should use violence. It is with these ends in mind that Machiavelli believes that political violence should aim.