Is Machiavelli's The Prince bad philosophy?
It is much safer to be feared than loved, when, of the two, one must be dispensed with. (Niccolo Machiavelli)
Niccolo Machiavelli (1469 - 1527) has given his name to the term ‘Machiavellian’, meaning elaborately cunning, scheming and unscrupulous. This notoriety comes from the morally questionable practices that he recommends to rulers in his political treatise ‘The Prince’ (Il Principe).
Machiavelli, the son of a lawyer, spent 14 years in a senior position in the service of the Florentine republic, and was the author of a number of books and plays. In 1512 he fell from favour and lost his position in Florence, following the return to power of the Medici family. In the early part of 1513 he was accused of plotting against the Medicis and was tortured, but soon released. He wrote The Prince in 1513-14, while he was living in reduced circumstance on his country estate outside Florence. The purpose of The Prince is to advise princes on how to build strong states, capable of meeting any external threats and of maintaining internal order. The last chapter of The Prince calls for the Italian princes to rise up and throw out its foreign oppressors.
Judgements about The Prince tend to be of two types: judgements about Machiavelli’s intentions in writing it, and judgements about the work itself. The aim here is to focus on the latter, on Machiavelli’s philosophy and the advice he gives.
Although The Prince is considered a work of political philosophy, it was written more as a practical guide for creating strong principalities ruled by strong princes, and because of this it lacks certain features that one might have expected it to include. In particular, while some criticisms and favourable comments are made about republics, there is no systematic comparison of them with principalities.
Much of the advice given in The Prince is wise and uncontroversial, for example:
And it ought to be remembered that there is nothing more difficult to take in hand, more perilous to conduct, or more uncertain in its success, than to take the lead in the introduction of a new order of things. Because the innovator has for enemies all those who have done well under the old conditions, and lukewarm defenders in those who may do well under the new.
However, the Prince has a darker side. As his model for an ideal ruler, Machiavelli uses Cesare Borgia, a ruthless autocrat who frequently employed tactics of treachery, deceit, and assassination to carve out a sphere of influence for himself in the Romagna (part of the Italian Papal States). Machiavelli justified Cesare Borgia cruelty as follows:
Cesare Borgia was considered cruel; notwithstanding, his cruelty reconciled the Romagna, unified it, and restored it to peace and loyalty. And if this be rightly considered, he will be seen to have been much more merciful than the Florentine people, who, to avoid a reputation for cruelty, permitted Pistoia to be destroyed. Therefore a prince, so long as he keeps his subjects united and loyal, ought not to mind the reproach of cruelty; because with a few examples he will be more merciful than those who, through too much mercy, allow disorders to arise, from which follow murders or robberies; for these are wont to injure the whole people, whilst those executions which originate with a prince offend the individual only.
Machiavelli recommends avoiding cruelty and dishonesty when the are not necessary, for otherwise they will induce unnecessary hatred, but he is also always willing to employ them when it is politically expedient to do so. Passages in The Prince that have given rise to Machiavelli’s reputation for promoting unscrupulous behaviour include the following:
To hold newly acquire dominions (of the same language and country) it is enough to have wiped out the family line of the prince who was ruling them.
And he who becomes master of a city accustomed to freedom and does not destroy it, may expect to be destroyed by it, for in rebellion it has always the watch-word of liberty and its ancient privileges as a rallying point, which neither time nor benefits will ever cause it to forget.
The nature of the people is fickle, and whilst it is easy to persuade them, it is difficult to fix them in that persuasion. And thus it is necessary to take such measures that, when they believe no longer, it may be possible to make them believe by force.
It is necessary for a prince wishing to hold his own to know how to do wrong, and to make use of it or not according to necessity.
Those princes who have done great things have held good faith of little account, and have known how to circumvent the intellect of men by craft, and in the end have overcome those who have relied on their word.
It is much safer to be feared than loved, when, of the two, one must be dispensed with.
Even when Machiavelli recommends humane behaviour, for example when he recommends that the ruler refrains from expropriating his citizen’s wealth, he does this not for moral reasons, but for pragmatic ones, for as he says: ‘People more quickly forget the death of their father than the loss of their inheritance’.
Machiavelli is a utilitarian and takes the view that the moral worth of an action is determined solely by its contribution to overall utility. Put simply, he believes that the ends justify the means. Machiavelli, relies upon this philosophy to vindicate the unscrupulous actions he recommends in his book.
The three main areas where Machiavelli's philosophy can be challenged are:
- His utilitarian philosophy
- His political objective
- The means used to achieve his objective
Immanuel Kant attacked utilitarian moral systems on the basis that they rely purely on subjective decisions about goals. Machiavelli believed that the goal was a strong state. Jeremy Bentham believed that the goal was the greatest happiness of the greatest number. Which actions are right or wrong depend entirely on which goal is adopted.
Another problem with utilitarian beliefs is that they assume that it always possible and desirable to reach conclusions simply by weighing the perceived good of the outcome against its costs. For example, assume that a hospital ward has two young patients, one waiting for a heart transplant and the other a liver transplant, and that they will both shortly die without an operation. Assume also that in a waiting room next door there is a healthy young man. Is the surgeon justified in killing him and taking his organs to save the two patients? On utilitarian thinking the answer could be yes, to save two lives it is justified to sacrifice one. However, most people would strongly reject this conclusion, even if the patients are particularly deserving and the donor not so.
Utilitarianism is only one philosophical approach to deciding on the morality of actions. An alternative is the deontological view; the belief that one is bound to do (or not do) certain acts irrespective of their consequences. Deontologists can be more or less absolutist in their approach, but will always maintain that ‘usefulness’ is not the only factor to be taken into consideration when planning how to achieve ones goals, other things – honour, virtue, justice, gods law etc. must also be considered. Machiavelli would have been familiar with such beliefs, both because they are present in much Christian teaching, and because of his knowledge of such classical writers as Cicero.
Those who take a strong deontological position will almost certainly condemn The Prince’s view of what is permissible, because the practices recommended in it violate accepted norms of ethical behaviour. It can of course be argued that what we think of as being immoral now would not have been thought so in Machiavelli’s time, when murder, assassination, duplicity and treachery were commonly used to achieve and retain political power. Yet, this argument is undermined by Machiavelli himself, when in The Prince he says: Hence it is necessary for a prince wishing to hold his own to know how to do wrong.
More evidence that Machiavelli’s moral views were not the norm comes from the publication in 1536 (four years after The Prince appeared in print) of the ‘The Education of a Christian Prince’ by Erasmus, the Dutch humanist and catholic theologian. Written in part as a response to The Prince this works presents a very different approach to the duties of a prince. It contains advice such as: Follow the right, do violence to no one, plunder no one, sell no public office, be corrupted by no bribes. Of course one would expect the teaching of a catholic theologian to differ from those of a master of Realpolitik, but Erasmus' response serves to demonstrate that Machiavelli’s ideas were by no means universally shared by his contemporaries.
There are those who take a weak deontological position; those who will lower their ethical standards on pragmatic grounds when there is a good case to do so. Is The Prince likely to meet their standards? Probably not if one considers the details of Machiavelli’s advice, for example his advice on colonies. Machiavelli recommends the creation of colonies in newly acquired territories as an alternative to costly and unpopular garrisons. He suggests that this can be done at the expense of some of the existing inhabitants for ‘those whom he offends, remaining poor and scattered, are never able to injure him’. In other words, because those dispossessed pose no threat, the prince has no need to be concerned about the suffering he inflicts upon them. Even those who take a weak deontological position are likely condemn such behaviour. The need for colonisation may be accepted, but not without the innocent victims receiving such help as is reasonably within the prince’s means to provide.
Let us now consider Machiavelli’s utilitarian goal. The Prince can be thought as a discourse on creating powerful principalities, and on keeping princes in power. Machiavelli largely thought that these two aims were aligned. A powerful state is one that can meet its external threats, maintain public order and endure. A powerful prince is a prince who can meet his external threats, keep public order and endure. So for Machiavelli in general what is good for the prince is good for the state.
However, a problem arises because a powerful state also needs a good leader. Good is not used here to mean virtuous, but to mean one who is wise and courageous, willing to listen to sound advice, and not ruled by his appetites and passions. Qualities which Machiavelli himself sought to encourage. But what happens when the prince lacks these virtues? In a Machiavellian principality there are no counter-balancing forces, no strong parliaments, independently powerful advisers or other institutions to limit the prince’s authority, and no fixed code of morals to inhibit his behaviou. On the contrary, the prince has been led to believe that immoral conduct is permissible and that his interests always take precedence. So Machiavelli’s advice becomes the means for keeping bad prince in power and to keep them behaving badly.
One of the reasons why Machiavelli’s prince need absolute power is because Machiavelli does not believe that the interests of the people will generally coincide with those of the prince. There are a number of reasons for this. To secure his power the prince needs to destroy all opposition. The prince cannot afford to be generous. The prince must suppress any freedoms and ‘ancient privileges’ that the people have become attached to. The prince may need to act cruelly. All of these things may cause the people to hate the prince. In addition, Machiavelli does not think that people are rational or good:
this is to be asserted in general of men, that they are ungrateful, fickle, false, cowardly, covetous, and as long as you succeed they are yours entirely; they will offer you their blood, property, life and children, as is said above, when the need is far distant; but when it approaches they turn against you.
Other political philosophers have had a different view of the relationship between the ruler and the people, seeking ways to align their interests. This might be done either through ideas of duty (Erasmus’ Christian Prince) or through the idea of a social contract, a set of interlocking obligations between the prince and the people. Where a prince and people have an effective social contract the position of the prince is legitimized, and the need for internal security reduced. A further benefit of social contracts is that they facilitate a plurality of goals, for example security, justice, liberty, property rights etc.
One has little doubt that Machiavelli would be hostile to multiple goals. For him it would imply indecision, and be a distraction from maximising the strength of the state. Yet it is perfectly rational for people to give up some of one thing, for example security, so as to gain another, for example prosperity. Machiavelli’s view that strength and security are the first duties of the state does not mean that they are its only duties. Moreover, if by pursuing multiple goals the state prospers, then the wealth so generated will result in the state becoming stronger.
Finally let us examine the more detailed, practical advice that Machiavelli gives to princes. Utilitarian theorists commonly pay insufficient attention to the means used to achieve their ends, ignoring the fact that each action has consequences of its own. Take for example Machiavelli’s comment on the use of cruelty.
Therefore a prince, so long as he keeps his subjects united and loyal, ought not to mind the reproach of cruelty; because with a few examples he will be more merciful than those who, through too much mercy, allow disorders to arise, from which follow murders or robberies; for these are wont to injure the whole people, whilst those executions which originate with a prince offend the individual only.
Cruelty is acceptable because ‘too much mercy’, will encourage civil disorder, while executions (and by implication other types of cruelty) only affect the individual concerned. So here we have a means ‘cruelty’ justified because it serves the ends ‘public order’. Let us pick this apart. Machiavelli argues that those who are cruel will do less harm than those who show too much mercy. This implies that one has to choose between cruelty and too much mercy, but the remedy for too much mercy is to exercise mercy wisely, not to indulge in cruelty. There is in fact no case made that cruelty is necessary for public order. Machiavelli argues that a cruel acts such as an execution offends only against an individual, not society at large. This we understand is why it is possible to do such acts without endangering the loyalty of the people. However, this argument is totally untenable. A cruel act against someone affects their family and friends. It serves to justify cruel acts by other people. It creates a climate of fear, anger and insecurity. It breeds hostility and a thirst for revenge. Cruel acts have numerous ramifications, not least in cultivating the hatred which Machiavelli warns his prince to avoid.
The above is just one example of the poor logic and insufficient attention to the consequences of actions that one finds in The Prince. However, it is illustrative of a common defect in Machaivelli’s reasoning, which is to point out the failings of one extreme (too much mercy) and then assume that this justifies its opposite (cruelty). Other examples are his justification of miserliness to avoid the danger of being extravagantly generous, and his advice to princes in peacetime to think of nothing but how to wage war in case they are otherwise unprepared for it.
The title of this paper is ‘Machiavelli’s The Prince, Bad Philosophy?’. To be fair to Machiavelli when answering this question one has to make allowances for the fact that The Prince is less a philosophical treatise than a call to action. It is a polemical work in which Machiavelli is more interested in driving home points than worrying about their logical underpinning. It should also be conceded that in places The Prince contains advice which any ruler would benefit from. However, none of the foregoing changes the fact that The Prince is a work with very serious weaknesses in its utilitarian philosophy, political objectives and detailed strategies.
In summary one can say that Machiavelli built his philosophy on the sands of utilitarian morality, a morality that can excuse any actions depending on its ends. He then chose as his goal the creation of unassailable princes in unassailable principalities, without seeing that there may be conflicts between the two, or understanding the need for broader objectives. Finally, he recommended a list of practices, many of which justify cruel and unscrupulous behaviour on very unsound reasoning. The conclusion that one draws from this is that The Prince is bad philosophy, and that attempts to apply it are likely to have bad outcomes.