22 October, 2003

Niccolò Machiavelli: Morality Via Human Nature

The following is an assigned essay which was completed for a grade. Unfortunately, some formatting has been lost in the transition to LJ.

Eric J. Herboso
ENG 243
Father Williams
22 October, 2003

Niccolò Machiavelli:
Morality Via Human Nature

Machiavelli. The very name brings up an image of harshness at its basest, of hatred of “true” ethics, and of a man that would rather a ruler be contrary to morality than give up the position of his rulership. But are these accusations valid? Is Machiavelli truly as horrible as so many people make him out to be?

It must be granted that his advice does seem to contradict what traditional morality might have a ruler do. Consider that, according to Machiavelli, a ruler should not allow freedom of speech: “if anyone may speak frankly to you, respect for you will soon disappear” (Machiavelli 81); should deceive his subjects: “a prudent ruler cannot keep his word, nor should he” (61); and should be cruel: “it is much safer to be feared than loved” (59). No wonder, then, that Machiavelli is considered so immoral.

Yet despite these things, could an argument be made that, in fact, Machiavelli was doing his best to create the most perfect world that he can? And if so, then wouldn’t that necessitate his being more moral than even those that would be considered more moral by the public?

Consider what Machiavelli says about Scipio, a general in the Spanish army: “Scipio [was] considered a most remarkable man not only in his own times but in al others… [yet his] armies rebelled against him in Spain. The…reason for this was that he was over-indulgent, and permitted his soldiers more freedom than was consistent with maintaining proper military discipline” (60). Here, Machiavelli is trying to show that what is generally considered to be kind is not always necessarily so. Notice how he ends his description of Scipio: “when Locri [, a Greek city in Calabria,] was ravaged by one of Scipio’s Legates, the inhabitants were not avenged by him, and the legate was not punished for its arrogance, all because Scipio was too easy-going…. [B]ut since he was controlled by the senate, this harmful quality was not only concealed but contributed to his glory” (60). It is clear that Machiavelli has an interest in what is good, but he does not think that the path to that good lies in what is commonly thought of as good.

In the dedicatory letter to The Prince, Machiavelli makes clear his intention to avoid any usage of metaphor: “I have not embellished this work by filling it with rounded periods, with high-sounding words or phrases, or with any of the other beguiling artifices of apparent beauty which most writers employ to describe and embellish their subject-matter” (3). Because of this, his incorrect usage of grammar and sometimes vague way of explaining more complicated terms takes on a whole new meaning: what if he writes in the way he writes, not because he wants what he says to be true, but that he writes over the Prince’s head, with the full intention of coercing that Prince to do as he commands?

Early on, Machiavelli writes that: “men are very ready to change their ruler when they believe that they can better their condition…. But they are mistaken, because they later realise [British translation] through hard experience that they have made their condition worse” (7). What if, contrary to what he intends the Prince (his reader) to believe, he is writing things that he does not think could ever be justified, except in the name of maintaining a stable government? It is clear that Machiavelli does not think that revolution could ever be justified, since revolution involves death, pain, and displeasure: “a new ruler is always forced to injure his new subjects, both through his troops and countless other injuries that are involved in conquering a state” (7). He is, after all, a well read man – perhaps it is in Plato’s Republic that he first understood the idea that no matter how wonderful a state may be made to be, it will never be perfect. But it really does not matter where Machiavelli first understood this principle, so long as he understood it; for once understood, the move to the realization that revolution is inherently unjustified becomes more and more obvious. Machiavelli, it seems, is not really grounded in reality for reality’s sake, but is instead insistent upon reality in the face of abstract theory for the sole reason that Machiavelli wants to make a difference.

Machiavelli realizes that many of the states that exist in his time are governed stupidly, and their citizens are: “unjustly oppressed by great and cruel misfortune” (4). To combat this, he writes The Prince, with the idea that a ruler who reads it will be more inclined to make a more favorable state for all to live in. In this way, Machiavelli is increasing the good for all, by relieving the populace of strife through pointless rebellion and wasted lives. Certainly, it is clear that Machiavelli is very much concerned with what is good; consider what he says about Agathocles’ abuse of power: “[I]t cannot be called virtue to kill one’s fellow-citizens, to betray one’s friends, to be treacherous, merciless and irreligious; power may be gained by acting in such ways, but not glory” (31). Note also, that he very clearly distinguishes between what is necessary in order for a ruler to maintain a kingdom best, with the least discomfort to its citizens; nearly every quote from The Prince has a reference to what is best, and then to what is necessary. Some would call Machiavelli unidealistic; but how much more of an idealist could he possibly be, than to want so badly for the impossible perfect state that he refuses to allow revolution to get there?

The very qualities that make people call Machiavelli immoral are those qualities which make him most moral. All systems are bad; no one form of government surpasses all the others. Even a fictional government specifically created to be perfect in every way (The Republic) has huge problems inherent to its core. Why, then, would revolution ever be justified? Machiavelli is tired of dealing with stupidity in charge; note how he urges Italy to be brought under one governor, and that governor is the one that has his book, and hence, his ideas in mind: “It seems to me that so many things are propitious for a new ruler that I am not aware that there has ever been a more appropriate time than this” (87).

Machiavelli is the start of a huge change in philosophy. From him stem all the rest of the modern philosophers. He said it first, though in a very obscure way. That revolution is only justified when it can (A) be easily accomplished, to the good of the people, or (B) be in response to a governmental structure that has no idea how to govern effectively within its own system. The within-its-own-system part is important; Machiavelli does believe that ideal systems would be perfect, but he does not believe that they could ever exist – hence his predilection for working within the system.

Why bother moving from capitalism to communism when both are flawed? Isn’t it far better to improve capitalism from within, rather than to forcefully move to communism? It is true that Machiavelli says harsh things: “A ruler should…always be concerned with military maters, and in peacetime he should be even more taken up with them than in war” (52); but he says these things because of the world he lives in. It is obvious that he would not approve of such ideas unless they were necessary in the world that he lived in. Machiavelli is very concerned with making the best possible world for him to live in; but where does he get all his assumptions?

It should be obvious, from the quoted statements above, that everything Machiavelli says is based on fundamental assumptions about human nature. How could any of Machiavelli’s methods work, unless all men were committing actions and thoughts based upon some ‘thing’ that is called human nature. Thus, Machiavelli is attempting to approach morality via human nature. Whereas others try approaching morality by creating the most perfect system, Machiavelli feels that attempts that fail are not worth attempting; thus he uses his knowledge of human nature to create the best possible system in his world. His method may not apply in another world, but for the world that he lived in (, and perhaps we do, too), it was the most moral way of accomplishing the existence of a better world.

Machiavelli, Niccolò. The Prince. Quentin Skinner and Russell Price, ed.
Cambridge University Press: Cambridge, 1988