Machiavelli’s The Prince has risen to become one of history’s most controversial books. Its contents are, no doubt, seen as immoral to our modern sensibilities, but where the controversy arises, is the value of Machiavelli’s study. This essay will be arguing that Machiavelli’s empirical examination of the machinations of power is highly valuable, not only for the study of politics, but for understanding human relations. This will be accomplished through discussing how The Prince should be treated as an historical case study, how it honestly portrays power and, finally, how it is valuable to the study of politics and to people in a political society. This essay will ultimately find that Machiavelli’s refreshingly honest portrayal of power in practice allows us to look at those who wield power more astutely with a healthy layer of distrust.
The Prince is not a normative book. While it may seem prescriptive in its phrasing, its use of historical case studies to illustrate themes betrays that Machiavelli is being descriptive of what he believes causes power, not what one ought to do. It is agreed upon by many historians that Machiavelli was a republican, and didn’t genuinely support the actions in his book (Barnett, 2006). Rather, he was reporting on power as he observed in his position as a civil servant and a scholar of history. While his intentions are unconfirmed in writing The Prince, it is clear that this is not how he wants people to live. He merely believes it is the reality that will unfortunately shape human action. He is no fan of the use of brutality for power, but honestly portrays the methods which are used to achieve it.
Machiavelli dispersed the illusion that power was divinely wrought and virtuous. The Prince outlines a guidebook to statesmanship, but every piece of advice is suggested alongside the historical case study that informs it. It isn’t so much that Machiavelli is telling the reader to seize power in this manner, but that this is the way that power is seized. Machiavelli highlighted the importance of the actions of men. While fortune is the uncontrollable state of nature and society, the man is what acts within this state to achieve power. With the example of Agothocles’ ascension, Machiavelli explains how power is wrought most substantially through human action, and only a little by fortune (Machiavelli, 2008: 36). This goes against the commonly held assumption that authority was vested in monarchs by God. Machiavelli does, in fact, write about religious authority, politely to avoid persecution, but illustrating quite succinctly how even the papacy utilised power like men (Machiavelli, 2008: 47-49). Machiavelli’s innovation was his dispersal of Christian idealism in favour of realism (O’Rourke, 2013). Why this is valuable is that he demystified the concept. Instead of being seen as something mythical or virtuous, Machiavelli, and his analysis of history, reveals that power is merely the domain of men and brutality.
Jared Diamond put it succinctly: “[Machiavelli] is frequently dismissed as an amoral cynic who supposedly considered the end to justify the means… [in fact, he was] a crystal-clear realist who understands the limits and uses of power” (O’Rourke, 2013).
Opposed to idealists, Machiavelli makes many claims that seem immoral, but are merely reports of what he has observed. When he reports that laws require arms and force (Machiavelli, 2008: 50), he is writing from experience and study. When he writes that a prince must be simultaneously man and beast (Machiavelli, 2008: 72), he is writing from and recognising a context wrought from warfare and violence. Most apt of all, however, is his matter of fact statement that princes exist to oppress and that people only want to be free from this oppression (Machiavelli, 2008: 40), revealing rulers as malicious and not in the interest of the population.
The most valuable lesson of The Prince is that power can’t be trusted. It is inexorably linked to brutality and deceit. From this, we, as readers, are more prepared to distrust potential tyrants and conniving politicians. William Enfield, in fact, argues that Machiavelli was truly satirising rulers and their malice in The Prince (Barnett, 2006), making it a form of rebellion against a system he despised. Rousseau wrote that the book was meant to incite a revolution and be used to help understand the tyrannical monarchs (O’Rourke, 2013).
Not all writers are a fan of Machiavelli’s exposé on power, however. Robert Harrison condemns the work as cynical and prescribing immorality, but in this he misunderstands the work (Harrison, 2011). Machiavelli doesn’t identify any concrete ends, only the means to achieve power. Power is a means to an end, which a normative theory can use to achieve their vision. Rather than condemning the work as contrary to achieving the good, normative theorists should use the lessons to inform their working towards a better society.
Machiavelli does subtly reveal an agenda behind his lessons. He condemns the foreign control of much of Italy and the incompetence of Italian leaders (Machiavelli, 2008: 55). Perhaps, the book was meant to be a guide to empower rulers and Italians to fight off their foreign overlords.
Regardless of the intent, Machiavelli’s work stands as a definitive work on power. It uses historical case studies to inform its lessons, lessons which apprise the reader of the true nature of power as informed by Machiavelli’s experience as a scholar and civil servant. It provides value in its showing that power cannot be trusted, and that it is more often than not forged in human brutality. Overall, it stands as a treatise of the domain of politics itself – power, its seizure and its uses.
Barnett, V., 2006. Niccolo Machiavelli – the Cunning Critic of Political Reason. [Online] Available at: http://www.historytoday.com/vincent-barnett/niccolo-machiavelli-%E2%80%93-cunning-critic-political-reason [Accessed 10 August 2016].
Harrison, R.P., 2011. What can you learn from Machiavelli? [Online] Available at: http://insights.som.yale.edu/insights/what-can-you-learn-machiavelli [Accessed 10 August 2016].
Machiavelli, N., 2008. The Prince. Translated by L. Ricci. New York: Signet Classics.
O’Rourke, J., 2013. Machiavelli’s The Prince: Still Relevant after All These Years. [Online] Available at: https://www.bu.edu/today/2013/machiavelli-the-prince-still-relevant-after-all-these-years/ [Accessed 10 August 2016].