MACHIAVELLI: THE PRINCE Themes and Ideas During Machiavelli's time, society was much different than it had been for previous philosophers. Instead of storing up good works, so as to enjoy paradise, as the medieval man did, the Renaissance man was interested in all things, enjoyed life, strove for worldly acclaim and wealth, and had a deep interest in classical civilizations. He was born at a time of conflict within Florence, Italy, between the republican leaders and the family of the Medici's, of which the Machiavelli's, especially, had a history of opposition towards. After years of conflict between powers, Machiavelli was exiled from his country. It was during this exile that he wrote his most famous work, The Prince, a piece about political power.
Growing up, and through his time in political office, Machiavelli studied the men and / or groups in power, specifically noting their successes and failures. Using this information from his observations, Machiavelli wrote The Prince in order to try to re-enter politics by "assisting" the man whom had exiled him, Lorenzo de Medici, in his ruling. Though this was more of a plot to try to gain the favor of Lorenzo, he does note in his book that in order to gain the favor of a prince, you must present him with a gift; that was the purpose of his novel. In it, Machiavelli analysis's the various types of monarchies, analysis's of the different types of states, how they may be obtained, and how they should be ruled. He also describes how power is seized and retained, how to rule the military forces and, the essence of his work, how a prince should act in all circumstances in order to accomplish these tasks. The first philosopher who did not try to lecture or preach on how to reach the 'ideal state' was Machiavelli.
He saw society differently: Since it is my intention to write something of use... , I deem it best to stick to the practical truth of things rather than to fancies. Many men have imagined republics and principalities that never existed at all. Yet the way men live is so far removed from the way they ought to live that anyone who abandons what is for what should be pursues his downfall rather than his preservation. To Machiavelli, a successful ruler is one who can impress people, regardless of what he really is inside. He says that "it is sometimes better to seem good than to be good." To him, a good ruler is one that is seen as "merciful, faithful, humane, frank and religious" so long as it does not interfere with his best interest.
He sees no purpose in restraining and controlling oneself for the society because the society will not prosper if the ruler does not. Ruthlessness, maliciousness, and deviousness are all hailed as being acceptable, in fact encouraged, as means of securing position of power. Through his prioritizing, Machiavelli does not seem to be as concerned with the society and the individual as the previous philosophers in history have been. Rather, he sees power as the one and only goal in life, regardless of the individual or the state. Again, though, he is a reflection of his times.
The men of the Renaissance era wanted many things -- money, power, enjoyment in life -- regardless of the moral cost. Others would argue that these superfluities either meant nothing or would not occur without restraining the desires of both ones self and ones state. One needs balance of everything in order to reach the ideals of perfection, but Machiavelli would argue that perfection is not real and so is not worth striving for. Instead, one must live for ones self. He makes the generalization of men that: they are ungrateful, fickle, dissembling, anxious to flee danger, and covetous of gain. So long as you promote their advantage, they are all yours...
and will offer you their blood, their goods, their lives, and their children when the need for these I remote. When the need arises, however, they will turn against you... Men are less concerned about offending someone they have cause to love than someone they have cause to fear. Love endures by a bond which men, being scoundrels, may break whenever it serves their advantage; but fear is supported by the dread of pain, which is ever present. This sums up Machiavelli's view of society and alludes to the position rulers, or man of any status, must acquire in order to attain and retain power. They must rely on what they, not others, can control.
Oddly enough, the prince that Machiavelli proposes, one whose stature is assumably very attainable, as opposed to the unattainable ideal, has a more difficult job. He must present an appearance of greatness, composed of every awesome quality that would be desired in a ruler, yet where those of society can not see him he is to be evil, malicious, manipulative and dissembling. This goes against all that has been said about a ruler who needs to be tempered in the virtues of courage, justice, and wisdom in order to rule. Instead, Machiavelli presents the idea of a real, but not highly regarded ruler who disregards all morals for the sake of gaining profit and power. His anti-Christian views mark him as a man of the Renaissance era. During that time, even the popes of the period used the office to further their personal ambitions and those of their families.
With this in mind, Machiavelli presents his work as a challenge to the Papacy. He also sees the Christian values as pointless. To him, there is no need for the Christian Heaven, therefore he has no need of the Christian virtues. He is concerned with Italy and the need to unify it in order to "conquer Europe for its own sake." He says nothing, however, of the peace and prosperity to the citizens of Italy, but instead suggests the thought that it will increase the power of his country. Overall, his concern is more for his country and her power, than the individuals and their prosperity. Though Machiavelli could be considered unreasonable and cold to the society and populace, he is also very patriotic, with a strong sense of the need to protect and better his country.
He does differ from the other philosophers in his suggestion for rulers. The prince -- a monarchy -- is the real "ideal" ruler of his philosophy, as he challenges the other ideals, saying that they are unrealistic and unattainable, so not worth our time or effort to achieve. Machiavelli proposed a state ruled by a ruler who was ruthless and untempered in order to make the state happy. It is important, in order to do so, that a ruler is able to create laws and institutions that do not need to be altered. Sparta, he says, was able to maintain its self for eight-hundred years without changing or facing any dangerous disorders. So he, obviously, would not favor a tempered ruler because his ruler is meant to abuse what he can while concealing his true nature to the people and portraying, instead, what they would consider an ideal ruler, in order to maintain power.
His era needed a ruler that would challenge the corruption of the Church, unify his nation, and establish a strong power in Europe, by whatever means necessary, including those described as "Machiavellian." His philosophy, like that of the other philosophers, is a product of his times and of his environment. Though his views did not drastically alter any societies, in that they strived towards the type of ruler he suggested, he did portray a ruler that society now frowns upon and has allowed us to arrive at conclusions why this type of ruler would not survive, and we need a tempered ruler to rule a tempered state of tempered individuals. Machiavelli uses this work to describe his intellectual justification for separating political conduct and personal morality. Though it is arguable whether or not this work was ever read by Lorenzo, as intended, it is known that Machiavelli never did return to political power. His work, The Prince, however, was published shortly after the his death. Though his ideas were certainly radical at the time, society now can see parallels between modern governments and Machiavelli's "ideal." Government officials, especially the American ones, can be compared to the "prince" in Machiavelli's work as presenting a desirable front to society, yet once they are behind the confines of their castle, or White House, they are free to exploit and abuse their powers as they think necessary, either for personal or national gain.
It could be said, by any educated individual, that reading The Prince has become a prerequisite to holding office. Machiavelli, slightly ahead of his times, describes a ruler who presents an appearance of greatness, composed of every awesome quality that would be desired in a ruler, yet where those of society can not see him he is to be evil, malicious, manipulative and dissembling. Though lacking moral integrity -- as most politicians do -- this proposed ruler has proven successful and Machiavelli's "ideal" is as he wanted it -- real.