Machiavelli vs Islamic Political Thought Niccolo Machiavelli was a political realist. He thought there were certain skills and characteristics needed to become a political ruler. In his work, The Prince, Machiavelli gives advice on how to be a successful prince, or ruler. "Successful" is partly based on how powerful a ruler was during his lifetime (reign), but largely based on how much the prince affected the lives, through laws or societal norms, of future generations.
Machiavelli was mainly interested in attaining and keeping political power. He believed people were inherently selfish and would, by nature, not respect the law or work for the common good, without civic virtues. The only way to 'control' these human urges was to instill national pride and mutual respect for all citizens of a state. The difference in Machiavellian thought, up to this point in history, from other philosophers was he believed political authority was no longer justified by religious or spiritual doctrines. Although Machiavelli believed this to be true, he still knew it was important for citizens to maintain a commitment for the common good, through national pride and respect.
Another aspect of differing thought up to this point in time was Machiavelli knew promoting civic virtue in citizens needed to be coupled with the pursuit of individual liberty. Machiavelli, in his writings, talks about several different forms of government. Specifically, monarchies, aristocracies, and democracies. He was able to pick apart monarchies, establishing the difference between 'new' and old monarchies.
The new monarchies are the hard ones to maintain, because people are not susceptible to change, in fact they almost revolt against it, unless the new ruler can make good on his word and keep his promises. Machiavelli's preferred form of government was the republic. A republic is a mixing of the three governments aforementioned. Having the government made up of the nobles, the elite, and the commoners establishes a set of checks and balances against one another. No one, particular group will be able to take control of the state again.
And in fact, the people (citizens) tend to have more leverage than any other faction. Machiavelli knew people were mainly concerned about their property and well being of their family. He also knew the government's job was to protect both, in addition to helping the people prosper and follow their "hearts," if you will. Machiavelli believed only certain people could become rulers, because it took a special sort of person.
He said rulers are not bound by moral constraints or social norms. The prince does not have to uphold all the values expected of their citizens. While this is true, it is also true the ruler must, at all times in the public eye, portray all of the important civic virtues displayed in all the citizens. If the people believe the ruler is falsifying his beliefs, they will turn. However, when the time comes to make a decision outside the realm of citizen knowledge, a ruler must be ruthless and prepared to do ANYTHING IT TAKES to ensure the state's prosperity.
If this means the ruler has to lie or kill, he will. This explains why only certain people can be rulers. One of Machiavelli's favorite examples of effective rulers is Cesare Borgia. Borgia was elected ruler, after his father was selected as pope. Borgia knew how to acquire respect from his citizens through fear and control. He also gave the people a "good government" and brought peace and prosperity.
The question always arises, though, about what to do with the dissenters, or rebels of a group. Borgia took care of this by hiring an enforcer. The enforcer was in charge of handling law-breakers, usually by death. The enforcer was a cruel man and invoked fear in the citizens. Borgia did not want his people to associate him with the enforcer, so he killed him.
But he didn't just kill him; he put him in the town square cut in half to show people he was serious. The citizens were in awe and considered Borgia their hero, for destroying the enforcer, who they had grown to hate. Regardless of how good a ruler Borgia was though, when the time came to install a new pope and it wasn't his father, Borgia fell short and was no longer the ruler. While Machiavelli seemed to put no stock in the role of the citizen in determining a ruler, he thought rulers could protect their power by evoking the "love of their people." But even this isn't enough all the time, because of the question always asked by citizens of its government, what have you done for me lately. The ruler must protect the citizens' property, prosperity, family, and well-being. For people to lead happy, full lives, they must be allowed to do what they want, within the guidelines of a state.
But this is a cycle easier to maintain, than to begin. For people to do as they wish, there must be guidelines in place, but for guidelines to be established, people have to know what they want to do and what they are unable to do. Here is the reason governments were built in the first place. The group of people chose someone to establish guidelines, because people wanted more than they had. This is the real purpose of a ruler, to help establish a society. Machiavelli was consumed with rulers having and keeping power, by whatever force necessary.
This seems to contradict what he is saying about the common good and civic virtues. If the ruler is only interested in power, what care would he have for the people? None, it seems to me. According to Ian Johnston, The Prince was more than just a feeble attempt for Machiavelli to get back into the political mainstream after he had been kicked out and tortured. Johnston believes The Prince was more of a satire against rulers and what they stood for. There are several instances where Machiavelli contradicts himself, sometimes within the same paragraph.
Specifically, Machiavelli believed rulers must above all, protect their own security at whatever cost. In The Prince, he goes to say one of the most efficient ways of protecting themselves is to "destroy the cities as the only way to hold them." If you think about this for a minute, this makes NO SENSE! ! Why would Machiavelli tell rulers they only way to control something is to destroy it. People would not accept control if it is taken in such a violent, cruel way. Several other instances of Machiavelli seeming to play around with words a bit, is when he is talking about "good" laws and "good" arms. Whenever, the words "good", "well", "bad", etc. are used, there is a reason.
These words communicate a sense of morality. Rather than trying to discern what Machiavelli is really trying to say, people get stuck on the feeling invoked with these words. Machiavelli believed the enemy of all regimes was corruption. Any form of government, good or bad, would take a turn for the worse if any of the leaders become corrupt. Not only leaders either, the people of a state can be corrupt also.
Greed and selfishness will lead to corruption of the people, or government for that matter. Another point Johnston brings up about Machiavelli is he (Machiavelli) seems almost defeated when discussing forms of government that will work. Machiavelli doesn't know what form a government would have to take to abolish corruption. He believed in the possibility of the republic being the right form, but even with a perfect set up of checks and balances, corrupt people can, and will, find the only crack in the system. This factor is relevant to our society today. The form of government the United States has is based on the idea of a republic.
There is a system of checks and balances, but when all the different forms of government are in each other's pockets, they have no checks, and certainly no balance. The citizens here are allowed to vote for the president, but there are only a few choices (that really matter) and most of the time, people do not vote for their conscience, but for their party. These two are NOT the same. No two people are alike, so no two personal assumptions and values can be.
I agree with Machiavelli on this point. There is nothing anyone can do, now or back then, to stop the spread of corruption. There will always be people wanting to exploit the basic "goodness" of a society for their own personal gain. Evident for Machiavelli, when he discusses the way over time, a good, just government will turn to corruption, because new generations have not had to fight and resist against a tyrannical form of government. They have led a life in a well-rounded society. They are the ones to become corrupt further down the road, starting the whole process of revolt over again.
Here is another idea relevant to our society today. African-Americans have only had the right to vote for forty years now, but last presidential election, less than half of the African Americans voted. Low turnout was severe in the younger population. Today, the children of the civil rights activists have no clue how their ancestors had to live, so they view the right to vote as high. They newer generations have always had the right to vote. Another aspect of relevancy is the way our government functions now.
During my lifetime, I have not experienced a phenomenal president. I have seen two George Bushes and a Bill Clinton reign. Only half of the population participated in the election... leaving half under represented. Hardly any poor people get out and vote, because they believe they and their vote don't matter. I agree.
No one's vote matters. Whoever has the deepest pockets, best political resume, and I guess, most pleasing personality wins. The winner has nothing to do with our well-being or prosperity. Machiavelli has some similarities and differences compared to Islamic and Jewish political thought.
The most prominent difference, I think, is the relationship between religion and philosophy. Machiavelli doesn't put much stock into the notion of religion. He doesn't believe the state should have to depend on religious thought to survive. As a matter of fact, Machiavelli believed the Roman Catholic Church was responsible for Italy being split into five states. The church divides rather than unites. In the Islamic world, religion is the main thread running through and tying everything together.
Alfarabi was interested in establishing a working relationship between religion and philosophy. He was one of the first Muslim philosophers and his work is studied as much as Aristotle or Plato, in future generations. Avicenna believed all elements in life were explained in cause and effect terms. The concept of cause and effect runs through all the Islamic thinkers. For Alfarabi, the cause and effect was put to use with reason. For reason to exist there must be two essential activities.
The first is to define basic assumptions and definitions that are the starting points and building blocks of an argument, (cause) and second, see if conclusions of an argument follow logically from the arguments basic assumptions and definitions, (effect). Avicenna believed people would tame their desires for the common good. This view is somewhat similar to Machiavelli's view, but the standards for the common good are defined differently for both. For the Islamic thinkers, the common good if defined by the word of God and interpreted by reason. They combine both to form a working relationship. I believe the reason the Islamic thinkers associate God with reason, and therefore philosophy, lies in their way of life.
The religious leaders of their time scoffed at the idea of philosophy. They (the religious leaders) believed if philosophy had merit, what place did religion have? The philosophical thinkers in the Muslim world had to be accepted somehow. So they began associating religion and philosophy. They pushed the fact that both were consumed with the quest of the "good life." The difference was religion used God as their answer and philosophy used reason.
One common thread between Machiavelli, the Islamic and Jewish thinkers is the belief that people want to lead happy, contented lives, and for this to be accomplished, a governing force must be present. More than that, people need to be involved in a political community. Maimonides was a Jewish philosopher. He was also a rabbi, making his view of philosophy coincide with his view of religion. He was allowed to interpret the Torah for the common people, because it was the belief that it took special dedication to learn and understand the concepts.
This idea is similar to Alfarabi's belief that people need to use religious concepts and symbols to understand the complex, absolute truth of philosophy. The way Maimonides leaves the word of God up to interpretation seems like a good starting point for a society. Rather than preach to the people about stuff they can not understand, the rabbi's function is to help them understand what is right and wrong, but also to re-interpret the ideas if circumstances arise. Here is a spot where I can no find no relevancy to our society today. We do not constantly re-interpret the Bible. Instead, we base our laws and morals off an interpretation that is thousands of years old.
People hold onto whatever beliefs they feel are important to them, but they are only important if someone else tells them it is. I do not see citizens helping other people in their time of need as they should, but rather I see citizens put a "Love Jesus, and He will love you," bumper sticker on the back of their car. Completely hypocritical. The same person will run three yellow lights in a row, not slow down to let a child cross the road, and cut off any person in their way. How can this person be upholding their religious values? Or do they only do so when they are at church, or around their pastor? Of course they do.
People are not even establishing values to live by and pass on to their children, let alone adapting their values to the ever changing society. Case in point, gay marriage. A lot of opponents of gay marriage are "religious," in their minds. But how can they be so intolerant? If people were truly religious and had lasting values, the validity of gay marriage would not be the question. While most philosophical thinkers follow the same relative guidelines, there are a few differences. The idea of religion dominating societal norms and inherent behavior of people are both examples of differing opinions.
Today's society may have been started as an application of philosophy, but the predictions made by Machiavelli and other philosophers about the corruption of governments has come true, once again. References: Deluxe, Steven M. Political Thinking, Political Theory, and Civil Society. Longman Publishing: 2002.
Johnston, Ian. Lecture on Machiavelli's The Prince. February 2002, Malaspina University: Retrieved from the World Wide Web on February 24, 2005, web.