1. How does Machiavelli view human nature?
Machiavelli differs from the many political theorists who offer conceptions of a “natural state,” a presocial condition arising solely from human instinct and character. But while Machiavelli never puts forth a vision of what society would be like without civil government, he nonetheless presents a coherent, although not particularly comprehensive, vision of human nature.
Machiavelli mentions explicitly a number of traits innate among humans. People are generally self-interested, although their affections for others can be won and lost. They remain content and happy so long they avoid affliction or oppression. They might be trustworthy in prosperous times, but they can turn selfish, deceitful, and profit-driven in adverse times. They admire honor, generosity, courage, and piety in others, but most do not harbor these virtues. Ambition lies among those who have achieved some power, but most common people are satisfied with the way things are and therefore do not yearn to improve on the status quo. People will naturally feel obligated after receiving a favor or service, and this bond is usually not broken capriciously. Nevertheless, loyalties are won and lost, and goodwill is never absolute.
These statements about human nature often serve as justification for much of Machiavelli’s advice to princes. For example, a prince should never trust mercenary leaders because they, like most leaders, are overly ambitious. At the same time, while many of Machiavelli’s remarks on the subject seem reasonable, most are assumptions not grounded in evidence or popular notions and can easily be criticized. For example, a Hobbesian might argue that Machiavelli puts too much faith in people’s ability to remain content in the absence of government force. A related issue to explore, then, might be the extent to which Machiavelli’s political theory relies too heavily on any single, possibly fallacious depiction of human nature.
Is Machiavelli’s book “evil”? What role does virtue play in Macchiavelli’s state?
Some of the advice to rulers found in The Prince—most famously, the defense of cruelty toward subjects—has led to criticism that Machiavelli’s book is evil or amoral. Moreover, the explicit separation of politics from ethics and metaphysics seems to indicate that there is no role for any kind of virtue in Machiavelli’s state.
However, Machiavelli never advocates cruelty or other vices for their own sake. He advocates them only in the interests of safeguarding the state, which, in Machiavelli’s view, is a kind of ultimate good in its own right. Nor does he advocate that virtue should be shunned for its own sake. Indeed, Machiavelli states several times that when it is in the interests of the state, a prince must strive to act virtuously. But virtue should never take precedence over the state. Thus, generosity, which might be admired by others, is actually detrimental to the future prosperity of the state. It is for this reason alone that a prince should avoid it.
Machiavelli’s conception of virtue as defined in The Prince is not quite the same as that of classical theorists. Whereas Aristotle and others defined virtue in relation to some highest “good,” Machiavelli settles for a much more simplistic definition: that which receives the praise of others. Thus, generosity is a virtue, in the Machiavellian sense, only because other people praise it.
Compare and contrast the different ways in which a prince can rise to power.
According to Machiavelli, there are four main ways a prince can come into power. The first way is through prowess, meaning personal skill and ability. The second is through fortune, meaning good luck or the charity of friends. The third way is through crime, such as through a coup, conspiracy, or assassination. The fourth way is constitutional, meaning through the official support of either nobles or common people.
The most important comparison to be made is that between prowess and fortune. Obtaining a state through prowess is clearly more demanding than benefiting from simple good luck. But a prince gifted with his own prowess is possessed of a strong foundation to maintain that rule, whereas fortune is unpredictable and may lead as easily to a prince’s deposition as it had to his rise. Thus, maintaining rule is much easier when a prince has used his own skill. Because the maintenance of rule is most important to Machiavelli, he concludes that prowess is a better route to become a prince.
A second comparison might be made between criminal and constitutional means of achieving power. Here, the main point of difference is not the skill and experience of the prince but popular attitudes toward the prince. A prince who comes to power through crime runs the greatest risk because he may be forced to commit some cruelty toward his subjects, endangering himself by breeding hatred and resentment among the populace. A constitutional prince, however, comes to power with the support of either the nobles or commoners, and his job consists mainly of keeping the unsupportive group satisfied with his rule.
To sum up, prowess is to be preferred over fortune because prowess leads to a more effective ruler who is likely to garner lasting glory. Constitutional princes are preferable to criminal princes not only because they are more effective, but also because a criminal prince can achieve nothing other than power. A constitutional prince can achieve both power and glory.
Suggested Essay Topics
1. What are Machiavelli’s views regarding free will? Can historical events be shaped by individuals, or are they the consequence of fortune and circumstance?
2. In Discourses on Livy (1517), Machiavelli argues that the purpose of politics is to promote a “common good.” How does this statement relate to the ideas Machiavelli presents in The Prince?
3. Do you agree with Machiavelli’s thesis that stability and power are the only qualities that matter in the evaluation of governments? If not, what else matters?
4. Discuss class conflict in The Prince and its relationship to successful government.
5. Discuss The Prince’s historical context. In what ways do the arguments and examples of the The Prince reflect that context?
6. Discuss the form, tone, and rhetoric of The Prince. Does Machiavelli’s choice in this area lead to a persuasive argument? Why or why not?
7. How much of The Prince is relevant to contemporary society in an age when monarchies no longer are the primary form of government?
Scholars, practitioners, and more casual observers of leadership often talk about Niccolo Machiavelli in the context of leadership practices. Substantially fewer seem to be well read on the (in)famous Florentine. It is possible to consider Machiavelli, his writings, and ideas reputed to him, in a better, more informed, less condemnatory and more positive light. This essay will try to show how and why Machiavelli has been substantially misunderstood and misrepresented in modern discussions of leadership and how a different understanding of his frame of thought can inform our thinking about leadership.
Machiavelli is of such historical standing that he ranks among those for whom no given name is needed. He stands virtually alone as a thinker and writer understood to convey a “realistic” approach to politics and leadership which requires a ruthless, self-interested, and amoral or, to many people, immoral practice. This perception results from a tendency to read (or read about) only his most widely known s work, The Prince, and not to put it into context by reading the rest of his works, especially The Discourses (more properly known as Discourses on Titus Livy). The conclusion often drawn from this short-changing of Machiavelli is that the model of leadership practice developed in The Prince is advice on how to be a leader in the real world. But, closer reading suggests that Machiavelli did not hold so simple a view.
The following exposition on Machiavelli is not meant to be comprehensive, but to challenge. It rests on the observation that Machiavelli imagines leadership arising out of a more complex set of causes and having necessary affects that are not encompassed by reading The Prince, alone. His ideas have more to do with the potential success of the human community than with the achievement of particular leaders.
Central to these ideas is the contrast between the two books on the way societies should be and the way they, in fact, most often are. It is this dichotomy that reveals Machiavelli’s concern with understanding why and how societies succeed or fail. In his two models, the primary burden of responsibility falls on citizens in one case and a ruthless leader (the Prince) in the other. In a republic, leaders are balanced and checked by a virtuous citizenry who care for the community at least as much as they care for themselves. (Perhaps because they care for themselves in a way that is inseparable from the community.) In a sense, Machiavelli’s republic is the ‘good’ society whereas the principality is the less “evil” choice between order and disorder that must be made when the republic fails.
It is important to recall that the Prince rises to re-establish order in a society that has descended into disorder following the citizenry’s loss of virtu’ – the capacity to rule themselves in the interest of all. Of particular interest is the idea that a principal reason for this loss of capacity and commitment is the rise to dominance of particular or narrow self-interest divorced from the well being of the community and to the exclusion of commitment to the welfare of others. (It may be useful to recall that Machiavelli predates modern liberalism and its somewhat odd notion that narrow self-interests can interact, especially in the marketplace, to produce the common good. (See the treatment by Stephen Holmes) Indeed, Machiavelli understands that a successful and virtuous society must be composed of citizens who link their own interest to the community, even at the cost of their own narrow self-interest. It can be argued that his concept of the virtuous citizen/leader requires, at its best, a unification of self-interest and community interest to such a degree that the pursuit of narrow self-interest is, in fact, the negation of virtu’ and, thus, the prime cause of the failure of the community.
Machiavelli fails directly to address the question of virtuous leadership in a republic, even thought the inferences that may be drawn are clear enough. It is not reasonable to conclude that Machiavelli’s republic is composed only of virtuous citizens who need no leaders of their own. Rather, we may suggest that he intends the official and/or informal leadership of the community to share a common virtu’ with all citizens. It is this high standard that is likely to erode as individual citizens and leaders begin to serve lesser, more self-centered ends.
In the end, Machiavelli’s common denominator for leadership is a capacity to commit to purpose. When the citizens of the virtuous republic lose their commitment to the commonweal the community can be maintained in much less perfect form only by the strength of a prince. The differences between the types have to do with the ruthlessness required of a leader in trying to restore and maintain order when citizenship fails; citizenship being the capacity of each person in a society to commit to a common purpose in the sustenance and preservation of the community. Absent that commitment to a common purpose, the prince must impose order by whatever means necessary.
Clearly, commitment to purpose begs a question as to the virtue of the purpose itself; to this Machiavelli speaks only obliquely. The most just state of social existence for him, it seems, would be one in which all people are consciously governed in their own actions by a sense of obligation to each other. That he may have doubted the possibility of this in the real world does not detract from its value as an ultimate standard. Indeed, the Machiavellian perspective, read as suggested here, invites us to revisit the classical perspective in which the just society is not merely the optimally productive in material goods.
Consider, for example, the difficulties attendant on the clash between the idea of universal human rights and the idea of national sovereignty wherein each nation’s right to separately and differently define virtue is treated as the supreme right and necessity of existence. Similarly, consider the western notion of “individualism” which tends to eschew both the individuals responsibility for the community and the communities responsibility for the individual -this despite the contradictory impulse evident among many to hold the individual responsible for his/her own acts according to assumed pre-established community standards! These suggest simply an elaborated version of Machiavelli’s decayed republic in which the common interest is sacrificed to selfish, individual interest and the community interest becomes merely a corrupted extension of the dominant combination of narrow selfish interests. In essence, it is possible to suggest, Machiavelli’s approach can take us to the realization that leadership and power are distributed among citizens in the virtuous republic whereas in its fallen state they are concentrated in the hands of a prince! Indeed, more modern but still “classic” works supporting the modern state such as the Federalist Papers suggest an overriding concern with creating a workable republic based on both restraining the prince and containing the people! But, many contemporary students of leadership and organization point to a need for greater cooperation and more widely distributed leadership.
This reading of Machiavelli suggests that some significant paradoxes exist with which we must continue to struggle. First among these is the implication that the virtue of leaders in the “good republic” is proven by their success in rendering themselves superfluous or temporary. Sydney Verba observed this as a major characteristic of successful “democratic leaders” in his Small Groups and Political Behavior: A Study of Leadership (1961). He also noted that such “democratic leadership” became much less likely as the group size increased beyond 20 and, in fact, was only significantly possible in groups of seven or less. Indeed, many studies of small group behavior supported the observation that “as the size of the group increases, there is a tendency toward less free participation on the part of group members and toward the concentration of group activities in the hands of a single leader.” (p. 36) [Reminiscent of Robert Michels, Political Parties]
The second paradox follows from the implications of the first: leaders tend to emerge in larger groups who come to resemble Machiavelli’s Prince more than his virtuous republican citizen/leader. Is this because order becomes an increasingly significant second-order value (necessary for the realization of all other values) as the size and complexity of the group increases? That is, as the dominance of a single leader increases as the size of the group increases does the desire for order tend to suppress the emergence of leaders from the smaller sub-groups, both formal and informal, within the larger group – at least partly in the name of keeping order? It seems that democratic groups and organizations will begin to lose their “virtu’” as they suppress the free, participatory, smaller groups (3-7) and the leaders they spawn; leaders who can not only provide a reservoir of successors for the group or organization but a set of communication nodes capable of carrying a common message and defining a common mission. Significantly, much of a Prince’s power will be provided by the passive acquiescence of the members of the group who come to willingly distance themselves from the greater responsibilities of citizenship. The most insidious element of this process is that in which the citizen, already corrupted by narrow material self-interest, is persuaded to accept more material gratification as a substitute for both personal and social virtue. Thus, all meaningful hope of adherence to a universal standard of right seems doomed.
This dark picture is not unrelieved, however, since it remains possible that leadership can emerge which produces, or arises from, a universe of leaders cooperating in the creation of the human community. The world may not be saved by a single leader but by many leaders who seek a common message and mission. It is probably true that such an ideal significantly overreaches real possibilities, and certainly begs the question of conflict between substantive and procedural values, but is not the vision of (and hope for!) leadership that speaks for all humanity the ultimate cause of our fascination with the subject? Do not most modern organizations seek ways to release the creativity of their members? Calls for participative management and relationship-centered leadership reflect at least some realization that a culture based on individualism, competitiveness, and hierarchy has its limits and flaws. The Machiavellian imagination suggests that a return to the virtue of many leaders is what should call to us, not the delusion that a single individual can save us from ourselves.
Stephen Holmes. 1995. Passions and Constraint: On the Theory of Liberal Democracy. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Machiavelli, N., 1988, The Prince, Q. Skinner and R. Price (eds.), Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
____________. The Discourses. Translated by Leslie J. Walker, S.J, revisions by Brian Richardson (2003). London: Penguin Books.
Robert Michels. 1911 (1915 trans). Political Parties: a Sociological Study of the Oligarchical Tendencies of Modern Democracy. University of Virginia Electronic Text Center.
Sydney Verba. 1961. Small Groups and Political Behavior: A Study of Leadership. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
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Written by David R. Weaver
David Weaver is Professor Emeritus of Political Science at Saginaw Valley State University. He received his Ph.D. from the University of Cincinnati in Political Science. His major areas of interest include foreign relations and political development, political thought and theory, and, primarily, leadership and democratic theory and practice.