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.
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?