The Political Philosophy of Niccolo Machiavelli (Machiavellian)June 27, 2021
Imagine you are a prince ruling a city-state like Florence or Naples in sixteenth-century Italy.
You have absolute power. When we give an order, it is obeyed unconditionally. If you want to put someone in jail for speaking out against you or suspecting that they are plotting to kill you, you can.
You also have military units that will do everything you say. But you are surrounded by ambitious rulers of other city-states who want to invade your city. How should you act in this situation? Should you be someone who is honest, keeps promises, always acts with compassion, and always thinks the best for people?
Niccolo Machiavelli thought that although we might want to look honest and good-looking, it wasn’t such a good idea. According to him, sometimes it’s better to lie, break promises, or even kill your enemies. A principal need not worry about keeping his promises. According to him, an effective prince must “learn how not to be good”. The most important thing is to stay in power and almost any way is permissible to do this.
It is not surprising that Machiavelli’s book “The Prince”, in which he describes all this, has become notorious since its publication in 1532. Some people called this book diabolical or at best a gangster guide, others said it was the most coherent account ever written of what really goes on in politics. Most contemporary politicians have read The Prince, but few admit it, so as not to make it clear that they apply the book’s principles in practice.
The Prince was written not for everyone, but only as a guide to those who came to power. Machiavelli wrote this book while living on a farm about 10 kilometers south of Florence. Sixteenth-century Italy was a very dangerous place. Machiavelli was born and raised in Florence. Appointed as a diplomat as a young man, Machiavelli met several kings, emperors and popes of the time during his travels in Europe. These leaders with whom Machiavelli met were not the ones who preoccupied his thoughts. The only ruler who truly impressed him was Pope VI, who blundered and killed his enemies while taking control of much of Italy. Alexander’s illegitimate son was the ruthless Cesare Borgia.
According to Machiavelli, Borgia had done everything right, but succumbed to bad luck. He fell ill when he was attacked. The ill-fated suitor also played a major role in Machiavelli’s life, and was also a subject on which Machiavelli thought a lot. When the immensely wealthy Medici family, who ruled Florence before Borgia, came back to power, they imprisoned Machiavelli for allegedly being part of their plan to overthrow them. Despite all the torture, Machiavelli survived and was later released. Some of his colleagues were executed at that time. However, since he did not confess anything, his punishment was exile. He could not return to the city to which he was attached to his heart, namely Florence. He also lost touch with the world of politics. In the country, he spent his evenings imagining talking to the great thinkers of the past. Machiavelli imagined these thinkers discussing with him the best way for a leader to hold power.
Machiavelli’s reason for writing The Prince was probably nothing more than an attempt to impress those in power and find employment as a political adviser. So he could go back to Florence, to the excitement and danger of real politics. But this plan did not work out as Machiavelli wished. It ultimately resulted in Machiavelli becoming a writer. Machiavelli was also a successful playwright, who wrote several other books on politics, like Prince; Machiavelli’s play Mandragola is still staged from time to time.
So what exactly did Machiavelli advise, and why did this advice surprise many of his readers? His main idea was that a prince should have what he called virtu. This word means “courage” or courage in Italian. So what does this mean? Machiavelli believed that success largely depends on good fortune. According to him, half of the events that happened to us were the result of luck and half the result of the choices we made. At the same time, he believed that success could be increased by acting boldly and quickly. We wouldn’t need to play the victim just because luck plays a big part in our lives. A river can keep flowing, which is something we cannot prevent, but if we have built dams and flood protectors, we have a better chance of surviving. In other words, a manager who makes all the preparations and seizes the opportunity will have a higher chance of success than a manager who does not.
Machiavelli did not base his philosophy on what actually happened.