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Mon. October 14, 2019
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Machiavelli’s Immorality: Deeper Looks
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Often in reading Niccolò Machiavelli’s (1532/1964) Prince, I have found myself appalled. In those moments, I have asked myself how anyone could say such a thing and why I should continue to read that man’s book.

Why should one study Machiavelli or The Prince? Perhaps one reason is that his work The Prince has been and is still a very popular, controversial, and seemingly influential book.

How should one evaluate Machiavelli? Perhaps the best starting point for an assessment of the man would be the book that seems to have made him infamous, The Prince.

One can estimate a person’s morality or immorality by assessing his or her intent, words, actions, and effects.

 

In The Prince, Machiavelli (1532/1964) typically seems to have encouraged the prince–monarch to act selfishly, badly, and immorally.

Machiavelli (1532/1964, pp. 11, 13) seems to have repeatedly encouraged the prince to perform harmful acts, and those acts include such very harmful ones as despoiling, dispersing, and murder.

More—in terms of classic Western philosophy (Plato, ~375 B.C./1968, pp. 16, 20–21; Xenophon, ~385 B.C./1979, p. 221)—by seeming to have encouraged the prince to act selfishly as a monarch, Machiavelli (1532/1964, pp. 45, 145) seems to have promoted the great injustice of tyranny.

Therefore, by normal and traditional Western standards of morality (Plato, ~375 B.C./1968; Xenophon, ~385 B.C./1979), Machiavelli himself seems to have been extremely selfish, unjust, bad, and therefore immoral.

Yet, Machiavelli (1532/1964, p. 157) recommended that the ambitious prince give up power to the nobles–aristocrats and the subjects–people through representative institutions of republics–democracies, thereby encouraging the prince to be very unselfish, just, good, and moral. In making such a risky recommendation to an ambitious prince, Machiavelli himself seems to have been very unselfish, just, good, and moral.

Thus, Machiavelli seems to have been both extremely immoral and very moral. The inconsistency is so great that it is questionable and might be merely or partly superficial.

 

Despite The Prince’s general tone of immorality, Machiavelli (1532/1964, pp. 3, 75, 131) often communicated in terms such as “good,” “bad,” “justice,” and “virtue” as normal people do.

Also, Machiavelli (1532/1964, pp. 127, 137, 149) suggested the effective as the good.

Similarly, Socrates, who perhaps was and still is the West’s most unselfish and thereby respected philosopher, recommended the useful as the good (Xenophon, ~385 B.C./1979, p. 221).

 

Machiavelli (1532/1964, pp. 1–3, 157) was somewhat similar to Socrates in other ways (deGrazia, 2004, pp. 9–14).

Machiavelli’s (1532/1964, pp. 17–19, 20–23) philosophy was similar to Socrates’ philosophy in other ways (deGrazia, 2004, pp. 14–30).

Often Machiavelli (1532/1964, pp. 17–23, 29, 41) suggested to the prince some universally prudent or wise behavior and recommended prudence and wisdom to him fairly explicitly.

More, Machiavelli (1532/1964, pp. 15–17, 25, 55–57) frequently and thoroughly indicated the importance of moderation.

Further, Machiavelli (1532/1964, pp. 60–63, 69–71, 145) encouraged the prince to be courageous.

Therefore, Machiavelli encouraged the prince to have at least three of the four virtues that Socrates recommended in Plato’s (~375 B.C./1968, p. 105) Republic, the single work that seems most indicative of Socrates’ philosophy.

 

Further, Machiavelli (1532/1964, p. 147) sketched the human individual’s best nature as partly human, partly lion, and partly fox.

And thus, Machiavelli implied that the best human individual is partly rational, partly irrational, and partly something in between that moderates the rest and the whole.

Socrates did too (Plato, ~375 B.C./1968, pp. 118–123).

In these basic terms, the critical difference between Machiavelli and Socrates seems to be that Socrates showed that normally in behavior from a person in a superior position to one in a corresponding inferior position, only primarily unselfish behavior is just, good, and moral (Plato, ~375 B.C./1968, pp. 20–21).

In contrast, Machiavelli typically seems to have encouraged the person in The Prince (1532/1964, pp. 11, 13) who was in the most superior position, the prince, to act towards the people in the most inferior position, his subjects, very selfishly and therefore tyrannically, unjustly, badly, and immorally.

Therefore, Machiavelli seems to have greatly discouraged the prince from having Socrates’ fourth virtue in The Republic (Plato, ~375 B.C./1968, p. 105), justice.

Thus, unlike Socrates, Machiavelli seems to have encouraged the ruler to be extremely selfish, tyrannical, unjust, bad, and immoral.

 

Yet, Machiavelli (1532/1964, p. 191) wrote texts that are not those of an evil person (deGrazia, 2004, pp. 34–35).

Further, often in recommending behavior by its benefits to the prince, Machiavelli (1532/1964, pp. 74–75, 151) also indicated its benefits to the people.

Further, in writing The Prince, Machiavelli used words to explicitly convey ideas to the prince that no one in Machiavelli’s position with his intelligence and with his knowledge and comprehension of history who was being either purely or primarily selfish would try to convey to his prince–monarch.

Thus, for example, Machiavelli (1532/1964, pp. 78–79) praised the subjects–people and criticized the nobles–aristocrats negatively.

Because the prince and his family were roughly nobles–aristocrats, Machiavelli thus wrote words to the prince that were likely to offend him, that might hurt the prince’s reputation, that were against his direct benefit, and that thereby risked his disapproval and hostility, and thus Machiavelli wrote against his own direct benefit.

In other ways too, Machiavelli (1532/1964, p. 155) wrote words to the prince that were similarly clearly risky and therefore unselfish.

 

In addition, much or all of Machiavelli’s seemingly most selfish and immoral words in The Prince (1532/1964, pp. 11, 13, 15) were and are significantly and perhaps fully (a) ambiguous or (b) undone (deGrazia, 2004, pp. 36–70) by other words in The Prince.

Machiavelli’s words in The Prince (1532/1964) might seem to have encouraged and to still encourage the murder of countless people and the conquering, tyrannizing, or destruction of many states and their peoples. Yet, with a predictably high risk to Machiavelli (1532/1964, pp. 5, 7, 9, 37–39), those words might ultimately discourage such misbehavior (deGrazia, 2004, pp. 70–75).

Further, Machiavelli (1532/1964, pp. 8–9, 160–161) discouraged the prince from being a prince at all (deGrazia, 2004, pp. 75–77).

At the same time, Machiavelli seems to have subtly encouraged the prince to change from an immoral prince to a moral one (deGrazia, 2004, pp. 77–78).

Further, despite the general pretext of benefiting simply the prince, his position as prince–monarch, and his principality–monarchy, Machiavelli (1532/1964, pp. 37–39) riskily indicated that the republic–democracy as a form of government was and is significantly superior to the principality–monarchy (deGrazia, 2004, p. 78).

More, Machiavelli (1532/1964, pp. 154–155, 157) recommended that the prince give up power to the nobles–aristocrats and the subjects–people through their respective separate representative institutions of republics–democracies.

Thus, Machiavelli was riskily encouraging great unselfishness, justice, good, and morality in the ambitious prince, in moving his monarchy and potential tyranny and his subjects toward and perhaps into being respectively a strongly constitutional republic and its free citizens.

Therefore, Machiavelli was encouraging the prince to be very just. Therefore, Machiavelli encouraged the prince to have all four of the virtues that Socrates recommended in The Republic (Plato, ~375 B.C./1968, p. 105). Thus, Machiavelli encouraged the prince to be very unselfish, courageous, prudent–wise, moderate, just, virtuous, good, and moral.

Thus, in riskily writing The Prince, Machiavelli (1532/1964) himself seems to have been being very unselfish, courageous, prudent–wise, moderate, just, virtuous, good, and moral.

 

Machiavelli’s words might have many other beneficial effects such as the following.

Machiavelli’s (1532/1964, p. 203) words seem to encourage readers to rely on their own minds in searching for morality, ethics, and anything else.

Also, thus, Machiavelli seems to have encouraged the humanism that has helped mankind out of the Dark Ages and into relative enlightenment.

Further, Machiavelli (1532/1964, pp. 8–9) seems to show readers the critical role of necessity in the formation and application of actual moralities–ethics.

More, Machiavelli (1532/1964, pp. 74–75) seems to have sketched for readers how the human individual can and does develop his or her own beneficial morality from selfish but prudent–wise consideration of his or her own needs, uses, and purposes.

Machiavelli seems to have sketched the natural rise of selfishness toward and sometimes to altruism.

Also, thus, Machiavelli (1532/1964, Chapters VII, VIII, XIX) seems to have sketched a path from extreme selfishness to extreme altruism and then back to an upper-middle moderate ground of some selfishness and much altruism.

Further, Machiavelli seems to have shown people the real nature of excessively ambitious persons, of monarchs, and of potential and real tyrants.

More, Machiavelli seems to have encouraged the development and preservation of representative institutions and strongly constitutional republics–democracies, thereby possibly contributing to the formation of the United States (deGrazia, 2004, p. 83).

Also, Machiavelli seems to have sketched for the nontyrant–reader how to turn a potential or real tyrant into a classic statesman (deGrazia, 2004, pp. 83–84; Plato, ~375 B.C./1968, Book I).

Further, thus, Machiavelli seems to have sketched for the nontyrant–reader how to turn a potential or real tyranny into a strongly constitutional republic–democracy.

The historical context of Machiavelli’s (1532/1964, p. 157) Prince seems to indicate that in so doing, Machiavelli was sketching how to turn a political state of nature that is dominated by the rule of men over law into a natural political state guided by the rule of law over men (deGrazia, 2004, p. 84).

Thus, Machiavelli (1532/1964) seems to have moved the potentiality—and perhaps to an extent the reality—of the readers of The Prince, including the prince himself, and those affected by them from extremely selfish and unjust intent, words, actions, and effects toward and perhaps even to very altruistic and just ones, turning bad toward and perhaps even into good, and largely, and perhaps on the whole, seeming to be very unselfish, just, good, and moral.

 

Often in reading Machiavelli’s (1532/1964) Prince, I have been appalled. Much of what he wrote or seems to have encouraged I cannot approve. Accordingly, a first glance in terms of traditional and normal Western standards suggests that Machiavelli was extremely immoral.

The influence of Machiavelli’s (1532/1964) Prince indicates the importance of understanding it and the author significantly. My second glance yielded enough inconsistencies to indicate the value of a third and deeper look.

To understand Machiavelli’s (1532/1964) immorality fairly and deeply, I made a third look (deGrazia, 2004), primarily by the foregoing considerations of his particular intents, words, actions, and effects in writing The Prince, largely in terms of classic Western philosophy (Plato, ~375 B.C./1968; Xenophon, ~385 B.C./1979).

The third look suggested that on the whole, Machiavelli (1532/1964) seems not only extremely immoral but also much less immoral and much more moral than his extremely negative reputation has implied. Further, in the context of The Prince and perhaps in general, Machiavelli seems to have been very immoral–moral.

Therefore, Machiavelli’s immorality is deeply and extremely ambiguous.

 

References

deGrazia, C. J. (2004). The immorality of Machiavelli—How to tame the lion? (Unpublished master’s thesis). University of Chicago. http://i12c.website

Machiavelli, N. (1964). The prince (M. Musa, Trans.). New York: St Martin’s Press. (Original work was written about 1513 and published in 1532).

Plato. (1968). The republic of Plato (A. Bloom, Trans.). New York: Basic Books. (Original work was published about 375 B.C.).

Xenophon. (1979). Memorabilia. In Xenophon in seven volumes: Vol. IV. Memorabilia and Oeconomicus; Symposium and Apology (E. C. Marchant, Trans.; pp. 1–359). Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. (Original work was published about 385 B.C.).

 

C. J. deGrazia earned from the University of Chicago an M.A. in the social sciences, concentrating on the history and literature of political philosophy. He has been an editor, researcher, and writer for over a decade. For a fuller version of his evaluation of Machiavelli’s immorality, please visit http://i12c.website.

 

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