A few months back, I finished reading Machiavelli’s “The Prince” and was just dumbstruck by his brilliance in capturing the essence of the reality of politics. It is a short book intended to educate the ruler to whom it was originally dedicated. However, the book was discarded by the ruler, and Machiavelli’s name soon became a by-word for evil because of some of his “immoralistic” arguments. Agreed, some of his solutions would be considered “politically incorrect” in today’s world, but they are nevertheless highly valid since he derives all his conclusions from history. For example, Machiavelli says that the best way of holding on to a newly conquered republic is by razing it to the ground and relocating its population to different parts of the province. Of course, we would now abhor such an idea, but it is a very practical piece of advice which has been followed for centuries by leaders like Scipio, Alexander the Great, Julius Caesar, Attila the Hun, etc. In fact, Machiavelli even mentions that since this policy entails a lot of work, a republic should best be left alone.
Instead of labeling his book as “immoral”, I would prefer “amoral”, i.e. transcending traditional morality. Politics and morality do not mix well because politics has its own ethics which may be antithetical to existing notions of morality. Traditional morality tells us that honesty is a virtue, whereas deceit is evil. However, no political leader can retain his power or increase it by being honest. Deceit is as important to a politician as a gun is to a soldier. Hence, when Machiavelli uses the word “virtù”, it is not the traditional virtue that he is talking of. Rather, he is referring to the political acumen of a leader that would enable him to increase his power and prestige as well as ensure that his province is prosperous and the people, free and content. In a particular chapter, Machiavelli discusses the proper and improper use of cruelty. Now this may seem weird. How can cruelty be well-used? According to Machiavelli, if cruelty helps in consolidating the power of a leader and fostering unity in the state, it is well-used.
I would argue that Machiavelli follows a morality which is based on the effects of the consequences of the action rather than on the intention of the action. A murder is not wrong in itself, but if it leads to good consequences, then the murder is actually good. Therefore, a leader must go beyond traditional norms of morality and must be amoral in order to succeed. I thus regard Machiavelli as a forerunner to Nietzsche, who advocated going “beyond good and evil” in order to rise above society and mold it.
I’m reading “The Discourses” now, and I find it equally interesting. However, since only the old translations are available, it is a very difficult read. The arcane grammatical structures and sometimes even distortions in the translation make it very frustrating. However, the central ideas are highly fascinating. Machiavelli recognizes six forms of government (which are basically borrowed from Aristotle) –
Monarchy – a virtuous rule by one man
Tyranny – a corrupted monarchy leading to a loss of freedoms
Aristocracy – a virtuous rule by the upper classes
Oligarchy – a corrupted aristocracy leading to oppression
Democracy – a virtuous rule by the masses
Anarchy – a corrupted democracy leading to a destruction of the state
The history of governments is a recurrent cycle which consists of all six forms. Initially, one powerful ruler governs the entire country. Then as power corrupts the institution, the upper classes rebel and establish an aristocracy. But as power corrupts them as well, the masses rebel and establish a democracy. However, democracy descends into anarchy, and one man arises who concentrates all power in himself again. And thus, the cycle continues.
In order to prevent this instability, Machiavelli favors a government that incorporates a monarchy, aristocracy and a democracy. He points to the laws of the ancient Roman Republic for inspiration. He calls for a state which would have a strong executive kept in check by the aristocracy, whose power is checked by the representatives of the people, who are in turn checked by the executive. Thus, the original US Constitution provided for the best form of government – a strong President, a Senate and a House of Representatives. However, a government can function well only if the people are moral and industrious. That, however, doesn’t seem to be the case as money has completely corrupted society. This too has been discussed in “The Discourses”, and Machiavelli would probably give the solutions to this problem later on as I read further.
For those who are interested in politics, and especially students of political science, Machiavelli is indispensible. His accurate observations with regards to human nature, study of history and the realistic appraisal of actions by different leaders is simply without parallel.