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Machiavelli’s Ethics

Machiavelli’s Ethics

Thursday, 12 January, 2023 - 05:30

Was Niccolo Machiavelli ethical?  

The Italian philosopher has long been reduced to the phrase “the end justifies the means,” which implies an opportunism that is disengaged from ethics.   

Nevertheless, this reductionism did not deter some from replying “yes:” he was ethical. Their implicit point is that he served the idea of “progress” and the centered of the human being, which his era, the Renaissance, promoted. 

The man credited with establishing “political science,” especially through his small book “The Prince” (90 pages), which put forward a program of governance based on a philosophy of human nature, and distinguished political ethics from religious and metaphysical ethics.  

He did not believe in restrictions imposed by metaphysical criteria, as there is no ultimate good (Summum Bonum) that transcends human beings. What matters to him is that the goal is achieved, and intentions are judged on the basis of deeds and results.  

Moreover, his Italy, that of the 16th century, was composed of independent and isolated city-states that were often in conflict and vulnerable to French and Spanish aggressions. Because weakness hinders the attainment of “glory,” the prince must unite these city-states. And so, the ruler of Florence should invade another city-state, and this cycle continues until the country is united and the Roman Empire is revived. He concluded his book by calling on the Medici rulers of Florence to unite these city-states and liberate them “from the barbarians.”   

Those who claim he adhered to no ethics found that his philosophy glorified power and maintaining it, as well as elevating ruthlessness and deception - when they serve the end - into a principle. He flips values on their head and imbues their assessment with functionality and utilitarianism: what we had thought to be good becomes evil and vice versa. Circumstances dictate.   

“The Prince” argues that striking fear is the best weapon for a ruler. Indeed, it is good if the prince is loved, but fear is more reliable for maintaining his principality. If there was a choice between being feared or loved, the former is preferable. As for lying and not fulfilling promises, they are commendable whenever they are useful.  

Cesare Borgia, the mercenary soldier and illegitimate son of Pope Alexander VI, is his model politician. Cesare killed his older brother, whom his father had chosen for politics.  

He once sent his aide to impose his authority on an insurgent region after having instructed the aide to terrorize the population until they surrendered. However, Borgia then dismembered the body of his envoy after the task had been accomplished. He thus, struck fear in the population with both actions; however, Borgia was no longer the object of their hatred, as it now targeted the envoy who had carried out his orders and was then punished alone.  

What matters is that the ruler is feared without being hated, as being hated leaves him in danger of being overthrown and removed. Borgia, who was deceitful and vicious, ensured the perpetuation of his rule for himself and peace and prosperity for his subjects. And so, per Machiavelli’s norms, he was a virtuous leader.  

He advocated this style of governance because we live in a jungle - an ugly universe without ethics. He wanted to liberate us from what he saw as juvenility and our sense of guilt about this world. These sentiments are untenable so long as human nature itself is bad and volatile, operating like nature, where the strong devour the weak. If practical considerations dictate that we present an ascetic and austere image, then there is no harm in doing so, provided that we are ascetic and austere deep down. 

Since Machiavelli talked about life “as it is,” not “as it is imagined to be,” and because people generally are bad, monsters even, values must be adapted to this fact and not assessed in abstractly and absolutely. They are not important in themselves. Rather, their significance stems from their impact on power and its political project.   

It is true that generosity is better than stinginess, but if the generosity of the ruler leaves him burdening the population with excessive taxation, exposing him to the specter of being hated and overthrown, then stinginess that relieves him of the need to impose taxes becomes generosity.  

Louis XII was accused of being stingy, but he fought all his wars without imposing taxes, and that renders him generous. Fulfilling a promise is better than breaking it, but certain circumstances demand that promises be broken.  

Pope Alexander VI did not fulfill any of his promises, but he was extremely successful. Mercy is better than cruelty in principle. However, when the Florentines, because of their keenness on appearing merciful, refused to intervene to suppress an uprising in neighboring Pissoya, the town was destroyed. Thus cruelty, under such circumstances, is more merciful than mercy.  

Good, in principle, is better than evil, but rulers must be adept at committing evil when necessary. And when the ruler does this, he should also manage to present an image of a sympathetic, honest, and gentle figure, thereby fooling those only impressed by appearances and outcomes. He must also appear decisive in making decisions and implementing them, avoid those who praise him, and prepare for the storm when the sea appears calm. That way, nothing is left to chance and fate. 

Good rulers learn from two monsters, the fox and the lion: the former because he uncovers traps and utilizes his intelligence to survive, and the latter because he uses his strength and bravery to fight and frighten the fox. As for those who only and always behave like lions, they are “stupid.”   

It is true that Machiavelli’s book liberated political theory from abiding by metaphysical restrictions, be it Plato’s “form of the good” or Christianity. Driven by his distrust of humanity, he relieved us from yielding to the dictates of this reference. However, by doing so, he negated all criteria for what constitutes ethical behavior, and instead of going beyond Platonism and Christianity, he reverted to the sophistical position in which power and satisfying human desires are ends in themselves.  

For this reason, Roman paganism was the religion Machiavelli admired. It served the state and its army, and he admired ancient Rome and its history, as such leaders were found in abundance. Indeed, “virtue” (virtu in Italian, in which the term has broader connotations than “virtue” in other languages, encompassing justice, mercy, generosity, and attainment of glory) is found in epic heroes whose only motivation is obtaining victory.   

Machiavelli thus takes us from an old social system to raw nature, treating us like we are governed purely by our instincts, with no superego to restrict them.   

And this, in its entirety, is an ingenious recipe for despotism that left his book in the constant company of Hitler and Stalin.  

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