A Critique of The Prince by Niccolo Machiavelli (Part II)

This entry is the second in a series of four entries. The first, posted on the 15th of November, was on a summary of the work. The present one examines his work with the view of affirming or challenging the basic premises made in the book. I hope you will like it and feel free to comment or start a discussion on the same.

I deduct four major issues that underpin Machiavelli’s thesis in the book. The first is his approach to the study of politics. If you have read the book, you must have noticed that his approach rife with the study of what is done by men (I use this term to generically to represent human beings, women included) rather than what men ought to do. This approach is referred to as political realism. Looking at the world not how it ought to be but how it is; looking at how men act not how they ought to act.

In this approach to political study, morals are often rendered immaterial. Morality provides the path upon which man ought to take to be ‘good’. But according to Machiavelli, few of human beings do accept this path to goodness and thus therein he finds justification to advice the prince to be ‘bad’ where necessity demands, which in his view is almost always. In other words he labours under the premise that human nature is in itself bad.

It sets the stage for his second premise which is the existence of a human nature. Hereunder, an assumption is made that all men irrespective of environment would act in a similar way. He further postulates that in their actions, men are selfish and self aggrandizing. One can only conclude that this human nature is inherent in men at birth i.e. we are born selfish and self aggrandizing.

This notion is opposed by those who believe that human nature is inherently good and those that posit that there is no such thing as human nature. Those that believe in the goodness of man (idealists) argue that the only reason why there is evil on earth is that men are not given the opportunity to exude goodness. For example whereas a man with no means would be ‘forced’ to steal to survive would in view of this theory be excusable, it cannot explain how one with so much would steal more of what he has.

Constructivists are a group of thinkers that doubt the existence of human nature at all. To them, what is fondly called human nature actually is a result of nurture. This means that men behave they way they do because of the social environment they are in. If one follows through this argument one would be tempted to conclude that the child of a thief would most likely become a thief. However this is not always the case.

In my view there there are immense benefits in studying the actions of men as they are rather than as they ought to be. Considering the imperfections of man, his tendency to seek after his own interests, a policy analyst ought to look at the track record of actors rather than predicate his policy options on the study of how they ought to behave.

Thirdly, there is an emphasis on the separation of politics and ethics. Niccolo urges the prince to focus only on the ends of his endevours irrespective of the means. Therefore he advises those that seek power though treachery and treason to use it even though he acknowledges that it brings no glory thereby. Thus inevitably, his political philosophy is one that clearly distinguishes morality and political actions; it looks at politics as goal driven, unbound by morals. Herein politics is represented as amoral.

His perspective is in direct conflict with those of Aristotle and company who espoused and espouse that the two are two sides of the same coin. That in politics there ought to be moral goals that are to be attained is a central message by Aristotle. However considering Machiavelli’s assumption on the evil nature of man, it would be foolhardy for a prince to think that the core of political goals is the furtherance of ethic rather than self interest. In my opinion ethical values are injected into political rhetoric to mask ambitions of grandeur and not necessarily that its promoters are slaves thereto.

Finally, Machiavelli heavily relies on use of force in advising a prince on how to hold on to power. According to him a prince ought to devote his time on nothing else than the study and practice of the art of war. One can easily see that would be a natural conclusion considering his views of the obstinate and recalcitrant nature of human beings. Machiavelli goes as far as to state that without good arms, good laws cannot exist. This means that laws alone cannot be useful in human affairs and that a considerable amount of force would need be used to cause obedience.

On this I say, he might be on to something. If laws were not backed by some kind of coercive force would they be obeyed? Think of the number of laws that states have that are often broken because they are not enforced. I also think of international law that is often broken by the powerful because there is no other powerful than they to cause the former’s compliance.

However, this tenet cannot be used to explain why movements such as those fomented by Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King were successful wherein their central theme was passive resistance. Wouldn’t it be unreasonable to expect that the use of force would bear results which we seek all the time? The two World Wars have exhibited how much can be lost using mere force and I am of the opinion that this portion of his work may not entirely represent the state of worldly affairs.

All in all, I think that his work still offers insight into the study of political phenomena. I think it is still useful to the policy analyst seeking to provide options to political actors. However it could be that I am wrong in my conclusion which would require you to set me straight.

One response to “A Critique of The Prince by Niccolo Machiavelli (Part II)

  1. i don’t think this review does justice to the prince. I believe the prince is a very practical piece of what. Machiavelli I would say is the most honest author there can ever be what he states are facts that ‘prince’ do but would shy away from stating their actions in black and white as Machiavelli does.
    Machiavelli is wrongfully categorized as amoral, read the piece of hatred, he insists that a wise prince would not build fortresses for himself because under a people who are driven by hatred, they will take arms against him and they will always be a foreign power willing to support such a people against the people. He insists on cultivating love by ones own people.
    on arms it is a fact that without a law enforcing capability, laws would not be followed. He also advices the prince to use his own army made up of purely his citizens. auxiliaries he says are an army under a foreign command and can turn against the prince like the Turks did after being called upon by Greece to help ward off their neighbors.
    On generosity he says its better the prince be miserly than being generous then increase taxes on people so as to maintain the culture of generosity. in the end a generous prince siphons his subjects wealth. a fact once again.
    Issue of ethics is misunderstood. Machiavelli is of the view that be ethical as long as it does not compromise the princedom. if it is going to make the prince lose his sate it is better to be unethical but know how to strike the balance so you do not get hated by your people in the long run.
    The prince is very practical, very honest those who castigate it in my opinion are just hypocrites. The guy is brave and a genius. lets give him the credit. By the way as a private citizen you can employ those tactics too very successfully. Remember it is better to be feared than loved, because those who love you will always expect something from you but those who fear you will be cautious and willing to find a good standing in your standing!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s