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Politics Involves The Combination

Politics involves the combination of art and science. The Prince by Niccolò Machiavelli outlines the various characteristics a sovereign or prince must have or actions he must carry out to earn or maintain power. The book was written while Machiavelli was in exile at the end of the renaissance era. This is significant because at that time an important transition was taking place: from a world of empires in which the dominant political unit was a city-state to the world in which the nation-state was stronger. Spain and France had come together to become the nations we know them as, unlike Italy which was in a decline. There was no hereditary monarchy to govern the country and no centralized government was in place. Each Italian city was like a little nation unto itself, ruled by oligarchic families who viciously killed off all competitors. Italy was tearing itself apart, and it couldn’t unify itself or defend the peninsula against aggressors. Machiavelli believed that there were different factors involved in achieving princedom including luck, manipulation, and intimidation.

Machiavelli “could not attribute to fortune or virtue that which is achieved without the other” ( Machiavelli 69). In terms of Fortune, Machiavelli outlines how people of his time “have had, and still have, the opinion that the affairs of the world are in such wise governed by fortune and by God that men with their wisdom cannot direct them and that no one can even help them” (Machiavelli 120). On the other hand, he not only believes that results are not totally out of our control, but also that our effort makes up half of the results. Machiavelli states his conviction that fortune is the arbiter of half the things we do, leaving the other half or so to be controlled by ourselves. This other half comprises of Virt. Virt is the human energy or action that stands in opposition to fortune. While Machiavelli’s use of the word does not remove the idea of moral excellence or virtuous behavior, he just gives it another view. Virt is drive, talent, or ability directed toward the achievement of certain goals, and it is the most vital quality for a prince. In Chapter VI, Machiavelli praises leaders like Cyrus, Romulus and Theseus and illustrates how these men rose to be sovereigns without a complete dependence on fortune. Such men faced initial difficulties establishing their governance but once they do, they attain security with ease. However, Machiavelli also acknowledges the part fortune played in bringing these men the opportunity to make use of their ‘powers of mind’. Romulus would not have become the King of Rome if he had not remained in Alba and been abandoned at birth. It was necessary for Cyrus to find the Persian people discontented with the government of the Medes. Also, Theseys could not have shown his skill had he not found the Athenians dispersed. Thus, virt without opportunity or fortune to use it is wasted, while opportunity (fortune) is wasted without virt.

He also examined virtue in terms of goodness. He considers virtue a divine combination of positive qualities which are to be admired by others. The prince should appear kind and virtuous but should not actually be it, because acting virtuously for virtue’s sake can prove detrimental to the principality. He writes “for a man who wishes to act entirely up to his professions of virtue soon meets with what destroys him among so much that is evil. Hence it is necessary for a prince wishing to hold his own to know how to do wrong, and to make use of it or not according to necessity” ( Machiavelli 71).

A Prince should maintain a virtuous façade in relation to the public, for this reason, a Prince should not allow many to enter his inner circle. His motives must be concealed behind a pure, virtuous image, but he should not shy from using cruelty when need be. Machiavelli states that “Men judge generally more by their eyes rather than their hands; for everyone is in a position to watch, few are in a position to come in close touch with you. Everyone sees what you appear to be, few experience what you really are” (Machiavelli 18). To uphold the illusion of virtue the prince or sovereign should reduce the number of people who are close to him and see behind the veil of virtue because the higher the number of people who see beneath the illusion the more fragile it is. Machiavelli sees politics as an art of illusion. Despite all the benefits of the illusion of virtue, Machiavelli underscores the fact that it has no part to play when acting on behalf of the state. He writes, “Only the expenditure of one’s own resources is harmful; and, indeed, nothing feeds upon itself as liberality does. The more it is indulged, the fewer are the means to indulge it further. As a consequence, a prince becomes poor and contemptible or, to escape poverty, becomes rapacious and hateful. Of all the things he must guard against, hatred and contempt come first, and liberality leads to both. Therefore it is better to have a name for miserliness, which breeds disgrace without hatred, than, in pursuing a name for liberality, to resort to rapacity, which breeds both disgrace and hatred.” (Machiavelli 76).

​While it is desirable for a prince to act virtuously when he can, he should never let perceptions of virtue interfere with statecraft. Even though generosity seems admirable, it is ultimately detrimental to the state, and therefore should be avoided. A prince will never be hated for lack of virtue, he will be hated only if he fails in his duty to maintain the state.

Machiavelli asks the question whether it is better to be loved or hated. He writes,

“Here a question arises: whether it is better to be loved than feared, or feared rather than loved. The answer is, of course, that it would be best to be both loved and feared. But since the two rarely come together, anyone compelled to choose will find greater security in being feared than in being loved. . . . Love endures by a bond which men, being scoundrels, may break whenever it serves their advantage to do so; but fear is supported by the dread of pain, which is ever present” (Machiavelli 79).

Understanding the meaning beneath the sentences above — some of Machiavelli’s most famous words would expose the logical argument contained within and not just the tyrannical guidelines it has been thought to be. In the first place, people will become disloyal if circumstances warrant. In the second, the prince’s main goal is to maintain the state, which requires the obedience of the people. From these two points, it follows that between benevolence and cruelty, the latter is the more reliable. Machiavelli never advocates the use of cruelty for its own sake, only in the interests of the ultimate end of statecraft.

Machiavelli viewed ideology as a political tool in the hand of the sovereign or prince, to be used to control or manipulate the masses. The prince should use ideology to bring the people together and define the enemy. Politics is about determining who your enemy is. The more specific the enemy, the less effective your politics. So the enemy should be broad enough to not limit the sovereign’s reach but also still specific enough to fit into the ideology used on the people. This was exemplified in the Soviet Union under Joseph Stalin, the enemy was ever changing, so Stalin was able to use it as a tool to remove any group opposing him. To Machiavelli, ideology is particularly effective because the people are constantly looking for something to believe in. He writes, “he who seeks to be deceived will always find someone who will allow himself to be deceived” (Machiavelli 84). But it is essential that the sovereign does not buy into his own ideology, as an ideology is not there for the ruler but for the masses.

Human nature is a big theme in Machiavelli’s The Prince and he views it in terms of fickleness. He sees people as easily changeable depending on the situation they find themselves in and the sovereign should act in accordance with that or in response to that. He states, “ People are by nature changeable. It is easy to persuade them about some particular matter, but it is hard to hold them to that persuasion. Hence it is necessary to provide that when they no longer believe, they can be forced to believe”. Machiavelli explains that there are a number of traits which are inherent to human nature. People are generally only interested in themselves, although their affection for others can be won and lost. They are content and happy so long they are not victims of something terrible. They may be trusted in times of prosperity, but they will quickly turn selfish, deceitful, and profit-driven in times of adversity. People admire good qualities like honor, generosity, and courage in others, but most of them do not have or exhibit these virtues themselves. Ambition is commonly found among those who have achieved some kind of power, but most people are satisfied with the status quo and therefore do not yearn for increased or heightened status. People will naturally feel a sense of obligation after they receive a favor or service, and this bond is usually not easily broken. Nevertheless, loyalties are won and lost, and goodwill is never absolute.

​In conclusion, Machiavelli viewed politics as an art vital to the achievement and maintenance of power or “princedom”. He believed the sovereign should use the different tools of illusion, manipulation, persuasion, intimidation and deception to maintain his position as sovereign and to keep the state united and powerful.

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I’m a freelance writer with a bachelor’s degree in Journalism from Boston University. My work has been featured in publications like the L.A. Times, U.S. News and World Report, Farther Finance, Teen Vogue, Grammarly, The Startup, Mashable, Insider, Forbes, Writer (formerly Qordoba), MarketWatch, CNBC, and USA Today, among others.

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