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The first great political philosopher of the Renaissance was Nicolo Machiavelli
(1469-1527). His famous treatise, The Prince, stands apart from all other political
writings of the period insofar as it focus on the practical problems a monarch
faces in staying in power, rather than more speculative issues explaining the
foundation of political authority. As such, it is an expression of realpolitik,
that is, governmental policy based on retaining power rather than pursuing ideals.
Table of Contents (Clicking on the links below will take you to that part of this article)
Machiavelli was born in Florence, Italy at a time when the country was in political
upheaval . Italy was divided between four dominant city-states, and each of
these was continually at the mercy of the stronger foreign governments of Europe.
Since 1434 Florence was ruled by the wealthy Medici family. Their rule was temporarily
interrupted by a reform movement, begun in 1494, in which the young Machiavelli
became an important diplomat. When the Medici family regained power in 1512
with the help of Spanish troops, Machiavelli was tortured and removed from public
life. For the next 10 years he devoted himself to writing history, political
philosophy, and even plays. He ultimately gained favor with the Medici family
and was called back to public duty for the last two years of his life. Machiavelli's
greatest work is The Prince, written in 1513 and published after his death in
1532. The work immediately provoked controversy and was soon condemned by Pope
Clement VIII. Its main theme is that princes should retain absolute control
of their territories, and they should use any means of expediency to accomplish
this end, including deceit. Scholars struggle over interpreting Machiavelli's
precise point. In several section Machiavelli praises Caesar Borgia, a Spanish
aristocrat who became a notorious and much despised tyrant of the Romagna region
of northern Italy. During Machiavelli's early years as a diplomat, he was in
contact with Borgia and witnessed Borgia's rule first hand. Does Machiavelli
hold up Borgia as the model prince? Some readers initially saw The Prince as
a satire on absolute rulers such as Borgia, which showed the repugnance of arbitrary
power (thereby implying the importance of liberty). However, this theory fell
apart when, in 1810, a letter by Machiavelli was discovered in which he reveals
that he wrote The Prince to endear himself to the ruling Medici family in Florence.
To liberate Italy from the influence of foreign governments, Machiavelli explains
that strong indigenous governments are important, even if they are absolutist.
Machiavelli opens The Prince describing the two principal types of governments:
monarchies and republics. His focus in The Prince is on monarchies. The most
controversial aspects of Machiavelli's analysis emerge in the middle chapters
of his work. In Chapter 15 he proposes to describe the truth about surviving
as a monarch, rather than recommending lofty moral ideals. He describes those
virtues which, on face value, we think a prince should possess. He concludes
that some "virtues" will lead to a prince's destruction, whereas some "vices"
allow him to survive. Indeed, the virtues which we commonly praise in people
might lead to his downfall. In chapter 16 he notes that we commonly think that
it is best for a prince to have a reputation of being generous. However, if
his generosity is done in secret, no one will know about it and he will be thought
to be greedy. If it is done openly, then he risks going broke to maintain his
reputation. He will then extort more money from his subjects and thus be hated.
For Machiavelli, it is best for a prince to have a reputation for being stingy.
Machiavelli anticipates examples one might give of generous monarchs who have
been successful. He concludes that generosity should only be shown to soldiers
with goods taken from a pillaged enemy city. In Chapter 17 he argues that it
is better for a prince to be severe when punishing people rather than merciful.
Severity through death sentences affects only a few, but it deters crimes which
affects many. Further, he argues, it is better to be feared than to be loved.
However, the prince should avoid being hated, which he can easily accomplish
by not confiscating the property of his subjects: "people more quickly forget
the death of their father than the loss of their inheritance." In Chapter 18,
perhaps the most controversial section of The Prince, Machiavelli argues that
the prince should know how to be deceitful when it suits his purpose. When the
prince needs to be deceitful, though, he must not appear that way. Indeed he
must always exhibit five virtues in particular: mercy, honesty, humaneness,
uprightness, and religiousness. In Chapter 19 Machiavelli argues that the prince
must avoid doing things which will cause him to be hated. This is accomplished
by not confiscating property, and not appearing greedy or wishy-washy. In fact,
the best way to avoid being overthrown is to avoid being hated.
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