Machiavelli’s, The Prince, is spellbinding because through it he appears to convert ordinary life from a moral battle that is mired in guilt and controlled by a higher power, into an ordinary (albeit well structured) game. In our assigned textbook, Isaiah Berlin, when interpreting Machiavelli (Adams 206-235), pushes for a higher purpose on this game: the good of the state. However, in the same text, Ernst Cassirer demonstrates that the game is purely for the good of the ruler (Adams 155-169). My interpretation of Machiavelli and the focus of this paper is that Machiavelli seems to have a two-part morality in which the princes act for their own good in a world where other men are bound by traditional morality. The latter are not wholly subjected to the former, however; because they comprise the majority, the prince cannot risk incurring the people’s wrath.
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My argument is in alignment with the notion put forth by Friedrich Nietzsche (Adams 251-255) in the same text. As per Berlin, Machiavelli’s morality primarily references society and not the individual; it is an extension of the Greek concept of polis–that from mankind’s own communal purposes are derived the other values and principles (such as ethics) (Adams 213). Berlin states that the “ communal purpose” (as per Machiavelli) is about achieving the ultimate goal: winning “ the game of skill” (Adams 214) through whatever means necessary. Berlin believes that for Machiavelli to accept-and even promote-the use of force by rulers as a means to the end, is a result of his belief that force is the only way to achieve the moral end proper to man; in order for the ideal of a perfect patria to be achieved, the ruler must be a physician, ready to burn, cauterize, and amputate (Adams 218) anything that may cause the state to weaken. If the sole goal of society is to promote the welfare of the patria, the sacrifice of a few individuals for the sake of the community is not only necessary, but also justified and “ normal” (Adams 224). Machiavellian morality conflicts with the commonly accepted set of values, the Platonic-Hebraic-Christian view.
Christian morality, as described by Berlin, is, “ where the source and criterion of value are the word of God, or eternal reason, or some inner sense or knowledge of good and evil, right and wrong, voices which speak directly to the individual conscience with absolute authority” (Adams 213). Machiavelli’s rejection of this set of values stems from its basis on the concept of an existing “ good and evil”; he rejects this concept, Berlin argues, not as being flawed in theory, but as inapplicable to the conditions of reality-of crime, brutality and generally despicable acts that are the result of human nature (Adams 216). Although Berlin correctly comprehends the need for force in politics, he does not understand all its limitations. Machiavelli states that in deciding when to use brutality and force, the prince must always consider the overall, and more importantly, the immediate effects of his actions on the people. He restates again and again the importance of not being hated by the people-if the citizens don’t support the prince, what is the basis of his power? Even though sacrifices must be made for the overall good of society (according to Berlin), if the prince’s actions are too harsh and do not cause any direct benefits for the people, the people will hate the prince.
Machiavelli uses Antonius Caracalla as an example of this: He was a man of great talents, well suited to make him admirable in the eyes of the people and popular with soldiers…But his cruelty was so ferocious, so unheard-of..
. that he became hateful to everyone, and even his intimate associates began to fear him-so that he was finally murdered by a centurion in the middle of his army. (Adams 55) Point of note here is that Machiavelli does not consider Caracalla’s mistake to be the use of force, but rather that he went too far in his brutality: he harmed his personal servants and his close associates for no need (Adams 55). The unnecessary cruelty to those close to him turned friends into enemies, and support into hate. This hate was his death, both literally and figuratively. Aligned with Berlin, Cassirer also describes Machiavellian politics as a game; Cassirer makes the claim that Machiavelli views politics as a game of chess, a game played to win.
However, unlike Berlin, Cassirer believes that Machiavelli wrote The Prince with a tremendous analytical mindset, and that Machiavelli’s advice is devoid of morality altogether; “ To speak in terms of Spinoza he speaks of these things [violence and force] as if they were lines, planes, or solids” (Adams 158). This is not because Machiavelli does not believe in the existence of morality, but because he could find no use for it when analyzing his own experience with the problems of politics (Adams 158). Throughout his essay, Cassirer constantly criticizes Machiavelli for his advocacy for the inhumane treatment of the citizens, claiming that life is not a chess game, but then hypocritically condones the use of force based on the unreliability of human nature. Cassirer’s analogy of Machiavellian politics to a game of chess is astutely accurate.
In chess, the object of the game is to win-and the only way to win is to check mate; the number of pieces remaining is of no importance in determining the victor. Sacrifices can and should be made if the loss of those pieces eventually helps win the game. Machiavelli’s advice to a prince is comparable to this, Cassirer posits, because the dishonesty, perfidy, and callousness is a means to an end…
winning the game (Adams 157). Cassirer’s argument that The Prince is not based on morality stems from the parallel of ruler and chess player. One of his first contentions states that although the state and the sovereign may be legibus solutus (released from the laws), “ this only meant that they were free from legal coercion; it did not mean that they were exempt from moral obligation” (Adams 156). With the mention of “ moral obligation” Cassirer introduces the concept of guilt-an internal sense that an action is wrong, that Machiavelli’s ruler does not appear to possess.
Cassirer continues arguing that the ruler has no morals when he writes: It is true that men, in general, seldom know how to be wholly good or wholly bad. Yet it us precisely this point in which the real politician, the great statesman, differs from the average man. He will not shrink from such crimes as are stamped with an inherent greatness. (Adams 159) The last line of this quote expresses Cassirer’s interpretation of what Machiavelli’s intent for the prince to be-to achieve greatness and power, with no thought for the welfare of the state. From this understanding, Cassirer criticizes Machiavelli’s theory, because he believes that Machiavelli “ is apt to forget that the political game is not played with chessmen, but with real men, with human beings of flesh and blood” (Adams 158).
However, I believe Machiavelli does take this into account, and his political advice promotes the welfare of the state. Cassirer’s analogy of a chess game, while being correct in some respects, does not entirely represent Machiavelli’s ruler. In comparison with Machiavelli’s own analogy of the fox and the lion, Cassirer’s metaphor encapsulates only half of the qualities of the prince. Machiavelli’s ruler is a mixture between man and beast-possessing both the morality of humans, the cunning of a fox and the strength of a lion.
Cassirer’s interpretation of that ruler, however, is only beast; his ruler will do whatever he must to win, without any thought whatsoever for the welfare of the community or any “ moral obligation. ” Cassirer even acknowledges the combination of man and beast (Adams 164), and still neglects to include them in his analogy. My interpretation of Machiavelli on this topic is that morality is inherent in the common man, but politicians and princes are exempt from “ moral obligation” (guilt). Machiavelli’s ideas appear to me to be more in line with Nietzsche’s tree analogy than Berlin or Cassirer’s interpretations. The tree analogy identifies princes as the “ ripe fruit” and everyone else as “ unripe” (Adams 251-52).
“… If we place ourselves at the terminal point of this great process, where society and custom finally reveal their true aim, we shall find the ripest fruit on the tree to be the sovereign individual, equal only to himself, all moral custom left far behind” (Adams 251). From my understanding of this passage, I take “ ripe” to mean that, for a prince, there is no feeling of remorse or guilt attached to an “ immoral” act. Thus, princes are born extraordinary.
This is different from Berlin’s theory because Berlin claims that everyone is born free from morals, and that those people who take the prerogative to become leader are the authors of what morality is for the rest of the people. My understanding of Machiavelli’s analogy of the lion/fox prince supports my interpretation of his definition of morality. He describes a prince being “ half man, half beast” (48). I took this to mean that, because man is inherently moral, and beasts do not have morality but can be strong (like lions) and sly (as foxes), a prince must appear to be moral (so as not to cause unrest among the people), but is not required to (and should not) always act morally. An example of Machiavellian morality is also evident in every day business when leaders of large corporations are forced to make a decision to let go of a few employees in order to save the employment of others and for the longevity of the business.
Were these business leaders not making these decisions, modern corporations would not move beyond their first challenging moment. Because princes are free from the boundaries of morals, their energies can be devoted to their own self-preservation. Although this sounds as if society is defenseless, in theory (perhaps not in reality) if the prince follows all Machiavelli’s guidelines for ruling, society will benefit as well. This is because a controlled and ordered society is accomplished when the prince has the absolute and unwavering obedience of the people. To attain this status of control, Machiavelli says the prince must have the fear of the people-but cannot be hated by them.
The benefit of the people is owing to this last requisite: the people cannot despise the prince. All his actions, therefore, must appear beneficial to society while allowing him to maintain his authority. My reasoning is that although some actions will only be externally beneficial, some must have a positive affect for society. To sum it up, the prince must keep order (through fear), but must also maintain a relatively content and prosperous society (so as not to be despised). The prince is born a prince, a “ ripe fruit”, with the qualities of both a fox and a lion, and with the knowledge and understanding of how morality applies to the rest of mankind, the “ unripe fruit”.