Renaissance period placed human in the center of the universe. People were admired, scrutinized, and worshipped. Man became a new God. However, at some point of this period, something changed and the concept of human nature turned to the opposite. It dawned on the society that human nature is wrecked, spoiled and selfish. Niccolo Machiavelli became one of the main contributors to that new perception of human. To me, Machiavelli is an example of a disappointed humanist. Despite my sympathy to the renaissance period and its philosophers, I had not found anything positive in Machiavellian philosophy. Although he reflected the main tendencies of the late Renaissance worldview, he deprived humanity of hope for salvation. Therefore, his philosophy is the most pessimistic worldview I have ever met.
I know that society has a profound impact on its members. Knowing about Machiavelli’s childhood and life, I can partly justify his pessimism. Though Nicolo was born in a respectful ancient Toscanini family in Florence, his father was poor by that time so that the little boy could not benefit from his origin. Luckily, Machiavelli could benefit from his place of birth. Florence flourished at that time. The city was awakening from the intellectual dream of the Middle Ages. Under the influence of the Medici family, Florence reached its peak of the flourishing and came into world prominence. The Medici family also contributed to the revival of interest to ancient Greece and Rome. People thought that Italy could return to its ancient greatness. Young Nicolo also hoped Florence could become as great as the ancient Rome. As many humanists, he found the model of the world that was worth imitating in antiquity. However, he had yet to experience the great wave of frustration in the years to come.
As I followed the life of Machiavelli, I found the root of his disappointment. He was very patriotic and dedicated to his city. However, he also witnessed one of the most frightening conspiracies of that time, the so-called Piazzi Conspiracy (Strathern, 1998). In 1478, Piazzi family conquered the power in Florence. That event had made a strong impression on Nicolo Machiavelli. He witnessed the victory of cruelty over good people. As a result, he concluded that the Golden Rule did not work. Not only people do not treat others as they would like to be treated, those who are smarter and stronger win. This lesson contributed to the following political career of Machiavelli.
To my mind, Machiavelli was not really a philosopher. Rather, he was a gifted diplomat and politician. Still, his political experience largely influenced his outlook . He started his political career at the age of 29. In 1498, the Government of the Grand Council of Florence elected him as a secretary of the second office, engaged in internal policy of the Republic, and then offered to lead the Office of the Commission of Liberty and Peace that was responsible for the affairs of the army and militia. During fourteen years, he was re-elected to these posts repeatedly. Machiavelli proved himself a realist, cold, smart and cunning. Combined with fair mind he had a unique advantage in Italian politics full of lies. He knew how to persuade and convince, to insist and impose. Therefore, contemporaries saw in Machiavelli a man that was able to take a sober view of things. He took part in the crucial diplomatic and military missions to Italian princes, the Pope, and the Emperor. Few could surpass him in an accurate and correct assessment of the political atmosphere in a foreign country.
I am convinced that one event had a profound impact on the life of Machiavelli as a personality. Everything changed in 1512 with the Florentine coup. Republic collapsed, and the Signoria of Medici grasped the power. It must have been the main event contributing to the pessimistic worldview of Machiavelli. It did not need the former secretary of the second office and the head of the commission of freedom and peace. Machiavelli was sent into exile, where he spent 15 years. That should be the worst punishment for a man who spent most of his life faithfully serving his beloved homeland. In exile, Machiavelli turned to writing. Machiavelli decided to express all his political knowledge and all his skills on the paper. Therefore, all his pessimistic worldview is reflected in his main work, The Prince. This book addresses the ruler of the state and contains recommendations on how to preserve the power.
In my view, Machiavelli’s ethics displayed in The Prince is rather pessimistic as well. Machiavelli was cunning and knew how to weave a plot and how to delude. Furthermore, he suggested that type of behavior to the prince because it was nothing but a human nature to him. The author explains that ruler’s behavior depends on his personal traits. However, Machiavelli’s notion of virtue is specific. Machiavelli shifted the sense of “virtue” from moral worth to effectiveness. He did not refer to what was right or wrong, he referred to either it was effective or not. It differs from the previous moral system, and it differs from the Christian concept of good. His good does not imply faith, hope and compassion. The same can be said of the valor. His valor is deprived of justice, fortitude and moderation. To Machiavelli, virtue is the power, dynamics and courage necessary for making the most profit of particular conditions. It seems to me that Machiavelli and his political philosophy are completely devoid of any moral principles.
Henry Kissinger comments on Machiavelli’s ethics as follows,
Within the ages, Machiavelli was thought as an embodiment of cynicism. But he did not consider himself deprived of the moral principles. He described the world the way he saw it not the way he would like it to see. In fact, he was convinced that only courageous ruler can stick to the intended course despite the constant conspiracies, on which his life depends. (Berridge, Keens-Soper, & Otte, 2001)
My impression of Machiavelli’s contribution is twofold. On the one hand, I am aware that he did a lot for politics. He is worth admiration for his calling attention to the importance of a feeling of patriotism within a state. Machiavelli justified the independence of the politics and its relative autonomy from other aspects of life. He started studying politics as social reality instead of the imaginary world. He was first to define a state in its modern understanding. He separated society and state, establishing the latter as the political form of social organization. After all, I realize that Machiavelli is recognized as one of the ancestors of realism and, therefore, deserves one’s respect.
On the other hand, I cannot find anything positive in Machiavellian philosophy. He had deprived humanity of hope. He had rejected previous theories that perceived man as good and able to be controlled by good. Besides, Machiavelli was the first who stood against the ancient notions of human nature and common good. The philosophers before Machiavelli believed that people could coexist together in a perfect society based on mutual love, peace and harmony. Comparing to that, Machiavelli was a rebel. According to Machiavelli, one should act “other than good” because it is sometimes necessary to acquire and preserve power in society. Gradually, he leads one to the conviction that there is a necessity of cruel actions for the sake of power preservations. In Machiavelli’s own words, “...he [the leader of the state] must stick to the good so long as he can, but, being compelled be necessity, he must be ready to take the way of the evil” (Machiavelli, 2006). Consequently, acting according to the moral rules becomes redundant. In The Prince, he declared that state governance and moral lifestyle are incompatible. To rule the state appropriately, the ruler should forget about morality. As a result, it leads to the appearance of different societies and different states. All types of societies become possible. There are no universal criteria for assessment of human virtues because morality and political science are incompatible.
I can see far-reaching consequences of the Machiavellian philosophy nowadays. Even today, a very clear distinction between the politics and religion exists. Machiavelli discovered that human nature is selfish and hence there can be no rules in morality and form of government. Practical Machiavellianism nowadays consists of unprincipled politics that, in fact, violates all norms of morality in the name of achieving one’s selfish objections. Politicians are not guided by moral norms because politics belongs to the relative sphere and morality belongs to the absolute sphere. With this in mind, politicians may justify war in Iraq as if the common peace justifies multiple victims of that war. I believe that politicians are no different from average citizens, and so they should be judged according to the main moral rules and principles. Machiavelli did nothing good except rejecting an assumption that there is a universal value system. Though he was the first to acknowledge it, it did not make him the prominent philosopher. Instead, he was a realistic politician with the most pessimistic worldview I have ever met.
Berridge, G., Keens-Soper, M., & Otte, T. G. (2001). Diplomatic theory from Machiavelli to Kissinger. New York, NY: Palgrave.
Machiavelli, N. (2006). The prince. (W. K. Marriott, Trans.). Retrieved from http://www.gutenberg.org/files/1232/1232-h/1232-h.htm
Strathern, P. (1998). Machiavelli in 90 minutes. Chicago, IL: Ivan R. Dee.