My thoughts of “The Prince”

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Does the cruelty justify the ends?

In Machiavelli’s The Prince, we are given a detailed view of how to rule over people, gain land, and have political power in this manner through an unforgiving lens. Our author is incredibly skilled at taking any given scenario and given a particular set of variables, this is how you can conquer a particular area. He weaves historical examples into his “guide book”, and people are disillusioned into thinking that because he sites history he was a man of vision and good intent. The author is a master with words until his true colors come through. It can be argued that Machiavelli’s intentions were to get on the good side of a powerful family and that is why he wrote The Prince. That is the case many make. However, it is the execution of his words and methods that is very troubling to the reader. Machiavelli is interested in showing people how to achieve political gain but the level of cruelty is unnecessary, by pushing cruel methods over others more peaceful and furthermore claiming cruelty as necessary when that is not the only way that the ends can be reached.

In speaking of gaining territory, Machiavelli states “When a state accustomed to live in freedom under its own laws there are three ways of keeping it: the first is to destroy it, the second is to go and live there in person; the third is to let it continue to live under its own laws, taking tribute from it, setting up a government composed of a few men that will keep it friendly for you” (Machiavelli, 28). It is easily noticed that the first method listed is destruction. Those who argue it is not meant in order need to look further down where Machiavelli states “For in truth there is no sure method of holding such cities except by destruction” (Machiavelli, 28) going even further to say that if you don’t destroy the city, it will destroy you. All of Machiavelli’s reasoning is full of holes. Why does the first course of action have to be destruction, in a most unapologetic wipeout for the Prince’s gain? Furthermore, this mentality that that if I don’t destroy you, you will destroy me can have a shred of truth to it, but there are ways of ruling through negotiations that are more peaceful and don’t involve this complete destruction of a state in order to maintain it. There is this glaring assumption of human nature that Machiavelli claims. The weaker people will be easier to rule, but the strong will put up a fight and thus must be destroyed. He never offers a less intense, less cruel alternative measure and therefore is unnecessarily cruel in his methods.

Another example of cruelty that is jarring is the cutting in half of the man, which is an example from history that Machiavelli used but he goes a step further in what he claims this slaughter accomplished, another way cruelty is unnecessary to the reader but necessary to Machiavelli. “Having found an occasion to do this, one morning, he had Remirro’s body cut in two, placed on view in the public square of Cesena with a wooden block and a blood stained knife resting beside it. The horror of that spectacle gave people reason to be both shocked and gratified” (Machiavelli 36). Killing someone and then mutilating their body is a cold, gruesome act in itself. What elicits a reaction is the body being on display in the public square as to serve as a warning to everyone who sees it. Ruling a state through fear is something that Machiavelli agrees with and addresses later on in Chapter 17 (which interestingly enough only claims it adequately addresses cruelty). However, the concept of gratitude is really what should be found fault with in this particular section because it through the joy of not being cut in half that you are grateful for, and it is that ruling by fear is in itself cruel.

Machiavelli has a plethora of other options that he could restore to in order to achieve his end goal. He insists on cruelty being the vehicle that drives success of The Prince forward unapologetically and harshly so. His concepts of ruling and running a state work in the examples he presents or in his concept model. It does not mean that it is the only way to achieve greatness. On page 40, he speaks of a man not acting in virtue or fortune whose success through murderous acts is not celebrated because it was not the way to go about doing things in Machiavelli’s eyes. There is hypocrisy in this and to discover it one must dive further into Machiavelli’s arguments.  In Chapter 17, discussing being feared vs. being loved he uncovers for us a subtle and disturbing aspect of his argument. It is about discarding your father if it serves your purpose saying this.     “And if he finds it necessary to take someone’s life, he should do so when there is suitable justification and manifest cause; but above all, he should refrain from property other person, for men are quicker to forget the death of their father then the loss of a patrimony” (Machiavelli, 66). It speaks volumes about someone to value patrimony (the inheritance) over their own father. This subtly points to a strong, internal concept of cruelty embedded inside of our author that one cannot escape. It is curious how this one sliver of information gives us such crucial information that directly shows the meanness that lies not so far beneath the surface.

Machiavelli actually acknowledges cruelty by addressing it directly and makes an interesting claim about it saying  “a prince, therefore, must be indifferent to the charge of cruelty if he is to keep his subjects loyal and united” (Machiavelli, 65). So what can be gathered from this statement is that wickedness, that evil that he acknowledges through the book should not apply to the prince if order is meant to be held. This brings us to be able to state that Machiavelli believes that cruelty should be ignored for the greater good of the prince. He even goes a step further in talking about a ruler that “preached nothing but peace and faith” (Machiavelli 70) and how that costs you power and reputation. He has the audacity to say that peace is actually someone’s downfall. He does not give examples of peaceful ways nor does he try to implement peaceful options into his lessons about attaining power. He states that you won’t get far using that but does not back up that claim, only to use more examples of cruelty.

Many people state the counter argument, that Machiavelli was using this book as a vehicle to discover a specific type of political theory without cruelty as a theme. He does go step by step explaining very detailed things about armies and rules to follow, for example in detail what armies are loyal to whom and at what time in Chapter 13. He explains the rankings of various troops stating , “with mercenaries the danger lies in their cowardice; with auxiliary it lies with their capability” (Machiavelli 57). This book can be seen as a strategic guide for how to conquer lands, and in stating that cruelty is disregarded as previously mentioned, does that in fact mean that Niccolo Machiavelli is not excessively and unnecessarily cruel?  He seems incredibly convincing in many aspects of his concept of what the prince’s role is in obtaining and then maintaining power. We are flooded with historical examples of why his methods will work in practice not only on paper from Spain to Sparta. If we were to read it in this manner, we would come away with an incomplete meaning. Also, it would take a strong level of denial to not see the glaring examples of unnecessary cruelty in The Prince. Surely, more peaceful ways of doing things are possible and violence, death, and destruction are all extremes that become the norm for him.

To dismantle his concepts as not being cruel, he has a chapter on evil means and he says that there was a ruler who was wicked but his vigor helped him to become a commanding officer (Machiavelli, 39) and this drives at the heart of pulling away any doubt of the unnecessary cruelty that Machiavelli is clearly putting forth. This example says a lot more about what Machiavelli actually intends. He tries to steer away from this point but here he is happy to profess that if you are wicked, cruel, or evil (all his own terms) then it is not a stretch to say that if you have strength despite having a strong vice like the three above you can still rise and be a successful ruler. Again, peaceful solutions or being a kind ruler are not something he is concerned with in the slightest and that is made apparent here. In this light, Machiavelli opens the gate for the ability to say he recognizes that he is cruel but is much more concern with the ends. For him, the ends are what one must work towards and if those means that accompany the ends are cruel, then that is perfectly acceptable by Machiavelli.

In conclusion, Niccolo Machiavelli aims to convince his audience that there is a very specific way to obtain power through this chilling guide book of sorts, The Prince. He makes many claims that can be quickly dismantled in their unnecessary cruel way to achieve power. It is not to say that following these lessons wouldn’t give you the power you want, but at what cost? We have the example of destruction being a first restore for solving control issues. The fact that other measures are there, but that destruction is best is so cold and superfluous. There is the way of cutting a body in half and displaying it to instill fear. This is a transparent way that cruelty is seen. Mostly important is Machiavelli admitting that yes, cruelty exists but to acknowledge you will lose the backing of your subjects. He does not give alternatives and absolutely shoots the idea of using peace down. Through these examples, Machiavelli’s ends are cruel because his means are intentionally cruel. His tunnel vision of what is a means of obtaining power is unfortunate, because you can have power using Machiavelli’s methods. What are you willing to lose in your humanity to achieve that power is a chilling question to examine in order to decide for yourself where you draw the line.

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