Politics and Morality – A Timeless Issue

Is Machiavelli Trying To Liberate Politics From Morality Or Is He Trying To Remedy

A Defect Of An Earlier Tradition?

In trying to determine the motivation of Machiavelli, it is first important to understand the two parts of the question and to what they refer. Liberating politics from morality is a very clear concept, and is very prevalent in Machiavelli’s writings. The only variable in this equation is the extent to which Machiavelli might be trying to separate the two. Being that ‘to liberate’ is to set something free, the parameters will be complete separation of politics from morality. When it comes to Machiavelli’s possible motivation of ‘trying to remedy a defect of an earlier tradition’ it is necessary to discuss the earlier tradition being investigated. Since Machiavelli never concerns himself with ‘the ends’ of the state, nor its serving a higher moral purpose, this cannot be a failure in his eyes that needs consideration. Instead, Machiavelli concerns himself with gaining, keeping, and expanding power. The ‘defect of an earlier tradition’, then, is the failure to protect the power one possesses. Hence, the question at hand is whether Machiavelli was trying to completely sever morality from politics or trying to remedy an earlier tradition that lead rulers to the loss of their power and as follows, their rule.

Niccolo Machiavelli spent his professional career in service of a republican government only to see it fall at the hands of “the absolutist regime of the Medici, who had been restored to power with papal help”
(Ebenstein, p. 284). After being found innocent of crimes accused by the new regime, Machiavelli was exiled to his farm near Florence. While banished, he wrote The Prince, which praises a government in complete opposition to his republican beliefs, in hopes of gaining the favor of, establishing his loyalty to, and hopefully acquiring a position with the new regime. This intention failed, which left Machiavelli more time to continue his writings, including The Discourses, in which he returns to his own republican roots. Showing his realism, Machiavelli chose to deal with what was, as opposed to what ought to be, and recommends the same for a prince. In The Prince, Machiavelli states that a prince should only concern himself with the constant readiness for war. He writes that a prince should not concern himself with seeking goodness because “how we live is so far removed from how we ought to live’ and because the prince is ‘among so many who are not good” (Ebenstein, p.292). Machiavelli notes the necessity of a prince to not only know how to be good, but also to know how to not be good, and to know when and where to apply these options. To Machiavelli, this changing ability coupled with military valor defines virtu in a ruler, which replaces the definition of virtue previously held. Machiavelli also reduces the terms of ‘good and evil’ from absolute values to relative terms. They no longer imply the idea of what is ‘right or just’ from a moral perspective, but instead relate to their efficiency in how they affect the power of the ruler. A positive, efficient action is ‘good’, and a negative, inefficient action is ‘bad’.

Machiavelli further recommends that a prince should opt for being feared as opposed to being loved when only one is possible. He explains that men are “ungrateful, voluble, dissemblers, anxious to avoid danger, and covetous of gain” (Ebenstein, p. 294) and that while a prince serves their interests they are loyal, but when he does not they will revolt against him. Machiavelli warns the prince not to rely on the word of man and to be prepared to exact punishment on men to keep their loyalty because “fear is maintained by a dread of punishment which never fails” (Ebenstein, p. 294). In keeping himself and his rule protected, Machiavelli also allows that a ruler must not always keep his faith with the people. He justifies this point by stating that “if men were all good, this precept would not be a good one; but as they are bad, and would not observe their faith with you, so you are not bound to keep faith with them.” (Ebenstein, p. 295). Machiavelli concedes that ‘it is well to seem merciful, faithful, humane, sincere, religious, and also to be so; but you must have the mind so disposed that when it is needful to be otherwise you may be able to change to the opposite qualities” (Ebenstein, p. 295). Machiavelli recommends that a prince pretend his nature and intentions are ‘good’ in the eyes of the people while always maintaining their fear of him. He warns the prince to guard himself against being hated, too, because good favor and reputation will protect him both internally from conspiracy and externally from potential conquerors. To further protect the power, Machiavelli even provides guidance for a prince in choosing his allegiances. He recommends that a prince be either a true friend or a true enemy and to make his choices clear. The goal being to maintain the prince’s power, he says that if opposing forces fight and his ally wins, this ally will remain his friend and he will be obliged to the prince. Conversely, if his ally should lose, the ally will be beholden to protect and shelter the prince as long as he can.

Upon first examination, it might appear obvious that Machiavelli is trying to separate morality from politics. He begins by stating that a prince need only concern himself with the art of being constantly ready for war. His entire work in The Prince is dedicated to showing how a ruler must do whatever it takes to maintain his power, even when it means acting in a manner that would be considered evil in terms of accepted moral guidelines. He even goes so far as to define a reason of state, a code “under which many acts are permissive, even obligatory, that would be considered heinous crimes if judged in the court of religion or morality” (Ebenstein, p. 285). With a closer look, however, we see that Machiavelli is not merely disregarding morality altogether, and even tends to specify that a ruler should only resort to unjust acts when the situation calls for it. In The Discourses, for instance, he writes “For where the very safety of the country depends upon the resolution to be taken, no consideration of justice or injustice, humanity or cruelty, nor of glory or of shame, should be allowed to prevail. But putting all other considerations aside, the only question should be: What course will save the life and liberty of the country?” (Ebenstein, p. 284). Machiavelli does not advocate being immoral for its own sake anywhere in his writings, but instead offers these alternatives when normal moralistic behavior is not sufficient. He always relates the necessity of being evil with the ‘ends’ of the state, which is gaining, keeping, and expanding power. For all of his implied disregard for morality, there is a theme throughout Machiavelli’s writing that insists upon a justification of acts that are less than honorable. Machiavelli affirms this justification further with his statement that “it is well to seem merciful, faithful, humane, sincere, religious, and also to be so; but you must have the mind so disposed that when it is needful to be otherwise you may be able to change to the opposite qualities” (Ebenstein, p. 295). If not for some attention to morality, Machiavelli would not have included and also to be so and when it is needful in the above statement as qualifiers. Machiavelli believes that man’s nature is bad and incapable of changing. He often places reminders in his writing that if man was good, or of a higher moral fiber these methods would not be necessary. Machiavelli’s “basic attitude” is not one of nihilism: he neither assumes that there are no values in this world, nor wishes to create a world in which all values would be destroyed. Machiavelli is aware that civilization implies some sort of values. His amorality implies therefore, not the denial of moral values in all situations, but the affirmation that, in the specific situation of the statesman, the rules of power have priority over those of ethics and morality” (Ebenstein, p. 285). Machiavelli directs his writing to the prince in order to help him guard against losing his power by trying to deal with immoral men through the restrictions of moral ethics. Machiavelli believes this will surely lead to the ruin of the ruler and erase his power.

Is Machiavelli trying to liberate politics from morality or is he trying to remedy a defect of an earlier tradition? It is clear that while Machiavelli may have made a case for liberating a ruler from morality in practicing his politics, he clearly fails to completely sever morality from politics. His constant insertion of qualifications and conditions under which a ruler can or should resort to less than honorable actions impedes the complete separation of the two. He does not set out to completely sever morality from politics, or he would not give acknowledgement to the fact that it is desirable for a ruler to have honorable traits and rule justly unless he is forced to do otherwise by the nature of men or by the situation at hand. Were he trying to completely sever the two, a ruler’s character would not merit mentioning, as it would be beside the point. The one constant theme in Machiavelli’s attitude and writing is his intention to protect the power at hand, whatever it might be. Even the qualifications and conditions set by Machiavelli for amoral behavior by a ruler are in relation to the protection of power. This fierce protection of power is the only way Machiavelli sees to remedy the defect of an earlier tradition that caused many a regime to lose its power. It can further be said that Machiavelli’s own motivation for writing The Prince could be a case in point. Machiavelli wrote The Prince, even though it was in direct contrast to his own republican beliefs in the hopes of protecting his own political power. Was Machiavelli trying to liberate morality from his own politics or trying to remedy a defect from an earlier tradition which caused him to lose his political power? Clearly, he was trying to remedy the defect, as he quickly returned to his original republican sentiments once his attempt to convert his loyalty and gain favor failed. He compromised his morality for the sake of preserving his power, but did not completely abandon it. This is in direct parallel to the situation at hand; as Machiavelli is recommending that a ruler set aside his morality if the situation at hand calls for it to preserve his power. Whatever means necessary to preserve the power at hand is what Machiavelli is lobbying for, with the sole purpose being to prevent the disasters of the past where power was lost, including his own situation.

**Citations are from “Great Political Thinkers: Plato to the Present” textbook Eberstein, Eberstein

One thought on “Politics and Morality – A Timeless Issue

Leave a Reply