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Why Machiavelli is Wrong

by Tony Pellum

Many philosophers have imagined an ideal state in which man should operate. Plato's Republic dealt with these issues as well as numerous religious teachings. Unlike these idealists, Machiavelli insists that imagining an ideal state is worthless and will eventually cause harm to the person who lives by those philosophies. Machiavelli insists:

Many writers have imagined for themselves republics and principalities that have never been seen nor known to exist in reality; for there is such a gap between how one lives and how one ought to live that anyone who abandons what is done for what ought to be done learns his ruin rather than his preservation: for a man who wishes to perform goodness at all times will come to ruin among so many who are not good (52).

This direct assault on Plato's philosophies is incorrect. Although understanding the actions of society are important, one should not abandon morality to operate as others in the world do. In The Prince, Machiavelli discusses the necessary values that a prince must have in order to rule a nation. These include being considered righteous and generous, practicing goodness but knowing how and when to enter into evil, and being feared by your nation. Important issues such as morality and human trust are disregarded in Machiavelli's ideas. Machiavelli is incorrect in his assertion that deceit, greed, and manipulation are the keys to Machiavelli's philosophy, for they are not beneficial for society or the individual.

Machiavelli doesn't believe that there is an overriding morality that humans should live under. He believes that certain "morals" should be practiced so the prince will not be hated by his followers, but doesn't at all believe he should be good at all times. In fact, Machiavelli believes that a prince should be accustomed to evil and be prepared to enter into it if necessary. Although practicing good acts appeases the people, Machiavelli insists, "it is necessary for a prince who wishes to maintain his position to learn how not to be good, and to use this knowledge or not to use it according to necessity" (52). He argues that good is not always the correct choice in making decisions. He believes that doing good can result in being exploited by others and causing hatred among the people who do and do not gain from the act of goodness. Instead, a prince should "know how to enter into evil when necessity commands" (60). He should not always use his mercy and generosity to help others because of the consequences of these actions. Machiavelli believes that in ruling, "there are two kinds of fighting: one according to the laws, the other with force; the first way is proper to man, the second to beasts; but because the first, in many cases, is not sufficient, it becomes necessary to have recourse to the second" (58). He argues that it is not always best to act in accordance with the laws. He believes that when it is necessary for the prince to benefit himself, he must practice evil acts to obtain these goals. At these times, he must be cruel in order to exploit the situation to his advantage. Machiavelli assumes that people will disregard the prince's evil activities and follow him anyway. It doesn't seem logical that the people will follow a corrupt prince, and Machiavelli doesn't address this issue. Greed and evil are not in the best interest of the prince, for there are likely to be many who rebel against his actions, demanding justice.

Machiavelli suggests that fear is what will keep people from uprising. Upon being asked whether it was better to be feared or loved by your people, Machiavelli answers, "it is much safer to be feared than to be loved when one of the two must be lacking" (56). He argues that if people fear their leader, they will constantly feel that fear and be too afraid to change circumstances. Although he states the importance of being loved by the people, fear is more necessary. Machiavelli doesn't believe that love is as strong as fear. He states, "men are less hesitant about harming someone who makes himself loved than one who makes himself feared because love is held together by a chain of obligation which, since men are wretched creatures, is broken on every occasion in which their interests are concerned" (56). He states that loyalty is not possible among men and that they will always retreat from their commitments if they are in danger. He denounces human worth in his argument by calling men "wretched creatures," expressing that he doesn't believe men are true to their word, so it is better to create fear in the hearts of your followers because they will be too afraid to rebel. This lack of human commitment is seen in Machiavelli's vies of love. He states, "since men love at their own pleasure and fear at the pleasure of the prince, a wise prince should build his foundation on that which belongs to him" (57-8), illustrating his belief that the prince should obtain as much power as he can and never trust human relationships. Machiavelli highly underestimates human commitment in this passage. Men are more likely to serve a prince who shows compassion than one who makes himself feared. When a prince is feared, people would be less trusting and less accepting of a feared prince.

Machiavelli deems it necessary for a prince to be cruel to create this fear. Although he does see some value in mercy, he states, "every prince must desire to be merciful and not cruel, nevertheless, he must take care not to misuse his mercy" (55). Machiavelli believes that if a leader is too merciful, others will take advantage of him, therefore, he must use his mercy cautiously and rarely. He finds great harm in a prince being taken advantage of because he places great importance on power. If a prince were being used, he would not be as powerful as he could be. He even goes so far as to say that cruelty is necessary in leading an army. He believes, "a prince must not worry about the reproach of cruelty when it is a matter of keeping his subjects united and loyal; for with a very few examples of cruelty he will be more compassionate then those who, out of excessive mercy permit disorders to continue, from which arise murders and plundering" (55). Machiavelli falsely believes that the merciful are not just, stating that they will let a problem continue without applying discipline, in fear of his merciful reputation. He thinks that if a prince applies the correct amount of cruelty to his subjects, their fear will prevent them from contending his authority. This is apparent in Machiavelli's statement, "it is absolutely necessary that [a prince] not worry about being considered cruel; for without that reputation he will never keep an army united or prepared for any combat" (570). Machiavelli's theory that an army can only be held together out of fear isn't necessarily true. If a prince shows cruelty to an army, that army would be more likely to oppose his behavior. Multiple instances of cruelty would eventually result in a public demand for compassionate leadership, resulting in overthrow. Machiavelli overlooks the positive results that would result in a prince showing respect and mercy to his army. If a prince cares for and respects his people, they will have gratitude towards the prince and wish to act in accordance with him.

Analogous to his views on excessive mercy, Machiavelli denounces the value of generosity, stating that, although "it would be good to be considered generous" (53), generosity is harmful. He believes that generosity is useless because it involves benefiting only a select few by giving away your possessions. He states, "there is nothing that uses itself up faster than generosity, for as you employ it, you lose the means of employing it, and you become either poor or despised or else, in order to escape poverty, you become rapacious and hated" (55). Machiavelli believes that it is not worth being generous because it always makes someone jealous. Since the number of people that your generosity will benefit is limited, others will be upset with the prince for not helping them. Machiavelli then states that, since you lose possessions when you are generous, you will eventually take back from the people to regain your money. He insists that both of these outcomes lead to hatred, so generosity is best left alone. Since he argues that popularity is most necessary for a prince, he states, "above all other things, a prince must guard himself against being despised and hated, and generosity leads you to both one and the other" (55). Machiavelli is wrong in his views of generosity. Sacrifice not only provides help for others, but it provides self-satisfaction. His negative view of the results of generous acts emphasizes Machiavelli's view of the value of money. He expresses a very greedy view throughout The Prince, implying that generosity is senseless because you lose something. Generosity should not be looked at as losing, rather helping others and having the satisfaction of that benefit.

Again, underestimating human trust and intelligence, Machiavelli believes that a prince should manipulate his followers in order to obtain what he wants. Machiavelli's most incorrect proposal concerns deception. In the case of generosity he states:

If someone were to say: Caesar with his generosity achieved imperial power, and many others because they were generous and known to be so, achieved very high positions; I would reply: …in the first instance, generosity is damaging, in the second it is very necessary to be thought generous (54).

Machiavelli argues that Caesar's generosity was damaging because it ultimately ended in his murder. Although this idea has some validity, his statement concerning the appearance of generosity sets up his basis of deception, which is most untrue. He believes that it is important for a prince to appear generous, and to have that reputation among his people, but it is damaging for him to actually be generous. Machiavelli not only degrades generosity, but states:

It is not necessary for a prince to have [mercy, humanity, trustworthiness, faithfulness, and religion], but it is very necessary for him to appear to have them. Furthermore, I should be so bold as to assert this: that having them and practising them at all times is harmful; and appearing to have them is useful (59).

This denunciation of positive qualities clearly expresses Machiavelli's view of the positive effects of deception for self-benefit. He states that self-gain is more important then honor and truthfulness and writes, "a wise ruler… cannot and should not keep his word when such an observance of faith would be to his disadvantage and when the reasons that made him promise are removed" (59). While it is proper for a ruler to keep his word, Machiavelli disagrees, suggesting that if it is not to his advantage, a ruler should not keep his promises. Machiavelli is encouraging deceptive ruling so the followers will think he is good, when in fact, he is profiting from this manipulation. He believes that a prince "should maintain himself in such a way that no man could imagine that he can deceive or cheat him" (61). While the people don't suspect him to act this way, it is easiest for the prince to deceive and cheat them. Machiavelli further underestimates human intelligence by stating, "ordinary people are always deceived by appearances and by the outcome of a thing; and in the world there is nothing but ordinary people: (60). Machiavelli is clearly stating the benefit of exploiting his people. He believes that men are ignorant and, since they are, the prince should deceive and cheat them for personal gain. These acts are not beneficial for any society or person. Although they would superficially benefit the prince, greed and deception will eventually cause him to become a slave to these sins, causing him pain. Furthermore, when the people eventually catch on, his people will not trust him any longer.

Machiavelli is obsessed with self-benefit without addressing the negative aspects of exploiting the people. His generalization of all people as ordinary and ignorant will eventually cause a prince's downfall. Not everyone is so ignorant as to not catch on to the prince's manipulation. Eventually people will begin to catch on, causing the same negative consequences that Machiavelli suggested in such cases as excessive mercy and generosity. By avoiding ideals and morals, Machiavelli states what does occur in the world, and argues that one should use it to benefit himself. Although it is true that imagined republics do not exist in the world, we can learn from them. They teach us how we should live in order to benefit society and ourselves. Machiavelli does not see the negative aspects of the way the world operates, which can ultimately destroy one's goodness, rather than morals that can benefit others as well as self.