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Sixteenth century Europe was passing through a critical phase, where the old medieval order was crumbling and the new was in its infancy. . The power of the nobility was declining and in many countries monarchies came into existence. The medieval order in Italy however did not witness the kind of sweeping changes that were taking place elsewhere in Europe. The city state was the prevailing political unit and the important ones were Milan, Venice, Florence, Naples and Papal state.
HIS LIFE AND TIMES
Nicolo Machiavelli was born in Florence in the year 1469 when Lorenzo de Medici was the chief magistrate. Soon however the hold of the Medici family on Florence was lost and a demagogic friar named Savonarola imposed his idea of a theocratic state. But by 1498, he lost popular support and was burnt at the stake.
Machiavelli who was a keen observer of the political scenario realized the folly that Savonarola committed. With the demise of Savonarola, Florence once again became a republic and Machiavelli was elected to the post of secretary to the foreign office of Florence. In this capacity, he served the republic for 14 years and he was sent on many political and military missions all over Europe. A keen observer of human weaknesses and foibles, he was able to observe closely one of the most infamous persons of those times … Cesar Borgia, who was the illegitimate son of Pope Alexander VII. Cesar was a ruthless and cunning leader who subdued the rebellious aristocracy in Italy and consolidated his power over them. With the restoration of the Medici’s, Machiavelli went into exile and during this period devoted his time to writing books. The most famous of which was THE PRINCE and THE DISCOURSES ON THE FIRST TEN BOOKS OF LIVIUS.
HIS POLITICAL THOUGHTS
On the basis of his observations and study particularly of ancient Rome, he believed in the cyclical nature of history, which no leader however able can control or avert. Machiavelli termed the ability of a leader to impose his will on events as VIRTU, which means prowess. However resourceful a leader can be he can succeed only partly, because the other half is dominated by FORTUNA or chance. VIRTU does not enable him to either anticipate or overcome this.
THE PRINCE was written with two objectives, one was to explain how this VIRTU or prowess, can be marshaled and put to use, and the other to impress Lorenzo de Medici, so that Machiavelli might regain his political office. Though the second objective was never achieved, the first one it did. This little handbook discusses plainly and without any moral inhibitions, how rulers acquire and maintain power. What had shocked generations of readers was the acceptance of all means available to acquire power which was so repugnant to an individual’s concept of moral behavior. For centuries, Machiavelli was looked upon as devil incarnate and the word Machiavellian was coined to depict someone who was unscrupulous, scheming and power hungry. The problem was that, people did not understand the underlying assumptions of Machiavelli’s work.
THE PRINCE is based on two basic assumptions. The first one was that the state was the highest form of human association needed for the welfare of all. Without state and political order neither culture nor conventional virtues can exist. The interest of the state far outweighs everything, and it was the duty of the Prince to ensure its stability. The second important assumption was that, man is motivated man by self-interest and the VIRTU or prowess of the Prince is determined by it. Machiavelli’s view was that efficient states were best governed by non-virtuous men. This he arrived at by examining the political realities rather than by political ideals of his time. This implied that a Prince, who wanted to either acquire or retain power, should not be burdened by virtues and ethical considerations, because failing which the Prince cannot fulfill in his principal duty, which was to maintain order and stability. The prince cannot like an ordinary citizen hold on to conventional moral principles and must be governed by expediency. The Prince therefore would have to be cruel rather than compassionate, dishonest rather than honest, all being contrary to ethical principles instilled in man. Machiavelli was implying that a Prince binding himself by the constraints of Christian virtues was paving the way for destruction of the state and it inhabitants. Due to its anti-clerical and un-Christian sentiment, THE PRINCE was placed on the Index of Prohibited Books in 1557.
The reason why THE PRINCE is called as a handbook for tyrants can be understood from the following exhortations.
· The family that ruled prior to him (Prince) must be wiped out
· He should not impose any change in the existing laws or customs
· He should set up dwelling in the conquered territory, so that he can discover rebellion at the start and nip it in the bud, because rebellion like most maladies is hard to detect at first and difficult to cure later.
· He should keep a watchful eye on the neighboring princes.
· When a prince conquers a place, he should appoint personnel from the conquered people only, so that his job becomes easy and strong.
· He must be both stern and magnanimous in order to make himself be loved and feared by his people
· Good laws and good army is the firm foundation of every government….the princes army should not consist of mercenaries.
· The prince must be good; he must also know how to be wicked.
· A man will sooner forget the loss of his father than of his property, so he should not confiscate the property of his subjects.
· The prince who depends on good fortune is ruined when it turns against him. Fortune is like a women - it loves the young and daring.
Machiavelli delinked politics from other impinging influences. Like the physical sciences, it was no longer studied with reference to either authority or religious scriptures. It was concerned with human conflict and social forces only. Morality and religion are only it indirect concerns. Machiavelli like his book PRINCE would always be a topic of controversy and debate.