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Politics: A focus on Machiavelli's Political Theories

Updated on March 27, 2015

The most potent weapon in the hands of the oppressor is the mind of the oppressed." (Biko. 1986, 103). In a book entitled the Prince, the author Machiavelli (1961) offers a view of how a state ought to be run or governed in his own perspective. His views greatly differ from those of the humanists that were existing in his time. Among some of these views are that the ruling prince ought to have an exclusive authority to determine each of the state’s aspects. In this perspective, he expected the prince to put in effect a regulation that could be used to serve his exclusive interests. Apparently, the major interests for the prince included acquiring, maintaining and widening his political territories (Heilbroner, 1999, 115). The prince could effectively achieve these goals through capturing the mind of the subjects.

Machiavelli understands and presents human nature in a very different way and which contradicts the views and beliefs of the existing humanists in his time. According to his views and perceptions, he has strongly advocated for a secular society and has a feeling that morality is not essential and instead, it was an obstacle to an efficient governing of the state Machiavelli, 1996, 71). As one analyst put it, Machiavelli's views are actually immoral and harsh but it should be taken into consideration that his views emanated from the concern of Italy, which was utterly unstable at that time (Heilbroner, 1999, 125). This means that his perceptions were largely driven from the incompetence of Italy’s prince as the cause for instability of that nation.

Machiavelli and Human Nature

According to Machiavelli, men are untruthful and ungraceful lot. They are “fickle, ungrateful, deceivers, liars and greedy”. He goes on to articulate that men are self-centered who would act for their own and not the state’s interest given the slightest opportunity. He posts that men cannot care even in the case when the prince lands in danger. This is why he reinforces the idea that the prince need to be feared by the citizens by arguing that men do not care injuring one who wants to be loved in comparison to another who wants to be feared. According to him, the prince can be able to rule effectively if he creates a sense of fear among his subjects. Since men are wreaked creatures, he argues, they will break the existing bond of love no matter what level it was for their own interest if an opportunity arose. This therefore makes fear to be an effective element since it cements the trepidation of discipline (79).

Machiavelli also articulates that an effective prince ought not to tell the citizens the truth always and instead should be ready to deceive them. In other words, he should not endeavor to exercise the virtue of honesty as a matter of pleasing citizens (84). A sense of fear is important in making him to be honored among the citizens. He should encourage citizens who work hard and triumph in their work or careers for increasing the state’s prosperity. Prosperity of the state will in turn bring the prince honor from these citizens (including his opponents) as it will be perceived that he was the one behind the success (Machiavelli, 1961, 72).

Machiavelli goes on to argue that virtuousness is not a fundamental element of humanity. This as he perceives is due to the assumption that if a man tries to be good or virtuous, those who are not so virtuous may still grieve him. If a ruler wants to be effective, he must not be virtuous among citizens. In other words, the prince should not be morally bound in governing the state (Machiavelli, 1961, 70).

Despite the fact that other humanists during his time had a belief that an individual was very much significant to the well running of the state, Machiavelli utterly mocked human nature. For instance, according to humanists, any person develops to maturity both morally and intellectually through “involvement” in the state’s operations. Apparently, Machiavelli does not trust any citizen to be involved in the state. Interestingly, he argues that a prince ought not to mistreat the state’s citizens (45). This view is however, also aimed at serving the interests of the ruling prince. According to him, it would be better if the citizens feared him instead of being loved by them (Heilbroner, and Milberg, 2011, 23).

Role of the Prince and the state

Machiavelli observes that a state is one of the highest form of human relations. It is an indispensable element with regard to promotion of man’s welfare. A state is so important in the sense that any person ought to sacrifice his or her interests to meet those of the state. He goes on to postulate that a ruler ought to conceive that anything that can be able to bring him power and prosperity is virtuous, irrespective of the means used to acquire it (44). The state as Machiavelli notes is above all associations in any society. A part from being autonomous, it is also sovereign

Among the responsibilities of the state according to his observation is that it should be able to maintain order and law, protect people’s life and ensure the well being of the subjects. According to him, it was the mandate of the state and the ruler in particular to ensure that the people in his or government’s jurisdiction enjoy the common good Gisela et al 1990, 34) Machiavelli also posts that every man has some qualities, which may either bring him some blame or praise among other people. Since a ruler is also a human being just like the rest, these qualities are also in him. However, he should display his good qualities in public and be able to hide his weaknesses and failures from the public. Apparently, the author articulates that the ruler should be able to embrace the vices if they are necessary in running the state. This is because, as Machiavelli notes, the subject’s perception of a strong state gives them a feeling of security (Dennett, 1996.444).

Machiavelli continues that the state is there to meet the interest and needs of the citizens. He also goes on to opine that a state does not solely exist to punish citizens for their wrongs. The state should be able to use force in restraining people since force results into them developing fear, a necessary element in successful governance of the state (89).

Characteristics of the State in Machiavelli’s Views

An effective state as Machiavelli point out in his book, the Prince is the one where a moral or religious consideration does not bind the ruler. Such a state is not influenced by religion and neither should the church control the political aspects of the state. A state that is sovereign is the one, which exercises sovereignty and power in all its institutions and subjects. All institution in a state ought to be subject to it. The political aspects of the state should not be integrated with theology or any type of religious perspectives. Additionally, the author articulates that a state should not have a moral purpose or end but is significant for the welfare of man. Political and governance aspects ought to be an independent phenomenon with its own laws and principles. In protection of the state, a state’s ruler has a mandate of employing instruments of conspiracy, lie, deception, massacre and even killing to achieve this goal (Machiavelli, 1961, 12).

The author also pointed out that governments that were republican in nature were not very effective. This is because such forms of government must employ honesty, virtuous, and citizens who are patriotic to it, a factor that is hard to find. He also goes on to opine that a state does not solely exist to punish citizens for their wrongs. Going to his perspectives, this is attributed to the fact that people are naturally weak with many failings. A state is founded upon the insufficiency and weaknesses of men (Machiavelli, 1961, 75).

An effective state is the one which with powerful administration to deal with the weaknesses, corrupt tendencies, and selfishness of men. The powerful aspect of the states administration is quite crucial in order to bring harmony to the society. Additionally, such a government will be able to control people’s behavior as well as excessive desires of these people.

He as well goes on to articulate that a state should regularly prepare its military forces for protecting the state. This means that a state’s army should be consistent and strong enough in defending the state (55). Further, he advises that apart from the state’s army being consistent and strong, it should be faithful to the state as well as exercise independency. The army should include only its citizens and not those of other states. A part from being relegated with the role of protecting the nation, it should also be prepared to expand its territory (Machiavelli, 1961, 68). Another interesting view he puts across is that it would be good if policies were set to subject the citizens, especially for those who are able on compulsory army training.

In essence, Machiavelli’s views on human nature and political aspects were so much deviating from the existing humanistic views. For instance, the humanistic had a feeling that an individual was very much significant in the development of the state of which Machiavelli was opposed to. According to Machiavelli, men were so much self-centered and could not be trusted to care for the state’s interests (47). However, it should be noted that he had presented his views after careful studying the political situation of Italy, which was unstable at that time.

According to his perceptions, the suggestions he provided could act as a basis for Italy’s prince or rulers to bring political stability. Although this type of government may have appeared to be unrealistic at that time, it practically appeared in Italy some years after writing the book. It can also be experienced in the modern day politics of many states around the world (Heilbroner, 1999, 55).

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