The fourteenth century was an exciting time in Italy. Liberation from old traditions brought about a new interest in the arts and literature. The church’s doctrine was no longer the sole basis of scholarly work. New ideas and concepts started to emerge which were unlike anything heard since the fall of Rome. Amongst the great thinkers of this time was a man by the name of Niccolo Machiavelli. (C4. and Wood, p.510) His most famous work was entitled, The Prince. The book is a compilation of historical examples past and present ( present being the sixteenth century), that were intended to guide a prince on the correct way to control his state. It advocated the use of any means necessary to survive in the political world, even if they were not particularly pleasant. (Strathern, p.6)
Despite it’s age, I believe that Machiavelli’s writing about individualism in The Prince is relevant to people who are not princes because Machiavelli’s main themes are applicable to people of all types. To prove this I have organized my paper into four main sections. Section one- Machiavelli’s History, will move toward the thesis by showing that Machiavelli’s life experience was not that of royalty. Section two- Individualism, will show how Machiavelli’s writing was individualistic, and how that relates to modern people. Section three- The Prince, will explore the main themes of Machiavelli’s chief written work, creating the basis of comparison between Machiavelli’s writing and modern life. Section four- Machiavelli in Business, relates the themes of section three to modern business.
Section one- Machiavelli’s History
Niccolo Machiavelli was born a citizen of Florence during a very turbulent period of constant political struggles. His father was a lawyer with a serious debt problem, and as such, he was without the money to give young Niccolo a proper education. Niccolo taught himself what he could with the few books found in the house. As soon as he was old enough, he took a position as a government clerk. He slowly moved up through the Florentine political ranks until the Florentine Republic was declared. With the switch in government, Niccolo received his first position of true power as a member of the Florentine “Counsel Of Ten,” which took on management of the foreign and domestic affairs. (C4.)
During the years to come, while under the employment of the Florentine Republic, Machiavelli took part in a multitude of diplomatic missions to neighboring kingdoms such as France. (Strathern, p.28) Through these travels Machiavelli observed many different types of rulers with many different political theories. His observations of these many different doctrines would make up the great body of his later work. (Wood, p. 505)
Sadly, Machiavelli fell on hard times when the powerful Medici family took hold of Florence. Machiavelli was striped of position and briefly imprisoned and tortured. Upon his release, Machiavelli became depressed and fought a battle with financial hardship. He was forced to live on a small estate outside of the city called Sant’Andrea. While there he wrote his most famous works, including The Prince. Despite the proclamation of a second republic in Florence, Machiavelli was not offered a job. Heartbroken, he was seized by illness and died soon thereafter. (Wood, p.506)
Machiavelli never himself occupied the position of Prince. (Wood, p. 506) His political doctrine was based on historical events and personal observations. Machiavelli was little more than a common man and as such his work is applicable to all common men. (Strathern, p.8) For each point he makes he provides the reader with a historical analogy from a third person perspective. His books do not hold first hand experiences of what he did as a prince, because he never had that experience. All writers incorporate some of their life into their work. This being the case, we can say that parts of The Prince incorporate the life of a man who was not royalty. (Wood, p. 507)
Section two- Individualism
Machiavelli held the belief that your principle goal, as prince, is to maintain power, and manage your people to your personal best interests. The idea that any man could use all his resources to better himself, was a concept nonexistent during the Middle Ages. (Strathern, p.6) This idea came into prominence during the Renaissance as the cornerstone of an individualistic brand of philosophy what is now called egoism. Individualism is the doctrine that all humans are free to make their own choices and live as they want. Egoism takes this idea one step further by saying that all individual actions are rightly motivated by individual self-interests. A person who is an egoist will make all of his or her decisions based on whether they adhere to his or her personal agenda. (C3.)
This idea angered many people of Machiavelli’s time. His individualistic writings were not only selfish, in the eyes of many, but his doctrine also said that humans control the path their lives take, not God. Machiavelli does concede that there are certain events that people have no control over, such as weather, but even there he gives no credit to an Almighty Power. (C2.)
Machiavelli’s individualistic ideas are more common today than ever before. People must choose what car to drive, where to live, or how they want to earn a living. When making these decisions we are mindful of the fact that in the past (and presently in some countries), these and other decisions like them, have been settled by lords, dictators, or tradition. (C3.) All the people on earth are afforded some choices in life, and wishing to live a happier existence, they pose the same question Machiavelli asked three hundred and fifty years ago, which path will give me the greater benefit? (V, p.XIII)
Section three- The Prince
The following are themes of The Prince. Machiavelli put his doctrine on paper in the early sixteenth century. In order to determine his relevance to common people today, one must examine these themes very closely. (C2.)
Machiavelli credited the idea that human nature has and always will remain the same. For this reason he felt comfortable using examples from biblical times to illustrate his points of view. According to Machiavelli’s logic all the characteristics he wrote of are found in humans today, because their instincts will never change. He concedes that there are exceptions where people are capable of doing benevolent or amazing feats, but by and large he viewed people as ungrateful, covetous, and insecure creatures. (Wood, p.506-507) This outlook on mankind was in part a product of personal observations. It also takes roots in the medieval church doctrine which said that Original Sin prevented the existence of pure moral behavior amongst common people. (C2.)
THE CONTRAST BETWEEN THE IDEAL AND THE REAL
Machiavelli acknowledged that in the past many brilliant men had attempted to simplify government into a formula. According to him, the most important reason why his theories are superior to their prior theories, is that they are not dependent on people always acting morally and virtuously. Machiavelli has no doubt that it would be preferable to live in a world of people with perfect morals, but that world is a fantasy, and as such there is no need to dwell upon it. In the world we live in, a person puts himself at a severe disadvantage if he believes that everyone wants to do what is “right.” Machiavelli affirms the value of a ruler who appears admirable, and also is admirable, but a sovereign body who intends to stay sovereign, has no choice but to act immorally on occasion, when one’s power is at stake. (C2.)
The Italian word, “virtu” pertains to strength of character and force of will rather than righteousness, as in English. Machiavelli believed that to successfully run a government one needed great ability and bravery. In The Prince he cites Moses, Cyrus, Romulus, and Theseus as being the quintessential leaders with “virtu.” To set the foundations of a successful people an individual ruler, like a dictator or a monarch, must exhibit “virtu” of the highest form. (C2.)
Either acting as a friend or enemy of “virtu” is the presence of fortune. In every endeavor we take on as humans, there exists certain factors that cannot be controlled by any man, including those with a vast amount of virtue. Despite Machiavelli’s affirmation that the ruler with great talent and intellect is better off than those without, Machiavelli has no choice but to concede to the fact that there is a side to life over which we have little or no control. Although problems arising from variables such as transportation, lack of communication, and many infectious diseases, have diminished considerably with the help of technology, unexpected events occur very often in the modern age. As a result people find themselves in positions regardless of their “virtu.” (C2.)
The final theme which Machiavelli stressed is “patriotism”. Machiavelli’s final way to reach your personal goal is to convince others to work for your goal. Machiavelli lived in an age of military uncertainties. Armies of France, Spain, and Germany were engaged in a constant battle for complete control over Italy. He believed that the deciding factor in a military struggle was “patriotism’. (C2.) A king with an army of ten thousand whose men only fight with half their passion and heart can easily be beaten by and army of six thousand who give all they have in the battlefield. This idea of giving your all in the name of your homeland is very prevalent in the modern Olympics. The man who can endure more pain and push himself to the best of his ability will bring the honor to his country. (C1)
According to Machiavelli, if a prince is mindful of all these themes in every action he makes he will achieve personal success. (C2) As was said in section 2, Machiavelli defines personal success for a prince, as maintaining power, and managing your people to your personal best interests. (Strathern, p.6)
Section four- Machiavelli in Business
The goal of business is to gain profit. To do this a company will advertise, give away free samples, lower prices, or do just about anything that is within the constraints of the law. (V, p.81) (Of course, it is unrealistic to expect all businesses to do as the law says, but by breaking the law a business runs a high risk of having the courts cut into your profits. For this reason we can say that breaking the law is not a sound business decision, and need not discuss it further.) (McAlpine, p.64)
Regardless of their position in the business world, be they a simple secretary or a chairman of a board, “getting ahead and staying ahead” is a goal which consumes all those who have hopes and ambitions. ( One might say, it is human nature to strive for more). This passionate struggle to win a personal “pot of gold” (and the power and influence that come with it), drives people to use whatever means necessary to get what they want. If you are not willing to take whatever action is necessary to win success, then you will not achieve it. (V, p. XI)
THE CONTRAST BETWEEN THE IDEAL AND THE REAL
In theory, the company with the better product at the better price should have all the business. In reality the image of a company is oftentimes more important than it’s product or price. It is best if you have a famous name as well as a good product, but if that is not possible one would rather have a famous name. Even if your product is not better than that of your opponent you want your customers to think that it is. You will find yourself soon out of business if you do not realize that a better product is not a surefire path to success. (McAlpine, p.165-173)
No one disputes that a person can make it in business through hard work. As children we are taught that people who do the best job will succeed. Although we know this is not always true, generally, a person who is lazy and not productive can’t go anywhere in business. If you are willing to put in hours of overtime, doing your job better than any one else, people will notice. (McAlpine, p.7-10)
If you are born into a family with a business you may be assured a position in business. It takes virtu to maintain that position, but many people receive their position by mere fate. This is oftentimes a problem, that under qualified people are guaranteed a job because of who they are and who they know. (McAlpine, p.27)
“Loyalty” is of the utmost importance in business. If employers have great faith in their employees’ commitment to the business they do not need to be constantly reviewing the employees’ work. The employers are able to make better use of their time. Conversely if the employees are secure in the commitment of the employer to their workers, they will not need to worry about losing their job and can devote their time to doing their job. On the whole loyal workers make a more efficient and secure company. (McAlpine, p.89)
Machiavelli’s work was the product of a common life much like the majority of people today. All the main themes in The Prince run parallel to the main themes in the business world, just in the same way that Machiavelli’s individualistic thoughts are present in modern society. These are just a few of the many ways in which Machiavelli’s work can be a guiding force in people’s lives today. (Hart, p.I)
My intentions in this essay were neither to glorify all of Machiavelli’s tactics for success, or to vilify him as the spawn of Satan, as many have done. The true aim of this essay was to clarify the meaning of his work. It goes without saying that a man should not literally kill people to gain power in life, but rather to metaphorically kill them with smart thinking and sound judgment. His work is very useful to anyone at any time in history, just as long as his message is kept in perspective. Machiavelli never suggested that amoral behavior ought to be a way of life. He simply suggested that desperate times call for desperate measures. (McAlpine, p.XII)
At one point in The Prince, Machiavelli is quoted as saying,
“…do like the prudent archers who, the place where they intend to wound seeming too far, and knowing how far the virtu of their bow reaches, aim much higher than the destined place, not to reach such height with their arrow, but in order to be able to attain their design with the aid of such high aim.” (Machiavelli, p.21)
This quote basically sums up the message that is relevant to people today, set a goal and do whatever you need to do to attain it. Machiavelli’s writing was not about being a tyrant. It was a formula for getting things done.
Machiavelli’s name has over time become synonymous with evil deeds and deceitful actions, (Wood, p.510) because he was the first person to create theories about this subject using a rational world view. His idea of government was dependent on individualism and the idea that people control their path in life, rather than God. (C3.) Although he agreed with the Church that humans are sinful, he did not arrive at this conclusion by the Word of God. Only after careful observation of the people around him, and the application of logic did he come to this conclusion.
1. Hart, Claudia. A Child’s Machiavelli: A Primer on Power. New York: Penguin Studio, 1998.
5. V. The Mafia Manager: A Guide to the Corporate Machiavelli. Toronto: St. Martin’s Press, 1997
Computer source 1. Ames, Christopher. “Machiavelli.” Machiavelli- The Complete Site. 1999. http://www.mattbrown.net/machiavelli/others/essay2.html (16 May 1999)
C2. Grose, Philip. “Form and Structure.” Machiavelli On-line. 1999. http://www.kidzone.com/ecc/prince2.htm (16 May 1999)
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