Many scholars interpreted Niccolò Machiavelli’s ideas differently, and even today, there is no consensus on whether his views of political behaviors were reasonable or morally unacceptable, right or false. For instance, Leo Strauss, Ernst Cassirer, and Sheldon Wolin conducted the analyses of The Prince and Machiavelli’s main arguments made in the writing and obtained disparate results as well. At the same time, it is possible to say that the interpretation provided by Ernest Cassirer seems to be the most valid as it captures the motivations behind the creation of The Prince well. The author stated, that when writing the book, Machiavelli was not concerned with the issue of morality but primarily aimed to compose a technical guide to politics. This argument will be explained and justified in the present paper.
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Machiavelli was a theoretical politician and, for a significant time, served as an Italian diplomat. Not only did he investigate multiple historical examples of successful and unsuccessful rulers but he also personally knew many politicians during his life. Thus, he gained substantial experience in diplomatic and political matters, which he expressed on the pages of The Prince. Therefore, one should look at the treaties merely as a practical guide. It had the purpose of helping politicians to preserve their position of power in the long term and to develop sustainable relationships with various stakeholders. As Cassirer validly claims, Machiavelli merely “tells the ruler what he has to do in order to establish and maintain his power, to avoid inner discords, to foresee and prevent conspiracies” (167). In this way, from Machiavelli’s perspective, even cruelty and violence are justified when they are used as a means to attain political goals. Even though present-day readers may perceive such ideas as detrimental to the well-being of communities and individuals, Machiavelli was convinced that immoral and cruel behaviors were an intrinsic part of political affairs. Thus, as a technical and practical guide to politics, The Prince contains recommendations that may now be viewed as immoral.
When it comes to the interpretations by Strauss and Wolin that are considered less valid in the present paper, they seem to explain Machiavelli’s intentions insufficiently. For example, Strauss primarily evaluated The Prince from the ethical perspective and stated that the diplomat’s ideas were irreligious and immoral (12). However, Machiavelli was not just a preacher of violence but also encouraged rulers to promote goodwill among citizens by treating them fairly as much as possible and avoiding unreasonable cruelty that can cause hatred. For instance, “if it is necessary to execute anyone, it should be done only if there is a proper justification and obvious reason” (Machiavelli 59). Overall, although Machiavelli defends the rational use of violence and various coercive measures by rulers, it is still inappropriate to view his ideas as immoral and irreligious because The Prince was created in the political context and not in the religious one.
As for the interpretation by Wolin, he considered that Machiavelli primarily focused on violence and its moderate use as efficient means for obtaining the desired results. The abovementioned direct quotation from Machiavelli verifies Wolin’s assumption. Nevertheless, Wolin’s interpretation is incomplete since it misses out the element of fortune that Machiavelli saw as an important factor in political events as well. Machiavelli wrote, “fortune is an arbiter of half our actions,” whereas the other half can be controlled (85). Thus, one of the main virtues of rulers is the skill to foresee unexpected events and not just the ability to instill fear in people in a rational manner.
Based on the discussion of three different interpretations of The Prince, it is valid to conclude that the treaties should not be evaluated in the religious or ethical contexts. Instead, it must be approached as a practical guide to politics. Though present-day readers may view Machiavelli’s suggestions as immoral, it is important to remember that the book was written in a different historical reality and pursued very specific purposes of helping rulers to preserve their power and achieve political stability.