Machiavelli’s Moral Basis


While avoiding all absolute and unchanging moral principles, Machiavelli judged actions as good or bad based on the consequences. “As to the actions of all men and especially of princes, . . . everybody looks at their result.” The result that Machiavelli most sought was not an absolute and timeless good, but the common good or public good, variously expressed throughout The
Discourses especially - but also other writings - as bene commune, publica utilità, commune utilità, or salute della patria.
    If one judges political actions by consequences, then, Machiavelli suggested, one must be willing sometimes to use political means that are violent, cruel, or commonly thought of as immoral. Quentin Skinner has noted that Machiavelli agreed with his contemporaries that the proper political goals are “honour, glory, and fame.” But Machiavelli scoffed at the widespread belief that one could always attain such ends by being humane and pious. Hence, Machiavelli offered his famous advice that a prince “must acquire the power to be not good, and understand when to use it and when not to use it, in accord with necessity.” In other words, a political and/or a military leader must recognise that to accomplish something good or great or glorious - something ‘grand and magnificent’- such as founding a new state or establishing the rule of law or saving an army, one must be willing to dirty one’s hands with means commonly thought to be immoral, actions that one would probably never even consider in one’s private life. Machiavelli made his case plainly. “And it is essential to realise this: that a prince, and above all a prince that is new, cannot practice all those things for which men are considered good, being often forced, in order to keep his position, to act contrary to truth, contrary to charity, contrary to humanity, contrary to religion.”
   This moral position is unsettling and disturbing to us, although that does not mean that it is wrong. If one wants to accomplish some good, Machiavelli argued, then sometimes - by no means always - one must be willing to undertake what would be widely regarded as an evil or immoral action. Consider one example from The Art of War. “Sertorius, fighting a battle in Spain, killed one who reported the death of one of his officers, for fear if he said the same
thing to others, he would dismay them.” In other words, to save his army from possible panic and defeat, Sertorius committed the ‘immoral’ action of summary execution.
  In The History of Florence, one can see that the two evils Machiavelli feared most were tyrants, de.ned as a prince ruling with the help of rapacious nobles, and the violent lawlessness that characterised much of Florence’s history.  Consider the first evil. To defeat tyranny, one must sometimes act in a violent and destructive manner, and Machiavelli criticised his friend Pietro
Soderini, who headed the Florentine Republic from 1502-1512, because he was such a ‘good’ man - kind, humane, pious - that he brought ruin to himself and the Florentine people. Put bluntly, Soderini could only have saved his republic and brought about the general good of Florence by killing and/or exiling the leaders of the Florentine nobility, especially the Medici.
Pietro Soderini . . . acted in all his affairs with kindness and patience. Prosperity came to him and his native city while the times were in harmony with his way of acting, but when afterward times came in which he needed to break off his patience and humility, he could not do it. Hence, along with his city, he fell. Or, as Machiavelli noted in The Discourses, to save the Roman Republic, Brutus was willing to “condemn his sons to death” - because his sons wished to establish a tyranny - and anyone “who sets a state free, but does not kill Brutus’ sons, maintains himself but a little while.”
      In The History of Florence, Machiavelli recounts a relentless parade of violent chaos, a terrifying lawlessness that prevailed in Florence and in Italy decade after decade - violent changes of regimes, wars among city states, fights between factions, arbitrary arrests, assassinations, torture, and so on. Although Machiavelli’s fondest wish was for establishing a republic modelled after
ancient Rome, at the very least he wanted an effective prince who would rule by clear and effective laws. To accomplish this much, Machiavelli argued one would probably need violence and what the world would call cruelty. In The Prince he distinguished between cruelties that are ‘well used’ and those that are ‘badly used.’
Well used we call those (if of what is bad we can use the word well) that a conqueror carries out at a single stroke, as a result of a need to secure himself, but then does not persist in, but transmutes into the greatest possible benefits to his subjects. Badly used are those which, though few in the beginning, rather increase with time than disappear.
A leader must undertake the necessary cruelties all at once, but “benefits are to be conferred little by little, so they will be savoured more.” In Machiavelli’s topsy-turvy world in which what the many ordinarily call ‘good’ can bring disaster to a city whereas what is commonly regarded as
‘bad’ can result in the common good, Machiavelli literally stated that cruelty, if well committed, can in fact be merciful. A wise prince, then, is not troubled about a reproach for cruelty for which he keeps his subjects united and loyal because, giving a very few examples of cruelty, he is much more merciful than those who, through too much mercy let evils continue, from which result murders or plunder. This is one of the key reasons that Machiavelli has been called evil and immoral, that is, because he judged actions - the means - by the results or the end, because he claimed that sometimes what is called evil can bring about consequences that are good, and because he said that violence and cruelty if used properly can sometimes have the consequence of dramatically reducing violence and cruelty. Machiavelli saw himself as realistic, someone
dealing with real experience in the political world and not dreaming up ideal states with one’s imagination, ideal states that might offer the picture of kindness and goodness, but which had no use in reshaping or reforming the brutal realities of Renaissance Italy.

Tuesday, 04th Feb 2014, 08:11:03 AM

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