By Charles Mathewes, Ph.D., University of Virginia
In his work, The Prince, Italian philosopher Machiavelli tells rulers and princes how not to be good in order to maintain peace and stability in the state. But what did Machiavelli actually mean by that? Did he want the princes to be bad? Or, is there another explanation?
Many people who have read Machiavelli’s The Prince believe that the text talks about strategies about being wicked and an immoral prince or ruler. However, that is not true.
Machiavelli Makes a Basic Point
The basic point that Machiavelli was trying to make was not about teaching people how to be evil. Machiavelli felt the need to teach the princes the ways of how not to be good so that they did not become completely evil. Machiavelli was trying to say that the most powerful medicine against a prince or a ruler’s corruption is the ability to learn how to control those situations where dirty deeds have to happen.
In such situations, it will always be easy for princes to feel like they are in some sense staining their souls. Machiavelli wanted to give them an account of how they may have to do certain acts that everyone would agree are evil, but in a way that enabled them to understand the necessity of doing those acts for the good of the state as a whole. He wanted to teach rulers how to be evil in a cold-blooded way so that evil does not infect them and make them entirely evildoers.
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Evil Is Not Always Cold-blooded
An interesting challenge to Machiavelli was that a lot of evil, even in political terms, is not very cold-blooded. A lot of the evil that people experience in the world and in themselves is not a matter of cold and calculated rational deliberation. Machiavelli was asking for a level of psychological distance, frostiness, and alienation from those around a prince on a level that is impossible for at least almost every human being. Can princes be expected to be self-mutilating in such a way?
Machiavelli might reply that may be so, but that is why being a prince is so hard. In a way he needs to become inhuman, to make a stone of his heart, and the reality of princedom is that stony-heartedness. For Machiavelli, it is unwise to try to disguise that; it is better to recognize the realities of what being a prince entails before a prince begins that task when he has time to prepare and consider. This is why, along with saying a prince must learn how not to be good, he also says a prince must love his city more than his soul.
This is a transcript from the video series Why Evil Exists. Watch it now Wondrium.
A New Stage in Thinking about Evil
An important thing to note about Machiavelli was that he inaugurated a new stage in thinking about evil because he was the first major thinker for whom the past as past was a real issue—not as what the tradition has given people from the past, but what they can seek out and find in that past and what resources can be mined from there.
Until now, thinkers have gained access to the whole sum of past wisdom about evil through their immediate predecessors in the form of tradition, which their teachers taught them was relevant about the past.
For instance, Saint Thomas Aquinas and Saint Anselm of Canterbury, both of whom were influential Italian theologians, philosophers, and monks, accessed the history of thinking about evil through their teachers. They thought through how Augustine, for example, gave them a picture of the past. This is a powerful way that the past influences these thinkers so that Anselm or Aquinas and other similar thinkers are historically minded in a way. But, they found in that past precisely what their direct teachers taught them was there to find.
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What about Medieval Political Thinkers?
Machiavelli was the first person to attempt to reach back behind the immediate past in his context, behind the medieval tradition of the mirrors of princes, to recover a more usable past than the one that that tradition offered him. He brushed aside the outstretched hands of the medieval political thinkers that are filled with riches of the tradition that they want to give him.
He reached around them, behind those thinkers to recover what those thinkers obscure and obstruct in the very effort of trying to give him what they want to give him. Machiavelli did not want their tradition, he wanted to take from the past, especially past Greek and Roman thinkers, a new kind of tradition, something new that they had that the medieval did not access, this kind of darker picture of what politics is about.
There are two important things about this. One implication of it is about the past and one implication for the future. First about the past. The paradigm of appealing to a deep past as a more useful resource than the immediate past, eschewing a tradition that one begins from, is a very Renaissance sort of move.
Secondly, this very view of reaching back to the past in this way assumes some sort of real break, a rupture between the past and the present and the future, some profound way that the challenges we face need new thinking, and that the past that is immediately available to us, the past of tradition, what tradition wants to give us, is no longer useful for that new thinking. The point of the appeal to the deep past that Machiavelli makes here is to better equip the rulers for the future.
Common Questions about Machiavelli’s Teachings to the Princes on Evil
According to Machiavelli, the most powerful medicine against a prince or a ruler’s corruption is the ability to learn how to control those situations where dirty deeds have to happen.
For Machiavelli, the past was a real issue—not what the tradition has given people from the past, but what they can find in past and what resources can be mined from there.
The point of the appeal to the deep past that Machiavelli makes in The Prince is to better equip the rulers for the future.