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Machiavelli’s True Intention

September 22, 2010

First, I want to begin by paraphrasing Machiavelli’s “Chapter seventeen: about cruelty and compassion; and about whether it is better to be loved than feared, or the reverse” (35). Basically, in this infamous section of The Prince, Machiavelli is saying that it is better to be mean to your subjects and be seen as a threat– a force to reckon with and a difficult challenge to defeat– than a lovable, soft friend. His basis behind this argument is that if you don’t make sure that people understand that they should not rise up against you, they will do so, and then you’ll be screwed over.

This seems like good advice, if his job is to make sure his employer– in this case, the Medici dynasty– stays in power. However, closer examination of this passage has led me to believe that perhaps that was not Machiavelli’s true intention. To begin, Machiavelli makes several should-be infuriating statements about the nature of man. He starts by explaining the faultiness of relying on people to be good to those who were good to them, instead of taking advantage of others:

For love attaches men by ties of obligation, which, since men are wicked, they break whenever their interests are at stake. But fear restrains men because they are afraid of punishment… (36).

This assumption tells the supposed audience of would-be rulers and world conquerors that people are generally weak-willed, disloyal, and selfish. After reading this passage, I immediately felt that if I could confront Machiavelli, I would tell him that he was wrong, because I do not think (and I do not hope!) that I am that way at all. It seems like he has little to no faith in humanity!

Next, Machiavelli advises to the Lorenzo de Medici’s of the world:

Keep your hands off people’s property; for men are quicker to forget the death of their father than the loss of their inheritance (36).

Once again, I was shocked at reading this. Machiavelli seems to think that all people are shallow and apparently, value their possessions more than the closest kin! I was once again, compelled to confront him. I would certainly rather have my father alive than have my bank account.

Finally, Machiavelli ends the chapter by explaining,

A wise ruler should rely on the emotion he can control [fear], not on the one he cannot. But he must take care to avoid being hated… (36).

This is the final trump card he plays against the common people: how can it be that after all the horrible, evil things that he tells rulers that they can and should do (for example, stealing and murder), Machiavelli believes that people would not hate someone so ruthless and cold-hearted? This is a stab at the morals of the general public. After reading this, I wanted to reassess my own thoughts and beliefs. I believe that it is wrong to merely fear someone who is as violent and cruel as the ideal tyrant Machiavelli describes, and I should hope that in general, most citizens would agree.

Ultimately, this leads me to my final conclusion: perhaps Machiavelli’s true intention is to awaken some passion in the people that read The Prince. Perhaps this piece is not directed at an audience of power-hungry, blood-thirsty tyrants after all. It could very well be directed at you and me.

One Comment
  1. mikeking0717 permalink
    October 8, 2010 2:39 AM

    The argument that has been laid out here is a great example of looking at Machiavelli’s work between the lines. It is very possible that his true intentions were in fact to expose the immoral realities that defined the rulers of the time.

    On the other hand, Machiavelli’s advice does make some logical sense. Although you made it clear that there are surely some people to whom his words are non-applicable, there are also some cases where people will choose selfishness over love or property over people. Machiavelli’s reoccurring theme throughout the book was that a Prince should never be unprepared. And it is for this reason that the last quote you presented makes sense. A ruler can try to rule by means of love, but there are no guarantees that a person won’t put his own interests over the affection of his sovereign. Control by fear, on the other hand, is something that on can place a fair deal of security in.

    How exactly Machiavelli intended his writing to be interpreted may never be known, but it is through looking at his work from all angles that we can better understand the messages that he potentially had.

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