Who is Niccolo Machiavelli : End Justifying Means

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Niccolo Machiavelli, 1469-1527


Background and writings: The term Machiavellian’ is often used to describe an act that is selfish, cunning and unscrupulous. The word derives from the name of an Italian dramatist, diplomat and scholar, Niccolo Machiavelli who authored The Prince, a manual in which he outlines amoral principles whereby political power may be gained, expanded, and retained. In addition to the Prince, Machiavelli also wrote other important works such as The Discourses on the First Ten Books of Titus Livius, the History of Florence, The Art of War and a number of literary titles. Machiavelli is believed to have introduced a new method of understanding the workings of political societies through the observation of regularities to be discovered in history.

“Italy, in Machiavelli’s time, consisted of independent, disunited and quarrelling principalities which were constantly invaded by foreign powers such as Germany, France and Spain. As a patriot, Machiavelli hoped that his formulations would provide guidelines to a statesman who would rise to unite Italy and to make it as glorious as ancient Rome:

According to Hale, Machiavelli’s views in The Prince were influenced by his experience as an important official of his native state of Florence. Three of such experiences are cited as particularly important. First, is the military scandal of 1499 during which the mercenary, Paolo Vitelli, called off the attack on the city of Pisa when victory was almost certain to go to Florence, that had recruited him. Secondly, Machiavelli is believed to have been deeply hurt when, in the course of a diplomatic mission to France, he heard Italians openly mocked and his city openly derided in the

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French court for having no army of its own. Machiavelli’s meeting with Cesare Borgia who employed both force and cunning to conquer a group of territories in eastern and central Italy is also believed to have impacted on his thoughts. Machiavelli also shared the views of some Italian nationalists who resented the intrusion of the Pope in Italian politics.

The reason of state and the divorce of ethics and politics: Machiavelli’s central thesis is that any means that will assure the preservation of the state are legitimate. He states quite categorically that in the actions of rulers, “the end justifies the means. Let a prince therefore aim at conquering and maintaining the state, and the means will always be judged honourable and praised by every one.” Machiavelli does not discountenance moral values. He suggests, however, that there is not one morality but two ‘moralities’ – political morality and private morality. It is on this premise that he approves of things which are forbidden by private morality. In his view, the prince may need to employ violence, falsehood, murder, arrogance, cruelty and fraud in his quest for power and attempt to safeguard the state. He may also renege on agreements and manipulate religion for the same purposes.

Machiavelli thus separates power from morality, ethics, religion and metaphysics. He insists that the state has autonomous values of its own and that political conduct should be determined not by an appeal to Christian morality or private conscience but to raison d’etat – reason of state. The morality of the state, according to Machiavelli, is the morality of success in defending itself, and guaranteeing the safety of its people. In view of this, a statesman cannot afford to adhere to the standards of private morality. He must have his own army and not depend on allies or mercenaries.

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It is necessary to reiterate that Machiavelli approves the immoral acts of the prince only as a means of saving the state. However, his philosophy has been used to justify all of forms of political villainy for self-centred reasons. Although some of his observations are shocking, they help underline the level of deception and decadence into which men can sink in order to acquire power and sustain themselves in authority.

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