Victor Nuovo: For Machiavelli, realism meant political survival not moral goodness

Were I able to legislate required reading in the education of every citizen, I would choose the political works of Machiavelli — The Prince and Discourses on Livy. The sober realism of both works is reason enough for my choice, but others will emerge. 
They seem on the face of it very different works because they treat contrary themes. The Prince is about principalities, or the rule of one individual whose power is unrivaled and for whom law is a mere instrument of control. The theme of Discourses on Livy is republicanism, the rule of many under the rule of law. Yet, if you read them together, their contents often overlap, and it becomes clear that The Prince is a spin-off from the much longer Discourses. 
Machiavelli does not champion one form of government over the other. Rather, he analyzes them and the circumstances where one works and the other may not, basing his judgments on historical precedent and present circumstances. In this respect, they are very similar works in method and manner. 
Machiavelli wrote them during the same period of his life. He had served for almost a decade and a half as a high official in the Florentine republic. This came to an end in 1512, when the Medici overthrew the republic and ruled the city as autocrats. Machiavelli was removed from office, imprisoned, tortured and released; whereupon he retired to his farm not far from the city. 
He greatly desired to return to an active public life; he needed employment. The Medici may have caused his downfall, but they were princes and had the power to restore his fortune. Hence, he wrote The Prince and dedicated it to Lorenzo de Medici, not the famous Lorenzo the Magnificent, but his grandson and namesake, who at the time ruled Florence with support from his uncle, Pope Leo X. The tone of The Prince is sober and, even clinical, until the final chapter, in which Machiavelli expresses the urgent hope that a princely figure will raise an army from the people and free Italy from her foreign oppressors.
What prompted him to write The Prince may be explained by a remark written in a chapter of the Discourses (Bk. I, Ch. 17). Machiavelli writes that when a people have become corrupt — when through selfishness, resentment, indifference to law — the citizens of a republic lose the ability to act as citizens and to govern themselves, their political health and freedom can be restored only by a power independent of themselves; that is, by a prince, who “with enormous power” restores the rule of law and revives the customs and way of life to undergird them. He did not believe that republican rule was likely to be restored in Florence, his native city, in any other way, and he was pessimistic even about that.
But The Prince is not a manifesto. In his writings, Machiavelli always remains cool and analytic. In a letter to a friend, he confesses that politics or political commentary fills his mind every day, all day long, and that he can think or talk about nothing else. Politics was not mere curiosity, but an existential anguish that prompted him. His letters are ample proof. They are filled with political analyses and draft policies. He writes passionately, to be sure, but, as one biographer put it, it was a controlled passion that steeled his intellect and gave a knife-edge to his thoughts, enabling him to cut ever deeper into political reality past and present. If one must live in time, then one must become a master of it.
So how should a prince rule? 
In a princely manner, of course. 
But what is that? 
It involves virtue and facing up to fortune. However, by virtue, Machiavelli means something different from what Plato or Aristotle meant; he meant a capability to prevail over all the machinations of one’s rivals and to withstand the setbacks of fate or fortune, indeed to exploit them. A prince’s virtue consists of the cunning of a fox and the ferocity of a lion, of cool reason and a readiness to act boldly, and having a desire to do great things. It includes also an iron will and exquisite self control. 
These are the virtues of Machiavelli’s prince. Moral goodness is not his goal, rather it is the survival of his princedom.
“The divide that separates how one lives and how one ought to live is such that anyone who abandons what needs to be done in favor of what ought to be done achieves his downfall rather than his preservation. A man who wishes to profess [moral] goodness at all times will come to ruin among so many who are not good. Therefore, it is necessary for a prince who wishes to maintain himself to learn how not to be good, and to use this knowledge or not to use it according to necessity.”
For Machiavelli, much depends upon how one discerns political necessity. It is not a matter of having clear values on which to base one’s judgments of what is to be done; political judgment derives from clearly discerning one’s situation, from a knowledge of past successes and failures, and from one’s own experience. Nor is it true that Machiavelli was advocating mere immorality. He was not a proponent of political wickedness or of political egomania. He was a realist, who perceived the inherent conflicts and moral ambiguity in political action. 
One last point. I remarked earlier that what may have motivated Machiavelli to write The Prince was his desire to find a solution to the political disorder in his city and nation, which made them easy prey to other powers. His fear that a people may have become so corrupt that they would be unable to prevail politically led him to think it necessary to create another power — an autocracy, independent of the people, who would be their savior. 
This same problem was addressed by James Madison in the 51st Federalist Paper. Madison was well aware of Machiavelli’s solution to the problem and he rejected it. The idea of looking to a prince as a savior of the people was too dangerous to be considered. 
Rather, Madison proposed to hold fast to the rule of law, and to a fundamental law that prohibits the concentration of power in one person or agency, which is the central idea of modern republicanism. Machiavelli too recognized that a self-styled autocrat, posing as a constitutional executive, is more likely to corrupt a people than save them and may well lead them to a state that is beyond redemption. 
In these dangerous times, we must be wary of princes or demagogues bearing gifts, and also mindful of corruption in our midst.
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