Western Civilization I, Week 32 – Machiavelli

(1) What are some of the qualities and strategies Machiavelli recommends to political leaders in the excerpts you read? How does this represent a break with the past?

    Machiavelli’s writings teach not to view politicians as bad politicians because of their lying, deceit, or unpleasantness. In his eyes, a good politician is not one who is kind, honest, and transparent, but rather one that can defend, enrich, and bring honor to the state, no matter how sleazy he may be at times. Machiavelli believes that while kindness as a virtue is good, what citizens need out of a ruler is effectiveness, which may call for ruthlessness and darkness. In his two most famous writings, the Prince, and Discourses, Machiavelli writes that it may very well be impossible to be a good politician and a good person in the Christian sense at the same time. He thought that politicians should be neither so soft that their subjects think they can get away with disobeying him, yet not so harsh that his subjects are disgusted by him. He should be unapproachably strict but still reasonable. When asked if a ruler should be loved or feared, he answered that it is safer to err on the side of fear, even though it would be nice to be both feared and loved.

    One example of a politician who tried to be both a good politician and a good Christian at the same time. Girolamo Savonarola was Dominican friar who managed to become leader of Florence for a time and was actually able to lead a peaceful, relatively honest, democratic state. However, as Machiavelli diagnosed, his rule was short lived. Savonarola was hung and burned in front of his citizens a few months after becoming ruler by the henchmen of the corrupt pope of the time. Machiavelli accredited this failure to the fact that Savonarola’s regime was based on the weak spot of trying to be a good Christian while running the state.

    The Machiavellian view can be applied to the lives of anyone, not just politicians. Machiavelli’s writings feature “ethical tradeoffs” where the right thing to do must be traded for effectiveness and efficiency. For example, sometimes it is necessary to lie to keep a relationship working, or it is necessary to sacrifice kindness for practical effectiveness in situations such as war. Sometimes it is necessary to ignore the feelings of an employee to keep a business going, or a state running smoothly. Machiavelli’s view is essentially that you cannot always do the right thing, as it is not always the right time or place to do the right thing. This is why “nice guys” fail politics.

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