Where is the Common Good in Machiavellis Prince

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In the Discourses1, on Livy Machiavelli argues that the purpose of politics is to promote a ‘common good’. This essay shall show how this statement relates to the ideas presented in The Prince2.

Niccolo Machiavelli was born in Florence in 1469 and died there in 1527. This was a very turbulent time in Italy. No central government existed; however, each district had its own leader. Some of these leaders were oligarchic, others dictatorial. In addition, France and Spain were making hegemonic attacks upon Italy, against which she was unable to defend herself due to the internal political instability. For a time, Machiavelli worked for the Borgia family in Rome as political advisor. The head of which was the Pope, Alexander Borgia.

His eldest son, Cesare Borgia, was a heartless rebel and his daughter had reputedly poisoned several husbands in order to secure more wealth for her family. Machiavelli saw that although all around him anarchy was the order of the day, the Borgia family managed to hold on to power very well. It was on their practices that he based his ironically-titled, famous work, The Prince3, which he wrote to ingratiate himself with the ruling Medici family.4 It is for this reason that the work differs so sharply from the Discourses, in which it is believed he expressed his personally held views when he cites the best political system to be a republic.5

The Prince was written at the end of 1513 and the Discourses on Livy were written over a longer period from approximately 1515 to 1518. Both pieces were published posthumously in 1531.6 But while The Prince focussed on attributes a statesman should employ in order to retain power; the Discourses was written for the citizen who wished to live a life of liberty free from interference from the state. Machiavelli advocated the idea of a republic where checks and balances were put into the system; he particularly liked the ‘tribunes of the plebs’ (lower classes) in Rome who kept a check on the grandi (upper classes).7

Machiavelli was a realist.8 He wanted to write,

‘something useful for anyone who understands it’ for ‘there is such a gap between how one lives and how one ought to live that anyone who abandons what is done for what ought to be done learns his ruin rather than his preservation: for a man who wishes to profess goodness at all times will come to ruin among so many who are not good. Hence it is necessary for a prince who wishes to maintain his position to learn how not to be good, and to use this knowledge or not to use it according to necessity.’9

How then can this art of maintaining power by cunning and ruthlessness; Machiavelli’s idea of virtue, be reconciled with promoting the common good? Crick and Walker perceive this common good as nothing more than the aggregate good of the population; that there is no direct philosophical discussion in the Discourses on what this common good actually is.11 Fontana’s view is that, ‘Machiavelli attempts to construct, or to reconstruct, a politics directed toward… the common good. According to Viroli, for Machiavelli ‘politics pertains only to the preservation of a community of men grounded on justice and the common good.”12 This is what Rousseau (1712-1778) was later to call the ‘general will’.13

In the broadest sense, the maintenance of power by one Sovereign (be that an individual or a group) ensures order in society and prevents a state of anarchy from occurring. This idea is referred to as ‘the State of Nature’ by Hobbes (1588-1679) in his work Leviathan. Although written some time later, Hobbes argued that obedience to the Sovereign should be man’s highest moral purpose, as in his mythical State of Nature the life of man would be ‘solitary, poore, nasty, brutish and short’.14 Hobbes’ State of Nature was akin to that of a Civil War of which the Italian Renaissance resembled and through which Machiavelli lived. Machiavelli asserts that, ‘You must never allow disorder to develop in an attempt to avoid war, as this way you are not escaping war, but simply postponing it to your own disadvantage.’15 Russell sums up Machiavelli’s thoughts on this as follows:

‘There are certain political goods, of which three are specially important: national independence, security, and a well-ordered constitution. The best constitution is one which apportions legal rights among prince, nobles, and people in proportion to their real power, for under such a constitution successful revolutions are difficult and therefore stability is possible; but for considerations of stability, it would be wise to give more power to the people.’16

A recurrent theme throughout The Prince is the subject of maintaining a cohesive society. Within hereditary states Machiavelli argues that, ‘If unusual vices do not make him hated, it is to be expected he will be loved by his people.’17 And in mixed principalities he argues that provided the people’s customs and language are similar, and no great change is made to their lives once they are conquered, they will get along quite peacefully.18 Where the populace love their leader, dissent is less likely and therefore the people should have happier and more peaceful lives.19

Once power is seized, Machiavelli advises that the statesman should live in his principality in order to prevent corruption in his absence and also to ‘recognize evolving ills in advance’ for ‘if they are left to develop until they are plain for all to see, it will be too late for remedies.’20 This is an example of good governance, of the leader taking a healthy interest in the maintenance of order of both the nobility and the general public. This could be compared with Bentham’s panoptical idea of surveillance. If the subjects know that the prince and his entourage is in the locality they will be more likely to behave.21

There are many examples on what may be considered utilitarian theory in The Prince22. Machiavelli cites historical examples to back up his claims throughout the work, and one such illustration is where Cesare Borgia conquers the Romagna. The previous rulers had not cared about the people at all and thought only of themselves, thus there was disharmony amongst the general public and a hatred of the governing classes. Borgia therefore charged a strong man, Ramiro de Lorqua, with restoring peace to the community via any means necessary. However, once this had been achieved, de Lorqua was a hated figure due to the violent methods he had employed, so Borgia had him tried in court and executed in the main square. ‘The brutality of this spectacle left the people both stunned and appeased.’23 A further example can be found in Chapter 17:

‘A prince, therefore, must not fear being reproached for cruelty when it is a matter of keeping his subjects united and loyal, because with a few exemplary executions he will be more merciful than those who, through too much mercy, allow the kind of disorder to spread that gives rise to plunder and murder. This harms the whole community, while an execution ordered by a prince harms only a single individual.’24

According to Fontana:

‘The use of rhetoric and deception to persuade and to lead the masses produces both an economy and a concentration of force: the more organized the masses are, the more focused and intense the violence, the more powerful and durable will be its effects, and the less necessary its use.’25

Although Machiavelli primarily focuses on the maintenance of power, he also speaks about keeping a check on the powerful. He cites France’s parlement as keeping a check on the nobles’ ambitions whilst also assuaging the populace, so that neither faction sees the King as favouring the other. As previously discussed, in order to maintain stability, it is essential for a prince to be loved by his subjects. Machiavelli contends that, ‘What will make him hated above all… is rapaciousness and seizing the property and women of his subjects, which he must refrain from.’26

Machiavelli makes clear how important it is to be well versed in the art of war. ‘A prince who does not understand military matters will not be respected by his soldiers and cannot trust them.’27 Having a strong army has several advantages including serving to keep the peace within the population but they also act as a deterrent to would-be aggressors from outside the principality. Alas, this bodes for a more peaceful society and therefore less bloodshed. Again, Machiavelli cites an historical example, Prince Philopoemen of Achaeans, who throughout times of peace was always preparing for war, and in this way he did a good job of defending the populace.28

Finally, Machiavelli is concerned that the prince should distribute state funds wisely. In his chapter ‘Of Generosity and Parsimony’, he stresses that taxes should not be incurred too harshly merely to placate a few with generosity. It is better to be considered miserly yet be able to run the kingdom well and be able to protect it from invaders should the need arise.29

In conclusion, although Machiavellian politics may initially appear to involve much deception, trickery and in certain circumstances wickedness; his work does overall provide a framework for a more stable and peaceful society, perhaps one could say, he is even utopian30. In providing for a strong army, the prevention of war and disorder is achieved. By being parsimonious state funds are spent well. With the public punishment of a very small number the prevention of disarray and murder for the many is prevented. Machiavelli saw the Church as merely another political body vying for power. ‘Persuasion and good example were the only tools available to this clerical body.’31 Machiavelli’s common good in The Prince32 was therefore brought about by his realism and acceptance of how man truly is rather than on a theological ideal33.

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