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Machiavelli: Principality and Republic

Life and Works
. . The Prince
. . Leadership
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Among the most widely-read of the Renaissance thinkers was Niccolò Machiavelli, a Florentine politician who retired from public service to write at length on the skill required for successfully running the state. Impatient with abstract reflections on the way things "ought" to be, Machiavelli focussed on the way things are, illustrating his own intensely practical convictions with frequent examples from the historical record. Although he shared with other humanists a profound pessimism about human nature, Machiavelli nevertheless argued that the social benefits of stability and security can be achieved even in the face of moral corruption.

In 1513 Machiavelli wrote his best-known work, Il Principe (The Prince). Dedicated to Lorenzo de' Medici, this little book offers practical advice on how to rule a city like sixteenth-century Florence. Its over-all theme is that the successful prince must exhibit virtù [variously translated as "strength," "skill," or "prowess"] in both favorable and adverse circumstances. This crucial quality of leadership is not the same as the virtuous character described by ethical philosophers, since Machiavelli held that public success and private morality are entirely separate. The question is not what makes a good human being, but what makes a good prince.

Since all governments are either republics or principalities, Machiavelli noted, their people will be accustomed either to managing their own affairs or to accepting the leadership of a prince. (For that reason, the safest princes are those who inherit their rule over people used to the family.) A prudent leader, however, will be able to anticipate problems long before they actually arise, using virtù to forestall what would otherwise be great difficulties. Whatever vitality a former republic may have, then, Machiavelli counselled that it either be destroyed or ruled carefully by a resident prince. (Prince 5)

One of the most obvious ways of doing so is by the careful use of military forces, and to this Machiavelli devoted great attention. In fact, in a separate work entitled L'Arte della guerra (The Art of War) (1520) he offered extensive advice on the acquisition, management, and employment of the army of the state. In The Prince he was content to distinguish types of forces which one might acquire, noting the advantages and disadvantages of each, and to emphasize that such matters are the most vital component of any prince's interest. (Prince 14)

Leadership Qualities

Machiavelli's insistence on the practicality of his political advice is most evident in his consideration of the personality, character, and conduct of the successful ruler. (Prince 15) No matter what idealistic notions are adopted as principles of private morality, he argued, there is no guarantee that other people will follow them, and that puts the honorable or virtuous individual at a distinct disadvantage in the real world. In order to achieve success in public life, the ruler must know precisely when and how to do what no good person would ever do.

Although private morality may rest on other factors—divine approval, personal character, or abstract duties, for example—in public life only the praise and blame of fellow human beings really counts. Thus, Machiavelli supposed, the ruler needs to acquire a good reputation while actually doing whatever wrong seems necessary in the circumstances. (Prince 18) Thus, rulers must seem to be generous while spending their money wisely, appear to be compassionate while ruling their armies cruelly, and act with great cunning while cultivating a reputation for integrity. Although it is desirable to be both loved and feared by one's subjects, it is difficult to achieve both, and of the two, Machiavelli declared, it is far safer for the ruler to be feared. (Prince 17)

Since the modern state is too complex to be managed by any single human being, the effective ruler will naturally need to have advisors who assist in governance. Choosing the right people for these jobs and employing their services appropriately, Machiavelli supposed, is among the practical skills most clearly associated with good leadership. (Prince 22) A good ruler will invariably choose competent companions who offer honest advice in response to specific questions and carry out the business of the state without regard for their private interests; such people therefore deserve the rewards of honor, wealth, and power that unshakably secure their devotion to the leader. Ineffective leaders, on the other hand, surround themselves with flatterers whose unwillingness to provide competent advice is a mark of their princes' inadequacy.

All of this talk about skillful leadership would be pointless, of course, if human beings do not in fact have control over their own actions, but must constantly live at the mercy of blind fate or fortune. In the end, Machiavelli argued that even if sheer luck determines the greater portion of our destinies, we can still take full responsibility for whatever remains. (Prince 25) Acknowledging the possibilities for failure, the skillful ruler does better to act boldly than to try to calculate every possible eventuality.

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Last modified 12 November 2011.
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