The Dragonfly and Raven

The Dragonfly and Raven

Monday, May 30, 2016

How and Why Did Machiavelli's Idea of Prudence Differ from Existing Models?

The late Fifteenth Century and the beginning of the Sixteenth Century was a period of great turmoil and change on the European continent. In 1492, there was the “discovery” of the American continents by Christopher Columbus. In this time period, you also had the rise and fall of the notorious Borgia Popes, and Italian Wars, culminating with the partition of the Kingdom of Naples between France and Aragon (though this deal would eventually fall through, and Aragon would gain sole control of Naples, which would later be taken over by Castille after the Iberian Wedding. What also occurred during this time was the ousting of the Medici family from Florence, and the rise of an infamous political philosopher named Machiavelli. Machiavelli served the new Florentine government for fourteen years, acting in a role much like that of the United States' Secretary of State, until he was forced into “retirement” by the re-instillation of the Medici family by the Spanish. It was during this forced retirement that Machiavelli wrote the work that he is most famous for. Titled The Prince, this work detailed how best a ruler of a principality—that being anything state that is not republican—should act prudently. The goal of this essay will be to examine the prudence that Machiavelli prescribes in The Prince, comparing it to the established models of prudence, in particular, the model that is given by Cicero's On Duties.

To begin, let us first establish the idea of prudence that Machiavelli is setting out in The Prince. After establishing what is meant by a principality (see above), and then establishing the differences between hereditary and new principalities (hereditary being long-lasting principalities, and new being ones that are new), Machiavelli moves on to discuss the prudence associated with conquest. He promotes either the establishment of a tributary, puppet government or direct rule of newly conquered territory by moving into said territory and making it the conqueror's home. He does not recommend changing existing laws, however, as he believes that the best way to rule over a conquered population is to provide as little change as possible until one's rule is well enough established as to not have rebellious tendencies for the changing of a long-standing law, or the introduction of a new tax. Machiavelli then goes on to discuss the different ways that one can come into power, and the benefits and disadvantages that come with each means of ascension. These, while interesting, will not be discussed in the course of this essay, except in the case of the wicked ruler. The interest in the wicked ruler is not about how they come into power, but about how they hold power. According to Machiavelli, a ruler who is wicked, and comes into their power through their wickedness, is apt to rule in a cruel manner. This, to Machiavelli, is an ineffective way to rule, and he believes that by ruling in such a way, one will not be able to hold onto their power. This will be important later.

Another point that is made extremely clear by Machiavelli is that a ruler should trust nobody. This can be seen time and again throughout The Prince. It is seen when describing the way that one might come into power through installation by nobility, when discussing the use of mercenary armies to fight in wars and of auxiliary—or borrowed—armies, and when dealing with people in one's court—whether they be ministers, or merely courtiers. This distrust of the rest of the world for ruler is based off of the idea that in order to maintain power, one must not become complacent. One must always be on one's toes, and should work to address not only problems that are occurring, but any problem that could occur as well, all of which could stem out of the previously listed things that a ruler should distrust. It is from this logic that Machiavelli's infamous line on whether or not a ruler should be feared or loved is based on. In answering the question of whether a ruler should be loved or feared, he believes that rulers should aim for both, but if they cannot achieve both, that it is better to rule with the people fearing you, since one cannot trust people, as they are apt to betray you. If they live in fear of you, and not in love of you, then you as the ruler will be able to better tell who is likely to betray you, as you will not have your mind clouded by flatterers and their ilk.

Now that we have examined the distrust that Machiavelli believes is imperative for any ruler to posses, let us turn to the other traits that he believes a prudent ruler should possess, as well as some of the methodology that should be used by a ruler to exercise their power, and to cement their position. First, Machiavelli believes that a proper ruler should have a martial focus in their rule. A ruler should always be engaged in military campaigns, and if their land is not engaged in an active state of war, then rulers are to be practicing for war, and studying the art of warfare. This is because, in Machiavelli's eyes, the only way that the rulers of principalities obtain power, and therefore the only way that they maintain power, is through warfare. It is then, through this practice and study of warfare that the rulers of principalities can prepare themselves for any situations that may arise to challenge their power—and thus maintain their power.

This theme, that being of the maintaining of power, is of the utmost importance to Machiavelli. He has little concern with the actual governance of principalities. Rather, he is concerned with how a ruler can govern in a manner that secures their existing power, and that allows for avenues of expanding that power, going so far as to say that, “a ruler who wishes to maintain power must be prepared to act immorally when this becomes necessary.” For example, Machiavelli recommends the use of propaganda to drive the public to the side of the ruler. He also believes that a ruler should be ready to break their vows at any point in which honoring them would injure the ruler, but at the same time, the ruler needs to be able to come up with some sort of excuse for the breaking of the vow, in order to protect their reputation and image. This is important, because as was mentioned earlier, Machiavelli believes that being a cruel ruler is a surefire way to end one's rule. This is due to the feelings of hatred and contempt that will arise when a ruler has a cruel reputation. It is through this than that the reputation of the ruler affects their power through how it affects the stability and the unity of the realm as a whole. Because the stability and unity of the realm as a whole has an affect on the power of the ruler, it is Machiavelli's opinion that the ruler should be concerned with the unity of the realm. This is why he believes that while cruel acts are necessary, that they should come down in largely together, in confined areas, and during a small period of time. This works then to confine the cruelty, thereby preserving the reputation of the ruling, and securing the unity of the realm.

Another aspect of the maintaining power comes as a direct counter to the actions that Cicero believes that a prudent ruler should do. This contradiction to Cicero occurs when discussing the idea of generosity (or as Cicero calls it, liberality). In this, we see Machiavelli continue to preach his rhetoric of pure self-interest. To him, being generous is simply willing injuring yourself by giving away what you have. He also acknowledges, though, that being seen as generous is important, as it can help one secure and gain power. He comes up with a compromise between these two aspects of generosity then, by advising that rulers give only enough to appear generous, and no more—for what really matters, he concludes, is the appearance of virtue. For what difference is there between a generous ruler, and one that appears generous to the common man? There is none, at least to Machiavelli. This same logic applies to the other virtues that a ruler is traditionally supposed to posses—these virtues being primarily the ones that are outlined by Cicero in his On Duties, among other classical philosophers.

Now that Machiavelli's idea of how a ruler should rule prudently is established, let us look at how it compares to the existing model that is given by Cicero. To Cicero, the most important thing that any citizen can do (not just rulers) is to live up to, and fulfill their duties—with the most important of these duties being toward the Republic. Now, while Machiavelli is talking of principalities, and not of republics, this duty to the republic that Cicero is discussing can easily be applied to the duty of the ruler to the commonwealth. Having established that, the fulfillment of this duty to the commonwealth is achieved through the completion of honourable acts, which are in turn acts that are in accordance with virtue. This is in direct opposition to the model that is given by Machiavelli, who believes that only the appearance of virtue is what matters. Cicero also believes that those who strive for military command, and for honor, and for glory, are acting in a manner that is dishonourable, and thus unfit for a ruler. This then also is a point in which Machiavelli and Cicero appear to disagree on.

On the subject of cruel rulers, it would seem that Machiavelli and Cicero would tend to agree, except on one count. While they both agree that being a cruel ruler—what Cicero would call a tyrant—is wrong, Cicero would also have believed that acting cruel towards subjects at any time would be wrong as well. This is because to act cruelly is to act unjustly, which is both dishonourable and tyrannical in a ruler. Machiavelli is more of a pragmatist in this (and in most things), believing that the ends justify the means. It is because of this view of a ruler needing to do only what is honourable that Cicero would also not be able to accept that acting immorally could ever be justified. In fact, Cicero would go so far as to say that to act in such a manner actually injures a rulers position, and can end in them losing their power—such as what happened to the dictator Caesar in the Senate.

The last of the differences that will be examined between the work of Cicero and of Machiavelli is again concerning virtues. In particular, it is concerning the idea of generosity, otherwise known as liberality. As previously stated, Machiavelli believes that generosity of any kind is harmful to the person who is being generous, as it decreases their material power. At the same time, he views appearing generous as essential to maintaining goodwill. For this, Machiavelli has Cicero to thank. It was Cicero who outlined liberality as a virtue in On Duties. While he did recognize that one could be too liberal, to the detriment of themselves (and thus recommended against this level of liberality), he did not believe that being liberal in itself was harmful to individuals. In fact, he believed it was beneficial, and not only because it was virtuous, but also because one citizen being liberal would begin, in his eyes, a chain of liberality that would then seek to improve the well-being of everyone involved, and thus, the commonwealth as a whole. Machiavelli, then, is in disagreement with Cicero on this as well. It would seem to be that this disagreement, and the other disagreements that they have, stem from the interests of the two writers. Cicero is interested in the commonwealth as a whole, while Machiavelli is concerned with the ruler of the realm.

If one were to characterize the ideas of Machiavelli in The Prince, they would not be amiss in calling it a work cynical pragmatism. It is a work that is focused on the rulers of realms, and how they can maintain power. In it, Machiavelli turns away from the established model of prudent governance as established by Cicero on many counts. He disagrees with the idea that leaders should be virtuous, and that they should care for the commonwealth—instead advocating for leaders acting purely in self-interest who exhibit only the appearance of virtue. He is by no means afraid of immorality, and in fact supports it in the actions of rulers, unlike Cicero, who believes that acting against virtue is dishonourable, unjust, and tyrannical. Thus is how Machiavelli sets out his idea of prudent governance, and how it compares to the model of prudent governance that existed previously, as set out by Cicero.


Cicero. Edited by M.T. Griffin and E.M. Atkins. On Duties. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 1991. Print.

Machiavelli. Edited by Quentin Skinner and Russel Price. The Prince. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 2009. Print.