iccolò Machiavelli was the most important political thinker not just of his time, but probably in History too. Few scholars’ works are studied nowadays in such detail as Machiavelli’s. The Italian philosopher is known mainly for his theory about political leadership. He was the first who talked about “Reason of State” and he did it back in 1513, when States were part of the personal ownership of kings and Lords. According to the theory of “Reason of State”, any means is justified if the purpose is saving the State. In 1513 this theory granted political leaders the freedom to repress any kind of political opposition, either true or alleged.
This Machiavellian theory is even more interesting if we look at Machiavelli’s personal life. At the beginning of the Sixteenth Century, Machiavelli had been an important politician in the Republic of Florence, but in 1512 the noble-family Medici took the power once again and their enemies were killed or tortured. Even though Machiavelli was tortured, one year later he wrote “The Prince”, his masterpiece, in which he suggested the theory of “Reason of State” and many other political behaviors to Lorenzo de’ Medici, the heir of the family that had tortured him.
According to Machiavelli, the only way to obtain citizens’ obedience is by making them fear the consequences of not doing so. Obedience is obtainable in a number of ways, all of which require the prince, the political leader, to have “virtù”. Machiavellian “virtù” is not the common virtue, instead, it represents all those qualities and abilities that the prince must have in order to rule effectively. Thanks to “virtù”, the prince is able not just to rule effectively, but also to not fear his enemies. In fact, “virtù” makes the prince able to turn his action from good to evil as occurrences dictate. This Machiavellian concept is known as “flexible disposition”, a sort of “carrot and stick”. The prince shall be perfectly able to understand if circumstances require the use of the carrot and when it’s necessary to use the stick. The threat of force is of extreme importance if the prince wants to be obeyed. If the ruler has acquired all these abilities, then he can be sure that his regency will last for a long period of time.
There is only one possible threat for a prince with “virtù” and that is “fortuna”. This word is not equivalent to its English translation “fortune”, nor to the same word in current Italian. Machiavellian “fortuna” can be translated into fate, a cruel fate. The coming of this fate doesn’t depend on human beings. Machiavelli links its coming to Mother Earth’s actions. “Fortuna” is something unreasonable, beyond human control, and Machiavelli makes an example of it by saying that it can be an earthquake or other kinds of natural disasters.
“I compare Fortuna with one of our destructive rivers which, when it is angry, turns the plains into lakes, throws down the trees and buildings, takes earth from one spot, puts it in another; everyone flees before the flood; everyone yields to its fury and nowhere can repel it.”
Only the wisest prince is capable of preventing the coming of “fortuna”. Machiavelli doesn’t explain how it is possible to resist “fortuna”, but nonetheless he is sure that a prince with “virtù” knows how to behave when “fortuna” comes.
Does such a prince exist?
There is uncertainty about whether Machiavelli actually believed that such a prince could exist or not. In “The Prince” he seems to imagine a human being that has developed psychology deeply different from the one known to mankind so far. At the same time, Machiavelli himself wasn’t sure that a man could be capable of generating a “flexible disposition” like the one he suggested.
Furthermore, according to some scholars “The Prince” was a pamphlet that Machiavelli wrote in order to prove his political value to the returned Medici. Anyway, Machiavelli never repudiated “The Prince” in his following writings, so we can assume that he believed in it and, consequently, he believed that such a prince could exist.
Machiavelli talks about States that are very different from the existing ones. They were personal ownership of their rulers, but today, even where there are dictatorships States, they are not part of their dictators’ wealth.
As far as “virtù” is concerned, this Machiavellian concept seems to work for dictatorships only. Machiavelli describes a political leader capable of acting in an evil way, regardless of the well-being of the common people. This cannot occur in a democracy, as the common people are those who have the power.
Also, resistance to “fortuna” is a matter of today. Obviously, we can now understand from a scientific point of view what Machiavelli intended with “fortuna” and all of us are looking forward to a world where natural disasters are prevented and lives are saved.
The most important Machiavelli’s legacy is the theory of “Reason of State”. Would you be willing to risk someone’s life if that was the only way to save your State? I guess that answers could be pretty different. Anyway, it is not important whether the theory of “Reason of State” is put in place or not; what’s important is just the fact that 500 years after its elaboration, we are still arguing about this theory.
History, Politics & Economics – A place for uncomfortable truths.