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THEMES

The following are themes of The Prince. Machiavelli wrote in the early sixteenth century, and in order to determine his relevance to government today you'll want to examine these themes, and others in The Prince, very closely. You'll want to consider whether Machiavelli accurately analyzed affairs in Renaissance Italy, and whether people and government have remained fundamentally similar-despite obvious surface changes-so that his analysis, if correct, remains helpful. People and government are all around you, so you have plenty of opportunities to test Machiavelli's theories.

1. HUMAN NATURE

Machiavelli believed that human nature does not change. This is the reason why he is equally willing to illustrate his points with examples drawn from ancient times and from his own. Although he recognized that people sometimes possessed remarkable abilities and could do admirable things, he believed that people in general were ungrateful, insincere, anxious to look out for their own safety, and greedy for gain. Machiavelli's view of human nature was based on observation, but it also comes out of the medieval Christian tradition which taught that human nature was weakened and corrupted by Original Sin. Machiavelli did not suggest that human weaknesses made government impossible, but rather that government must take account of man's real nature and use his real qualities for its purposes.

2. THE CONTRAST BETWEEN THE IDEAL AND THE REAL

Machiavelli remarked that many had written about imaginary republics and principalities in which ideal conditions existed, but that he was considering real political conditions, because he wanted to write something useful. He did not deny the attractiveness and praiseworthiness of traditional morality, but he pointed out that moral behavior can at times be a liability in politics. To the extent, then, that success in politics is desired, politics requires a different set of principles. Machiavelli asserted that it is good for the ruler to appear virtuous, and also to be virtuous, but that the ruler who intends to be successful must be prepared to do bad things on occasion, when political realities demand such actions. This ideal that political requirements may override moral considerations came later on to be known by the French expression raison d'etat ("reason of state").


3. VIRTU

A key to Machiavelli's concept of political success is the idea of virtu. This Italian word does not have the same significance as the related English word "virtue." It does not mean moral goodness, but rather strength, ability, courage, and vitality. Machiavelli believed that this quality of virtu was found in its highest form in the founders of new states, such as Moses, Cyrus, Romulus, and Theseus. In The Discourses he suggested that the maintenance of liberty in a republic depends on the virtu of the citizens. In The Prince, on the other hand, dealing with states that are governed by individual rulers, he asserted that political success depends on the virtu-the force of character-of the ruler himself.

4. FORTUNE

In contrast to the idea of virtu stands the idea of fortune. Clearly, many considerations that affect the success or failure of our efforts are not dependent upon anything we do; people attribute them to Providence, to chance, or to luck. In the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, fortune was sometimes personified as an allegorical figure. It was also often represented by the symbol of a wheel, which, as it turns, carries people now to the heights of success, now to the depths of ruin. Although Machiavelli strongly advocated the application of intelligence and vigor in human affairs, he admitted that there is a side to life over which we have little or no control. An example is the prince's health: Machiavelli recalled that Cesare Borgia had said to him that he had taken precautions against every possible thing that might happen on the death of his father, Pope Alexander VI-but that he had never thought that, when his father died, he might be dying himself. In general, Machiavelli advocated boldness. In an image that offends modern readers, but that is certainly powerful, he said, "Fortune is a woman, and it is necessary, if you wish to master her, to conquer her by force."

5. QUALITIES OF THE RULER

Borrowing an image from medieval animal fables, Machiavelli said that the ruler must be able to imitate both the lion and the fox. The bravery and strength of the lion will not be enough to enable the ruler to escape the traps set by his enemies; for that, the slyness of the fox is also needed. This is especially true of the new prince, who is in a very exposed position. Machiavelli admitted that Marcus Aurelius, the "philosopher King" (Roman emperor, 161-180 A.D.), who had been a virtuous and just ruler, had kept his throne. But Marcus Aurelius had become emperor by hereditary succession. Machiavelli offered Septimius Severus (Roman emperor, 193-211 A.D.) as an example of a new prince who effectively used the techniques of both the lion and the fox to maintain himself in power.

6. MILITARY FORCE

Machiavelli declared that the chief-even the only-subject that was of importance to the ruler was the art of war. He held that the cultivation of this art was the chief means of gaining and keeping power, and that the neglect of this art was the chief means of losing power. It was a central belief of Machiavelli's that security could only be obtained by raising a body of troops within one's own country-loyal soldiers who would be defending their own homes and families. He particularly opposed the use of mercenary forces, or dependence on the help of foreign armies. He was also inclined to downgrade the importance of fortifications, remarking that "the best fortress is to be found in the love of the people."

7. PATRIOTISM

Another theme of great importance to Machiavelli is patriotism. Machiavelli wrote at a time when French, Spanish, and German armies were seeking to gain control of Italy. He believed that the ruin of Italy had been caused by its own military weakness. He called on Lorenzo de' Medici, to whom he addressed his book, to free Italy from foreign domination. He devoted most of his work to the discussion of political and military methods, and it often sounds as though these methods are only means of attaining power as an end in itself. But Machiavelli hoped that the great Florentine family of the Medici would use power-and the full repertory of "Machiavellian" methods-to liberate his country.

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