In Chapter XV: Concerning Things for Which Men, and Especially Princes, Are Praised or Blamed, Machiavelli wrote that his approach was different from that of other advisors, many of whom merely imagined how the world is, rather than living in it. He sarcastically commented that their words don’t reflect what real life is like. Modern philosophers have made similar comments:
“Modern systematic politics, whether liberal, conservative, radical, or socialist, simply has to be rejected from a standpoint that owes genuine allegiance to the tradition of the virtues; for modern politics itself expresses in its institutional forms a systematic rejection of that tradition”
Alasdair MacIntyre: After Virtue (p. 255)
In this chapter, Machiavelli’s observations and advice departed more from traditional and contemporary morality than anywhere else in The Prince.
“I shall depart from the methods of other people. It is my intention to write about something which shall be useful to him who understands it. It appears to me more appropriate to seek the real truth of a matter rather than what is imaginary. Many have dreamed up republics and principalities which in fact have never been known or seen, but the gulf between how one lives is so wide from how one ought to live.”
Machiavelli is no utopian. He knows that how you ought to behave is not always how you actually must behave. It’s admirable to want to be good and to act virtuously, he continues, but sometimes necessity forces us to be bad. Those who don’t do what’s required get chewed up and spit out.
“He who neglects what is actually done for what ought to be done, sooner brings about his ruin than his preservation … A man who wishes to live up to his professions of virtue in every circumstance soon meets with what destroys him among so many who are evil.”
Here’s another translation of that piece by Luigi Ricci:
“A man who wishes to make a profession of goodness in everything must necessarily come to grief among so many who are not good.”
Too much goodness will destroy you because the world in which we ply our political trade is not packed with virtuous souls, but rather a crafty and nefarious lot. There is no place for Pollyannas or wannabe saints in this world. Then follows one of Machiavelli’s most potent and most shocking recommendations:
“Hence it is necessary for a prince wishing to maintain his position to know how to do wrong, and to make use of it or not according to necessity.”
Don’t try to always be good, he says. Learn to be bad when it’s necessary. Be immoral. Do things others consider wrong. There is no fixed or universal principle that says you always have to act good. You must act in accordance with the situation. Morality isn’t carved in stone; it’s mutable, he says.
“Great men are almost always bad men, even when they exercise influence and not authority…”
John Dalberg-Acton, 1st Baron Acton, Letter to Bishop Creighton, 1887
Sure, we all want to be seen as respectable, charitable, honest, kind, faithful and everything else we consider the hallmarks of a good person. But face it: none of us is a saint. We all have vices. If you try to be a saint, you will fail because the people around you certainly aren’t saints, either. They will take advantage of your goodness.
“…without doubt such deception was of greater use than the simple truth; for he who deals honestly with the wicked and the crafty will fail… A new prince especially cannot observe all the things by which men are held good, even if he wants to, since it is often necessary, to maintain his state, to act contrary to mercy, religion and faith.”
Bishop Stephen Gardiner, 1555, quoted in A Machiavellian Treatise
Rulers become known for particular personality traits, Machiavelli says, and get identified by singular, iconic attributes, rather than for all the ways they behave. We all know that no person is that simple that a single word can describe them, but that’s how we perceive others, through generalizations:
“All men when they are spoken of, and chiefly princes for being more highly placed, are judged for some of those qualities which bring them either blame or praise; …one is reputed liberal, another miserly; one is reputed generous, one rapacious; one cruel, one compassionate; one faithless, another faithful; one effeminate and cowardly, another bold and brave; one affable, another haughty; one lascivious, another chaste; one sincere, another cunning; one hard, another easy; one grave, another frivolous; one religious, another unbelieving, and the like.”
Sometimes, though, we have to act in ways that don’t meet those singular descriptions. Sometimes we have to act in ways that don’t heap praise on us. In fact, he says, we have to learn how not to be good, both to save our own skins and to better our municipality.
“As for being held merciful, generous and observant of faith, I commend them most highly, provided that to observe them does not bring more danger than good. The contrary of these sometimes are of great help to the man who uses them, particularly when he works them artfully.”
Bishop Stephen Gardiner, 1555, quoted in A Machiavellian Treatise
It’s human nature to want to be seen as good, not bad and – since appearances matter – we pay lip service to that ideal:
“Everyone will confess that it would be most commendable … to exhibit all the qualities that are considered good; but they can neither be entirely possessed nor wholly observed, because the human condition does not permit it…”
In fact, Machiavelli says in The Discourses that even if you weren’t able to be good in your day, you have a duty to tell others how to be the good person you never were:
“It is the duty of every good man to teach others those wholesome lessons which the malice of Time or of Fortune has not permitted him to put in practice; to the end, that out of many who have the knowledge, some one better loved by Heaven may be found able to carry them out.”
The Discourses: II, Preface
It’s not “do-as-I-say-not-as-I-do” hypocrisy if someone comes along and puts those good teachings into practice, even if you never did.
While rulers have to be able to change according to the situation, in The Discourses, Machiavelli warns rulers not to make sudden changes in their behaviour. Change slowly so you don’t lose friends and influence along the way:
“He who has once seemed good, should he afterwards choose, for his own ends, to become bad, ought to change by slow degrees, and as opportunity serves; so that before his altered nature strip him of old favour, he may have gained for himself an equal share of new, and thus his influence suffer no diminution. For otherwise, being at once unmasked and friendless, he is undone.”
The Discourses: I, 41
At the same time, even when we’re bad, we have to try to avoid making really, seriously bad choices that will bring about our own ruin:
“It is necessary for him to be sufficiently prudent that he may avoid the bad reputation of those vices which would lose him his state; and also to keep himself, if it be possible, from those which are not so dangerous; but if this is not possible, he may with less hesitation abandon himself to them.”
If a vice proves useful to the running of the state – or at least irrelevant to it – then that vice doesn’t really matter. To the last point, Machiavelli is saying that if you can’t avoid making an unpopular decision, you might as well go all the way and do it wholeheartedly.
“He need not make himself uneasy at incurring a bad reputation for those qualities necessary to save the state.”
Don’t beat yourself up over it; don’t worry about your reputation, if what you do proves to be for the greater good of your municipality (“raison d’etat”). Don’t waste time and thought worrying about how your decision will affect your reputation: just do what’s necessary.
Appearances can be deceptive, too. Good and bad are not fixed measurements, but value judgments that change based on the circumstances. It’s better to make an unpopular and difficult decision for the greater good than to make one that seems easier, but will hurt the municipality:
“If everything is considered carefully, it will be found that something which looks like virtue, if followed, would be the prince’s ruin; while something else, which looks like a vice, when followed brings him security and prosperity.”
It doesn’t matter if other people think you’re on the wrong path, if taking it leads to the betterment of your municipality. Do what’s necessary, not just what’s easy.
Previous Chapter – Next Chapter
- Machiavelli and Sejanus - October 14, 2022
- A Meeting of the Minds? - July 3, 2021
- Machiavelli’s Prince as satire - June 8, 2017
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