Machiavelli's The Prince: What It Takes to Be a Good Ruler

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In The Prince, Machiavelli writes in opposition to the moralistic view that there is a link between the goodness of one’s character and what it is to be a good ruler; he rejects the view that the good prince is one who is moral, virtuous, and of good character. Instead, Machiavelli holds that the good prince is one who maintains his grasp on political power, and brings about a society in which his subjects are satisfied. To this end, it is necessary for him to have control of his subjects and social order. The enemy of political power, Fortune, aims to disrupt these necessary conditions. To overcome Fortune and maintain his grasp on political power, the prince must have the proper qualities—Machiavelli refers to these qualities as virtù. Ultimately, Machiavelli claims that overcoming Fortune requires virtù in the form of cruelty. Contra Machiavelli, Judith Shklar, in her essay “Putting Cruelty First”, argues that cruelty is highly immoral and that any attempt to justify the use of cruelty is wrong. In this essay I first discuss how Machiavelli maintains that overcoming Fortune through virtù necessarily leads to cruelty. Second, I explore Shklar’s stance on cruelty and why we ought to hold cruelty as first amongst vices. Third, I argue that putting cruelty first is too simplistic and fails to make a correct judgement about what we should consider the most evil. I ultimately conclude that the morality of employing cruelty remains unclear, even if it achieves an endpoint in which both the prince and his subjects are better off. Machiavelli on Virtù, Fortune, and CrueltyVirtù pertains to those qualities a prince must exhibit in order to maintain political rule: cunning, talent, valour, strength, and excellence, for example. Machiavellian virtù strays far from the conventional understanding of virtue; the latter conveys a sense of moral goodness of character, while the former does not. According to Machiavelli, political rule sometimes requires the use of brutality and cruelty in order to maintain political power. Therefore, the ability to be cruel and evil must be included among the list of traits that are constitutive of virtù. A prince of the highest virtù has a flexible character such that he is capable of both cruelty and kindness. Machiavelli’s Fortune is a relentlessly harsh goddess.

He likens her to “one of those raging rivers, which when in flood overflows the plains, sweeping away trees and buildings, bearing away the soil from place to place; everything flies before it, all yield to its violence, without being able in any way to withstand it.” In this way, Fortune is the adversary of political stability; she destroys political order, wipes out peace, and is so forceful that the prince must yield to her. However, her power is not supreme: she commands “one-half of our actions, but she still leaves us to direct the other half, or perhaps a little less.” The prince of virtù is therefore capable of guarding against the vicissitudes of Fortune. In times of calm, he must “make provision, both with defences and barriers, in such a manner that, rising again, the waters may pass away by canal, and their force be neither so unrestrained nor so dangerous.” Taking the necessary precautions requires virtù in the form of foresight, wisdom, ability, and most notably, cruelty. Cruelty creates a relationship between prince and subject in which the former is feared by the latter. When this is the case, the prince’s subjects are “united and loyal” because the fear of suffering a cruel punishment is greater than the reward of misbehaving. However, this only holds when cruelty is used in the right measure; too much cruelty and one inspires hatred, not enough cruelty and there is nothing to fear, or the reward of misbehaving is greater than the fear of punishment. Machiavelli holds that the use of cruelty to inspire fear, insofar as it creates social order, loyalty, and/or peace, is preferable to clemency, which “allows disorders to arise, from which follow murders or robberies; for these are wont to injure the whole people whilst those executions which originate with a prince offend the individual only.” Cruelty, which harms only select individuals, must therefore be preferable to clemency which harms all people.The benefits of cruelty, which leads to fear, are twofold. First, it creates a better society in which the people are peaceful, loyal, and satisfied. Second, it guarantees the prince’s control over his subjects and social order, which, as we have previously said, are both necessary for maintaining his grasp on political power.

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Thus, the prince has done all he can to overcome Fortune; Fortune might try to disrupt social order, to create disloyalty, or discontent in his subjects, but the prince’s employment of virtù in the form of cruelty guards against this. Let us consider Machiavelli’s example of Cesare Borgia as the ultimate ruler. When Borgia gained control of Romagna, he found it in a state of extreme disorder and violence. Borgia therefore gave complete power to Messer Ramiro d'Orco, “a swift and cruel man,” in the hopes that he would restore peace and order. Ramiro quickly did so through severe cruelty. Borgia was aware that the severity of Ramiro’s methods may overstep fear and instead inspire hatred against himself. So, to distance himself from such cruelty, and avoid the hatred of the people, he had Ramiro “executed and left on the piazza at Cesena with the block and a bloody knife at his side.” The source of the cruelty was thus removed with the execution of Ramiro, and Borgia was cleared of all wrong in the eyes of the people, but the fear of suffering a similar cruelty still lingered amongst the people. Borgia presents the ideal Machiavellian ruler; he displayed great virtù such that he was able to overcome Fortune, who tried to ruin him with unruly subjects. His subjects are satisfied and peaceful, yet remain fearful of his power and ability to be cruel. Together, these create a state of affairs in which Borgia’s grasp on political power is as strong as possible.

Machiavelli has divorced himself from conventional morality, however to say that The Prince is entirely amoral is wrong. The Prince still strives to achieve some conception of the good ruler and the good society. Thus, we must submit it to moral scrutiny. On the morality of cruelty, Shklar argues that we ought to reject Machiavelli’s understanding of cruelty as a virtue. Instead, we must call it a vice. But further than that, we must put it first among the vices and hold it as worse than things such as injustice. We must unconditionally call it the summum malum. She defines cruelty as “the deliberate infliction of physical, and secondarily, emotional pain upon a weaker person or group by stronger ones in order to achieve some end, tangible or intangible, of the latter.” She holds that cruelty is done entirely to another creature, rather than to some higher order, or intangible standard such as justice and injustice. To put cruelty as the first among vices is to judge it as evil “in and of itself”, for it does not signify a “denial of God or any other higher norm.” She argues that in putting cruelty first, “with nothing above us to excuse or to forgive acts of cruelty, one closes off any appeal to any order other than that of actuality.” When we aim to serve an intangible or abstract end such as justice or God, we fail to put cruelty first and we allow for atrocious acts to occur and, more than that, to be justified. Failing to put cruelty first enables those abstract orders which aim at some good to be distorted and allow for cruelty. For example, when discovering the New World, the Spaniards justified their use of extreme cruelty against American Indians by appealing to God and Christian morality.

Shklar argues that putting cruelty first is the intuitively liberal response, but it also dissolves the smokescreens of necessity, justice, reason, religion and liberalism, behind which cruelty hides. Thus, Machiavelli cannot hide his recommendation of cruelty behind a mask of justice or reason. Rejecting ShklarI argue that Shklar fails to correctly judge those actions which are not cruel, but intuitively worse than cruelty. In putting cruelty first, Shklar must unconditionally say that cruelty, “the deliberate infliction of physical, and secondarily, emotional pain”, in any form is worse than all other moral wrongdoing. Thus, she must say that the cruelty inflicted on one person is worse than the painless death of hundreds, or of an entire population of people. In this way, Machiavelli’s prince can avoid being cruel if he simply kills people while they sleep, meaning that the victim experiences no fear or pain. Yet this is immoral. We must say that intentionally killing an entire population outweighs harming a single person cruelly, even if the latter is painful and the former is not. Too many factors play a part in what it is for an action to be wrong for Shklar to simply put cruelty first. For example, a perpetrator of cruelty who was abused as a child warrants different treatment and judgement than one who was not. It is wrong to unconditionally hold cruelty as the first amongst vices because it fails to consider all relevant factors. Instead, we need to make a value judgement, which takes those factors into account.

Therefore, we ought to put injustice, or something similar, above cruelty. Straightforwardly putting cruelty first simplifies an issue which cannot, and should not, be simplified. Rejecting Shklar does not mean that we must accept the prince’s use of cruelty. Even if it guarantees a safer, more peaceful society in which people are generally better off than before, it remains unclear if such cruelty is moral or not. I cannot afford further consideration to this matter in this essay, and so unfortunately I must leave it as an outstanding issue. This essay has explored Machiavelli’s concepts of virtù and Fortuna, and how overcoming the latter necessarily leads to cruelty. I then discussed Shklar’s criticism of Machiavelli’s employment of cruelty. But ultimately, I reject Shklar’s argument of putting cruelty first on the grounds that it over simplifies and wrongly removes value judgements when deciding what we ought to consider most wrong. Thus, while Machiavelli maintains that the prince must employ cruelty to maintain power and create a stable and relatively peaceful society, the question of whether or not Machiavelli’s prince is morally justified in employing cruelty remains.

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