International relations in the modern world is largely driven by the agenda of “Realism”. It describes a philosophy which maintains that nation states are not under the constraints of normal morality in their dealings with each other, and indeed, in order to survive, they must be ready to flout the ethical codes that naturally bind human beings. Many trace the origin of this political philosophy to Italian author and diplomat Niccolo Machiavelli, and specifically to his treatise The Prince.
Even though the message it taught was in direst contradiction to the humanism that marks the renaissance, it nevertheless becomes part of the same evolutionary process that gives rise to modern civilization and the modern nation state. In order to unravel this paradox it becomes necessary to consider political theory as a development separate from all others, whose progress is along the more conventional lines, characterized by humanism.
Political thought, in the context of the renaissance, was essentially a resumption classical ideas, including those of Greek democracy, and, more importantly, the wisdom behind Roman statesmanship. The Roman ideal is described by virtus. This literally translates as ‘manliness’, and is meant to inscribe the qualities of moral courage, honor and valor. The Roman Republic can be said to have been a product of the Roman character, after Rome had adopted the democratic forms of government from ancient Greece.
As the Roman philosopher Cicero elegantly pronounces in his Tusculan Disputations, “Glory follows virtue like its shadow” (qtd. in Stone 2005, p. 36). The import of this is that the statesman who thirsts after virtus, and pays no heed to personal advantage or glory, will be rewarded with both advantage and glory in the end. Political thought in the renaissance followed this ideal to the letter, as is evident when Pontano’s describes virtus is ‘the most splendid thing in the world,’ and all that the statesman ever needs to aspire to (qtd.in Hornqvist 2004, p. 21).
As long as political thought followed this groove it was in line with the general thrust of humanism, which believed in the basic goodness of human beings. Machiavelli meant to upturn this whole cart by insisting that honesty in not the best policy when considering the duties of the prince. In order to preserve his kingdom and sovereignty he must be ruthless, but also “a great simulator and dissimulator”, always taking pains to cover his tracks and “avoid everything that makes him hated” (Machiavelli 1989, p.67)
In short, he must be a lion and a fox all in one, and these animals are explicitly stated as the ideals to follow for the prince. Against the Roman ideal that the prince should be loved more than he is feared, Machiavelli maintains that prince should inspire fear above all else. This he should do because the general lot of men “are ungrateful, changeable, simulators and dissimulators, runaways in danger, eager for gain”, and the prince puts trust in them at his own peril (Ibid, p. 62). It is not evil that Machiavelli promotes, but rather a utilitarianism in politics, where the end justifies the means.
The message of the Prince became immediately relevant because it was a time when the traditional power structures were falling apart, due to the onslaught of humanism itself, the rise of the merchant classes, along with the republican city states that they helped foster. Machiavelli himself came to prominence when Florence became a republic. He was an avid student of the politics of his time, and knew that the “new princes”, like Caesar Borgia, needed a new ethical framework in order to establish themselves.
As he makes clear early in The Prince, the old hereditary princes could afford to follow traditional norms, for they held the respect of the people (Machiavelli 2005, p. 8). Without this advantage the new princes required a new standard in politics, and The Prince claims to provide such. The same argument through the ages has made this tract into a continuous source of “questionable” wisdom to princes and politicians. Into the modern era the utilitarian ethos of Machiavelli has gradually seeped into the ken of accepted political wisdom, so that it is now openly avowed in the guise of Realism.
Hornqvist, M. (2004). Machiavelli and Empire. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press. Machiavelli, N. (2005). Influential Thinkers of the Renaissance. New York: Cosimo, Inc. Machiavelli, N. (1989). Machiavelli: The Chief Works and Others. Ed. Allan H. Gilbert. Durham, NC: Duke University Press. Stone, J. R. (2005). The Routledge Dictionary of Latin Quotations: The Illiterati’s Guide to Latin Maxims, Mottoes, Proverbs and Sayings. London: Routledge.