Friday, January 23, 2009

A Very Brief Critique of Machiavelli

This is a very brief criticism of excerpts from Machiavelli's The Prince which I did as part of Philosophy homework for this week. We were told to identify "the problem with 1/2 to 1 page." I barely made it. No surprise there. I guess I could have left it with the first paragraph, but I figured I need to expand the idea more.

The major problem with Machiavelli is that his advice does not center around a question of hypothetical or philosophical “Good” or “Evil” but rather focuses on how to successfully gain and maintain the position of “The Prince (The Prince, Chapter 15).” Machiavelli recognizes that virtue does not necessarily secure a prince in his princedom nor gain for him political power. But the next step in his reasoning is fatal: to pursue a secure princedom above the law of God (Chapter 15). Once this break with virtue is made, the rest of his conclusions follow quite naturally and logically. Indeed, Machiavelli seems to explain with great accuracy and wisdom actions critical to retaining power, well illustrating the historical precedent of these with pertinent examples (e.g. Cesare Borgia, Chapter 17; Julius II, Chapter 25; etc).

At the crux of this handbook of power lies Machiavelli’s misunderstanding of God’s action in history. He seems to see Divinity solely as a power which sometimes directs Fortune on man’s behalf; in no sense does God direct the actions of men to his purpose, nor does he requite the breaking of His law with man’s downfall (Chapter 25,26). When the prince is thrust from his high seat, the tumble was obviously precipitated by failure to perform the balancing act of political stratagem. The Prince cites figures who have risen from obscurity to fame, wealth, and power, but attributes the elevation not to God but to the personal achievement of the individuals (Chapter 6) despite the fact that Moses didn’t ‘do diddly’ without God’s prodding and Cyrus’ rise to power was prophesied long before his birth. Even oppressed suffering Machiavelli interprets not as a chastening of God or as a means to show forth His deliverance, but only to accentuate the greatness of the leaders who arose out of it (Chapter 26). Machiavelli appeals to God’s miraculous provision (Chapter 26) but fails to understand that God does not answer to man’s demand, nor is He an instrument of war, but acts in lawful retribution or in mercy. Machiavelli commands God’s limited assistance on the grounds that “war is just which is necessary, and arms are hallowed when there is no other hope but in them.” In this way, God is reduced to an impotent spectator, “not willing to do everything and thus take away our free will and that share of glory which belongs to us (Chapter 26).”

With God restricted to mouldering in the armoury until needed, the prince is left to ride the tides of fortune guided by the “spirit of the times” (Chapter 25). To determine whether to act virtuously or not he sniffs the Zeitgeist breeze. After all, vice is not punished but rewarded when prescribed prudently in pharmaceutical doses (Chapter 8, 15). Meanness, cruelty, and faithlessness become essential political tools for “it is necessary for a prince wishing to hold his own to know how to do wrong, and to make use of it...according to necessity (Chapter 16, 17, 18, 15).” When “of evil it is lawful to speak well” it becomes clear that, to Machiavelli, the measure of right and wrong is no longer set by God but by whatever a prince thinks appropriate in to stabilize his carefully accumulated house of power cards. This is Machiavelli's most serious error: the abandoning of the objective moral standard which is God.

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