Monday, 22 February 2016

Machiavelli’s Understanding of the Art of Politics

Posted by Bohdana Kurylo
Can Niccolò Machiavelli’s political philosophy be compared with a dance?
Niccolò Machiavelli, who is often regarded as the founder of modern political science, is generally deemed a propagator of cruelty and immorality. Yet while he broke with the conventional language of politics in his day – based upon Christian values and a Ciceronian belief that a prince achieved glory through virtue – it is more appropriate to think of him as a pragmatist who introduced a greater realism to political philosophy. More important still, it was Machiavelli’s creative interpretation that helped him convert politics into scientific art which could be applied in everyday practice.

In The Prince, Machiavelli offered a pragmatic approach to politics which, rather than focusing on moral values, combined the importance of skill and prudence. Inspired by the success of the Roman State, Machiavelli thought of history as being cyclical – as he thought, too, of political issues. His understanding of politics thus came with an interest in history and statecraft, and he drew his conclusions from historical examples of agents. This contributed to his pessimism in regard to human nature and morality. Therefore, his most famous work, The Prince, which shuns the received views, Christian and Ciceronian – in fact warns against them – states that a successful ruler should act according to the circumstances, whereas being ‘good’ will lead to his downfall.

It could be claimed that Machiavelli sought to justify vices when speaking of the conflict between morality and reality. However, as the political philosopher Leo Strauss rightly suggests, it would be unfair to echo ‘the old-fashioned and simple opinion according to which Machiavelli was a teacher of evil’. As an example, when making an analysis of Agathocles of Sicily, who came to power with wicked cruelty, Machiavelli clearly condemned his actions and stated that ‘one cannot call it virtú to kill one’s citizens, betray one’s friends, to break one’s word, to be without mercy, without religion’. In addition, Strauss remarks that many extreme statements of Machiavelli were not intended to be taken seriously, but rather had the pedagogic intention of freeing ‘young’ princes from effeminacy. In the view of professor of politics Maurizio Viroli, he did not ‘construct a new language’, but provided a new, more pragmatic assessment of the art of politics.



In The Prince, Machiavelli proposed the twin conceptions of virtú and Fortuna. Whereas Fortuna is chance or contingency, virtú is open to interpretation, and may be associated with prudence, skill, and the ability to adapt to contingencies. This further emphasises the fact that he introduced a new kind of political understanding which was independent of any established norms, and tied to the idea of flexibility. The Prince provides Cesare Borgia as an example of a ruler who acquired his principality by chance, and had great virtú in taking advantage of his power. Although virtú alone is likely to be useless for the achievement of the highest goals and glory, Machiavelli believed that, through flexibility and bravery, it could win over Fortuna, since ‘Fortuna is a lady’. In doing so, he made room for chance and flexibility in politics, knowing that focusing on rigid scientific rules would be detrimental.

Understanding Machiavelli’s perception of politics is complicated by the presence of both scientific and creative elements in it. At first sight, The Prince gives historical examples and practical advice. However, despite pragmatic scientific elements, it is more art, as it understands that there is more than one interpretation for doing politics. Mutatis mutandis (the necessary changes having been made), there is a likelihood of failure if the prince does not continue to adapt to changing circumstances, because ‘he will continue to behave in the same way’. Moreover, Machiavelli emphasises that the notions of luck and flexibility are influenced by one’s own interpretation, thus further highlighting that there is no set way by which success is achieved. The text shows, too, the importance of self-presentation and the ‘creative use of deception’ as a part of virtú, describing politics as a ‘space of appearance’.

In many ways, Machiavelli’s perception of politics can be compared to a political dance – for which one should learn the right moves, but also listen to the melody and be flexible enough to adjust to its flow. Clearly a dance, like politics, can be different to other dances, and would require different costumes, too, to accentuate the movements – which recalls Machiavelli's statement that the prince’s qualities should change, depending on the situation. In fact, The Prince, as much as it is political science, exemplifies the artistic side of Machiavelli’s understanding of politics, which applied the art of politics to everyday practice.

3 comments:

  1. Not everyone has read the work "The Prince" (Il Principe). So for better understanding of the cause and motivation for the work and its advices, first one should be informed about Machiavelli's personal political descent and his desire to come up again. Then the brief presentation of the current political environment at that time would be useful and also the introduction in the very interesting main, in many places still current theses of the work. Why a comparison with a dance is performed, is not recognizable. Cui bono. The comparison is entirely inappropriate. People dance to a music of others in a specific choreography, so according to predetermined and constantly equal recurrent rules. Machiavelli advises the prince to rules in other dissimilar structures. Politics nowhere operate dance-typical.

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    1. Thanks, Theo, for your strong 'antithesis' here! I have read The Prince carefully, and I actually do see this as a reasonable, and in places insightful, description of both the content and the motivations. The way I take the dance metaphor is as saying that politics does contain certain formal procedures and also an element of 'public performance'. Machiavelli advises the Prince how to please the onlookers, the crowd, whilst also using statecraft'to achieve his aims. My reading of Machiavelli si that he does also emphasise the importance of ethics, but infamously supposes that there are two ethics, one for ordinary folk and one for rulers, and the rulers morality is somehow superior.

      I didn't recognise this:

      "Strauss remarks that many extreme statements of Machiavelli were not intended to be taken seriously, but rather had the pedagogic intention of freeing ‘young’ princes from effeminacy. "

      I mean, I think the Prince and the Discourses are extremely serious and intended both as a literal and practical guide.
      The piece is highly topical. President Obame is on record as dismissing the writings of philosophy and philosophers as as considerably inferior to the study of the backs of cereal packets - with the exception of Machiavelli in who he found an inspirational guide.

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  2. I found the historical context of Machiavelli's thoughts interesting. That is drawn out nicely. It would be interesting to hear what he warned against in Christian and Ciceronian views, which are still very much alive today.

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