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Monday, October 27, 2008

Political Science Review: Machiavelli

Out of all of the works we read over the summer, Machiavelli's were my favourite. Not necessarily because I agreed with him, but because he recognized that politics is a dirty business that doesn't necessarily have an absolute answer. While everyone else (aside from Thucydides) seemed to think that he had developed the definitive treatise on the proper manner of government, Machiavelli recognized that perhaps there might be better minds than his who would come to different conclusions, but he nevertheless strove to write texts that would be useful to people living in the real world rather than in some ideal world where men acted as they ought to, and not as they actually do.

We read most of both The Prince and The Discourses. While The Prince seems to be his most famous work (I think that is simply due to the fact that it is the most shocking of the two in its blatant sociopathy), I found The Discourses to be far more insightful and penetrating. It was also where I think Machiavelli found some redemption, as he displayed himself to care about the lives and security of the citizenry and not just the welfare of a ruler. He was one of the first political theorists to recognize that there is a certain degree of wisdom amongst the entire populace of a country, and not just in an aristocratic elite (of course, the suffrage of the masses was something that I have always been raised to see as the correct and best form of governance, and it was an apriori assumption that I believe this course challenged the most for me). The need for a balanced institution was argued for by Machiavelli both eloquently and rationally. He took great pains to back up his claims by using historical precedence as well as a degree of psychological pessimism that was both enlightening and depressing.

I am getting ahead of myself, however. Perhaps I was simply initially set in favour of Machiavelli because of his rejection of the political theories of all those thinkers who we had previously read who I found to be so logically lacking (Plato, Aristotle, and Cicero). As promised, do you remember Cicero's statement: "fraud seems to belong to the cunning fox, force to the lion; both are wholly unworthy of man..."? Machiavelli has a direct allusion to that when he states in regards to the qualities a prince must have, "One must therefore be a fox to recognize traps, and a lion to frighten wolves." I do not think that is my entire reason for enjoying Machiavelli's works, though.

I think I will end this review, therefore, in saying that I greatly recommend reading Machiavelli's works. While they are in many ways depressing and cynical, they are realistic and rationally laid out. I think in many ways it is unfair that Machiavelli's name has become associated almost exclusively with negative connotations of underhanded power grabbing and backstabbing, for there is a lot more to his texts than an advocacy for brutality and deceit. Of course, that said, I think I will end with a choice quotation from The Prince that displays the clear sociopathic psychology that so characterizes this particular work.

"Whenever you have to kill someone, make sure you have a suitable excuse and an obvious reason; but, above all else, keep your hands off other people's property; for men are quicker to forget the death of thier father than the loss of their inheritance."


Tina said...

I really enjoyed reading The Prince but have yet to read The Discourses. Perhaps I should start- your opinion has swayed me!

I just read a post on Peterman's Eye about The Prince and Machiavelli's politics, ect. I enjoyed it and thought I'd share...


Mozglubov said...

Thanks for the comment and the link, and I do hope you read the Discourses. I really do think it is the better of the two texts.