Niccolo Machiavelli’s The Prince examines the nature of power and his views of power are still somewhat in existence today. I’ll discuss this in this essay, emphasizing the following theses. Machiavelli discusses power over the people, dictatorial power, and power with people, shared power. While it is possible for power with to attain greater prevalence in society, it will not completely eliminate power over. In The Prince, Machiavelli discusses two distinct groups of people, the political elite, including nobles and other princes, and the general public. Today in the United States, the first group, the political elite, includes political leaders, religious leaders, business leaders and the leaders of strong lobbying groups. The composition of the general public has changed little from Machiavelli’s time.
Machiavelli concentrates on relations between the prince and the political elite. He claims that ambition and dictatorial power drive most nobles and princes. A prince must act with dictatorial power in order to maintain his position. Machiavelli assumes that shared power will not be effective with nobles, since “whether men bear affection depends on themselves, but whether they are afraid will depend on what the ruler does” (Machiavelli, p.60-61). Since the nobles are unforgiving and greedy it would be dangerous if not downright suicidal for a prince to rely on their good will. Equally important, Machiavelli states that a prince, a political leader, has different concerns than the general public. For a prince personal actions, which would be considered immoral or unvirtuous, may save lives or help the prince’s country. In this way a prince is not immoral, but instead acts with a morality different in nature from the general public. Machiavelli gives several examples of this. Miserliness is considered a fault. Yet, a miserly prince “will come to be considered more generous when it is realized that his revenues are sufficient to defend himself against enemies that attack him, and to undertake campaigns without imposing special taxes on the people” (p.56). Likewise, starting a war is considered an immoral act by many. Yet, a prince should not allow troubles “to develop in order to avoid fighting a war for wars can not really be avoided, but are merely postponed to the advantage of others” (p.11). Avoiding war may cause more suffering among the people than starting war. For example, many believe that World War II could have been avoided, saving tens of millions of lives, had England and France not pursued a policy of appeasement towards the Germans.
While Machiavelli emphasizes power over in relations between the political elite, he discusses a different kind of power in the relations between a prince and the general public. Machiavelli notes that a prince can share power with the people, since a prince can trust the people much more than he can trust the nobles. Nobles “can not be satisfied if a ruler acts honorably but the people can be thus satisfies, because their aims are more honorable than those of the nobles are: for the latter only want to oppress and the former only want to avoid being oppressed” (p.35). The people are not unforgiving and greedy so the prince can place more trust in the people. Since the public can be trusted, the prince can empower the people. An empowered public will protect the ruler rather than overthrow him. Machiavelli suggests providing people with power in terms of arms, since “when you arm them, these weapons become your own” (p. 72). In this way power is an increasing resource, sharing power with the people can result in greater power for the people and for the prince.
Finally Machiavelli notes that inherent power of the public, which exists despite the dictatorial power that any prince exercises. When discussing fortresses, he states that “the best fortress a ruler can have is not to be hated by the people, for if you possess fortresses and the people hate you, having fortresses will not save you” (p.75). Machiavelli does not disregard shared power as a potentially successful way to govern, but only notes that dictatorial power can not be used exclusively in governing.
Even in relations with the general public, which can include shared power, the prince can not act in ways that might be considered virtuous for the general citizen. People expect leaders to act differently than themselves. Machiavelli notes that people are interested in appearances and results. A leader must seem resolute and moral to the people, and show positive results from his leadership. The most important thing for a leader to do is to avoid being hated or despised by the public, which could occur if a prince took people’s property. For the public, more than the form of power, their perception of power may be the most important for a leader to maintain his position.
As an example from today, President Clinton’s unpopularity can be examined using Machiavelli’s ideas of appearances and results. In terms of appearances, Clinton is seen as irresolute, and as a man with numerous character flaws. His oftentimes messy and disorganized decision-making process has been widely publicized, further eroding any appearance of strong decisive leadership. In terms of results, the ugly political process preceding the results has overshadowed positive results like a lower deficit and improved economy. Clinton is neither feared nor loved by his political opposition, making it difficult for him to produce results without great struggles. The one result remembered by many is that Clinton raised taxes, taking away their property. Thus, Clinton has had difficulty with both appearances and results. One might say that in addition to power, a prince in relations needs political skill with the public. For a politician weaving a good story of one’s accomplishments is more important than the accomplishments themselves.
Machiavelli’s idea of power and how it should be handles as he describes in The Prince can still be used to examine the present. While it’s possible to see only the negative uses of power, one can also see the potential for power to promote the common good. Machiavelli would argue that attending to the common good is in a prince’s best interests, since it gains the support of the people, something more valuable than any fortress or other expression of power.