Tuesday, May 3, 2005

Niccolo Machiavelli

Today's post is on, of all things, Machiavelli. thicketdweller posted a quote by M. and asked our opinion as to his goodness or badness. As I tend to be long-winded, I decided to answer here.

First of all, let's establish the fact that I am pretty useless when it comes to philosophy. Much of the theoretical talk just turns to mumbo-jumbo in my brain. And political philosophy? Forget it. So any opinions stated here are probably poorly thought out and grossly mis-informed.

From my recollections of "The Prince", the work most people recall when thinking of old Niccolo, the methods that he recommends are very effective, but very morally questionable. In essence, his ideas maintain that for people in power, the ends justify the means, as longs as the "ends" are mostly beneficial to the people in general. No matter how corrupt and morally adverse those means may be. That a unified country is the all important end and that a country is only as successful as its leader, therefore a leader has carte blanche to kill, steal, scheme, pillage, and lie; as long as it meets that end.

Many people believe that this work helped to start a lot of the workings that we consider modern "politics as usual", but it is also said that "The Prince" was only written to impress the ruling family at the time, (The Medici) and was only a device to get M. back into politics, (Niccolo lost his job when the republic in Florence was overthrown and The Medici took over. If you are interested in political history and intrigue, Tom Clancy has got nothin' on the Renaissance!), and that he was a real "government for the people, by the people" sort of man.

So what does all of this mean to me? I think that Machiavelli, at times, had some very noble ideas. In some of his other works, you can see that he knows his stuff when it comes to creating situations that benefit the public in general, but I think that he had a hard time seeing that all choices, good and bad, have an effect on outcome and they can taint any victory, even if it lifts up and helps lots of people. Even if he is "misunderstood" by his work on "The Prince", and it really was just a political brown-nosing pamphlet, that still comes back to the old "ends justify the means" part. Even if he had made it back into politics (which he didn't) and helped Italy to unite, is it really OK to fake your ideas and opinions in a profession in which those are often the only things that distinguish you from the next guy. I, in my naive opinion, say no. We in America today get a first-hand look at this sort of mentality, with the underhanded deals and morally corrupt decisions that are made by some members of our government every day.

You have to live with your choices. You must be able to stand back, at the end of the day, and say that your soul is at peace with everything you have done. Opening up a moral gap to allow questionable practices through, even if it means prosperity and gain, begins the process of deadening your very soul. It may sting a lot the first lie or murder, but it won't so much the next time, and every time after that it just becomes easier and easier. And this also applies to everyday people in everyday situations, of course, not just the political arena. I think that if more of our decision makers dwelt on the moral ramifications of their actions, we might have a lot less to be ashamed of in this country.

So, is Machiavelli good or bad? My vote is for bad. Political genius is no excuse for a poorly formed character, and I think it is very telling that the work Niccolo is most remembered for is the one that he likely agreed with the least. See where those dishonest decisions will lead you?

That's my two cents. (although most of you will think it's more like $1.50, after having sat through this essay!) :)

1 comment:

Bernadette said...

I can't even put my hand on $1.50 right now, but I assure you your essay is priceless!