|Portrait of Machiavelli by Santi di Tito
Benedetto Croce (1925) concludes Machiavelli is simply a realist or political pragmatist who accurately states that moral values do not affect the decisions that political leaders make. Ernst Cassirer (1946) held that Machiavelli was a political scientist in distinguishing between the "facts" of political life and the "values" of moral judgment.
In his book The Prince, Machiavelli provides instructions to the “new prince” on how to stabilize his power and retain control of his realm. He urges the prince to appear benevolent to the public while privately acting as ruthlessly as necessary to squash his political opponents. He argues that this approach will achieve the greater good by maintaining stability. This represents a radical break with traditional political ethics that stress justice and prudence on the part of philosopher kings. Consider the contrast between Aristotle and Machiavelli.
Aristotle wrote: There are some actions and emotions whose very names connote baseness, e.g., spite, shamelessness, envy; and among actions, adultery, theft, and murder. These and similar emotions and actions imply by their very names that they are bad... It is, therefore, impossible ever to do right in performing them: to perform them is always wrong.
Machiavelli wrote that it is not necessary for a prince to have the qualities of honestly, kindness, loyalty, etc, but it is necessary to seem to have them…useful it is to seem compassionate, trustworthy, humane, endowed with integrity, religious, and to be such, but to be in such a condition, with one’s spirit so constructed, that, when you need to not possess these qualities, you are prepared and know how to shift to the contrary qualities… Let, then, a prince act in such a manner as to conquer and maintain his estate, and the means will always be judged honorable, and they will be praised by everyone – since the crowd is always going to be taken in by appearances and results, and in the world there is no one but the crowd…
Machiavelli believed that the first responsibility of the ruler is to increase and maintain his power. He advocated that the ruler be bold and intelligent in shaping his fortune. Fortune for Machiavelli meant fortifying one's position by whatever means possible, even if this called for ruthless actions. He proposed this definition of acceptable cruelty: Whatever is done to one’s enemy must be swift, effective and short-lived. In other words, when taking the life of a political opponent it should be done as painlessly as possible, secretly, and without collateral damage.
Machiavelli was critical of Christianity. In his opinion, Christianity, along with teleological Aristotelianism embraced by the Medieval church, allowed decisions to be guided by imaginary ideals and encouraged people to leave events up to providence. This is why Leo Strauss believed that The Prince was secretly a treatise against religion.
Machiavelli disdained what Nietzsche called "otherworldly hopes." He would have resonated with Nietzsche's exhortation: "Behold, I teach you the overman. The overman is the meaning of the earth. Let your will say: the overman shall be the meaning of the earth! I beseech you, my brothers, remain faithful to the earth, and do not believe those who speak to you of otherworldly hopes!"
Machiavelli did not believe in divine providence, fate, or chance. He believed in fortune. The word "fortune" expresses the idea of making strong or fortifying. One's fortune is not left to chance, but forged by character and effort. When someone says, "May you have good fortune," they wish for you positive returns for your hard work.
He wrote in The Prince (Chapter 1) that new principalities are won by "the arms of others or with his own, either by fortune or prowess." In other words, a ruler comes into power by his own strengthening of his position. While it was in keeping with classical ethics to say that leaders should have virtue, especially prudence, Machiavelli's use of the words virtù and prudenza imply ambition and cunning. He believed that virtue and prudence help a man control his future. Good fortune comes by control of one's future.
Related reading: Ethics in the Renaissance; Chance, Fortune, Determinism and Indeterminism