Machiavelli: Ends versus Means
‘It is far better to be feared than loved if you cannot be both’, such and more is the devious logic of Niccolo Machiavelli in his most famous and also most hated book across centuries, The Prince. The 15th century master’s shrewd intellect shows through this realpolitik treatise, perhaps as a means undertaken to justify the ends? – to curry favour with the Medici, who returned to power after elbowing out the Republic, of which Machiavelli was a key figure.
It can be no coincidence that he extols the virtues of the Medici, at the same time putting to paper his knowledge of politics, reverently suggesting that the book may be perceived as a gift, as a way to understand in the ‘shortest time all I have learnt in so many years’.
And yet, the general nature of the book, which basically advises princes (or any ruler) on how to retain power, incited such passions across Europe that the word ‘Machiavellian’ Â meaning devilish cunning, unscrupulous political dealing and manipulative genius – came into use before any translation of the text had been published. For holding views such as, ‘Idealistic politicians are ineffective politicians,’ and challenging the idea of Christian virtue as the governing principle in the conduct of a leader, the Catholic Church banned the book soon after its publication.
At the same time, it is impossible to deny the pragmatism the book conveys in matters of state and power, as in the following sentence: A blunder ought never be perpetrated to avoid war, because it is not to be avoided, but is only deferred to your disadvantage. Or, ‘Those who by valorous ways become princes, acquire a principality (kingdom) by difficulty but retain it with ease’. Or even, ‘It is necessary for a prince wishing to hold his own to know how to do wrong, and to make use of it or not according to the necessity’.
Such candid discourse did not then, and even now may not find favour with everybody but it forces us to look at systems of power and people in those places minus rose-tinted glasses. For, while illustrious men have come and gone, yet through centuries, lands have been plundered, atrocities have been committed, wars have been raged, human faiths have been misused, citizenry has been deceived, by the rulers. And, while these continue, it does seem less than pragmatic to lose oneself in moral discourses on power and authority.
Therefore, in his own defense and in his own words, following words come to the fore: It appears to me more appropriate to follow up the real truth of the matter than the imagination of it because of how one lives is so far distant from what ought to be done, that he who neglects what is done for what ought to be done, sooner effects his ruin than his preservation.
Cunning intellect is at work when Machiavelli states that it is unnecessary for a prince to have all the good qualities I have enumerated, but it is very necessary to appear to have them, clearly conveying that too much of a good thing could be a detriment to a ruler’s position. He explains that the prince who is too liberal with finances and not mean enough, spends his way to scorn from his people, making his kingdom vulnerable to more powerful armies. Here and above is ample challenge to that over-simplified comparison between Machiavelli and the political genius of Chanakya, who authored the Arthashastra.
Chanakya’s concept of kingship implies that the office is an aggregate of the people whose welfare is an end in itself. Here, the king was expected to be a virtuous person in words, thoughts and deeds. If he had to be cruel by necessity, it was to make virtuous life possible for all. There is an emphasis on the creation of a state closest to an ideal.
On the other hand, Machiavelli details the methods a ruler can adopt to retain and grow his power, regarding the aspects of defence, governance, reputation, choice of secretaries, etc. The citizens’ welfare, if advocated, is limited to being governed by a suitable ruler.
In effect, there are some similar advices from both on how to maintain armies, how to choose one’s noblemen, how to manage finances, but the distance between these is from the viewpoint of the goal behind these concerns.
Machiavelli proves his astuteness in understanding the human nature thus: This is to be asserted in general of men that they are ungrateful, fickle, false, cowardly, covetous, and as long as you succeed, entirely yours.
And, just as Chanakya advocated the use of reward and punishment, Machiavelli is of the belief, ‘Men have less scruple in offending one who is beloved than one who is feared, for love is preserved by the link of obligation which, owing to the baseness of men, is broken at every opportunity for their advantage; but fear preserves you by a dread of punishment which never fails’.