Machiavellian virtue: the only means to get power. By Abdullahi Arale

  1. Introduction.

Virtue had different meaning in different stages of human history. To love and help one’s fellow Christians in times of need through charities has been the traditional virtue known to Christians since the rise of their faith. Use of violence and treachery to get to power and prestige has never been part of the Christian virtue. However, Machiavelli saddened by his country’s division into Cantons and occupation of them by foreign powers and equally frustrated with his local princes’ constant fights over the ruling of the Italian masses without ever making any tangible progress, came up with new virtue of his own. The winner of such intra fights lost power to a challenger as easy as the manner he got it, because he neglected to acknowledge the masses’ effort in the struggle and their desire to be credited for their participations. Sensing the gap between the warring princes and the people’s disapproval of their approach to power, and his own pressing desire for an effective centralized princedom (state) capable of defending Italy as a united country, Machiavelli denounced the traditional Christian virtue for its submission of the individual into mythology, reducing his/her intelligence, talent and ambition into a mere idleness and came up with new virtue of his own. This new virtue is based on the prudent use of power and skillful projection of “appearance”-acting ruthlessly while seeming good. Apparently, Machiavellian virtue and Christian conception of virtue seem to be mutually exclusive; they are not present conjointly at one time in the same place. Therefore for any prince seeking power the choice must be clear:  he must choose the Machiavellian virtue because it gives him the means to acquire power and help him retain it. From Machiavelli’s perspective, his virtue is rational, necessary and just as long as it is executed properly.

Machiavellian virtue has altered not only how people perceive morality and religion and philosophy, but also changed the way nations treat other nations in terms of race, class etc. Christianity, similar to other Monotheistic Religions has a set of well established virtue among which the most known are “Prudence, Justice, Temperance etc which also overlap with Platonic virtue. This virtue asks the individual to be aware of God’s presence who monitors us in what ever we take on to do in verbal and non-verbal interaction, in visible and invisible actions. According to the Christian teaching, this means that there is another life after death and a world to which every human has a place in it. In that life, one enjoys either immeasurable pleasure in Paradise or suffers great pains and horrific experiences in hell and fire depending on the reported card that one gets in that day. In other words humans are indeed accountable to God and are judged in accordance with how they behave and what they do in the earthly life. In a nutshell, in order to please her/his God and safe her/her own ass, so to speak in the judgment day, one has to be just, honest, generous and supportive to the causes of the lees fortunate. Basically one has to do the right thing, in all times. This type of virtue is enforced through the traditional social institutions of religion, church, family and occupation so that the tradition continues.

However, in Machiavelli’s reasoning, God appointed man to be in charge of the earth (Fortuna), and by doing so, he gave man not partial, but full authority to manage this stubborn and often difficult nature (natural objects or Fortuna). In this, Machiavelli implies that God created man different from the other animals. He created man with pride, intelligence, reflection and foresight so that he could utilize them to conquer and tame nature the best way he can.

As a believer in Christianity, Machiavelli never had any quarrel with Christian virtue as a concept. In fact he praised those who performed altruistic deeds. However he had problem with those who tried to seek power while using Christian virtue. He saw the two incompatible with each other. In sum, for Machiavelli as much as Christian virtue makes sense and its use may well help individuals to purify their consciences, it nonetheless, underscores and minimizes the individual’s ambitions to climb the ladder of power in order to do good to society. If Christianity and its like minded faiths’ goal were to help people to lead a better life in an organized collective manner, they have miserably failed. Therefore a prince operating under the auspices of Christian virtue would harm the proper function of the state. In order to show his generosity, the prince would spend the treasury of the state in the construction of religious symbols, give money to charities, and treat his cronies with wealth in exchange for praise. By doing so, he would starve his military to be able to attract new recruits, buy necessary weaponry for the armed forces and transportation equipment to mobilize the troops in emergency situations. In such princedoms, since the prince can no longer defend the country by himself he will have either to invite other princes to help him who certainly will humiliate him and tremendously minimize his people’s confidence in him or simply quit.

As Machiavelli himself wrote about it , early Italian history is filled with examples of princes who behaved in accordance with Christian values, and as a result lost wars to other Italian challengers or invading princes from Europeans particularly from France and Spain. The main reason why these Italian Dukes or kings lost their wars, Machiavelli ascribes to lack of drive and ambition to take a territory and defend it. Either they lacked the mental capability to plan ahead once they capture their first objective, or lack of energy and resources to continue their missions, which often lured them to what they knew best that is to get down to pleasure themselves in a luxurious extravaganza, while delegating their authorities and power to barons.

Hence, since virtuous princedoms’ final fait is a diluted economy and powerlessness under which their subjects starve to death and feel no longer secure, there must be another way a prince can help himself to ascend to power and help his people to live without fear of invasion and the same time be proud of whom they are as a nation.

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