Seneca’s On Mercy and Machiavelli 's The Prince come written in similar form. Both are advice books from prominent thinkers to individuals who recently came to power at the time. However, despite the parallels in their origin, the books these two philosophers present have vastly different teachings. Machiavelli and Seneca present two deeply divided views of the proper course of leadership, as they disagree on the nature of a great ruler and on the proper methods of ruling.
Machiavelli’s ruler maintains power for themselves, while Seneca’s maintains power for the good of a broader society. The Prince is essentially a handbook on how to maintain power, with the emphasis entirely upon how to achieve this to the greatest benefit for the ruler. To Machiavelli, glory is the ultimate goal for a leader, and maintaining power a means to this end. In Machiavelli’s conception, glory consists of greatness, of longevity of rule, rather than power alone. When writing of Agathocles, an exceptionally cruel ruler, he states, “it cannot be called virtue to kill one’s fellow-citizens, [...] to be treacherous, merciless, and irreligious; power may be gained by acting in such ways, but not glory” (Machiavelli 31). However, Machiavelli does not reject the behavior exhibited by Agathocles or others like him completely, asserting that “it must be understood that a ruler [...] cannot always act in ways that are considered good because in order to maintain power, he is often forced to act treacherously, ruthlessly, or inhumanely, and disregard the precepts of religion” (Machiavelli 62). Thus behavior that would typically be condemned as immoral is condoned by Machiavelli specifically in t...
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...avenge slight injuries, but not those that are very severe” (Machiavelli 9). Effective, stable rule requires the crushing of crime and dissent in a Machiavellian world, whereas mercy lessens the need for punishment in the first place in a Senecan conception of the world.
Machiavelli and Seneca advocate for two fundamentally different forms of leadership. The Machiavellian leader is unconstrained by typical morality, prioritizing individual goals over all. In contrast, Seneca casts his eye to the betterment of society through the moral virtue of the leader. They also present very different pathways for effective rule, with Seneca exposing the values of mercy and Machiavelli rejecting this same value wholesale. Ultimately, despite the similar goals of these works, to advise a newly borne ruler, they function as the philosophical opposites of each other in many senses.
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