Ethics in Machiavelli's The Prince Essay

Ethics in Machiavelli's The Prince Essay

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Ethics in Machiavelli's The Prince

Niccolo Machiavelli (1469-1527) was an Italian statesman and political philosopher. He was employed on diplomatic missions as defence secretary of the Florentine republic, and was tortured when the Medici returned to power in 1512. When he retired from public life he wrote his most famous work, The Prince (1532), which describes the means by which a leader may gain and maintain power.

The Prince has had a long and chequered history and the number of controversies that it has generated is indeed surprising. Almost every ideology has tried to appropriate it for itself - as a result everyone from Clement VII to Mussolini has laid claim to it. Yet there were times when it was terribly unpopular. Its author was seen to be in league with the devil and the connection between 'Old Nick' and Niccolo Machiavelli was not seen as merely nominal. The Elizabethans conjured up the image of the 'murdering Machiavel' [1] and both the Protestants and the later Catholics held his book responsible for evil things. Any appraisal of the book therefore involved some ethical queasiness. Modern scholarship may have removed the stigma of devilry from Machiavelli, but it still seems uneasy as to his ethical position.

Croce [2] and some of his admirers like Sheldon Wolin [3] and Federic Chabod [4] have pointed out the existence of an ethics-politics dichotomy in Machiavelli. Isaiah Berlin [5] postulates a system of morality outside the Christian ethical schema. Ernst Cassirer [6] calls him a cold technical mind implying that his attitude to politics would not necessarily involve ethics. And Macaulay [7] sees him as a man of his time going by the actual ethical positions of Quattrocento Italy.

In the face of s...

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...erlin, Isaiah. The Question of Machiavelli. New York Review, November 4, 1971.

6. Cassirer, Ernst. Implications of the New Theory of the State (from The Myth Of The State)

7. Macaulay, Thomas Babington. Machiavelli

8. Berlin, Isaiah. Ibid.

9. Machiavelli. Il Principe Ch XVIII 'Yet as I have said before, not to diverge from the good if he can avoid it, but to know how to set about it if compelled.' Trans. Marriott. The Project Gutenberg Internet Edition.

10. Erasmus. The Education of a Prince, quoted in J. R. Hale, Renaissance Europe 1480-1520 p. 309

11. Hale p. 308

12. Macaulay. Ibid.

13. Whitfield, J. H. Big Words, Exact Meanings.

14. Aristotle. Nichomachean Ethics. [trans. Sir David Ross]

15. Machiavelli. Discourses on Livy Ch XXVII, Project Gutenberg Internet Edition

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