Niccolo Machiavelli's The Prince examines the nature of power and his views of power are still somewhat in existence today. I'll discuss this in this essay, emphasizing the following theses. Machiavelli discusses power over the people, dictatorial power, and power with people, shared power. While it is possible for power with to attain greater prevalence in society, it will not completely eliminate power over. In The Prince, Machiavelli discusses two distinct groups of people, the political elite, including nobles and other princes, and the general public. Today in the United States, the first group, the political elite, includes political leaders, religious leaders, business leaders and the leaders of strong lobbying groups. The composition of the general public has changed little from Machiavelli's time.
Machiavelli concentrates on relations between the prince and the political elite. He claims that ambition and dictatorial power drive most nobles and princes. A prince must act with dictatorial power in order to maintain his position. Machiavelli assumes that shared power will not be effective with nobles, since "whether men bear affection depends on themselves, but whether they are afraid will depend on what the ruler does" (Machiavelli, p.60-61). Since the nobles are unforgiving and greedy it would be dangerous if not downright suicidal for a prince to rely on their good will.
Equally important, Machiavelli states that a prince, a political leader, has different concerns than the general public. For a prince personal actions, which would be considered immoral or unvirtuous, may save lives or help the prince's country. In this way a prince is not immoral, but instead acts with a morality different in nature from the general public. Machiavelli gives several examples of this. Miserliness is considered a fault. Yet, a miserly prince "will come to be considered more generous when it is realized that his revenues are sufficient to defend himself against enemies that attack him, and to undertake campaigns without imposing special taxes on the people" (p.56). Likewise, starting a war is considered an immoral act by many. Yet, a prince should not allow troubles "to develop in order to avoid fighting a war for wars can not really be avoided, but are merely postponed to the advantage of others" (p.11). Avoiding war may ...
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... the ugly political process preceding the results has overshadowed positive results like a lower deficit and improved economy. Clinton is neither feared nor loved by his political opposition, making it difficult for him to produce results without great struggles. The one result remembered by many is that Clinton raised taxes, taking away their property. Thus, Clinton has had difficulty with both appearances and results. One might say that in addition to power, a prince in relations needs political skill with the public. For a politician weaving a good story of one's accomplishments is more important than the accomplishments themselves.
Machiavelli's idea of power and how it should be handles as he describes in The Prince can still be used to examine the present. While it's possible to see only the negative uses of power, one can also see the potential for power to promote the common good. Machiavelli would argue that attending to the common good is in a prince's best interests, since it gains the support of the people, something more valuable than any fortress or other expression of power.
Machiavelli, Niccolo. The Prince. England: Penguin Classics, 1981.
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