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Niccolo di Bernardo dei Machiavelli emerged as one of the first true secularist philosophers to come out of the Christian West. In succeeding years his name would become infamous; his views, associated with Satan and immorality. However, Machiavelli's most significant contributions to Western thought never overtly favored scheming or devious methods to more morally acceptable ones. But rather, he generally acknowledged that any actions taken in the acquisition and sustention of power were tolerable and necessary for a lasting society. Essentially, Machiavelli threw out all previous notions regarding morality and ethical behavior. Instead, he adopted the premise that all people were prone to corruption and ambition; accordingly, they would employ any means at their disposal -- given the opportunity -- to achieve their goals. It was Machiavelli's insights into the workings of government -- presented in both The Prince and The Discourses -- that marked his true contribution to philosophy.
The similarities in these two texts are fairly obvious; Machiavelli provides some of the very same advice for leaders of republics that he does for leaders of principalities. Within The Prince, however, we find a much more personal approach to the topic of leadership. Specifically, we are given a template for how an individual in the position of a prince should behave if he wishes to retain power. The Discourses, on the other hand, endeavors to weigh different forms of government and their limitations against one another; ultimately landing upon what he believes to be the three most viable forms of government. Although the advice within the pages of The Prince could be labeled "monarchical," and the advice presented in The Discourses appears to possess a more "republican" attitude, the arguments remain quite similar. It is important to keep in mind Machiavelli's motivation for publishing The Prince: he was trying to gain favor with the ruling family of Florence. Therefore, it should be expected that the arguments presented in the book be seen through a monarch's lens. To Machiavelli, both forms of government were very real and effective means to ruling a functional society, and had more in common with one another than not.
The principality, to Machiavelli, is a form of republic. In The Discourses he identifies what he believes to be the three functional forms of a republic:
those who have written about republics declare that that there are in them three kinds of governments, which they call principality, aristocracy, and democracy, and that those who organize a city most often turn to one of these, depending upon whichever seems more appropriate to them." (Bondanella 176).
Machiavelli immediately follows this statement with a description of the three types of governments that can result in the event that each one of the ones mentioned should fail. Accordingly, a principality's dark side is termed "tyranny." The distinction between these two is deliberately made in The Discourses, but not considered at length in The Prince. Machiavelli describes one of the most common ways in which a principality can become a tyranny in The Discourses:
But when they [the citizens] began to choose a prince by hereditary succession rather than by election, the heirs immediately began to degenerate from the level of their ancestors and, putting aside all acts of valor, they thought that princes had nothing to do but to surpass other princes in luxury, lasciviousness, and in every other form of pleasure. So, as the prince came to be hated and he became afraid of this hatred and quickly passed from fear to violent deeds, and the immediate result was tyranny." (Bondanella 177-178).
So, Machiavelli suggests that one of the leading causes of principalities degenerating into tyrannical states is the practice of hereditary succession. He recognizes that there are two general forms of principalities and he says they "are either hereditary, in which instance the family of the prince has ruled for generations, or they are new." (Bondanella 79). Clearly, within the text of The Discourses he tends to favor new principalities -- those in which the prince has been popularly elected by the citizens. However, in The Prince, Machiavelli argues in favor of hereditary means to elect a prince:
say, then, that in hereditary states accustomed to the rule of a prince's family there are far fewer difficulties in maintaining them than in new states; for it suffices simply not to break ancient customs, and then to suit ones actions to unexpected events; in this manner, if such a prince is of ordinary ability, he will always maintain his state, unless some extraordinary and inordinate force deprive him of it..." (Bondanella 79-80).
Apparently, Machiavelli favors hereditary succession in The Prince but sees it as unfavorable in The Discourses. It is only natural to wonder how a single person can hold two seemingly contradictory viewpoints. A possible reconciliation between these two arguments can be made if one considers the circumstances that motivated Machiavelli to write The Prince.
The Prince was written by Machiavelli in an attempt to regain favor with the Medici's, the ruling family of Florence. Accordingly, the text is like a rule book for how someone in their position should behave if they wish to sustain power. So, it is necessary for Machiavelli to identify the strengths of such a method of leadership before he asserts his opinions concerning how that leadership can be made long-lasting. Also, it is important to note that the reasons he argues in favor of hereditary succession are quite different from his objections to it. He sees that the strength of a ruling family lies within the citizen's fickle nature; they do not want to significantly change their customs or way of life. Based on this premise, hereditary succession is advantageous to sustaining power if you are a member of that ruling family. However, in The Discourses, Machiavelli objects to this form of leadership because it can often result in tyrannies rather than republics. Yet, the aim of The Prince is not to generate a perfect government but to illuminate the path a prince should walk in order to remain in his social station. Machiavelli objects to tyrannical control in philosophy, but when advising an existing prince he does not rule it out as a possible means to sustaining power. This, perhaps the most blatant contradictions between The Prince and The Discourses, can be better understood when the aims of the two works are considered.
Although he never specifically mentions monarchy as a form of government to be valued, Machiavelli displays a clear preference towards it, or similar systems, in The Prince. This is most likely because the principality is very similar in many ways to a monarchy, particularly when the ruler is determined by birth -- as the Medici's were. According to the definitions of these governments, which he provides in The Discourses, it can be concluded that the form of government Machiavelli most often turns to in The Prince is aligned with tyranny -- and as such, is not a formal member of the republican family of ruling systems. He states at the onset of The Prince, "I shall set aside any discussion of republics, because I treated them elsewhere at length." (Bondanella 79). Therefore, the book can be looked at as almost an offshoot of his larger work, The Discourses, in which he intends to investigate all forms of republics and how they can withstand the ages; accordingly, The Prince is a smaller work, with a smaller audience: the existing prince himself.
Despite the clear differences between Machiavelli's two most famous works, there are many similarities. In The Discourses, after establishing the general ruling differences between a principality and other forms of republic, Machiavelli proceeds to enumerate the considerations a prince or a senate should take to be most effective; this advice is, in many cases, almost identical to the advice given in The Prince. One warning Machiavelli makes regarding the use of military forces, he describes in both books. In The Discourses he says, "Let me say again that of all the many kinds of troops, auxiliaries are the most harmful..." (Bondanella 324). Furthermore, in The Prince he states, "The mercenaries and the auxiliaries are useless and dangerous. And if a prince holds on to his state by means of mercenary armies, he will never be stable or secure; for they are disunited, ambitious, without discipline, disloyal..." (Bondanella 116). This is one of many identical bits of advice Machiavelli provides for both princes and republics.
Nevertheless, in The Discourses Machiavelli seems to clearly come out on the side of republics; at least in their ability to generate the highest levels of common good. He writes:
Yet, without a doubt, the common good is observed only in republics, for in them everything that promotes it is practiced, and however much damage it does to this or that individual, those who benefit from the said common good are so numerous that they are able to advance it in spite of the inclination of the few citizens who are oppressed by…[continue]
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