In exchange, the words which drive Machiavelli's work are very much a reflection of the groundswell of discontent with the ideological hegemony of the church and the feudal system. Thus, though we regard Machiavelli's contempt for terms of 'good' and 'not good' as inherently permissive to severe violation of the rights and experiences of others, we must also understand it as something of a reaction to such forces as well. The period to which Machiavelli helped reveal the threshold may be "summed up in that broadening of physical and mental horizons known as the Renaissance. The 'humanist' movement in northern Europe enlarged the options for thinking people beyond the ways of thinking, teaching, and explaining the world which had evolved as common property in the Middle Ages." (Cameron, 5) in Machiavelli's work, this accomplishment would be made through a deconstruction of a moral hierarchy designed to retain existing class and social structures. Though it was not Machiavelli's intent by any means to promote a democratization of the experiences of men, his ideology commanded a certain practical rationality which was actively excluded from more religiously founded ideas about good and evil.
Though radical in their inbuilt rejection of traditional morality, his ideas for this reason gain favor from the conservative contemporary critic, who could view their content as appropriately mirroring a prevalent sensation amongst the peoples of Europe that balance against overt moralism would only come through honest discourse on ways to diverge there from. In many ways, the changing times into which Machiavelli entered the Prince, were to be characterized by a change in leadership. The decay of the Old Europe was precipitated by a feudal system that was not just failing because it was immoral, but because it was ineffective. That the plague had been allowed to extinguish 1/3 of the known world's population was a fact that was considerably altering accepted wisdom about power hierarchy and the unchecked authority of the Church, as well as casting doubt on assumptions of the reward for abiding 'good' behaivor. Though the traditional definition of conservatism tends to resist the occurrence of dramatic change, hindsight suggests that Machiavelli's ideas actually parallel popular thought in their time and place. The leadership had become radical in its blind adherence to failing models of authority, designating the resistance the voice of conservative reform through the type of hardline, unyielding and morally pragmatic leader that Machiavelli describes.
In his estimation, the justification for 'evils' committed by leadership differ from those 'evils' committed between civilian men. This is a distinction accounted for by the differences in scale of the responsibilities held by men of power as opposed to the motives guiding men in personal conflict. Machiavelli explains that with the proper execution, deeds traditionally viewed as evil, such as violence and murder, may actually be legitimate as provisions to achieving power, maintaining authority and obtaining a favorable reputation that can be implemented in the pursuit of greater goals. He girders this supposition by observing that the negative impression which we generally hold of deeds which deviate from conventional standards of rightness, such as the above mentioned homicide offense, can only really be considered 'wrong' if these deeds are employed improperly. It is the author's contention that the almost universal acknowledgment of certain deeds as being evil is a condition of their misappropriation rather than their actual nature. He notes that power can be rightly earned by the implementation of bad deeds. Machiavelli describes in one of his many parallel anecdotes culled from Greek mythology, a leader of ill-repute with regard to moral law who achieves effectiveness as a principal. He tells that "by rising through the ranks, which involved a thousand hardships and dangers, did he come to rule the principality which he then maintained by many brave and dangerous actions. Still, it cannot be called ingenuity to kill one's fellow citizens, to betray friends,...
In the regard that such measures would fail to earn the perpetrator real glory but would stand to earn the people a symbolic inspiration and real measure of responsible leadership, Machiavelli makes the case that there is a balance here which redresses the initial sins committed. Ultimately, this is a case which calls into question the Church's view of the relationship between man, God and sin. Of course, it is still quite telling that the chapter from which the above quote is culled is entitled "Of Those Who Have Become Princes Through Wickedness." This denotes what will essentially be a justification for the implementation of behaviors which, while clearly present in the actions of man before the publication of the prince, are here given justification almost as a form of active ideological resistance to the intrusion of the church.
It is thus quite well captured in many contexts that Machiavelli was seen as an antagonist to the Church and to the intended morality which it had long imposed upon the subjects of Europe. To many, Machiavelli's work was rightly seen as an attack not just on the institution of the Church but also on its values. Whereby Machiavelli justified behaviors that might be seen as 'not good,' he offered a path to the deconstruction of ethical humanism between individuals. This is expressed in Christian-based text from 1579 which contends that in spite of their clear threat to the values and preservation of the human race, "the Machiavellians are free to descend into the arena: let them come forth. As we have said, we shall use the true and legitimate weapons of Holy Scripture, of the philosophy of ethics and of the laws of the commonwealth, of customs of nations, and of historical examples; then we shall boldly join battle with them on foot." (Garnett, 11) the idea expressed here pretty well sums up the degree of opposition to the justifications and allowance established by Machiavelli. With good reason, the idea here would be constructed to denote that many were not accepting to the new forms of engagement suggested by Machiavelli.
Still, today, we reflect on his writing with more than a few clear evidentiary case histories that suggest his justifications are in high use and heavy demand. This is to say that the political and economic motives which contend that the ends will justify any means are often seen in play in world affairs today. And while it may be that we join categorically with such institutions as the Church and a great many humanist philosophers who would work to reject any justification for behavior which is definably 'not good,' it is also easy to reflect on Machiavelli as one experiencing practical frustration at the hands of institutionalized morality.
Today, we must be very careful in the way that we apply Machiavellian principles to the political process. For though his work and its justification for certain types of behavior could be seen as a mode of resistance in its time and place, it is today a doctrine which has since been dissected, refuted and acted out a great many times. In the last of these capacities, it has rendered much of the suffering and ill-will which it promises. Therefore, the discussion here contributes to a more thorough understanding of the ways in which Machiavelli's justifications were viable in their historical context and, simultaneously, of the ways in which such ideology can be reduced to institutional rhetoric quite akin to that against which it sought to rebel.
Cameron, E. (1991). The European Reformation. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1991
Kant, I. 1785. Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals. Jonathan Bennett.
Garnett, G. & Brutus, S.J. (1994). Vindiciae, Contra Tyrannos. Oxford University Press.
Machiavelli, N. And Bondanella, P. (eds). (1992).…
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