Niccolo Machiavelli is considered one of the most influential political writers of the Renaissance. While the political theorists of the Middle Ages wrote about politics in an idealistic way, Machiavelli strived to present the realistic side of politics in his work. His ideas were based on his perception of human nature from a historical context. According to Machiavelli, an essential link existed between the condition of the state and the condition of the people. The state, he wrote, must be unified and efficient. If the state were divided and inefficient, drastic measures might be required to regain control.
Machiavelli’s most well-known work, The Prince, was essentially a handbook on how to be a great ruler. Machiavelli believed that a ruler did not have to abide by traditional customs and morals but instead should be concerned only with power and success in political ventures. As an example of this new type of ruler, Machiavelli cited Cesare Borgia, who achieved political power through cruel and ruthless means. The Prince has often been considered a justification of the type of tyrannical leadership practiced by rulers such as Borgia.
In his essay, Machiavelli advised rulers to maintain the safety of their states by whatever means they thought necessary and not to let considerations of honesty, justice, or honor hamper them. Today we use the word Machiavellian to describe people who use deceit and who have little regard for morality in their effort to get what they want. In this excerpt from The Prince, Machiavelli discusses power and the need to inspire fear in one’s subjects: “A controversy has arisen about this: whether it is better to be loved than feared, or vice versa. My view is that it is desirable to be both loved and feared; but it is difficult to achieve both and, if one of them has to be lacking, it is much safer to be feared than loved. “For this may be said of men generally: they are ungrateful, fickle, feigners [liars] and dissemblers [deceivers], avoiders of danger, eager for gain.
While you benefit them, they are all devoted to you: they would shed their blood for you; they offer their possessions, their lives, and their sons … when the need to do so is far off. But when you are hard pressed, they turn away. A ruler who has relied completely on their promises and has neglected to prepare other de fences, will be ruined, because friendships that are acquired with money, and not through greatness and nobility of character, are paid for but not secured, and prove unreliable just when they are needed. “Men are less hesitant about offending or harming a ruler who makes himself less loved than one who inspires fear. For love is sustained by a bond of gratitude which, because men are excessively self-interested, is broken whenever they see a chance to benefit themselves. But fear is sustained by a dread of punishment that is always effective.”