“If One Can Speak Well Of Evil”: Virtue and Morality in Niccolo Machiavelli’s The Prince William Shakespeare

makes a reference to the “murderous Machiavel” through one of his villains in the third part of his play Henry VI (547). The term “Machiavellian” by definition means “suggestive of or characterized by expediency, deceit, and cunning” (“Machiavellian”). Even Benito Mussolini deemed The Prince too fascist for Roman libraries to circulate (Siegel). Yet, Niccolo Machiavelli was a republican, and according to philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau, “an honest man and a good citizen” (“Machiavelli, Niccolo”). Other philosophers noted him

positively as well: Francis Bacon for his boldness, Benedict de Spinoza for his good intentions, and James Harrington for his prudence based on the prudence and intelligence of those found in history (“Machiavelli, Niccolo”). Controversy regarding his character followed Machiavelli to his death, and has continued to exist for centuries. The intentions of The Prince and of Machiavelli himself may not be entirely clear, but the presence of his morality should not be so often questioned or disregarded. While The Prince is often considered the handbook of iniquitous despots, Machiavelli pushes morality rather than depravity so long as it remains convenient. It has been said that he did not necessarily believe in much of what he

wrote. It was, rather, born out of the very utilitarian nature that unwittingly created his reputation for cruelty. The Medici family came to power in Florence, Italy in 1512, and “Machiavelli, suspected of conspiracy, was imprisoned, tortured, and sent into exile in 1513” (“Machiavelli, Niccolo”). While in exile, he wrote both The Prince and Discourses on Livy, arguably his two most well-known works. The Prince he dedicated to Lorenzo de Medici, ruler of Florence from 1513 and member of the very same Medicis that put him in exile (“Machiavelli, Niccolo”). Machiavelli wrote it with the probable goals of Medici in mind rather than his own political philosophy. Ironically, Discourses on Livy is written on his own political philosophy, and is not so well known or so fully believed. Machiavelli utilized his ability to deal with people and his ability to write as a means of gaining favor with his powerful enemies. He did not necessarily believe in the words he wrote, the political views of the Medicis, nor the Medicis themselves. He merely did what was necessary, “pretending to give lessons to kings,” as Jean-Jacques Rousseau described it (Rudowski 15). Though his lessons were written for his own convenience, they are not entirely beyond his personal beliefs. To follow what is necessary, convenient, and realistic is the requirement of The Prince. “He should appear to be compassionate, faithful to his word, kind, guileless, and devout,” says Machiavelli about the

superior prince. “And indeed he should be so. But his disposition should be such that, if he needs to be the opposite, he knows how” (57). An appearance of morality is necessary and convenient, but to always be honorable regardless of the affairs of the state is deemed unrealistic as well as dangerous. However, so long as it is still agreeable, Machiavelli states that the prince should possess morality. He is not adverse to morality and he does not favor cruelty. He favors convenience and necessity. Most importantly, he favors virtue. “Virtue” as used in The Prince does not mean “character” or “purity” so much as it means “ability” or “prowess.” He contrasts virtue throughout the book with fortune, as man has control over his own virtue, but not his own fortune. Principalities can be acquired by either or both, and chapters are written for each. Acquisition by neither method, however, is an available path as well, as acquisition by criminal methods. Machiavelli writes on this—but he does not condone it, saying “it cannot be called prowess to kill fellow-citizens, to betray friends, to be treacherous, pitiless, irreligious. These ways can win a prince power but not glory” (Machiavelli 29). He himself denounces the iniquitous ways considered characteristically Machiavellian, in the very work to which that stigma is attributed.

The stigma of cruelty and evil affixed to Machiavelli is a result of his disregard for morality in relation to matters of the state and holding power in the state. However, the stigma also exists because of the deeds of those who have admired The Prince or used said work as a reference, such as Catherine de Medici, Oliver Cromwell, Napoleon Bonaparte, and Adolf Hitler (Siegel). People consider the lives and deeds of such people to be a testament to not only the content of the book, but to the doctrine of Machiavelli himself, without taking into consideration his purpose for writing, or his utilitarian ways. “It is indeed scarcely possible for any person, not well acquainted with the history and literature of Italy, to read without horror and amazement the celebrated treatise which has brought so much obloquy on the name of Machiavelli” (Macaulay). Yet, those with knowledge of times and purpose can read The Prince with understanding, and have done so. Niccolo Machiavelli was an enigma, and his political philosophy has always been obscured, by his own works and the ideas of others. To misunderstand his purposes and ideology is to misunderstand, and usually disregard, a fundamental historical figure and an author of literature. The Prince is not as iniquitous as it often seems; it merely has been taken quite out of context, and those who read the work with an open mind, particularly with intent to apply it to small-scale leadership, find it not only helpful but also honorable in many ways. This is not to

say he was a truly moral man, merely that he was neither cruel nor unscrupulous, and also had a talent for power. “So let a prince set about the task of conquering, and maintaining his state; his methods will always be judged honourable and will be universally praised” (Machiavelli 58). His logical, historical take on power has been remembered for centuries, and it is to be hoped that it will be remembered for centuries further, this time in context.

Works Cited Macaulay, Thomas Babington. “Machiavelli.” English Essays: Sidney to Macaulay. Vol. XXVII. The Harvard Classics. New York: P.F. Collier & Son, 1909–14; Bartleby.com, 2001. 02 May 2007. http://www.bartleby.com/27/24.html. Machiavelli, Niccolo. The Prince. London: Penguin Classics, 2003. "Machiavelli, Niccolo." Encyclopædia Britannica. 2007. Encyclopædia Britannica Online. 1 May 2007 <http://www.britannica.com/eb/article-242864>. "Machiavellian." The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, Fourth Edition. Houghton Mifflin Company, 2004. Answers.com 01 May 2007. <http://www.answers.com/topic/machiavellian>. Rudowski, Victor Anthony. The Prince: A Historical Critique. New York: Twayne Publishers, 1992. Shakespeare, William. The Complete Works of Shakespeare. Cleveland, OH and New York, NY: The World Syndicate Publishing Company Siegel, Janice. "Dr. J's Machiavelli Study Guide." Dr. J's Illustrated Guide to the Classical World. 25 Oct 2005. 01 May 2007 <http://people2.hsc.edu/drjclassics/syllabi/IH/Machiavelli.shtm>.