Machiavellian and Macbeth

I do this “Word for the Day” thing with a few people; we use it as a means of sharing thoughts.  I got the following two words as answers to the some of my blogs from last week: “Machiavellian” and “Macbeth” 

Interesting choice of words!  “Machiavellian” and “Macbeth”, why?

Was the choice of words an effort to highlight a struggle to balance virtues over accomplishments?  Machiavelli principles have more to do with the efficient management of government, making management and control priority over morality.  Macbeth is about ambitions clouding judgment and morality.  Is the argument a reiteration that you need both skill and luck to rule and maintain power. The upcoming elections remind us that not much has changed in politics, then and now. 

Chasseriau Macbeth
Chasseriau Macbeth

 To-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow, Creeps in this petty pace from day to day To the last syllable of recorded time, And all our yesterdays have lighted fools The way to dusty death.

Out, out, brief candle! Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player

That struts and frets his hour upon the stage And then is heard no more: it is a tale

Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,

Signifying nothing. 

William Shakespeare (1564 – 1616), “Macbeth”, Act 5 scene 5 

Machiavelli’s book “The Prince”, is about the leadership of a government by a single person, and how to use ones personal virtues to solidify power.  The backdrop of the times for Machiavelli’s writing was turbulent.  The “Renaissance” was providing writers great influence through the printed word; Machiavelli wanted to join in on the fray.  “How To” handbooks were quick and influential means for promoting the writer’s beliefs, Machiavelli achieve the notoriety, he and his books were banished from Florence and other places including the church,  Or was the choice of words to be taken as a personal analysis of me as a subject?



Quick Analysis of Machiavellian Principles

What kind of actions should a virtuoso (skillful) prince take?  Well, he avoids using other princes’ troops or hiring mercenaries to do his dirty work – such a reliance on outside help makes a prince the helpless victim of fortune.  He does not come into power through overt crime, nor does he allow himself to gain a reputation for cruelty – but he is able to use crime and cruelty when he needs to, carefully concealing his guilt.   A virtuoso prince will not alienate the people he governs, but he will not let the need to be loved by them take precedence over the necessity of being feared by them.   In order to maintain his power, a prince must earn the loyalty of his subjects, and he can best do this by protecting them.  And any prince who shows himself to be strong enough to protect his subjects must also show himself to be strong enough to be feared by them – though, of course, never gratuitously cruel to them.   Above all (and here’s where Machiavelli got a little shocking for his Renaissance readers), a virtuoso prince must acknowledge the fact that he does not live in an ideal world.  He should therefore “learn not to be good” when a particular occasion (fortuna again!) renders it more advantageous to be bad. In subsequent chapters, Machiavelli describes how a prince can break promises, commit crimes, and generally behave nastily for political advantage.  But he also insists that a prince should learn to avoid the hatred that would result from exposure of his bad behavior.  He should instead cultivate a reputation for “goodness,” even if that reputation is false.  In other words, for Machiavelli’s prince, it’s better to look good than to be good. 

Points to Ponder

Machiavelli’s political allegiances were a matter of some dispute in his own time.  After working for the Florentine republic, he attempted to gain a political position at the court of the men who destroyed that system.  He wrote a treatise on republics, The Discourses,  as well as his handbook for single rulers, The Prince.  Are there suggestions, even within The Prince itself, that Machiavelli doesn’t actually like princes very much?   If not, should we consider Machiavelli a hypocrite?  If so, then should the entire book be taken ironically?     From his time up until the present day, Machiavelli has often been considered an immoral theorist, one who was prepared to suggest that the ends always justify the means.  But readers who wish to spare Machiavelli from accusations of “immorality” cite his example of Agathocles the Syracusan as an instance when the ends do not seem to justify the means.  Since Machiavelli presents Agathocles in such a negative light, does this suggest that there is some political behavior that is simply unacceptable on any terms?  Does Machiavelli object to the cruelty of Agathocles on ethical grounds?  If so, does this destroy his notion, expressed elsewhere, that there is no absolute standard for judging political action?  The word virtu, so prevalent in The Prince, never seems to mean the same thing twice.  How many definitions for this term can you find implied in Machiavelli’s argument?  Do any of these definitions contradict each other?  Why do you think that Machiavelli placed so much emphasis on a word which resists stable definition?   What implications does the slipperiness of this term have for his larger argument?  What is the point of writing a “how-to” that avoids making concrete recommendations?  After leaving Florence, the banished Machiavelli wrote a letter to a friend in whom he described his evening activities alone in the countryside:  every night, apparently, he would take off his work clothes (remember, he was living on a farm), and would put on the “royal and curial robes” he used to wear at court.  Only when he was so splendidly attired, Machiavelli told his friend, did he feel ready to join in the company of ancient kings and princes – in other words, to sit down and write about them in The Prince!   Renaissance dramatists frequently used a stock character in their plays when they needed a villain.  This character, meant to exemplify the extreme of irreligious wickedness and immorality, was called the “machiavel.”  Shakespeare’s cunning Iago in Othello is one of his most famous machiavels; the evil Richard III goes even further, declaring onstage that his villainy will “set the murderous Machiavel to school.”  Machiavelli devotes a great deal of The Prince to praising powerful popes. Rather than appreciating such flattery, however, the Catholic Church considered Machiavelli’s book an enemy to religion – from 1557 onwards, The Prince has been on the Catholic Church’s Index Librorum Prohibitorum, or list of forbidden books! 


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