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Fear as the Foundation of Political Rule in Machiavelli’s the Prince, Essay Example

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Words: 1086

Essay

In Machiavelli’s political treatise The Prince, the author advances the infamous and controversial thesis, which claims that fear is a crucial aspect of successful rulership. However, Machiavelli himself qualifies this statement. In his own words, “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.”[1] With this statement it may be suggested that what Machiavelli develops is a certain hierarchy of political character traits, according to which traits are most amenable to maintaining power. This hierarchy is crowned, therefore, by a combination of fear and love as the most desirable of qualities. Yet insofar as this combination, as Machiavelli claims, is incredibly difficult for a singular ruler to realize, the next trait in his political hierarchy is “to be feared”, followed by “to be loved.” Machiavelli does not discount the importance of the “to be loved”, but rather in an either/or situation claims the superior of fear. The reasons for this are well developed by Machiavelli in his work: the game of politics is simply one of an intense power for struggle, and since this the defining character of politics, fear is more consistent with the essence of politics itself. As any glance at history will demonstrate, this appears to be certainly the case; Machiavelli builds his own argument for this thesis in line with a historical analysis. In other words, Machiavelli takes a realist approach to politics, understanding it in terms of what it is and instead of what it ought to be: in this regard, his rejection of some idealization of politics seems legitimate.

Machiavelli therefore proceeds by stripping any romanticism from politics. He understands that despite any rhetorical or ideological claims the history of politics is the history for struggles for power. It is thus a “nasty and brutish” game of vying for hegemony. The intent of Machiavelli’s treatise, therefore, assuming this realist aspect of politics is therefore of how to “maintain” power. As Machiavelli states, “A ruler who wishes to maintain his power must be prepared to act immorally when this becomes necessary. I shall set aside fantasies about rulers, then, and consider what happens in fact.”[2]  Accordingly, the very backdrop for Machiavelli’s assertion about the superiority of fear over love in politics is a result of his initial tactic, which is to disperse what he claims any “fantasies” about politics. By eliminating the “fantastical” element of politics, what becomes clear is that politics is constituted by such “necessities” that emerge in conjunction with the key object to maintain power. It is so happens therefore that such political necessities are more easily fulfilled with fear than with love. This claim seems to be entirely legitimate if we accept the thesis that politics should be stripped of any “fantasy”: if we understand politics as a brutally competitive struggle, the trait of fear is more consistent with this struggle. In this regard, Machiavelli’s argument follows in favor of fear follows directly from his initial premise about the violent battle for hegemony at the heart of politics.

Accordingly, to critique Machiavelli’s thesis about the superiority of fear to love, it would seem that the best option would be to critique his realist nature of politics. Namely, one would have to show that the authority of the Prince is not only rooted in a will to power, but may also be based on altruistic or even metaphysical political aims. However, one of the ways Machiavelli diffuses this viewpoint is taking the Papacy of one of his great examples of realist politics in action. In Machiavelli’s worldview the Papacy is not a spiritual authority, but is rather merely another pawn in the political game for hegemony. For example, he discusses the role the Duke of Milan had in the potential selection of a pope, noting that the Duke of Milan “should never have permitted any cardinals he had injured to be chosen, or any who, once he became pope, would have reason to be afraid of him. For men harm others because they fear them or because they hate them.”[3] Why Machiavelli remains so relevant to this day is that because even in his time period, he saw the realist heart of politics and all governing institutions: Machiavelli avoids the supernatural claims of these institutions as mere products of an ideology, and dives under this surface to show what is causing this ideology: power. Insofar as this claim is legitimized, it follows that fear becomes more important than love.

However, from another perspective, could it not be said that from within a realist perspective that Machiavelli contradicts himself in the previous quote? Namely, Machiavelli states that “men harm others because they fear them or because they hate them.”[4]  This would seem to mean that the ruler who wishes to maintain power, by pursuing such a policy and image of fear, would create enemies by invoking this fearfulness. In other words, instead of quelling opposition through fear, the Prince merely creates opposition. But this overlooks Machiavelli’s point about political realism: in politics opposition always exists. Therefore, the Prince who is loved cannot be universally loved: there will be opposition to him. Furthermore, as noted at the outset of this paper, Machiavelli does not view fear alone as the ultimate political character trait, but rather a synthesis of love and fear. Hence, insofar as opposition always exists in politics, the loved Prince merely leaves himself open to any type of opposition. The feared Prince, in other words, at least stands a change to maintain power amidst the relentless antagonism of politics.

Thus, what makes Machiavelli’s arguments so compelling is that they do not take some naïve or “fantastical” view of politics. Machiavelli exposes the empty rhetoric of political ideologies, and this is why The Prince was so ahead of its time and remains relevant even today. One must merely accept the fact that those who want to be the ruler of someone else by definition seek power and control: because this is the very definition of ruler. Once we accept the realist nature of politics, in other words, the supremacy of fear over love, as Machiavelli makes clear, logically follows.

Works Cited

Machiavelli, Niccolo. The Prince. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2005.

[1] Niccolo Machiavelli, The Prince (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2003), 59.

[2] Ibid., 55.

[3] Ibid., 29.

[4] Ibid., 29.

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