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Machiavelli’s Leadership, Essay Example

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One of the most interesting paradoxes in Machiavelli’s The Prince can perhaps be stated as follows: on the one hand, Machiavelli’s entire text is dedicated to establishing why a prince must be a strong political ruler, avoiding any type of moralistic or idealistic sentiments to the extent that this may compromise his power. On the other hand, however, Machiavelli understands that fortune is crucial to a ruler: a ruler cannot account for all the events that may befall him or her, and therefore much of what happens in politics is out of the control of the “Prince.” This seems to be a paradox because Machiavelli puts so much emphasis on maintaining power, while at the same time arguing that so much of the success of a ruler is subject to the circumstances of chance. In other words, even if a ruler would somehow embody the power and political realism that Machiavelli advocates, successfully fulfilling these principles, a much weaker ruler, who perhaps violates all of Machiavelli’s key principles as outlined in the book, could in the end be considered to be a greater ruler to the extent that fortune shines upon him or her. The point is as follows: if Machiavelli spends so much time arguing that the ruler of a state must consider power above all else, does he not subvert his own principles by giving an equal and perhaps even more important position within his political system to chance and fortune? Maybe this paradox becomes less confusing if one considers the question of how a leader should sensibly and reasonably deal with fortune. This is an important point for Machiavelli and is arguably crucial to his system because he emphasizes both the need for powerful rulers and the important role of chance: in other words, a sensible and powerful ruler, for Machiavelli, properly deals with chance and fortune that are inevitable in politics precisely by understanding the limits of his or her own sensibilities and powers.

This thesis can be developed first by looking at Chapter XV of The Prince, entitled “On Those Things for which Men, and Particularly Princes, are Praised or Blamed.” In this section, Machiavelli examines basically how princes and rulers gain positive or negative views from those who are ruled over. Machiavelli takes an interesting approach to this question of being favored, noting that being favored is ultimately not important when compared to what he terms “preservation.” (p. 59) Hence, Machiavelli writes, “for a man who wishes to profess goodness at all times will come to ruin among so many who are not good.” (p. 59) In other words, being favored seems to imply that one is trying to work towards some notion of good: the peoples being ruled over will favor a ruler if he tries to do good for them. However, for Machiavelli this is a cardinal mistake: the sensible and reasonable ruler understands that doing good all the time is an impossibility, since for Machiavelli understands that there is a difference between “how one lives and how one ought to live.” (p. 59) Reality is simply distinguished from any question of “ought”, the latter being a question of what is good. The ruler must place self-preservation above all. Yet how does this relation to fortune? For Machiavelli, the reasonable and sensible ruler makes his or her own self-survival the first priority. This means that he or she lives in the “real world” as opposed to the idealized world of what “ought to be done.” Part of this real world is the understanding that other individuals will always attempt to undermine the ruler’s political power: the real world, in other words, is a struggle for power. But at the same time, what is also part of the real world for Machiavelli is also fortune. If a ruler wants to maintain his or her power, it is not enough to merely be reasonable and sensible. This is because the ruler must understand that many circumstances are out of his or her control; also, there are many contingencies that may develop which are unseen also from the perspective of the Prince’s political opponents. Understanding reality in a rational manner therefore for Machiavelli has two parts: Firstly, making self-preservation one’s goal, because the real world is constituted by a struggle for power. Secondly, many acts, even though one takes this realist position, are simply out of one’s hands. Therefore, the struggle for power is also shaped by the fortune and contingency of events. The rational prince understands his or her own limitations.

Machiavelli makes this point very explicit in Chapter XXV, entitled “On Fortune’s Role in Human Affairs and how she can be Dealt with.” Machiavelli wants to take a middle road in this section. He does not want to accept a thesis of absolute sovereignty, whereby the ruler is ultimately omniscient and omnipotent: that is to say, although the ruler must do is to understand that their self-preservation is of the most crucial importance, and at the same time do anything in their power to realize this goal. On the other hand, he does not want to accept the following position, which Machiavelli describes as follows: “the opinion that the things of this world are, in a manner, controlled by fortune and by God, that men with their wisdom cannot control them.” (p. 66) In other words, Machiavelli does not want to leave everything up to fate or to pure chance. Machiavelli is a humanist in this sense: he wishes to emphasize the importance of people’s own decision making processes in regards to their own fortune. He does not want to give this power to some transcendent God, because this would some type of “idealized” version of reality which he criticizes in the section previously mentioned. If he would accept this view, it means that he would accept the view that rulers should act according what “ought to be done”, where here God functions as this “ought”: he think what ought to be done, for example, by reference to some supernatural power. Machiavelli in other words wants to remain a realist: he wants to avoid supernatural explanations and place autonomy in the human being. However, at the same time, he does not want to promote some viewpoint where human beings are therefore omnipotent, thereby becoming merely another type of God on earth.

Understanding this key difference is arguably how the ruler deals with fortune in a rational and sensible manner. On the one hand, the ruler recognizes his or her own autonomy: the Prince is free to act, for example, with a view towards self-preservation and the maintenance of political power. For Machiavelli, this is the rational and sensible position of a ruler who wishes to be successful. On the other hand, the ruler also must recognize his or her own lack of autonomy, that he or she is not merely a God on earth, but rather lives in the realist political space of chance, struggle and contingency.

This is why Machiavelli takes the following approach: “In order that our free will be not extinguished, I judge it to be true that fortune is the arbiter of one half of our actions, but that she still leaves the control of the other half, or almost that, to us.” (p. 65) Machiavelli’s exact division of fortune and free will or autonomy, “half, or almost that” is not important here: what is rather decisive is that Machiavelli understands a form of free will that is also limited by other events. And this seems to be an entirely logical conclusion, which avoids any type of idealism: we can certainly will and intend to make certain actions, such as the ruler’s self-preservation. But many of these decisions are contingent upon other events. It is this contingency upon other events which are out of our control. Therefore, the sensible and rational Prince understands these two influences that are active in political life and political power.

At the same time, this gives us a rational definition of what fortune means in this context. The Prince, in other words, does not have a supernatural definition of fortune, but rather understands fortune and chance in rational terms, even though fortune and chance are irrational, since anything can conceivably happen. That is to say, fortune is not some supernatural force that decides good fates or bad fates to particular individuals. Fortune here is the terminology in realist political terms for what Machiavelli understands to be the limitations of a given power structure. This becomes clear if we understand it as follows: a Prince or ruler does have authority, but their authority is always limited. This is because power and authority are contested, one does not have absolute authority: if this were the case Machiavelli’s prince would be a type of God, which goes away from his realism. There would be no political questions in this case. These gaps in the prince’s free well and authority, the gaps in the power of the political elite and system, are instances of fortune. In other words, the Prince understands that fortune can also be understood in rational and sensible terminology, even though it seems to be irrational and insensible simply because fortune lies beyond what we can calculate and expect. This is because fortune is another name for limitations.

In conclusion, therefore, the Prince who is rational and sensible knows that he or she is not a God on earth. The Prince understands the struggle for power that constitutes politics. The Prince is a thorough realist. At the same time, when the Prince understands the centrality of this struggle for power in the political life, the Prince understands that contingency, chance and unforeseen events are also a part of this life. The Prince understands that his or her own authority is not absolute: this is what Machiavelli terms fortune, the unforeseen that can never be foreseen. But this does not mean the Prince remains totally ignorant: for by understanding limitations in power, one may anticipate where the unexpected may arise. It is this understanding that constitutes a rational and sensible position of the Prince towards the irrationality of “fortune.”

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