AN: This is a Soma-style musing on The Prince, presented as a light report. Readers who think, “I don’t care about theory, gimme the story!” may skip it over.
Machiavelli’s ‘The Prince’ was called the Devil’s Book and for several hundred years was censured by the Christian Church, particularly the descriptions contained in Chapter VIII: Concerning Those who Have Obtained a Principality by Wickedness, and Chapter XVII: Concerning Cruelty and Clemency, and Whether It’s Better to be Loved than Feared.
Chapter VIII debated the theme of “Why is it that those who took over a country by using unscrupulous means enjoy a peaceful reign without experiencing revolts while rulers who gained their countries through rightful means lose theirs.” In it, Machiavelli stated that “it follows from severities being properly used.”
Moreover Chapter XVII argued that “Because people are fickle creatures, one should choose love rather than fear when one must be dispensed with”, explaining that “It is much safer for a ruler to be feared than loved.” He continued to say “When a prince … has under control a multitude of soldiers, then it is quite necessary for him to disregard the reputation of cruelty”, and that “Hannibal … having led an enormous army … no dissensions arose either among them or against the prince, whether in his bad or in his good fortune. This arose from nothing else than his inhuman cruelty”
The Christian Church, that preached kindness, cited these examples and said, “What is the meaning of this, encouraging rulers who should rule with benevolence to be cruel!” and banned The Prince. It then gained the infamy of being the Devil’s Book, and the contents locked up without being scrutinized, leading to misunderstandings that “The Prince advocated brutality,” and that “The Prince endorsed the killing of dissenters.” It still sometimes received this valuation even now when it had been reappraised.
But what I would like to assert here is that Machiavelli was saying that ‘The subject of cruelty is not something that is questioned in detail.” Despite saying in Chapter VIII, “Injuries ought to be done all at one time so that being tasted less, they offend less,” regarding the subject of it, Machiavelli never concluded that “this is it!” (though he did offer some historical examples).
The same thing goes with Chapter XVII. Despite saying that “In the actions of Hannibal contained his inhuman cruelty,” he never alluded to what those “cruelties” are.
So then, what was meant by Machiavelli when he said “Injuries that ought to be done all at one time,” or “cruelty” that should be borne by the Prince? We can only deduce it from among the cruel acts existent on this world, minus the things Machiavelli said “not to be done.”
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Firstly, in Chapter XVII, Machiavelli stated that a Prince should avoid being hated if he does not win love, and in order to not be hated, they should “abstain from the property of his citizens and subjects and from their women.” In the same vein, he also stated that “when it is necessary for him to proceed against the life of someone, he must do it on proper justification and for manifest cause.” In other words, “Even with a just cause, a ruler is not to lay his hands on his subjects and citizens’ property and women, and should only take their lives only with a proper cause (or, to not take their lives without one).”
Which means, the “cruelty” reffered to by Machiavelli would be limited to “killing with a just cause.” Then what kind of “killing with a just cause” is allowed? Is it what the Christian Church claimed, “kill all who oppose you”?
I very well understand that opinion is divided on this matter, but as for my own, I think I would say no. Why? Because Machiavelli himself said thus in The Prince in chapter XX:
“Princes, especially new ones, have found more fidelity and assistance in those men who in the beginning of their rule were distrusted than among those who in the beginning were trusted”
Those men who at the beginning have been hostile, were they to fall into the need of assistance to support themselves, can always be won over with great ease. Once they had been won over, they would be tightly held to serve the prince with fidelity, in order to cancel the bad impression that is had of them, and thus the Prince can extract more profit from them than those who had served him from the beginning with security. To speak of Japanese History, it would be easy to understand from Shibata Katsuie who served as general to Oda Nobunaga. Upon the treason of Nobunaga’s younger brother, Katsuie had at first sided with the younger brother, but would later come down and become Nobunaga’s vassal. From then onwards, Katsuie would desperately serve Nobunaga and become the chief retainer, but were his actions to be found lacking, he would be expelled from the Oda clan just like the similarly capitulated Hayashi Hidesada and Sakuma Nobumori.
This means that Machiavelli’s “cruelty” is not necessarily “always kill off your enemies.” But what is it then? For that we only have to look at and deduce from Machiavelli’s examples of “severities being properly used.” When Syracuse fell under attack from Carthage, Agathocles conducted a surprise attack on the Senate and prominent citizens of Syracuse, entrenching his own influence and brushing off Carthage’s attack. Oliverotto, in order to gain sovereignty over his birth town Fermo, conducted a surprise attack on the influential citizens including his own backer, his uncle, gaining control of Fermo within just a year.
Also, Machiavelli’s ideal ruler, Cesare Borgia, murdered the opponents who reconciled with him, cementing his power base. One of those opponents were Oliverotto. Machiavelli looked positively towards this act. From these three examples we can see the point that “the target of one’s cruelty is factionally one’s own.”
Though they belonged to the same faction, the senators that will get in the way of one’s policies, family that will get in the way of one being a ruler, and though reconciled, the allies that may one day turn their backs on you … these hindrances who could well be said ‘snakes in the grass’ were those that Machiavelli turned the spear of cruelty towards.
He said as much in chapter XVII: Hannibal was described as “inhumanly cruel” towards his army, but the subject of this cruelty can be seen through the comparison that was brought out, Scipio. Scipio was also a prominent general, but he was beset by rebellions from his men and insurrection from the citizens. The reason mentioned was that due to his gentle character, he was unable to punish his vassals who committed unreasonable acts. Which means that Hannibal took the opposite stance, convicting his allies, becoming feared by his men, and they did not revolt against him, regardless of the outcome of his battles.
Considering the fact that the target of Machiavelli’s advocated “proper use of severities” were the enemies in one’s own camp, and considering his other claims in The Prince, whereby “when your neighbors come to blows, it will always be advantageous to declare yourself for one or the other” and that “doing so is more advantageous than staying neutral,” 1 you can see Machiavelli’s underlying idea, namely:
“Do not put your faith in the bat 2 who allies himself to the winning side”
Machiavelli was a diplomat in Italy’s troubled times, full of wiles and trickery 3. He understood that by overlooking those who kept their stances indefinite claiming that the situation is hazy and unclear, they would become a source of problems later. Which was why he advised the uprooting of those lesions under the name of “cruelty.”
And that was why I beheaded these twelve nobles.
- TN: The Prince, Chapter XXI ↩
- TN: Referring to Aesop’s fable of the Birds and the Beasts: The birds and the beasts were having a war. The birds said to the bat: come with us, and the bat said “no, for I am a beast.” The beasts said to the bat: come with us, and the bat said “no, for I am a bird.” When the conflict was settled without a fight, the bat came to the birds to partake in the rejoicings, but they turned against him and he had to fly away. He then went to the beasts but had to beat a retreat, lest they would have torn him to pieces. “I see now,” said the bat, “he that is neither one nor the other has no friends.” ↩
- TN: JP = Kenboujussuu, which, incidentally, also means Machiavellianism ↩