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Machiavelli: Is it better to be feared or loved ?

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Niccolò Machiavelli’s name is synonymous with the art of politics and governance. His seminal work, The Prince, remains a pillar of political philosophy, dissecting the strategies and tactics necessary for effective leadership. Central to Machiavelli’s discourse is the age-old question: Is it better for a ruler to be feared or to be loved by their subjects? This inquiry, posed centuries ago, continues to captivate scholars, authors and leaders, offering insights into the world of human nature and the dynamics of power.

Understanding the context of The Prince

To fully grasp Machiavelli’s insights on governance, it is important to look into the historical and political context of Renaissance Italy, the backdrop against which The Prince was written. During Machiavelli’s lifetime (1469-1527), Italy was a fragmented land, divided into numerous city-states and territories, each vying for power and dominance. This period was characterized by cultural development, artistic innovation, and intense political situations.

Machiavelli himself was intimately acquainted with the machinations of power. Born in Florence, he served the Florentine Republic in various governmental capacities, including as a diplomat and as a secretary to the second chancery. His experiences exposed him to the realities of politics, where alliances were fragile, and fortunes could change in an instant. It was within this context that Machiavelli conceived his work.

The Prince (or De Principatibus), written in 1513 but published posthumously in 1532, is a treatise on political strategy and leadership. Addressed to Lorenzo de Medici, then ruler of Florence, the book offers advice on how to acquire, maintain and wield power effectively.

An important notion in his discourse is the concept of virtù, a term that encompasses qualities such as strength, cunning and adaptability. Machiavelli argues that successful rulers must possess virtù in abundance, using whatever means necessary to achieve their objectives and secure their position. This approach to governance stands in contrast to prevailing notions of morality and ethics, which Machiavelli viewed as impediments to an effective way of leading.

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Niccolò Machiavelli

Fear as a tool of rulership

For Machiavelli, fear is a more dependable instrument of control than love. While love may inspire loyalty, it is inherently fickle, susceptible to change with shifting circumstances. The line is thin between love and hate: better handle it correctly, or not handle it at all.

Fear, on the other hand, operates in the primal instinct of self-preservation. Individuals may not genuinely like their ruler, but the slightest sentiment of fear of punishment or reprisal compels them to obey. Machiavelli argues that a ruler who commands fear can deter dissent, suppress rebellion, and maintain order more effectively than one who relies on a strong feeling such as love.

“Is it better to be loved rather than feared, or vice versa? The answer is that one would prefer to be both but, since they don’t go together easily, if you have to choose, it’s much safer to be feared than loved.”

  • The Prince, chapter 17

While Machiavelli advocates for a strategic use of fear, he also warns against the perils of excessive cruelty, which descends into outright tyranny. Someone who rules through sheer terror may risk creating resentment, inciting rebellion and hatred. He advises rulers to temper their use of fear with a degree of prudence and restraint, avoiding actions that may alienate their subjects of provoke unnecessary hostility. It is important to maintain a degree of legitimacy to ensure the stability of a regime in the long term. In essence, Machiavellian leadership is not about promoting cruelty, but calculated pragmatism in the pursuit of power. His counsel against tyranny underlines the delicate balance that leaders must strike between asserting authority and preserving the loyalty and consent of the governed.

Acknowledging the long-term benefits of genuine admiration

Despite his emphasis on fear, Machiavelli recognizes the importance of cultivating a degree of goodwill among the populace. A ruler who is genuinely admired and respected by their subjects is likely to enjoy greater stability and cooperation in the long run. Love and loyalty, though less reliable than fear, can yield substantial benefits, fostering a sense of camaraderie and unity within the principality. Machiavelli advises rulers to strike a balance between fear and love, leveraging each as circumstances dictate to maintain their authority.

In The Prince, Machiavelli gives an example that illustrates the long-term benefits of love and admiration through the historical figure of Cesare Borgia (1475-1507), prince. Initially, Borgia’s rule was characterized by fear and manipulation. However, his authority evolved over time, and he eventually started to be admired for his actions. Through his effective governance, particularly in restoring order to the region of Romagna and unifying its diverse factions, Borgia exemplifies how an effective style of leadership can cultivate a sense of unity and admiration within the governed.

A ruler mustn’t worry about being labelled cruel when it’s a question of keeping his subjects loyal and united; using a little exemplary severity, he will prove more compassionate than the leader whose excessive compassion leads to public disorder, muggings and murder.”

  • The Prince, chapter 17.

Fortuna vs. virtù

The effectiveness of fear or love depends on a myriad of factors such as the temperament of the ruler, the character of the populace and the socio-political context in which they operate. Machiavellian leadership is not about adhering to rigid principles, but it is about adapting strategies to suit the exigencies of a situation. Managing power dynamics requires a nuanced understanding of the interplay between human agency and the unpredictable forces of Fortuna, the goddess of luck and fate in Roman mythology.

In his discourse, Machiavelli unveils the concept of Fortuna, a capricious and uncontrollable force capable of molding the fates of rulers and states. He compares fortune to a mighty river having the capacity of destroying everything that stands in her path. Even if he recognizes its influence in shaping outcomes, Machiavelli does not rely on fatalism. Instead, he emphasizes the significance of virtù. For him, fortune is the arbiter of half of our actions, but we have the capacity to influence the other half by making good choices at the right times. Leadership is about finding a balance between the unpredictable forces of fortune and the deliberate exercise of virtù.

“I compare fortune to one of those great rivers, which when in flood covers the plains, sweeping away trees and buildings, bearing away the soil form place to place. Everything flies before it, all yield to its violence, without being able in any way to resist it.”

  • The Prince, chapter 25.

The legacy and impact of Machiavellian philosophy

From renowned philosophers to contemporary political theorists, traces of Machiavelli’s philosophy can be recognized in a variety of more recent pieces of work.

His influence extends beyond the Renaissance era, as evidenced by the significant impact he has on subsequent political authors such as Thomas Hobbes. In his seminal work Leviathan, Hobbes draws inspiration from Machiavelli’s approach to governance, focusing on the necessity of a strong central authority to prevent a “state of nature” characterized by conflict and chaos. His theory of the social contract and emphasis on the sovereign authority’s role in maintaining order drew inspiration from Machiavelli’s ethos.

Furthermore, Machiavelli can be reflected in the works of modern political thinkers such as Robert Greene, whose books offer practical advice on managing power dynamics and understanding the human nature in business, relationships and personal development. Greene’s works The 48 Laws of Power or The Laws of Human Nature, provide a contemporary lens through which readers can understand and apply Machiavellian principles in the modern world.

In essence, Niccolò Machiavelli’s question into whether leaders should prioritize being loved or feared by their subjects remains fundamental in political philosophy. Through The Prince, he not only acknowledges the potential advantages, but he also warns against the risks inherent in both scenarios. Machiavelli suggests a ruler who is capable of striking a balance between inspiring fear and cultivating admiration is better equipped to maintain a long-term stability and legitimacy, as relying solely on one or the other may lead to unrest and riot. This nuanced approach highlights Machiavelli’s recognition of the delicacy of the balance between authority and public sentiment, that leaders have to learn to manage in order to keep their position.

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