Although many of the same ideas are contained in both The Prince and the Discourses, these two works differ significantly in emphasis because they discuss two different types of political systems.
The Prince, is one of the first examinations of politics and science from a purely scientific and rational perspective. In The Prince, Machiavelli was concerned with a principality, a state in which one ruler or a small elite governs a mass of subjects who have no active political life. Machiavelli addresses a monarchical ruler, the Medici, and offered advice designed to keep that ruler in power. He recommended policies that would discourage mass political activism and channel the subjects energies into private pursuits. Machiavelli’s aim was to persuade the monarch that he could best preserve his power by using violence carefully and economically, by respecting the persons, property, and traditions of his subjects, and by promoting material prosperity. The ruling Prince should be the sole authority determining every aspect of the state and put in effect policies which serves his best interests. These interests were gaining, maintaining, and expanding his political. However, Machiavelli did not feel that a Prince should mistreat his citizens. This suggestion is once again to serve the Prince’s best interests. If a prince can not be both feared and loved, Machiavelli suggests, it would be better for him to be feared by the citizens within his own principality. He makes the generalization that men are, “…ungrateful, fickle, liars, and deceivers, they shun danger and are greedy for profit; while you treat them well they are yours”. He characterizes men as being self centered and not willing to act in the best interest of the state,”and when the prince is in danger they turn against him”. Machiavelli reinforces the prince’s need to be feared by stating: “Men worry less about doing an injury to one who makes himself loved than to one who makes himself feared. The bond of love is one which men, wretched creatures they are, break when it is to their advantage to do so; but fear is strengthened by a dread of punishment which is always effective”. In order to win honor, Machiavelli suggests that a prince must be readily willing to deceive the citizens. One way is to “…show his esteem for talent actively encouraging the able and honoring those who excel in their professions…so that they can go peaceably about their business”. By encouraging citizens to excel at their professions he would also be encouraging them to “…increase the prosperity of the their state”. These measures, though carried out in deception, would bring the prince honor and trust amongst the citizens, especially those who were in the best positions to oppose him.
Machiavelli actively promoted a secular form of politics. He laid aside the medieval conception “of the state as a necessary creation for humankind’s spiritual, material, and social well being”. In such a state,”a ruler was justified in his exercise of political power only if it contributed to the common good of the people he served, and the ethical side of a prince’s activity…ought to be based on Christian moral principles….” Machiavelli believed a secular form of government to be a more realistic type. His views were to the benefit of the prince, in helping him maintain power rather than to serve to the well being of the citizens. Machiavelli promoted his belief by stating: “The fact is that a man who wants to act virtuously in every way necessarily comes to grief among those who are not virtuous. Therefore, if a prince wants to maintain his rule he must learn not to be so virtuous, and to make use of this or not according to need”.
While The Prince is Machiavelli’s best known work, it is The Discourses, which portray the most about him. The Prince was just a pamphlet dashed off to gain influence with the Medici, but in The Discourses he sought to include his entire system of politics. In the Discourses, Machiavelli was mainly concerned with a republic, a state collectively controlled by a politically active citizenry. Depending on their institutional arrangements, republics could be either aristocratic or democratic. Machiavelli advocated a democratic constitution modeled after ancient Rome. In the Discourses his concern was to preserve the liberty and independence of a self-governing citizenry. He emphasized the idea that a republic needed to foster a spirit of patriotism and civic virtue among its citizens if it were to survive. In addition Machiavelli rejected the traditional republican theory that social harmony and unity were essential to political liberty. He argued that factions and class divisions were inevitable in human society and that republics could be strengthened by the conflicts generated through open and widespread political participation and debate. Machiavelli discusses six types of governments in The Discourses, three of them good, and three of them bad. The good Republics are democracies, aristocracies, and principalities and the bad are oligarchies, tyrannies, and anarchy. Machiavelli states that the three good governments are similar to its bad counterpart since they can easily jump from one form to another. “A democracy is converted into anarchy with no difficulty”. Hence when a founder of a city organizes one of these three governments in a city, he organizes it for only a brief period of time, since no precautions can prevent it from slipping into its contrary. The only solution is to implement a mixed government, such as ancient Rome.
“Thus, those who were prudent in establishing laws recognized this fact, and avoiding each of these forms in themselves, chose one that combined all, judging such a government to be steadier and more stable, for when there is in the same city-state a principality, an aristocracy, and a democracy, one form keeps watch over the other.”
In general, the basic idea of The Discourses is the superiority of the democratic republic and the ultimate reliance of even the most despotic regimes on the mass consent of the people.
Machiavelli did not construct an abstract and unified philosophical system. Rather, his orientation was practical, and his method was empirical and impressionistic. His political writings contain a series of generalizations taken from ancient and contemporary history about the possibilities and limitations of various courses of political action. One of the most distinctive and controversial characteristics of Machiavelli’s thought is that he did not devote much attention to the values that define the ends of political action. Instead he concentrated on distinguishing those circumstances in which a political act will have morally justified consequences from those circumstances in which it will not. In his view, political actions, much more than the activities of private life, have consequences that cannot be foreseen or fully controlled. Therefore, political life cannot be governed by a single set of moral (or religious) absolutes, and the political agent may sometimes be excused for performing acts of violence and deception that would be ethically indefensible in private life. Partly because Machiavelli’s subtle and ironic view of the relationship between ethics and politics has been widely misinterpreted, Machiavelli is sometimes perceived as one who manipulates others in an opportunistic and deceptive manner.