Machiavelli and Political Realism

1254 words | 5 page(s)

Derived from the Greek title of Aristotle’s tome, Politika, the word politics is literally translated as “for relating to the citizens,” but, it must be argued, that such a definition does not clearly encompass the totality of what politics truly is. To some, the term is used to describe the interactions between branches of the government, dealing with the ideas and actions of the governing body, while to others it means the specific ideas associated with the way businesses and work environments are run. The term is used in a wide variety of situations, for a variety of different purposes, but it is clear that all individuals have some basic grasp of what the term refers to, even if they themselves do not have a clear definition for the word. By working to review my own definition of the conceptualization of politics and through a review of a well-known philosopher, it will be possible to gain a better understanding of the human condition as it relates to the political arena.

When looking to define politics for myself, I would have to adapt both the original definition of the word and the current, modern definition of the word. Politics, to me, is the process by which one or more individuals works to utilize information obtained and knowledge gained for the purposes of attempting to gain or increase their power base. In essence, politics is, at its heart, a question of power balance; who has it, who wants it, who is willing to try to obtain it. Regardless of whether or not an individual references politics in regards to governmental actions, or whether they are simply referring to the inner workings of an office, at the very root of it all is the drive for power.

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Penned in 1513, The Prince by Niccolo Machiavelli is a classical work of political philosophy whose dogma still holds relevance to today’s political systems and structures, more than 500 years later. Originally written as a “how to” book for any individual seeking to rule over a given societal structure, in more recent years it has been questioned as to whether or not the tome is more satirical in nature than meant to be followed literally. Regardless of Machiavelli’s original goal, this work has had both an enduring and an influential hold throughout the course of history.

Machiavelli’s basic premise was simple; he argued that a prince should not be deluded into thinking that his allies are his friends, and that they could very well be his foes. He cautioned that allies do not necessarily have the best interests of the prince at heart, as they are ultimately battling for the same type of power, or are seeking to acquire more power than what the prince may already possess. Machiavelli cautioned that the prince should not fall into a lull of false security, as this may conclude with the prince being stripped of his power and may ultimately cause the prince to fail to attain his goals. While Machiavelli does not explicitly state a definition of politics, such a definition is clearly implied throughout the governing principles that he sets down for the prince. This type of political realism serves to incorporate the concept that all humans are doing nothing more than seeking power through the formation of relationships, even if the formation of those relationships involves the potential to hurt the interests of one of the party members within the relationship itself.

Through a review of this initial premise of Machiavelli’s, and in comparison to my personal definition of politics, it is possible to see that there are several distinct similarities present, specifically that each of these definitions is closely related to the association of human interaction for the purposes of the attainment of power. The difference, however, arises from the perception of how such a conceptualization should be dealt with. Machiavelli argues that the political nature of the individual cannot be put aside, that all relationships are nothing but power struggles, or forged on a basis of the desire of one party member to further attain power or solidify their power base. He argued that it was necessary to do whatever was necessary in order to work to secure one’s power base; that the ends justified the means, regardless of what the means of attainment were. This second portion of Machiavelli’s premise is not one that I can get behind, as a result of the basic concept of the human condition. Humans are far more altruistic by nature than Machiavelli would have his audience believe. Yes, while it is possible for any individual to be as ruthless as Machiavelli described, it is not the natural state of all things, nor is it necessarily the driving force behind the creation of any relationship that the individual might enter into.

Machiavelli failed to take into account the alternative side to the human condition, and as such, his subsequent conclusions must be taken with a grain of salt. Yes, sometimes there is a political motive behind the actions of the individual, but it is just as important to remember that there is not always a political motive present. A subordinate at a company may take their manager out to dinner because they wish to suck up, attempting to gain favor in the boss’s eyes and get a new promotion, but that same subordinate may simply be taking their manager out to dinner because they’ve been friends for years and they wanted to try out a new restaurant together.

As such, it is necessary to keep the constructs of Machiavelli in mind when engaged in a deal with others that may otherwise work to cause or affect a situation in which a power play may occur, but such caution should be tempered by a rational understanding of the situation and the associated individuals present therein. The world should not always be visible through rose colored glasses, but it should likewise not be viewed under quite the cutthroat extremes described by Machiavelli – it is important to remember that he was writing for the ruling populace, as opposed to the common man. The information present is valid to a degree, regardless of the fact that the majority of the populace is not a part of the ruling class, as politics works to cover any sort of human interaction where influences are exerted on others, but such a consideration does not mean that the same degree of severity that someone in the position of a prince, for example, should be applied by someone in the position of a commoner, to use a term from Machiavelli’s time.

Politics are a normal part of the human experience and are a normal method of human interaction; there are always those who will desire to obtain greater levels of power, regardless of where that power is present on the overall power scale. It is seen in interactions between children, it is present in our literature, and it is present in our daily interactions with others. It is for these reasons that The Prince is still able to provide relevant information to this day, serving as the most severe reflection of the harsh and unforgiving nature of politics. Though it is impossible to remove the political aspect within a free society, it is possible to gain a better understanding of what it is, what it entails, and how best the individual may work to address such situations and concerns within their own lives.

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