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The Prince and Power

Updated April 29, 2021
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The Prince and Power essay

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The term power is not easily defined. Although encountered every day, one can easily stumble if asked to define it; yet many of us seek it nevertheless. Dobratz, Waldner, and Buzzell (2015) compiled and examined a myriad of definitions for power from numerous authors drawing form several types of approaches. Absent, however, was Niccolò Machiavelli (1469-1527) who is known as one of the world’s most foremost philosopher of power. He argued in his book, The Prince, that a ruler who wishes to maintain power shouldn’t always be good. This document seeks to compare the definitions of power as found in Dobartz et al. with the notions of advice expressed in Machiavelli’s’ The Prince as well as whether such advice apply in contemporary society and politics.

Power Defined

Dobartz et al. after a thorough examination of other authors’ definitions provided an overarching definition of power as an “individual, group, or structural capacity to achieve intended effects as a result of force influence or authority” (pg. 3). Such definition, marries well with Machiavelli’s concept of power. In support, Machiavelli expressed that he was not all that certain on what ought to be the relationship for a prince towards his subjects and friends.

To this day, academics are uncertain of the ideal relationship between authority figures who hold power, and the populace who follow; however, as Machiavelli understood the focus should be on the practical truth of things rather than the imagination of it, for the way men live is so far removed from the way they ought to live, that anyone who abandons reality for what should be will ultimately find his downfall rather than his preservation. (Machiavelli: ch. XV).

To that end, his advice to the prince wishing to stay in power, was that he should know how to do wrong and make use of it, or not, according to necessity. A prince needs not avoid every vice, for that wouldn’t be humanly possible, rather he should avoid any vice that would remove him from power.

Advice on Power

It was previously mentioned that Dobartz et al. definition of power married well, with Machiavelli’s understanding of the concept; notwithstanding, there are other definitions of power that seem to be tailor made for certain parts of Machiavelli’s advice on the matter. Specifically, in chapter XVII, of The Prince, Machiavelli pointed towards Cesare Borgia as being cruel; however, it was his cruelty that reconciled the Romagna and restored it to peace and loyalty, which at the end of the day would be seen as more merciful than permitting an ensuing conflict.

This by all account was an exercise of power as defined by Anthony Orum (1989), who stated that power is the social capacity to make binding decisions that have far-reaching consequences for society (Dobartz et al: 3). The moral of the story was that even through cruelty once can have far reaching consequences for society that are deemed as good. Arguably, the most important piece of advice that Machiavelli could provide the prince was that

“… a prince a prince ought to inspire fear in such a way that, if he does not win love, he avoids hatred; because he can endure very well being feared whilst he is not hated, which will always be as long as he abstains from the property of his citizens and subjects and from their women.”

The Application of Machiavelli’s in Contemporary Society

Much of Machiavelli’s pieces of advice to the prince, still have a place in modern governorship and politics and can be seen through the actions of some of our leaders. Some could easily argue that President Harry Truman adhered to Machiavelli’s advice when he decided on the dropping of the first and second atomic bombs. Over a hundred thousand lives were lost as a result of his decision, including women and children; however, as cruel as that is, soon thereafter, he could end the Second World War without what would have been a deadly invasion of Japan. Without a doubt, thousands of Americans lives were spared by an act of cruelty, which would fit in just fine with Machiavelli’s assertion that sometimes the ends justify the means.

Conclusions and Analysis

Analytically, it would seem that Machiavelli associated the preservation of the state with the concept of maintaining political power. He understood that to maintain power, the prince has to know how to balance good and bad. The prince had to be feared, but not hated. Machiavelli’s unique perspective on power has forever made an impact that can still be seen today in American politics. Today, many politicians appear to have Machiavellian qualities, but is that because they’ve read The Prince, or because Machiavelli truly understood the concept of power and all that it entails? Time will only tell.

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