Machiavelli’s notion of truth

Naveed asked:

What kind of truth is Machiavelli concerned with?

Answer by Caterina Pangallo

Machiavelli’s truth is human truth. This means he was not fooled by what people wrote or spoke. He looked at them in action. When you do this intently, you soon discover their words and their behaviour are very different. But the truth is only discovered by watching them acting. Then they reveal themselves in their truth.

A good example are the so-called Princes Manuals that were some of the favourite literature of the time. They are full of noble and idealistic sentiments, and the princes read them, because it is good for conversations at the table. But when it comes to acting, things change. Princes want power. If there is a rival, they get rid of him, even if it means murder. So this is the truth about princes.

Therefore Machiavelli’s truth was the truth of power. He writes: ‘Where it is an absolute question of the welfare of our country, we must admit of no consideration of justice or injustice, of mercy or cruelty, of praise or ignominy; but putting all else aside we must adopt whatever course will save the nation’s existence and liberty.’

Morality in general is a code of conduct given to the members of a society or state to maintain collective order, unity and strength. There is no ‘natural law’, no ‘right’ universally agreed upon. Politics in the sense of statesmanship, must be held completely independent of morality.

At the beginning of The Prince he writes:

‘Since my intention is to say something of practical use to the enquirer, I have thought it proper to represent things as they are in real truth, rather than as they are imagined.’

So there you have it. That’s his truth.

Real, efficient and ruthless politics is completely independent of morality. In fact, the more people talk about morality, the more they show in their conduct how much they despise it. And therefore the truth of politics is the truth of power — again.

Machiavelli’s writings were very much disliked. But this was only because he told us the truth about the exercise of political power.

Basically you could say that his idea of truth has nothing in common with ethical or religious ideas of truth. Even for those who preach ethics, morals and religion, if they want to win, they must come down to the political truth.

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