This article is part of a series entitled Machiavelli in Society. See also:
“For how we live is so far removed from how we ought to live, that he who abandons what is done for what ought to be done, will rather learn to bring about his own ruin than his preservation.” – The Prince, XV (1)
Sixteenth-century Italian writer Niccolò Machiavelli wrote The Prince, an emotionless instruction manual for calculated political domination. He also, however, wrote plays for the stage, including the wild and rousing La Mandragola (The Mandrake Root), a wild tale of trickery and seduction! Might we find, in the Mandragola, traces of the same cold political manipulation immortalized by The Prince? Let’s find out. Below, I offer quotes from the Prince alongside their (according to me) correspondents in the Mandragola. I end with a discussion of consequentialist and deontological ethical theories.
Lacking any characters or plot, The Prince develops only maxims and strategies for political dominance. The book, indeed, lacks any explicit reference to moral concerns or moral goodness, and Machiavelli’s prescriptions often seem callous and cold. What might we make of this? I suggest that morality was simply not the author’s concern, and that the moral good is outside of the scope of (if not antithetical to) the Prince’s political ascendancy. Alternatively, and perhaps more optimistically, I might remind the reader that Machiavelli’s controversial strategies are, in the end, ultimately directed towards a peaceful, unified Italian nation (this is made clear in the book’s last chapter, “An Exhortation for the Liberation of Italy”).
The Mandragola, meanwhile, is a hilarious play. In it, the young and deft Callimaco becomes determined to seduce the lovely, but married, Lucrezia. Lucrezia’s husband, Nicia, is old and foolish, but above all wants an heir; he painfully chastises his wife for failing to produce a child (spoiler alert: it’s his fault). Callimaco, in a sequence of wild and raucous attempts, eventually succeeds in seducing Lucrezia. Dressing as a doctor (and through the help of mutual acquaintances), Callimaco presents the mandrake root to the couple as an ultimate cure for infertility – with the dire warning, however, that the medicine has the side-effect of killing the first man to sleep with the woman. Nicia, attempting to foist the burden on an unwitting fool, “accidentally” (of course) stumbles upon Callimaco, and our protagonist achieves his goal, eventually actually marrying Lucrezia. With a son for Nicia, a welcome marriage for Lucrezia, money for the accomplices, and sex for Callimaco, the story ends happily.
I note that the Mandragola is not, nor should be interpreted as, a validation of Machiavelli’s methods. Contrarily, it’s likely that he constructed the play to promote his own values! Now for the parallels.
“A man who wishes to make a profession of goodness in everything must necessarily come to grief among so many who are not good. Therefore, it is necessary for a prince, who wishes to maintain himself, to learn how not to be good.” – The Prince, XV (1). These statements evoke the diffident evil of psychopaths. This philosophy appears in the Mandragola in the form of a preference for fraud over ingratiation. Callimaco, and a friendly accomplice, Ligurio, devise various plans, such as the aforementioned mandrake plan, as well as a plan to lure Lucrezia into the Baths – and never consider winning her over through the conventional means of genuine attraction, honesty, or good will. Might these alternatives have worked? Given the stodgy protectiveness of Nicia and the shy purity of Lucrezia, the likely answer is no – and we see this story as a constructed demonstration of the (potential) effectiveness of ends-oriented philosophies.
“For if one considers well, it will be found that some things which seem virtues would, if followed, lead to one’s ruin, and some others which appear vices result, if followed, in one’s greater security and wellbeing.” – The Prince, XV (1). This quote from the Prince again characterizes Machiavelli’s moral system as one concerned with outcomes. Things which “seem virtues”, declares Machiavelli, perhaps with a nod towards alternative ethical codes, are likely to end in ruin; the implication is that they’re thus not virtues at all. In the Mandragola, this is manifested through Callimaco’s (eventually) favorable deception of Nicia and Lucrezia. Indeed, we see that actions little better than deception and fraud end in a quite favorable ending for all parties involved (an ending, in fact, which is likely better than the honestly achieved alternative).
Consequentialist ethical theories judge the goodness of actions in terms of the goodness of their consequences; most famously, Utilitarianism seeks to “choose a good and then maximize it.” Deontological ethical codes, meanwhile, seek to judge the goodness of an action in terms of the goodness of the action itself. Machiavelli is clearly a consequentialist.
I will, for now, avoid a long (but interesting, see (3)) discussion of which category of theory is more “correct”. I would like to investigate, however, why consequentialist theories seem to draw more stigma than deontological ones. (Machiavelli’s controversial “ends justify the means” philosophy has provoked reactions ranging from veneration to hate; the latter is more common.) Why do we revere the well-intentioned failure over than the effective, cunning calculator? Furthermore: why are consequentialist theories never associated with religion, while deontological ones often are? I propose that consequentialism evokes a distasteful “social engineering” philosophy, full of “I know better than you” and “I can play God.” People dislike this. Deontological theories, meanwhile, are perhaps associated with religion because religion, promising eventual justice, makes it easier to swallow “good intentions with bad results”.
But are “ends” philosophies always deceptive and evil? I’ll end with a curious argument: “Religious faith is justified, even in the absence of literal belief, because it makes us more happy, helpful, and caring people. The ends justify the means.” The notorious phrase at the end, now, seems quite benign.
References and further reading:
- Full text of The Prince.
- The Mandragola, full text, with both languages side-by-side
- J. J. Smart and Bernard William’s “Utilitarianism: For and Against”