Law proves to be Machiavelli’s Princely inspiration
Five hundred years on from Niccolò Machiavelli’s first mention of what was to become one of the most influential works of modern political philosophy, The Prince, Professor Paolo Carta last night developed a fascinating reappraisal of the inspiration and contemporary relevance of Machiavelli’s crowning achievement, bringing our events calendar to a close for the year in fitting style at Wolfson College.
Professor Carta, Professor of the History of Political Thought at the University of Trento, showed that it was Machiavelli’s observation of the law in action that provided him with the inspiration to set about writing his revolutionary treatise. It was Machiavelli’s intention, he argued, to provide policymakers with a set of tools by which to exercise good political judgement, just as the law serves the judge as the basis of sound legal decision-making.
Rather than referring to abstract ideals as the Greeks had done before him, Professor Carta argued that, in providing solutions to the pressing and concrete problems of a tumultuously war-torn state, Machiavelli’s The Prince constitutes a turning point in political thought.
Whilst the term ‘Machiavellian’ has come to be known in terms of the skilful but underhand acquisition of and maintenance of political power at any cost, Professor Carta showed that Machiavelli did indeed advocate that the means justified the ends, but that the end in mind was always the preservation of the state rather than the individuals presiding over it at any one time.
It was Machiavelli’s principal aim to show that, with power comes responsibility, and that this requires the politician to act in a way that may not appear to be what is commonly conceived of as good, in order to preserve the state.
Drawing on contemporary attempts at state-building and constitution-making in Sudan and elsewhere, Professor Carta cast new light on Machiavelli’s significance for democratic accountability. Whilst he acknowledged the passages in which Machiavelli attempts to educate the Prince on the limits of force that the state is able to exercise on its people before they will revolt, he emphasized the value of the text for the preservation of democratic values, since it not only provides a toolkit for effective governance by a ruling elite, but also a means of educating the people in the criteria by which to judge the effectiveness of their leaders.
Professor Denis Galligan, in his comments on the lecture, placed Machiavelli’s The Prince in the context of the British philosophical tradition of Hume and Locke, and reinforced just how revolutionary the text remains to this day in its questioning of the prevailing importance of social harmony.
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