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Niccolo Machiavelli’s views of human nature strongly influenced his recommendations for governing. The Prince is a handbook for how one should rule. It is, by nature, cynical regarding the nature of man, as the author’s perceptions were shaped by his observations of the Medici family and by his victimization at the hands of the powerful. He wrote his handbook as an exercise in analyzing the attributes that defined a great ruler, which was one who prevailed by virtue of his ability to survive. Machiavelli held a decidedly negative view of human nature, one in which people existed to serve the interests of the powerful, who nevertheless had to manage through a carefully calibrated balance of violence and benevolence. He viewed the masses as pliable, but difficult to control over time. In Chapter VI, he wrote, “the nature of the people is variable, and whilst it is easy to persuade them, it is difficult to fix them in that persuasion,” an indication of his belief in the necessity of managing one’s rule so as to be ready to adapt to changing circumstances. As he wrote in Chapter X regarding the malleability of the people and of the need to anticipate and address their fears and desires:
“If the people have property outside the city, and see it burnt, they will not remain patient, and the long siege and self-interest will make them forget their prince; to this I answer that a powerful and courageous prince will overcome all such difficulties by giving at one time hope to his subjects that the evil will not be for long, at another time fear of the cruelty of the enemy, then preserving himself adroitly from those subjects who seem to him to be too bold.”
Further evidence of Machiavelli’s cynical attitude towards human nature is offered in Chapter XXIII, titled “How Flatterers Should be Avoided.” As he does throughout his treatise, Machiavelli emphasizes the attributes that should characterize the effective ruler, or prince, and warns against the pitfalls associated with obsequious subordinates:
“It is that of flatterers, of whom courts are full, because men are so self-complacent in their own affairs, and in a way so deceived in them, that they are preserved with difficulty from this pest, and if they wish to defend themselves they run the danger of falling into contempt.”
The Prince is replete with examples of its author’s condescending and sometimes contemptuous view of the masses. Machiavelli’s observations on the effective ruler are derived directly from his wary perspectives regarding the nature of man. His admonitions against both distance and closeness, his warnings against trusting those nearest to him, and his very contempt for weakness all emanate from a fundamental distrust of the people over whom his revered dictators ruled.
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