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Machiavelli and his relation to war and violence

Digital Collage by Shreya Sharma

Machiavelli believes that the ends still justify the means, no matter how inhuman, calculating, or unethical those means are. While Tony Soprano and Shakespeare's Macbeth are well-known Machiavellian characters, the man whose name coined the word, Niccolo Machiavelli, did not follow his own pessimistic rule book. Instead, when Machiavelli wrote ‘The Prince’, his astute guide to power in the 16th century, he was an exiled statesman vying for a place in the Florentine government. It was his dream, as illustrated in his poetry, that a powerful sovereign will restore Florence to its former glory.

The topic of war is often the horizon of strategic problems in Machiavelli's Philosophy. Politics and war are often inextricably linked, and are frequently inseparable, so the state should create links between them, but also between states, regions, and cities. Machiavelli follows his lead in linking military and civil societies. His cruelty has often closed the gulfs that so frequently are opened up by political theorists, normative and critical alike, between statist violence in defense of political hierarchy and domination, anti-statist violence by popular movements challenging established governmental and state power, and non-state violence, such as that between rival social or political groups

Machiavelli’s concept of violence is in the distinction between force and violence, where the latter has connotations of violation and injustice. Machiavelli’s originality, though, is in his relative emphasis not on violence but on the more shocking phenomenon of cruelty. Cruelty as a political practice trades on its appearance of irrationality as part of its modus operandi; its spectacular nature testifies to the qualitatively distinct power of its agent and also contributes to public memory. This is how it functions to found and consolidate power, authority, and legitimacy. As a political tactic, it can also function anti-oligarchically, to cut elites down to size. Machiavelli’s writings are fairly centered on the idea of how can political power be organized so that government and state authorities, people, and social institutions cohere in a way that is stable and meets the criteria of justice. In his book the Prince, the relationships between the prince, the state, and the people are key to Machiavellian aggression. Princes perform violence to impress and gain allegiance. Constitutions provide structures of legality and power, such as state punishment, war actions, and the handling of class conflict and the people endorse or dissent from the institutions and procedures that govern them. They stage protests, revolts, and summary justice which proclaim the proper popular basis of political power.

While ‘war' is included among the institutions of the state, along with class struggle and retribution, there is less focus on the external-facing nature of government and state control. while it has been emphasized that, there is the difficulty of preventing armies from consolidating political power, and also the tension between a necessarily expansionist foreign policy and the maintenance of republican principles. Machiavelli favors inter-state leagues and partnerships, rather than conquest. Art of War offers a technical manual that deals with a detailed and systematic vision of Machiavelli to restore prestige to the troops in his country.

The term "war" refers to a type of conflict that is internal to politics. More prolonged exposure to the Art of War, however, may indicate that, as a mode, as a collection of rules and ways, as a practice that is constitutive of social and political positions and institutions, ‘war' profoundly constructs Machiavelli's philosophical constructions of violence and politics.

Observing this intense association between republic, participation, and war, of course, underpins a feminist opposition – based on the theory's irreducibly gendered existence – to Machiavelli in particular and republicanism in general. Machiavelli’s diverse modes of violence complicate this feminist picture. In some ways, it deepens it. The fact that the political nature of citizenship is both a mode of aggression and a way of life highlights the potential and historical prospect of re-forming these relationships.

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