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Daily RC Article 113

Evolution of Political Thought: Machiavelli's Impact on Ethics and Realpolitik


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Idealism in international relations, like realism, can lay claim to a long tradition… Plato, Aristotle, and Cicero were all political idealists who believed that there were some universal moral values on which political life could be based. … In the late fifteenth century, when Niccolò Machiavelli was born, the idea that politics, including the relations among states, should be virtuous, and that the methods of warfare should remain subordinated to ethical standards, still predominated in political literature.

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Machiavelli (1469–1527) challenged this well-established moral tradition, thus positioning himself as a political innovator. The novelty of his approach lies in his critique of classical Western political thought as unrealistic, and in his separation of politics from ethics. He thereby lays the foundations for modern politics…Machiavellianism is a radical type of political realism that is applied to both domestic and international affairs. It is a doctrine which denies the relevance of morality in politics, and claims that all means (moral and immoral) are justified to achieve certain political ends. Machiavelli never uses the phrase ‘ragione di stato’ or its French equivalent, raison d’état, but what ultimately counts for him is precisely that: whatever is good for the state, rather than ethical scruples or norms…

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Referring to Machiavelli, Heinrich von Treitschke declared that the state was power, precisely in order to assert itself as against other equally independent powers, and that the supreme moral duty of the state was to foster this power. He considered international agreements to be binding only insofar as it was expedient for the state. The idea of an autonomous ethics of state behaviour and the concept of realpolitik were thus introduced. Traditional ethics was denied and power politics was associated with a “higher” type of morality. These concepts, along with the belief in the superiority of Germanic culture, served as weapons with which German statesmen, from the eighteenth century to the end of the Second World War, justified their policies of conquest and extermination.

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Machiavelli is often praised for his prudential advice to leaders (which has caused him to be regarded as a founding master of modern political strategy) and for his defense of the republican form of government. There are certainly many aspects of his thought that merit such praise. Nevertheless, it is also possible to see him as the thinker who bears foremost responsibility for the demoralization of Europe. The argument of the Athenian envoys presented in Thucydides’ “Melian Dialogue,” that of Thrasymachus in Plato’s Republic, or that of Carneades, to whom Cicero refers––all of these challenge the ancient views of the unity of politics and ethics.

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However, before Machiavelli, this amoral or immoral mode of thinking had never prevailed in the mainstream of Western political thought. It was the force and timeliness of his justification of resorting to evil as a legitimate means of achieving political ends that persuaded so many of the thinkers and political practitioners who followed him... The tension between expediency and morality lost its validity in the sphere of politics. The concept of a double ethics, private and public, that created a further damage to traditional, customary ethics was invented. The doctrine of raison d’état ultimately led to the politics of Lebensraum, two world wars, and the Holocaust…

The article traces the historical shift in political thought from idealism to realism, exemplified by Machiavelli's influential departure from conventional ethics in politics. Machiavelli challenged the prevailing moral tradition by advocating for a pragmatic and power-centric approach divorced from traditional ethical constraints. His ideas birthed a radical form of political realism that prioritized state interests above moral considerations, laying the groundwork for modern politics. While praised for strategic advice and defense of republican government, Machiavelli's separation of ethics from politics led to a significant demoralization of European political thought. His influence facilitated the acceptance of resorting to unethical means for political gains, ultimately contributing to the erosion of traditional ethics and fostering a double standard of morality in politics, leading to catastrophic consequences like World Wars and the Holocaust.
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