Kant & Machiavelli

Throughout history power has been seized and lost through various methods. People have tried to conquer the world and ultimately failed. In the 16th century Italian philosopher Niccolo Machiavelli wrote The Prince. The Prince was Machiavelli’s instruction manual on how to use enlightenment and knowledge as methods to gain and maintain power and wealth. In 18th century Prussia, Immanuel Kant outlined his beliefs on how man was able to gain power through enlightenment. Kant believed enlightenment could only be achieved through maturity and teaching. Although written two centuries apart, Machiavelli and Kant articulate differently how personal power can be seized, and maintained through enlightenment and knowledge and are still relevant today.

In the dedication of The Prince Niccola Machiavelli states, “I have not found among my possessions anything which I hold more dear than, or value so much as, the knowledge of the actions of great men,” (Machiavelli trans: Marriott 2006). Machiavelli believed that knowledge was a gift to man gained through experience, or history. The Prince was written in the simplest form of the common language of the era (Wells 2014), despite being a gift to the Magnificent Lorenzo Di Piero De’ Medici. With the public able to read and understand the words of Machiavelli in The Prince, knowledge spread to the public, no matter how unpopular the material was (Wells 2014). The Catholic Church banned The Prince (Wells 2014), as it gave the public knowledge and threated the church’s power and traditional authority. The Prince operates on the central assumption that people can be manipulated by others (Wells 2014), with the power of knowledge or wealth. When one was able to put together the pieces of knowledge Machiavelli put forth in The Prince to gain power, they had achieved enlightenment. Once one had achieve enlightenment they had achieved personal power.

Immanuel Kant was a philosopher in the 18th century who wrote “What is Enlightenment?” for King Frederick II of Prussia. Kant wrote “Enlightenment is man’ emergence from his self-incurred immaturity” (Kant, Pp 1). Kant describes immaturity as the weakness of a lazy mind that lacks the courage to become enlightened. Kant believed that for man to gain power, man must first gain knowledge. In order to gain knowledge, a person had to have to courage to learn from someone who already had the knowledge. Once the person had gained knowledge and emerged from immaturity, the person had gained personal power. Kant believed that public enlightenment equalled freedom. Freedom is nonexistent unless every man having equal power.

Despite being written in two different centuries, and two different cultures, the works of Kant and Machiavelli have similarities in their basic principles. The works of Kant and Machiavelli were both written for traditional authority figures who had a higher level of personal power than themselves. However, both Kant and Machiavelli, viewed enlightenment and knowledge as greater personal powers than traditional authority. Both philosophers’ writings looked to expand knowledge and therefore personal power to the general public. Machiavelli states that The Prince is “this little gift in the spirit in which I sent it; wherein, if it be diligently read and considered by you, you will learn my extreme desire that you should attain that greatness which fortune and your other attribute promises” (Machiavelli trans: Marriott 2006). This quote illustrates why Machiavelli published The Prince in the simplest form of the common language. By doing so, Machiavelli gave the public the ability to learn and become enlightened from Machiavelli’s own knowledge. Thus giving the public personal power they otherwise would not have achieved. In the eyes of Kant, Machiavelli acted as the teacher or guardian who helped the immature public gain maturity, personal power through enlightenment and knowledge. Kant took a different route to spread his knowledge to the public. Kant wrote in “What is Enlightenment?” that a ruler who allows his citizens to gain power through knowledge and enlightenment will be praised and remember far past his death (Wells 2014). Through convincing the leader that educating the public would have long term benefits, Kant was able to empower the public with knowledge and enlightenment giving them personal freedom and personal power.

The message of Machiavelli and Kant may have similarities based around knowledge, enlightenment and power. However, they both looked at different methods to achieve knowledge, enlightenment and power. Machiavelli believed the application of knowledge and enlightenment was the source of how personal power was gained. Machiavelli’s top application of knowledge was through manipulation. With his knowledge, Machiavelli was able to manipulate others to do his personal bidding through bribes and other methods to get his enemies to fight each other. Machiavelli had no limits to how he would apply his knowledge to grow and maintain his power and wealth. Kant believed knowledge and enlightenment was a chain reaction. Kant believe that enlightenment could not occur without the help of others, who were willing to help people mature. Kant believed in public enlightenment where all men would be equal and free. Whereas Machiavelli’s use of manipulation was a private use of power, that Kant was opposed to. Kant states “a public can only achieve enlightenment slowly” (Kant 1784, Pp 1). Kant knew that spreading knowledge and personal power to all was a slow methodical process that was only achieved with maturity. While Machiavelli had a contrasting belief, that the use of manipulation was a much faster method of gaining personal power.

Today, in the modern world both Kant and Machiavelli’s theories on enlightenment, power and knowledge can be applied to today’s standards. Kant’s writings describe the modern teaching structure where children go to school and are educated by a more knowledgeable mature adult. As the immature children progress through life and school they become more knowledgeable and mature throughout the process. With greater knowledge comes greater rewards. While Machiavelli’s The Prince is directly related to modern politics. Today’s politicians are required to do necessary evils such as send soldiers to fight and die in wars around the world to preserve freedoms and powers. Machiavelli teaches in The Prince, that you need to have people think or believe in your appearance and not what actions you carry out (Wells 2014). Former United States President Bill Clinton is remember fondly in a positive light despite being impeached during his second term for his affair with Monica Lewinski.  Meanwhile, Richard Nixon’s legacy is forever tarnished because of his involvement in the Watergate scandal and for unknowingly taping conversations inside the oval office.

Despite being written in two different centuries Niccolo Machiavelli’s The Prince and Immanuel Kant’s “What is Enlightenment?” both offer insight into how personal power is gained and maintained through enlightenment and knowledge over the past five centuries. Machiavelli used modern mass media to educate the general public of how using manipulation of knowledge can lead to power. While Kant, argued that educating the immature minds of the world leads to personal power through the power of freedom.


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