Mistaken about Machiavelli; what people get wrong about Il Principe

In 1513, the former Chancellor and Secretary to the Second Chancery of the Republic of Florence, Niccolò di Bernardo dei Machiavelli, now disgraced and deposed, published what would become one of the most famous, and most reviled, political texts of the European Renaissance – The Prince. Over the centuries, thanks to this work, the man’s name has become synonymous with the kind of manipulative, underhanded, and utterly ruthless mentality personified by Frank and Claire Underwood in House of Cards; primarily because most people consider The Prince to be encouraging such amoral behaviour in politicians and leaders. Thus the adjective “Machiavellian”.

They’re wrong.

If I had to put my finger on a specific phrase most at fault for this error, it would be a tie between two lines. The first is the line “it is better to be feared than loved”. The second is the line “the ends justify the means”. Both lines encapsulate “Machiavellian” attitudes, and neither actually appears in the text.

Be warned; this post will quote The Prince at length, because truncating the work is what landed us in this mess in the first place. There are also spoilers for House of Cards.

Fear, Love, and Hate

People who “quote” Machiavelli and say it is better to be feared than loved almost certainly have never actually read The Prince. If they had, they would know they’ve left important bits out, and changed a very significant word.

The full passage is thus (I have bolded the part that most resembles the misquote):

Upon this a question arises: whether it be better to be loved than feared or feared than loved? It may be answered that one should wish to be both, but, because it is difficult to unite them in one person, it is much safer to be feared than loved, when, of the two, either must be dispensed with. Because this is to be asserted in general of men, that they are ungrateful, fickle, false, cowardly, covetous, and as long as you succeed they are yours entirely; they will offer you their blood, property, life, and children, as is said above, when the need is far distant; but when it approaches they turn against you. And that prince who, relying entirely on their promises, has neglected other precautions, is ruined; because friendships that are obtained by payments, and not by greatness or nobility of mind, may indeed be earned, but they are not secured, and in time of need cannot be relied upon; and men have less scruple in offending one who is beloved than one who is feared, for love is preserved by the link of obligation which, owing to the baseness of men, is broken at every opportunity for their advantage; but fear preserves you by a dread of punishment which never fails.

-Niccolò Machiavelli, The Prince, Chapter XVII

Machiavelli did not say it was better to be feared than loved; he said you should try for both. He said that if you had to pick one, then it was safer to be feared, because people are, frankly, bastards, and when the storm closes in you can hold them in line more firmly by making them fear the consequences than you can by relying on their goodwill.

People truncate the passage; they ignore the bit about how you should strive for both, the bit about how you should only opt for fear over love if it’s a choice you must make, and they ignore the justification.

And then there’s the passage which follows the “safer to be feared” one:

Nevertheless a prince ought to inspire fear in such a way that, if he does not win love, he avoids hatred; because he can endure very well being feared whilst he is not hated, which will always be as long as he abstains from the property of his citizens and subjects and from their women. But when it is necessary for him to proceed against the life of someone, he must do it on proper justification and for manifest cause, but above all things he must keep his hands off the property of others, because men more quickly forget the death of their father than the loss of their patrimony. Besides, pretexts for taking away the property are never wanting; for he who has once begun to live by robbery will always find pretexts for seizing what belongs to others; but reasons for taking life, on the contrary, are more difficult to find and sooner lapse. But when a prince is with his army, and has under control a multitude of soldiers, then it is quite necessary for him to disregard the reputation of cruelty, for without it he would never hold his army united or disposed to its duties.

– Niccolò Machiavelli, op cit., Chapter XVII

Immediately following on from the note on fear and love is a firm admonishment against excessive cruelty, against rapine and pillage; accompanying it is the advice that if you must “proceed against the life of someone”, there must be “proper justification and manifest cause” – in other words, justice must be seen to be done. Note the part about cruelty is limited strictly to the military. In the 1500s, maintaining discipline among the soldiery required a measure of it; even today, boot camp is not a pleasure resort. But it is not extended to the population at large; this passage is a cry against arbitrary and indiscriminate attacks on innocents and what they hold dear, and an onus on necessity above all.

If you ignore that cry, then you invite hatred, and that will be the key to your utter destruction.

Fear, love, and hate; Machiavelli placed them firmly in order. Ideally a ruler would be both feared and loved. But if you must pick between the two, as it is a very delicate balancing act that is easily to fail and hard to maintain, then being feared is safer – not necessarily “better”, just safer. But above all, do not let yourself be hated – and it’s astonishingly easy to do that. So important is this subject that Chapter XIX is dedicated it; entitled “That One Should Avoid Being Despised And Hated” – and that is how you know the people who talk about “better to be feared” never read the book, or at least never got this far.

And, to reduce the matter into a small compass, I say that, on the side of the conspirator, there is nothing but fear, jealousy, prospect of punishment to terrify him; but on the side of the prince there is the majesty of the principality, the laws, the protection of friends and the state to defend him; so that, adding to all these things the popular goodwill, it is impossible that any one should be so rash as to conspire. For whereas in general the conspirator has to fear before the execution of his plot, in this case he has also to fear the sequel to the crime; because on account of it he has the people for an enemy, and thus cannot hope for any escape.

-Niccolò Machiavelli, op cit., Chapter XIX

In Chapter XIX, Machiavelli traces the downfall of several Roman Emperors as being the result of the hatred of their people or the legions; they lost the popular goodwill. This is a theme echoed several times throughout The Prince. The popular goodwill is a very powerful ally. Although Machiavelli concedes a ruler will be inevitably be hated by someone, never allow yourself to be hated by everyone, and above all else avoid the hatred of the most powerful. Hatred is what will enable the enemies of a ruler to overcome their fear, jealousy, and prospect of punishment.

Former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd would have done well to remember that in 2010.

Rudd’s only faction was the Newspoll faction. While it soared, he thrived. When it dived, he was all alone.

-Barrie Cassidy, Rudd’s downfall: he never really got it, ABC’s The Drum, 2010

Rudd lost the popular goodwill, and had already alienated most of the Federal Parliamentary Labor Party, including the most powerful members. You already know what happened when his polls began to fall and their dislike, already hardened into hatred, turned to action.

Note this further admonishment on hatred from Chapter XIX:

It makes him hated above all things, as I have said, to be rapacious, and to be a violator of the property and women of his subjects, from both of which he must abstain. And when neither their property nor their honour is touched, the majority of men live content, and he has only to contend with the ambition of a few, whom he can curb with ease in many ways.

It makes him contemptible to be considered fickle, frivolous, effeminate, mean-spirited, irresolute, from all of which a prince should guard himself as from a rock; and he should endeavour to show in his actions greatness, courage, gravity, and fortitude; and in his private dealings with his subjects let him show that his judgments are irrevocable, and maintain himself in such reputation that no one can hope either to deceive him or to get round him.

-Niccolò Machiavelli, op cit., Chapter XIX

Do not be wishy-washy, flighty, petty, or hesitant. Also avoid the second definition of “effeminate” – “characterised by excessive softness, delicacy, self-indulgence” (given the other contexts in which Machiavelli uses the word, and that he never disparages a woman ruler such as Catherine Sforza, who he met on several occasions, on account of her gender in The Prince, this is the more probable use of that word). Never violate your subjects’ property, never take sexual advantage of their loved ones, and never impugn their honour.

A theme emerges just from those two short paragraphs; one that is present across the work. Pragmatism is paramount. As the ruler you don’t restrain yourself from excessive cruelty and corruption because it’s right, but because it’ll see your head on a pike while your former subjects dance around it and get drunk for a week.

Take this observation from @WilliamHogeland on twitter:

If you find yourself asking "why are [these people] voting against their interest?" they're probably voting against you.

If people hate you enough, they will happily cut off their nose to spite your face.

The Prince is not a manual on how to be an amoral or cruel; it is a set of observations and pragmatic instructions on how a ruler is to maintain their own power for the good of the state. Does this mean tolerating or doing evil? Yes;

But Pertinax was created emperor against the wishes of the soldiers, who, being accustomed to live licentiously under Commodus, could not endure the honest life to which Pertinax wished to reduce them; thus, having given cause for hatred, to which hatred there was added contempt for his old age, he was overthrown at the very beginning of his administration. And here it should be noted that hatred is acquired as much by good works as by bad ones, therefore, as I said before, a prince wishing to keep his state is very often forced to do evil; for when that body is corrupt whom you think you have need of to maintain yourself—it may be either the people or the soldiers or the nobles—you have to submit to its humours and to gratify them, and then good works will do you harm.

-Niccolò Machiavelli, op cit., Chapter XIX

In other words; if you would lead, there are going to be political realities you can’t ignore, or you won’t be leading for very long. Sometimes you will have to do evil.

Ends, Means, and Context

I said above that Machiavelli never said “the ends justify the means” in The Prince. Again, here is the full passage (and again, I have bolded the part that most resembles the misquote):

It remains now to see what ought to be the rules of conduct for a prince towards subject and friends. And as I know that many have written on this point, I expect I shall be considered presumptuous in mentioning it again, especially as in discussing it I shall depart from the methods of other people. But, it being my intention to write a thing which shall be useful to him who apprehends it, it appears to me more appropriate to follow up the real truth of the matter than the imagination of it; for many have pictured republics and principalities which in fact have never been known or seen, because how one lives is so far distant from how one ought to live, that he who neglects what is done for what ought to be done, sooner effects his ruin than his preservation; for a man who wishes to act entirely up to his professions of virtue soon meets with what destroys him among so much that is evil.

Hence it is necessary for a prince wishing to hold his own to know how to do wrong, and to make use of it or not according to necessity. Therefore, putting on one side imaginary things concerning a prince, and discussing those which are real, I say that all men when they are spoken of, and chiefly princes for being more highly placed, are remarkable for some of those qualities which bring them either blame or praise; and thus it is that one is reputed liberal, another miserly, using a Tuscan term (because an avaricious person in our language is still he who desires to possess by robbery, whilst we call one miserly who deprives himself too much of the use of his own); one is reputed generous, one rapacious; one cruel, one compassionate; one faithless, another faithful; one effeminate and cowardly, another bold and brave; one affable, another haughty; one lascivious, another chaste; one sincere, another cunning; one hard, another easy; one grave, another frivolous; one religious, another unbelieving, and the like. And I know that everyone will confess that it would be most praiseworthy in a prince to exhibit all the above qualities that are considered good; but because they can neither be entirely possessed nor observed, for human conditions do not permit it, it is necessary for him to be sufficiently prudent that he may know how to avoid the reproach of those vices which would lose him his state; and also to keep himself, if it be possible, from those which would not lose him it; but this not being possible, he may with less hesitation abandon himself to them. And again, he need not make himself uneasy at incurring a reproach for those vices without which the state can only be saved with difficulty, for if everything is considered carefully, it will be found that something which looks like virtue, if followed, would be his ruin; whilst something else, which looks like vice, yet followed brings him security and prosperity.

-Niccolò Machiavelli, op cit., Chapter XV

That is the entirety of Chapter XV; I did warn you that I would quote The Prince at length.

The relevant passage suffers from the same problem as the fear/love line; important context around it has been excised. Machiavelli points out that if you dwell on dreams instead of realities, you invite ruin. This isn’t the fault of the ruler; it is because the ruler must deal with evil, and must deal evil out.

A great deal of the animosity directed at Machiavelli was because The Prince does not strive to counsel us on what ought to be; it observes what is. There are an uncountable number of works telling rulers how they ought to behave, from classical treatises like The Republic to various “how to be an effective leader” management brochures. Chapter XV is where Machiavelli states plainly that he’s not describing an ideal situation; he’s describing reality. And reality is not kind or forgiving.

There are several points to consider here:

  • It is not possible for a human being, let alone a ruler, “to exhibit all the above qualities that are considered good” – so dispense with the vices that would lose you your state;
  • Sometimes you will have to do terrible things, as “it is necessary for a prince wishing to hold his own to know how to do wrong, and to make use of it or not according to necessity”; and
  • A ruler “need not make himself uneasy at incurring a reproach for those vices without which the state can only be saved with difficulty” – because in the final analysis, you may have to do those terrible things in order to save the state.

Nowhere in that does Machiavelli say that it is pleasant or good that awful things have to be done; merely that sometimes they are necessary for the safety and security of the state, because the alternative is destruction. And this is what he has observed was the actual behaviour of Popes, Emperors, and Kings; this wasn’t an ideal of what behaviour a ruler should adopt, but an observation of what behaviours they do adopt, an observation Machiavelli supports with examples from history. This is why The Prince counsels a ruler that because others are cheerfully adopting those behaviours, if you don’t, you are not only inviting disaster – you’re insisting it stay the night while you get drunk.

Small wonder the text is a precursor of the Realist school of international relations theory and the practice of Realpolitik.

To the lazy mind, this might seem to be saying that “the ends justify the means”. It isn’t. The lessons in The Prince are not meant to be taken in isolation. So combine this one with the one from Chapters XVII and XIX. Yes, there are times that the ends will require appalling means. Yes, you will have to live with them – and you can ignore those who reproach you for them. But you only go as far as is required by the exigencies of the situation. You only do the appalling things where necessary; and you do not do those appalling things that are counterproductive. You do not indulge in those vices that will lead to your destruction, or impair the state; engendering hatred in your own population is the best way to cause your own destruction, and a great way to do that is to take your people’s property and attack their loved ones. So you leave those things alone.

Turn also to Chapter XVIII. This chapter is where you find one of the most cynical observations in the entire work:

Therefore a wise lord cannot, nor ought he to, keep faith when such observance may be turned against him, and when the reasons that caused him to pledge it exist no longer. If men were entirely good this precept would not hold, but because they are bad, and will not keep faith with you, you too are not bound to observe it with them.

-Niccolò Machiavelli, op cit., Chapter XVIII

As I said above; people are, frankly, bastards. It is interesting that Machiavelli has been castigated for this observation, when the US Founding Father James Madison is equally critical:

But what is government itself, but the greatest of all reflections on human nature? If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary. In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this: you must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself.

-James Madison, Federalist No.51

Federalist No.51 is the paper in which Madison laid out the necessity for checks and balances in a system of government, to achieve the proper balance between giving the government the authority it needs to govern, while preventing decay into tyranny.

Again, necessity is the driver.

Chapter XVIII provides additional counsel against adopting an “ends justify the means” mentality:

Therefore it is unnecessary for a prince to have all the good qualities I have enumerated, but it is very necessary to appear to have them. And I shall dare to say this also, that to have them and always to observe them is injurious, and that to appear to have them is useful; to appear merciful, faithful, humane, religious, upright, and to be so, but with a mind so framed that should you require not to be so, you may be able and know how to change to the opposite.

And you have to understand this, that a prince, especially a new one, cannot observe all those things for which men are esteemed, being often forced, in order to maintain the state, to act contrary to fidelity, friendship, humanity, and religion. Therefore it is necessary for him to have a mind ready to turn itself accordingly as the winds and variations of fortune force it, yet, as I have said above, not to diverge from the good if he can avoid doing so, but, if compelled, then to know how to set about it.

For this reason a prince ought to take care that he never lets anything slip from his lips that is not replete with the above-named five qualities, that he may appear to him who sees and hears him altogether merciful, faithful, humane, upright, and religious. There is nothing more necessary to appear to have than this last quality, inasmuch as men judge generally more by the eye than by the hand, because it belongs to everybody to see you, too few to come in touch with you. Everyone sees what you appear to be, few really know what you are, and those few dare not oppose themselves to the opinion of the many, who have the majesty of the state to defend them; and in the actions of all men, and especially of princes, which it is not prudent to challenge, one judges by the result.

-Niccolò Machiavelli, op cit., Chapter XVIII

This extract follows a short description of the actions of Pope Alexander VI, a man who “did nothing else but deceive men, nor ever thought of doing otherwise” (Ibid) and was reviled.

The extract paints a dismal picture; a ruler need not be merciful, faithful (i.e., being able to keep faith with others), humane, religious, or upright, but must be seen to be so. Right in the middle is the caution; a ruler should actually be good – possessing those five virtues – if given the option. But the ruler must be aware that they may be required to set them aside, and to be mentally prepared to do so – and be aware that others will not look kindly on that sort of thing.

To put it another way, a ruler will be compelled to do awful things by the situations they face; but they must only be done out of necessity. If all else is equal, and you the ruler have two options to respond to a situation – one awful, one good – then pick the good one. If you must do the awful thing, do it properly.

Recall the matter of cruelty in Chapter XVII, mentioned at the start. That chapter opens with this:

Coming now to the other qualities mentioned above, I say that every prince ought to desire to be considered clement and not cruel. Nevertheless he ought to take care not to misuse this clemency. Cesare Borgia was considered cruel; notwithstanding, his cruelty reconciled the Romagna, unified it, and restored it to peace and loyalty. And if this be rightly considered, he will be seen to have been much more merciful than the Florentine people, who, to avoid a reputation for cruelty, permitted Pistoia to be destroyed. Therefore a prince, so long as he keeps his subjects united and loyal, ought not to mind the reproach of cruelty; because with a few examples he will be more merciful than those who, through too much mercy, allow disorders to arise, from which follow murders or robberies; for these are wont to injure the whole people, whilst those executions which originate with a prince offend the individual only.

– Niccolò Machiavelli, op cit., Chapter XVII

This is a combination of “the lesser of two evils” and “the good of the many outweighs the good of the few” reasoning. A ruler may have to do awful things, because the consequences of not doing those things is so much worse. Note that Machiavelli is quite precise in what kinds of things warrant this approach; the risk of civil disorder that leads to people dying. The whole aim is to limit the damage done.

An illustrative example can be found in a fictional work by Jim Butcher. Here, the head of state, has just been asked how he can live with himself, given the political games he plays – often at the cost of people’s lives:

‘I look out my window each day. I look out my window at people who live and breathe. At people who have not been devoured by civil war. At people who have not been ravaged by disease. At people who have not starved to death, who have not been hacked apart by enemies of humanity, at people who are free to lie and steal and plot and complain and accuse and behave in all manner of repugnant ways because the Realm stands. Because law and order stands. Because something other than simple violence shapes the course of their lives. And I look, wife of my son, mother of my heir, at a very few decent people who have had the luxury of living their lives without being called upon to make hideous decisions I would not wish upon my worst enemies, and who consequently find such matters morally appalling when they consider them – because they have not had to be the ones who dealt with them.’

-The character Gaius Sextus, in Jim Butcher’s Codex Alera (2009)

The Prince is full of this sort of thinking; a ruler will need to act in ways other people will find morally deplorable. The alternatives are unthinkable. But, as noted above, time and time again Machiavelli cautions against unethical actions that are not necessary.

In 1500, Cesare Borgia, with the backing of his father Pope Alexander VI, subdued the Romagna, a part of Italy that covers the southeast of the modern administrative region of Emilia-Romagna. The Romagna was nominally part of the Papal States, but the Vatican’s control had never really been secure – and the region suffered as a result. Cesare placed the region under the control of one Ramiro d’Orco; in Chapter VII, Machiavelli provides a neat summation of the situation:

When the duke [Cesare] occupied the Romagna he found it under the rule of weak masters, who rather plundered their subjects than ruled them, and gave them more cause for disunion than for union, so that the country was full of robbery, quarrels, and every kind of violence; and so, wishing to bring back peace and obedience to authority, he considered it necessary to give it a good governor. Thereupon he promoted Messer Ramiro d’Orco, a swift [meaning efficient] and cruel man, to whom he gave the fullest power. This man in a short time restored peace and unity with the greatest success.

– Niccolò Machiavelli, op cit., Chapter VII

But d’Orco wasn’t exactly the most savoury character himself; he re-established order in a place that desperately needed it, yes, but he resorted to draconian methods, causing him to be feared and loathed by the populace of the Romagna. Aware that as d’Orco’s master, that animosity was spreading to him, on 22 December 1502, Cesare had his lieutenant cut in half and the body dumped in the town square of Cesena.

As representative of the Florentine Government to Cesare, Machiavelli was present in Cesena when this happened, and noted that the “barbarity of this spectacle caused the people to be at once satisfied and dismayed” (Machiavelli, op cit., Chapter VII). This act served a duel role; demonstrating the power Cesare wielded, while at the same time mollifying the people who had suffered under d’Orco’s rule.

To those of us in the First World, this seems like a spectacle out of Game of Thrones, the sort of thing Joffery Baratheon would do; but from the point of view of The Prince, Joffery was an idiot. His restraint was minimal at best, his cruelties were excessive and manifold, and he indulged in them out of pleasure. The execution of d’Orco was precise; one man, killed in order to pacify a populace that had grown to loathe his administration, preserving, even enhancing, the power of the region’s ruler. Remember Machiavelli’s many admonishments against excessive cruelty, his warnings that a ruler’s vices should only be indulged in for business, not pleasure. Although history paints an ugly picture of Cesare – the man is alleged to have committed fratricide at the age of 22 – but Joffery had habits such as killing peasants with his crossbow; the point is that Cesare, according to Machiavelli, had d’Orco bisected and the remains displayed because he decided such an act was necessary, whereas Joffery killed people because he found it funny.

Morally deplorable acts are, in the worldview of The Prince, only justifiable if they serve a greater purpose – being to secure the ruler and the state.

Chapter XVIII closes with the most chilling rationale for this sort of action, a rationale straight from the realist textbook. As ruler, you must be prepared to resort to unethical methods and means. Even if you won’t, others will:

One prince of the present time, whom it is not well to name, never preaches anything else but peace and good faith, and to both he is most hostile, and either, if he had kept it, would have deprived him of reputation and kingdom many a time.

-Niccolò Machiavelli, op cit., Chapter XVIII

What is lacking from this, and the other passages, is any assertion that doing these things is good; all Machiavelli claims is that they are necessary.

The ends may require awful means; but requires is not the same as justifies. And you must ensure that the awful means employed are only those necessary to accomplish the ends.

Niccolò and Frank

At the very beginning I mentioned Frank and Claire Underwood, the villain protagonists of the HBO series House of Cards as examples of the kind of politicians who would be regarded as Machiavellian. It would, in truth, be a serious mistake to say those two took The Prince to heart; the entirety of the first two seasons of that show chart their rise to power, but at no point do either of them show any sign that they’ve given the slightest thought about what they’ll do with power once they get it.

Their lack of foresight and vision burns them in later seasons, as does their treatment of others. All the way through the book, Machiavelli counsels the ruler to keep an eye on the goal – the safety and security of the ruler and of the state. Things that are done, must be done in service of that end; and this includes doing awful things. But remember the most solemn injunction in Chapter XVII – “Nevertheless a prince ought to inspire fear in such a way that, if he does not win love, he avoids hatred” – Frank and Claire Underwood either never read that far into the book, or forgot. The way they treat those around them does inspire hatred, to the point where no-one in the leadership of either party would shed a tear if Frank dies, many of their onetime supporters and allies have turned on them, and they are unable to replace them.

For someone who took the lessons of The Prince to heart, the word for that behaviour is “stupid”. The ruler of a hereditary principality – or even a republic like Venice – was expected to be in power for a very long time; short-sightedness is a fatal flaw, especially when the most basic end a ruler can work towards – is repeatedly spelled out again and again using small words. Even more idiotic is the way the Underwoods allowed themselves to be hated – as noted above, hatred will allow people to overcome their fear, and people who hate someone will be willing to put up will all sorts of indignities to bring that person down.

Prudence and Permanence

Above I stated that Machiavelli isn’t describing an ideal society, or counselling how things ought to be, but is commenting on what is.

Let us consider two additional themes The Prince explores that support this; prudence and permanence. The first is neatly encapsulated by this passage in Chapter XVII:

Nevertheless he [the titular prince] ought to be slow to believe and to act, nor should he himself show fear, but proceed in a temperate manner with prudence and humanity, so that too much confidence may not make him incautious and too much distrust render him intolerable.

-Niccolò Machiavelli, op cit., Chapter XVII

Time and time again Machiavelli cautions against rash judgement, hasty action, or responses where emotion has clouded reason. Note that the ruler is advised to act with temperance – one of the seven heavenly virtues – but again, the driver for this advice is practical, not moral. A ruler does not act so because it is right, but because it is effective.

This practicality brings us to the second theme, which is easily lost when the fear/love choice is being raised; the wise ruler does not opt for fear, or love, but for permanence:

For such a prince cannot rely upon what he observes in quiet times, when citizens have need of the state, because then everyone agrees with him; they all promise, and when death is far distant they all wish to die for him; but in troubled times, when the state has need of its citizens, then he finds but few. And so much the more is this experiment dangerous, inasmuch as it can only be tried once. Therefore a wise prince ought to adopt such a course that his citizens will always in every sort and kind of circumstance have need of the state and of him, and then he will always find them faithful.

-Niccolò Machiavelli, op cit., Chapter IX

It is a warning; fair-weather friends can’t be relied on, and many citizens will not keep the pledges they made in the good times. No wonder governments turn to propaganda and press control during war; the populace must be motivated and its morale kept raised. That said, it also tells the reader that for the ruler to maintain power, it is best to engineer circumstances such that the ruler and the state are considered necessary by the populace, no matter what.

This passage ought to be a motivator for a government to make the country a better place for its citizens to live in, and to jealously safeguard them from harm; but by the same token it ought to also protect its own role in that process with equal vigour. And the darker side is that this is the end that justifies appalling means; the betterment of the citizenry.

Note in both passages the absence of moral judgement; it is not itself inherently ethical, moral, or good that these things are; it merely is.

A joke by a republican?

There are some who contend that the whole text is satire; I don’t agree. When he wrote it, Machiavelli was a disgraced exile, who had only recently been imprisoned and tortured by the Medici family; the dedication of The Prince is positively sycophantic, a 438-word act of literary fellatio performed on Lorenzo Di Piero De’ Medici, Duke of Urbino and newly-enthroned absolute ruler of Florence. This family that, having been out of power and exiled from the city, for nearly two decades, had recently elevated one of its members to the Papacy and was still busily settling scores. This generation of the family made the strategic error, according to The Prince, of choosing to be loved over being feared, but they were not stupid. Although the young Lorenzo didn’t have much truck with fancy book learning, his uncle, Pope Leo X, was not an idiot, and did read The Prince; if Machiavelli had truly been mocking the Medicis, he would have ended up back on the rack they had just released him from.

I don’t disagree that Machiavelli was a republican; his views were more favourable to a more democratic state. His Discourses on Livy, published later and full of unvarnished admiration for the Roman Republic, evidences this. That said, although the man had quite the irreverent mouth on him, even he had enough of a sense of self-preservation to avoid mocking the people who had, very recently, done interesting and painful things to his person and were amenable to doing so again; I doubt The Prince was satirical, although we will never know for certain.

A Precursor

The Prince is, I’ve noted above, one of the key texts that influences the Realist school of international relations, and political theory; it is the second oldest work fitting that description, with only The History of the Peloponnesian War, written in 431BCE by Thucydides, predating it.

Thucydides paints an even bleaker picture of politics in the Melian Dialogue – outlined in Book V of his work; at the time, Athens was seeking to dominate the Dorian colony of Melos, which had opted for neutrality in the war between Athens and Sparta. The Melian dialogue is a dramatization of the negotiations between the Athenian envoys and the rulers of Melos; it is a perfect example of realpolitik in motion. The Melians try to persuade the Athenians to leave them alone as, being neutral, they are no threat to Athens; but the Athenians declare doing so would make others see Athens as weak. The Melians believe that the gods will assist them, as their cause is just, and even if the gods do not, Sparta, their Dorian kin, will. The Athenians scoff at this; Sparta, they claim, will not go to war for such a minor polis, the control of which does not affect them, and nor will the gods intervene.

In modern parlance; there were political realities that the Athenians couldn’t ignore that compelled them conquer Melos, and it was not in Sparta’s national interest to get involved.

The dialogue contains this particular passage:

Melians: It is natural and excusable for men in our position to turn more ways than one both in thought and utterance. However, the question in this conference is, as you say, the safety of our country; and the discussion, if you please, can proceed in the way which you propose.

Athenians: For ourselves, we shall not trouble you with specious pretences—either of how we have a right to our empire because we overthrew the Mede, or are now attacking you because of wrong that you have done us—and make a long speech which would not be believed; and in return we hope that you, instead of thinking to influence us by saying that you did not join the Lacedaemonians [the Spartans], although their colonists, or that you have done us no wrong, will aim at what is feasible, holding in view the real sentiments of us both; since you know as well as we do that right, as the world goes, is only in question between equals in power, while the strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must.

-Thucydides, The History of the Peloponnesian War, Book V

The Athenians are telling the Melians that might makes right; they will bring Melos to heel because they can. Athens is strong; Melos is weak. The conclusion is inescapable; the Melians must kneel.

For the record; the Melians did not, dismissing the Athenian envoys and refusing to surrender – instead offering to be “be friends to you and foes to neither party” (Thucydides, op cit.). This was unacceptable to the Athenians. They laid siege to Melos, conquered it, killed every adult male they could find, and sold the women and children into slavery. It would take a decade – when the war with Sparta was renewed and Athens was losing – for any of the survivors to see Melos again.

At no point in the Dialogue does Thucydides say that the conduct of the Athenians good, or that it was just; like Machiavelli almost two thousand years later, Thucydides was merely describing reality.


Popular opinion holds that The Prince is a manual for how to be the perfect cunning, manipulative, unscrupulous politician, bereft of ethics and morals for whom the ends, usually one’s own political power, justify any means, and who cares not for love, but should aim to be feared.

This is wrong.

The text says that the ruler should aim to be feared and loved, but if forced to choose, fear is safer; and being hated is the most grievous error. As being hated comes from doing appalling things – awful means – the use of those means must be carefully rationed; an intelligent ruler, or political operative, will only indulge in awful means when they are necessary to serve a greater purpose. If there is an alternative that is less awful and will accomplish the same goal, that alternative ought to be employed. The greater purpose is the security and safety of the state – and that itself serves the purpose of working for the common good of the citizenry. But even that is worked towards because it will further strengthen the state; there is a pragmatic rationale for everything.

In writing The Prince, Machiavelli was drawing on decades of experience as the foremost diplomat of the Florentine Republic during a period of chaos in Italy. He noted what worked, what didn’t; what actions by rulers led nations to prosperity, and what led them to ruin. He saw, firsthand, what happened to those who allowed themselves to be hated by their people. He saw those who placed moral principles over what practically can be accomplished, such as the leaders of his own government, be destroyed, along with those who were excessive in ruthlessness or allowed their lack of ethics to get the better of them, such as Pope Alexander VI and his son, Cesare Borgia.

The ends do not justify the means; the ends will from time to time require appalling means. A ruler must be prepared that sometimes a situation will require them to dispense with their principles and morals for the sake of the nation. Machiavelli put this down on paper in clear and concise terms – I have a print copy of The Prince which, including appendixes and introductions and other padding, is less than 150 pages long. By doing this, writing quite plainly and bluntly, and by couching his observations as advice to the newly enthroned Medici rulers, Machiavelli practically invited demonization at the hands of those wishing to appear pious such as Church officials, or monarchs of the day.

This is compounded when the other lessons of the text are ignored or forgotten. A ruler must only engage in deplorable conduct when it is required, and only to the extent that it is required. Excess or deficiency in this leads to destruction, either at the hands of one’s own people, or at the hands of those who have mastered the political game. Fear is not better than love; both is best, but if you must choose, fear is safer. Never allow yourself to be hated. Don’t rely on foreign mercenaries – citizen-soldiers are best. Justice must be seen to be done. Be prepared, mentally, to do evil, because as ruler it is not a question of if, but when. For preference, don’t do it, but if you must, do it to safeguard your nation, your people – remember that doing so safeguards your own interests. Execute it properly when you must. Learn from those who have gone before and failed miserably; remember that sometimes it isn’t doing evil that will destroy you, but doing good. Be prepared to be criticised for it; but remember that it was necessary.

This isn’t as attention-grabbing as “it is better to be feared than loved”, or “the ends justify the means”, but we’re talking power and politics; subtleties are all too often overlooked. In this area, a person who acknowledges that there are times when evil is necessary – or that good is actually destructive – is easily demonised, and once demonised, it’s awfully hard to rehabilitate them.

Most importantly, and I cannot stress this enough, readers of The Prince must remember that Machiavelli was not describing what should be. He was not writing in the tradition of Plato and The Republic, or of Thomas Moore and Utopia. He was observing what he saw in reality:

[I]t appears to me more appropriate to follow up the real truth of the matter than the imagination of it; for many have pictured republics and principalities which in fact have never been known or seen…

-Niccolò Machiavelli, op cit., Chapter XVII

And for this, he has been reviled these past five hundred years.

Machiavelli’s crime wasn’t to inspire political operatives for half a millennium; it was to draw attention to what they’d already been doing for millennia longer.


Sources and References:

  • Baylis, John, and Steve Smith, eds. The Globalization of World Politics. 3rd ed. United States of America: Oxford University Press, 2005.
  • Butcher, Jim. Princeps’ Fury (Codex Alera). Kindle Edition. Little, Brown Book Group, 2009.
  • Cassidy, Barrie. ‘Rudd’s Downfall: He Never Really Got It’. Text. ABC News: The Drum, 24 June 2010. http://www.abc.net.au/news/2010-06-24/rudds-downfall-he-never-really-got-it/880258.
  • Hogeland, William. ‘If You Find Yourself Asking “Why Are [these People] Voting against Their Interest?” They’re Probably Voting against You.’ Microblog. @WilliamHogeland, 23 March 2016. https://twitter.com/WilliamHogeland/status/712758547008897025.
  • Martin, George R. R. A Clash of Kings. 2003 paperback ed. United Kingdom: Voyager Books, 1998.
  • Madison, James. Federalist No. 51; The Structure of the Government Must Furnish the Proper Checks and Balances Between the Different Departments, 8 February 1788.
  • Heywood, Andrew. Political Theory: An Introduction. 3rd ed. United Kingdom: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004.
  • Machiavelli, Niccolò. ‘The Prince’. Translated by W. K. Marriott, 2 November 2006. http://www.gutenberg.org/files/1232/1232-h/1232-h.htm.
  • ‘The History of the Peloponnesian War’. Translated by Richard Crawley, 431AD. http://www.gutenberg.org/files/7142/7142-h/7142-h.htm.
  • White, Michael. Machiavelli: A Man Misunderstood. United Kingdom: Little, Brown, 2004.