Among the common definitions one finds for “Machiavellian” are “unscrupulous,” “cunning,” “deceitful,” and “duplicitous,” words associated with disreputable character. The namesake for these malignant traits is Niccolo Machiavelli, a Florentine diplomat who lived from 1469 to 1527. He was a scion of an ancient Florentine family. His father, a lawyer, provided him with a classic education. That learning shows in Machiavelli’s various books about political science, warcraft, and history. In addition, Machiavelli wrote numerous letters and shorter essays and a satirical play, Mandragola, which was immensely popular at the time. Whether or not he intended it as such, this play has been described as an allegory about political events in 16th century Italy, a bawdy dramatization of the advice Machiavelli gave to the Medici family in his notorious work, The Prince (De Principatibus or Il Principe).
Machiavelli and his family were firmly associated with the republican factions in Florence. Through that connection, he held diplomatic offices in service to his city, traveling extensively to political centers and royal courts in Italy and the rest of Europe. In this capacity, he met a number of rulers, including the charismatic Cesare Borgia, after which the protagonist in The Prince is supposedly styled. With the return to power of the anti-republican faction of the Medicis in 1512, Machiavelli’s political fortune cratered. The following year, he was accused of plotting against the regime, arrested, imprisoned, and tortured.
It has long been claimed that he wrote The Prince while in prison as a testimony that he was loyal to the regime and, indeed, should be permitted to serve in the new government. The fawning dedication to Lorenzo de Medici, Duke of Urbino, that Machiavelli wrote in the preface of the book lends credence to that claim. Whether or not Lorenzo or any other member of the family ever read the book, Machiavelli’s hope for a further diplomatic career remained unfulfilled. He retired to a life of contemplation and writing.
Around 1517, he wrote his other famous work on politics, The Discourses on the First Ten Books of Titus Livy, wherein he examined the politics of the early Roman Republic. From Rome he sought to learn the necessary conditions for a successful republic, an aspiration for his own city’s future. Although there are common threads, such as the judicious use of violence when needed to maintain the government, The Prince is different in tone and goal than The Discourses. This has led to much speculation about Machiavelli. Was he the amoral cynic who scorned Christian ethics, which the former book displays? Or was he the admirer of republican Rome, who emphasized the need for constant “rebirth” to maintain that best of all systems? In the latter work, he is alarmed that corruption of republican character will destroy the republic, unless something spurs its rebirth, preferably from reforms within the republic itself. John Adams, writing a quarter-millennium later in A Defence of the Constitutions of Government of the United States of America, agreed. But that is not The Prince.
In short, one must look at The Prince on its own terms. Readers then and since have been shocked—or piously professed to be shocked—by its content and tone. But why? The book makes no claim to promote virtue, either in the classic or Christian sense. He does not disparage Christianity or challenge Christian virtue in this or any other of his works. As one commentator has noted, “What should not be assumed is that whatever Machiavelli thinks about things in general is necessarily ‘Machiavellian.’ His view of politics is, but it simply does not follow that his view of everything is ‘Machiavellian.’” The Prince purports to deal with the world as it is, not as philosophy or religion would like it to be. It followed a long literary tradition called “the mirror of princes,” books whose lessons instructed future rulers about “proper” governance. It should come as no surprise that such instructions during the Middle Ages came with a heavy dose of Christian ethics to civilize the prince and habituate him to just and temperate rule. After all, as Thomas Aquinas noted, God gave the ruler care of the community for the general welfare, not a license to exploit the people for the ruler’s own benefit.
Machiavelli builds on that literary tradition but uproots it from its philosophical grounding. He tosses aside the Aristotelian conjoining of ethics and politics, the classic assumption that what defines a good person also defines a good ruler, where the private virtue is elevated to the public. It is an abandonment of the scholasticism of the High Middle Ages and its synthesis of philosophy and religion, of which Thomas was a prominent expounder. The Prince warns the ruler that, to be successful in politics, assume the worst of everyone, whereas the classical version of politics as ethics writ large held that a few people are virtuous, more are evil, and the great majority are in-between. It was for the last group that habituation to ethical behavior might move the needle.
Machiavelli is not interested in saving the prince’s soul, but in having him survive, a matter of particularly acute relevance in the chaotic and often murderous factional politics of the Italian states. He does not hold up his examples as paragons of morality, and his praise of virtu means a prince’s skill at the craft of statesmanship, not the ideal character of a Christian nobleman or the pursuit of personal excellence by a Roman Stoic sage. His advice is specific and based on assumptions about how human beings consistently respond to certain events and actions. These assumptions are drawn from hard-nosed examination of human behavior and contemporary events. Machiavelli engages in empirical psychology, no less valid because his analysis often also draws from historical sources made familiar through his classical education. Like the image of Janus, the Roman two-faced god of transitions, Machiavelli and his contemporaries looked ahead to a more secular world revealed through humanistic tools of discovery but still could not avert their gaze from the medieval world receding behind them.
The Prince is divided into several sections and chapters, dealing with the particular conditions of various principalities. There are secular and ecclesiastical princes.. Among the secular are those who became rulers by conquest, by criminal acts, or by acclaim of the people. Just as all cars might have certain similar requirements for maintenance, yet need different manuals to address their particular components, so does the governance of people in different polities.
Starting with commonalities, there are certain common sense postulates derived from experience. It is better to be feared than loved by the people. He acknowledges that it is best to be both respected and loved by the people. A ruler who is loved is likely to return that love and act magnanimously and govern moderately. But love is unsteady. In human relations, lovers betray each other constantly, through deceit or worse. That behavior is the theme of much literature, dramatic as well as comedic, including Machiavelli’s own Mandragola. At the impersonal level of a state, love becomes even less stable, which Machiavelli’s own fate in a city riven with factionalism demonstrated all too well. No politician is loved by everyone and should not even try. Sic transit gloria mundi should be a warning for every politician, as the glory of today becomes the exile, or worse, of tomorrow. Fear, on the other hand, provides a more stable rule, because it always produces the same reaction from people, of obedience and, indeed, respect for the ruler’s decisive leadership.
True, some might feel so much hatred for a strict ruler that it overcomes their fear. Therefore, the ruler must apply the precautionary principle: treat everyone as a potential assassin, more practical advice to survive in 16th century Italian politics. From this, another general rule emerges. Feign affability, but never let down your guard by mistaking your disguise for reality.
Of particular relevance to the Medicis would be the advice for rulers of conquered lands. Upon victory, the new ruler might react in an understandable human way and be indiscriminately magnanimous to the conquered people. Big mistake. The ruler must put himself in the position of various groups among those people. First, there is the former ruler and his family, around whom those with loyalty to the prior regime might coalesce. To the extent possible, the prior ruler’s family must be exterminated to eliminate this mortal danger to the new prince.
Another group might be those who have invited the prince to invade as a result of factional strife within that domain. This group expects to be rewarded. It is safe to ignore them, as they have no one to support them against the new prince. Their own people consider them traitors, and their very existence depends on the prince’s success. He holds their reins, not they his.
A third group are the sizable portion of the people who have something to lose in wealth or position, but are not among the first two groups. They might be, for example, merchants, artisans, and bureaucrats. The advice: be generous to make them feel connected to him. Kill those with loyalties to the old regime, fine. But get it done quickly, and do it through a subordinate who can then be blamed for having been overly zealous. One might think of King Henry II of England and his cry to the nobles, “Will no one rid me of this meddlesome priest” about killing Thomas Becket, the 12th century Archbishop of Canterbury. Better yet, kill the executioner, for there is no better way of showing that executions are over than hanging the hangman. The conquered people are afraid and cowed, uncertain of what will become of them, their families, and their property. They look for any sign of humanity in the conqueror and want to believe in the ruler’s good will. Such an approach will reassure them that they are safe and will be seen by them as one of generosity. After all, the condemned man is thankful for a pardon, even though it may have been the ruler whose prosecution put the man in the position of needing one. The reader might find it difficult to avoid the sense that this part may have been about Machiavelli and his own family’s situation while he wrote The Prince.
People, by nature, lack gratitude. Over time, the effect of not having been killed or lost their property wears off. Now the prince should reward them, but do so gradually and without raising taxes. The people may see through this, but will respect the prince for his fiscal discipline which has benefited them financially. One other noteworthy point that Machiavelli makes is that this third group of people might accept their conqueror because they blame the prior ruler for their situation. They will believe that the prior ruler lost because of corruption of his moral or political bearings, with the latter due either to the ruler’s laziness in attending public affairs or to a rot of the political structure as a whole. In any case, the prior ruler proved unfit, which makes the new one worthy of respect and fealty.
The last group is the remainder of the population. One option is to rule with perpetual fear and to strangle their livelihoods with taxes to keep them struggling for survival rather than engaging in political scheming. But, sooner or later, the prince will need them as soldiers. It will not do to impoverish the people because, with nothing for them to lose, it will make them unable and unwilling to fight on his behalf.
This broaches the topic of war, one of Machiavelli’s favorites, not coincidentally also a frequent pursuit of the rulers of Italian states during his time. War, he declares, is ubiquitous and inevitable among states. The prince should embrace it, but be smart about how and when to fight. War must deliver benefits for his people, such as tribute or new lands. Internal politics are inevitably connected to foreign policy, an interrelation which a diplomat such as Machiavelli would be sure to emphasize. War also can be a useful distraction from domestic trouble by rallying the people to the prince.
The “how” of fighting the war is of particular significance and requires long-term choices. One might use one’s own forces, those of allies, or mercenaries. While some combination among them, particularly the first two, is possible, he addresses the benefits and drawbacks of each. If one relies on allies, one takes a risk. They may help you and fight with elan. However, they may want a division of the conquered territory. If you refuse, they may turn on you. Therefore, be hesitant about allying with more powerful entities, but at least make sure that there is not one predominant ally among the group.
Mercenaries are always a problem, during war or peace. Perhaps he based this on the experience Italian states had with their frequent use of mercenaries, particularly German and Swiss. He broadened the argument to include professional soldiers in general. They fight for money and often are on retainer during peacetime. Therefore, they want to avoid war and will counsel against or even frustrate the ruler’s political decision about war. If war happens, they feel a certain fraternity with those on the other side. They may know them and even may have fought alongside them in other wars. Mercenaries do not fight vigorously, because the soldier on the other side is “just doing a job,” just as they are. The mercenaries lack the necessary conviction for the cause, because, in the words of one commentator, they “no more hate those they fight than they love those whom they fight for.” Even if they win, they could turn on the prince. At the least, they might raise their fee, a demand it would behoove the prince not to ignore lest the mercenaries act against his interest.
Best, then, to rely on one’s own citizen militia. If there are military reverses, the citizens will fight most vigorously for their hearth and home. If they are victorious, they can be rewarded with a moderate degree of plunder. They might also be useful to colonize the new realm. However, this migration must be undertaken with the long view towards intertwining the conquerors with the original inhabitants. It must not produce a collection of isolated communities of occupiers. Assimilation works best if the conquerors and the conquered share language, religion, and customs. Otherwise, particular care must be taken to be sensitive to deeply-held customs of the conquered people to pacify them. This reflects a practical strategy employed successfully by the ancient Romans as they spread across alien lands.
Machiavelli’s commendation of citizen militias and his distrust of professional soldiers reflects his republican leanings. Such broad-based military service was at the heart of the classic Greek and Roman conception of citizenship. His views became a staple of classic republican argumentation. During the debates over the American Constitution in 1787 and 1788, the Anti-federalists vigorously objected to a standing army as a tool of tyranny that would doom the republic. Hamilton and Madison used several essays in an attempt to blunt those objections.
Another aspect of Machiavelli’s instruction was that the ruler must consider the role of luck in events, particularly in war. He uses Fortuna, the Roman goddess of luck and fate. She is capricious, moody, and willful. She must constantly be courted to keep her on one’s good side. Her capriciousness cannot be tamed, but fortunately, if one may use that word, it may be calmed by the ruler’s virtu. Machiavelli is a Christian, so he does not believe in unalterable fate; man has free will. Moreover, the history of warfare shows not only the influence of luck, but of skill at warcraft, such as when a commander executes a deft maneuver that allows his army to escape a precarious situation. Hence it behooves a ruler to act decisively. Fortuna and virtu, working together, are irresistible.
Unlike the legitimacy a prince has by succession under established constitutional rules, conquest by itself cannot bestow legitimacy on the new prince. Machiavelli’s prince is not Thomas Hobbes’s Leviathan. Machiavelli calls to mind Aristotle’s distinction between king and tyrant. The non-pejorative meaning of “tyrant” was someone who came to power outside the customary process. That said, a consistently “lucky” prince will be seen by the people as beyond ordinary men, which creates legitimacy in their eyes. It is a well-known psychological urge in people to “go with a winner.” One need note only the increased attendance at sporting events in our time when the team is on a winning streak that season. As in the case of the ancient Greek heroes favored by their deities, Fortuna smiles on the prince. The concrete evidence of the prince’s success bestows the legitimacy on him which medieval Christians believed occurred through God’s anointment of kings and emperors. A lot of this may be theater, where elaborate court pomp and ritual provides the stage to make it appear that the prince is powerful and favored by fortune. The medium becomes the message, as the phrasing goes. As in Plato’s parable of the cave, the appearance becomes the reality in the minds of the subjects, a metamorphosis to which citizens of modern republics certainly are not immune, either.
The requirement that a successful prince take account of Fortuna’s fickleness and need for constant attention and courting sounds very much like Plato’s and Polybius’s critiques of the “pure” forms of democracy. For them, the general citizenry was fickle and willful and craved constant flattery from would-be leaders. The extent to which the latter possessed the political virtu to manipulate the citizens would determine how much support such demagogues would get. One also is reminded of Hamilton’s concern in Number 68 of The Federalist that direct election of executives is undesirable, because it rewards men who offer nothing more than their “[t]alents for low intrigue, and the little arts of popularity.”
The Prince has often been compared—unfavorably—to the works of political theorists who followed Machiavelli within a few generations, preeminently Jean Bodin and Thomas Hobbes. The latter, critics have charged, produced much more sophisticated and internally consistent investigations of political systems. Bodin, a French academic and jurist who wrote in the 16th century, analyzed different forms of government and organized them around the concept of sovereignty. Hobbes, an Englishman writing a hundred years later, claimed his work to be a new science of politics. He provided a modern psychological basis for the origin of political society in the rational self-interest of mankind, foremost the desire for personal security and safety. Meeting that primal psychological need established for Hobbes the legitimacy of an absolute ruler such as his Leviathan.
These criticisms miss the purpose of writing The Prince. Like Bodin, Machiavelli favored centralized and effective power through his prince. He hoped for a strong leader to unify Italy, much as Bodin wrote in favor of the French monarchy which had mostly completed the unification of France. Like Hobbes, Machiavelli in The Prince rejects established ethical justifications for a ruler’s legitimacy and justifies a strong and energetic ruler based on that ruler’s success in governing. As was essentially the case for Hobbes, there is no universal moral order of natural law which actually limits the prince’s law-making. To borrow from Justinian’s Code, the prince is the law because there is no earthly sovereign above him. This had also been the position of certain medieval churchmen, especially William of Occam, in regards to the divine realm and God’s omnipotence. Machiavelli and Hobbes secularized those arguments. It is true that The Prince lacks the philosophical wholeness and complexity of other works, but Machiavelli was not aiming for that. His Discourses on Livy comes closer to it. With The Prince, he was writing a practical guide for a successful ruler, a guide drawn from experience and an exemplar of a new science of statecraft.
Machiavelli’s prince did not, then, fail as a political concept. Indeed, Machiavelli’s goal of Italian unification through a dynamic leader, possessed of virtu and smiled upon by Fortuna, was realized, albeit more than three centuries later. Rather, because so much depended on the political skills of each ruler, particular princes failed while others succeeded. This flux destroys the social stability which is needed for productive lives and is traditionally the goal of government. Machiavelli reveals the concurrent strengths and weaknesses of monarchy and other single-executive systems of government. Leaving aside the potential problems of standing armies and heavy taxation discussed earlier, The Prince provides many lessons for us and reveals parallels to how our system functions.
For one, Machiavelli’s methodology is strikingly similar to the approach in The Federalist. Alexander Hamilton declared in Number 6, “Let experience, the least fallible guide of human opinions, be appealed to for an answer to these inquiries.” Use of illustrative historical events and commentaries on human nature based on similar psychological investigations run throughout those essays. One goal of the authors of The Federalist was to explain to their readers how this republican system could be successful as a practical undertaking, regardless of its conformance to some ethical ideal, the virtue—or lack thereof—of its politicians, or the problematic legitimacy of its creation.
Machiavelli also recognized that the fate of the prince and the people ultimately are tied together. The prince’s wise practice of statecraft will bring prosperity, which the citizens will defend vigorously, if needed. This is an eminently pragmatic position, well supported by examining history. As James Madison wrote in Number 40 of The Federalist in response to criticisms that the Philadelphia convention had acted illegitimately and against existing constitutional rules, “[If] they had violated both their powers and their obligations, in proposing a constitution, this ought nevertheless be embraced, if it be calculated to accomplish the views and happiness of the people of America.”
Another lesson is the need to avoid dependence on the particular qualities of one leader. It has long and often been recognized that the Constitution creates a potential for strong executive government. Examples abound, from Alexander Hamilton’s broad claims of implied executive powers in his Pacificus essays from 1793, to Woodrow Wilson’s positively Machiavellian observation in his book Constitutional Government, “If he rightly interpret the national thought and boldly insist upon it, he is irresistible. . . . His office is anything he has the sagacity and force to make it.” Most telling are the numerous claims of far-reaching power to act in emergencies by presidents down to the present, which emergency powers then conjure more emergencies. While the political benefits from energy and decisiveness in the executive were duly noted, the framers of the Constitution intended the system of structural separation of powers to diminish the dangers from concentration of power in a single ruler.
Finally, there was the need to deal with the destructive factional politics that plagued Italian cities during Machiavelli’s time and beyond. The Prince proposes one manner—the charismatic leader whose skill will prevent these factions from entrenching themselves. The Constitution recognizes the problem, but proposes a different solution, to set the factions against themselves in peaceful competition by multiplying their number and diversity so that none become entrenched.
Joerg W. Knipprath is an expert on constitutional law, and member of the Southwestern Law School faculty. Professor Knipprath has been interviewed by print and broadcast media on a number of related topics ranging from recent U.S. Supreme Court decisions to presidential succession. He has written opinion pieces and articles on business and securities law as well as constitutional issues, and has focused his more recent research on the effect of judicial review on the evolution of constitutional law. He has also spoken on business law and contemporary constitutional issues before professional and community forums, and serves as a Constituting America Fellow.