Machiavelli the prince

Niccolò Machiavelli: The Florentine Philosopher and Diplomat Behind Political Realism in ‘The Prince’

When we see the term ‘Machiavellian’, manipulative rulers and ambitious politicians spring to mind. It is a word often associated with ruthless dictators in the 20th Century: Hitler, Stalin, Mussolini, Pol Pot; or the masterminds behind revolutions. Today, the British media also use the term as a headline buzzword to create a sense of flair. They impose the word on influential advisors and ministers such as Dominic Cummings and Gavin Williamson, who rose to preeminence by questionable means. 

In psychology, Machiavellian individuals are interpersonally manipulative; they use flattery, deceit and adopt cynical and amoral viewpoints against tradition to promote their own interests. Psychologists such as Wrightman suggest people with Machiavellian qualities have detachment. For they lack an emotional connection with others.

Machiavelli-The Prince
Portrait of Machiavelli by Santi di Tito. Credit @

Machiavelli Misconceived

It is clear that the term ‘Machiavellian’ has a profoundly negative connotation. But was the man himself – Niccolò Machiavelli, a manipulative individual overflown with greed and ambition? I think not. Machiavelli was a Florentine philosopher and diplomat in the Renaissance. He worked as secretary to the Second Chancery of Florence from 1498 to 1512, frequently involved in diplomatic affairs. This real-world experience differentiates him from early western idealistic philosophers such as Plato, because he has a pragmatic view of politics. He was a writer and frequently studied history to use it as a guide to contemporary affairs.

The notoriety of Machiavelli came from his treatise – The Prince. This  work challenges the Ciceronian notion of virtue. He gave several historical examples of how bad men succeed and argued that given intention and telos are beneficial, an immoral means to an end could be forgiven. Machiavelli also gave many other contentious arguments. For example, in chapter 5, Machiavelli suggests that after a Prince conquers a republic, he should destroy existing institutions and dissidents, because republicans never forget their liberties and have desires for revenge. Consequently, scholars like Bertrand Russell called the treatise “a handbook for gangsters”, and Leo Strauss named Machiavelli a “teacher of evil”. 

Leo Strauss (Machiavelli, Prince)
Political Philosopher Leo Strauss. Strauss criticised Machiavelli and pronounced his “anti-theological ire” the source of modernity. Credit @ Leo Strauss Center.

Indeed, without grasping the context in which The Prince was written, and without reading Machiavelli’s other works (which offer very different views), it is easy to generalise Machiavelli as a wicked thinker concerning the extraordinary arguments in The Prince. Scholars in the early 20th Century, such as Strauss, did not obtain a holistic picture of Machiavelli because it was not available. But with the discovery of more primary sources, a clearer picture of Machiavelli emerges. 

Machiavelli’s life 

Fact is, Machiavelli, in his political life, was a republican and democrat. Democrat not by today’s criteria but by the Florentine standard. Born in 1469, he was a student of the prestigious Latin teacher, Paolo da Ronciglione. In 1494, the people of Florence drove out the Medici, an influential banker family who ruled the city as a hereditary principate for over 60 years. During the decade, Machiavelli thrived under the patronage of the Florentine gonfaloniere (or chief administrator for life) Piero Soderini. He served as defence secretary until 1512. Machiavelli laboured for the interest of the Republic. He participated in many major diplomatic missions, such as establishing friendship with King Louis XII of France and Holy Roman Emperor Maximillian I. 

Exit from Politics

In 1512, the Medici gained backing from the pope. They defeated Florence’s army and dissolved the republican government. Machiavelli became a victim of political turmoil. The Medici initially placed him in exile. Then they (falsely) suspected Machiavelli of conspiracy in 1513; the man was imprisoned and tortured for several weeks. After his release, Machiavelli retires to his farm outside Florence. This afforded him the occasion to turn to literary pursuits. 

The Medici Family Crest
The Medici Family Crest. Credit @

Machiavelli wrote The Prince in early 1514. The work is a dedication to Lorenzo de’Medici. Machiavelli opens the treatise with a dedicatory letter, in which he connotes, the purpose of the work is to show the Medici how to scale greatness and bring honour to their great family. Machiavelli also implies, by advising the Medici, he wishes to win their favour. Indeed, many of Machiavelli’s former colleagues in the republican government were rehabilitated and served the Medici. As Cary J Nederman argues, Machiavelli composed The Prince in great haste; he was seeking to regain his status in Florentine political affairs. Of course, we can not read Machiavelli’s mind and figure out the true motivation behind this composition. Oxford sociologist Stein Ringen explains: 

“Perhaps he wanted to flatter the young prince to get himself a job…, Perhaps his intention was not at all useful advice but rather to confuse the autocrat with counterproductive ideas and thus entice him to failure. Machiavelli was, after all, a man of the Republic who had every reason to resent the new regime. Or perhaps not. Although a man of the Republic, he was also desperate for job and position, and in need of income, and probably very ready to compromise on his principles if he could get himself back into government service.”

Machiavelli the Republican

Nevertheless, as The Prince’s content shows apparent inconsistency with Machiavelli’s republican upbringing and his other works, and as Machiavelli has a personal agenda in writing it, I think the treatise does not wholly reflect Machiavelli’s true beliefs. Machiavelli’s other major work – The Discourses on Livy, completed in 1519, offers a very different take on the art of ruling. In this work, Machiavelli’s thinking is more noble and traditional. He explores the Roman Republic: how the Romans founded and sustained this form of government, and more importantly, how Roman wisdom in the art of statecraft can be used by all republics. Here, Machiavelli is democratic (by Florentine standards). He suggests that republics are better than principalities. 

Florentine republic
A medieval illustration of the Florentine Republic. Credit @ Florence Holidays.

Republic exists for the benefit of its citizens rather than for the aggrandisement of a leader. For another, decisions made by republics take their form from debates among the citizens and between the people and their leaders. This process results in better decisions than the whims of an autocrat. The empowerment of the people contrasts with the ruthless dictatorial tactics which Machiavelli advocated in The Prince.

So, should we just dismiss The Prince as a dishonest job application? No. Because whilst Machiavelli wrote that treatise with a clear agenda, the argumentation in The Prince is also backed up by extensive historical examples and logical reasoning, suggesting solid empiricism. 

Hence, Machiavelli was a thinker who could be both idealistic and realistic. He can stand in the shoes of either an expansionist prince or a traditional republican, as he took onboard different perspectives in different works. The rest of this article offers an introduction to Machiavelli’s thoughts in The Prince and The Discourses on Livy. 

The Prince – A Guide to Effective Ruling in a Principate


The principle of “ends justify the means” is a recurring theme in this treatise. Some of the means Machiavelli proposed are extreme. In chapter 3, Machiavelli discusses a principate’s expansion. When conquering another feudal principate, the prince should eliminate the family of its former lords. Concerning the offence that some in the annexed state might take to a new ruler, he suggests the only way maintain peace is to make the prospect of successful revolt look impossible: 

“Men ought either to be well treated or crushed, because they can avenge themselves of lighter injuries, of more serious ones they cannot; therefore, the injury that is to be done to a man ought to be of such a kind that one does not stand in fear of revenge.”

This is political realism; Machiavelli prefers action more than moral persuasion. Some cruelties are committed better than others. In chapter 8, he explores the difference between properly and poorly used cruelties in the form of mass executions. Machiavelli suggests, when a conqueror seizes power, he must decide about all the injuries he needs to commit and do all of them at once. That is to say, committing brutalities in a short period is comparatively better than repressing the masses slowly, as the people will remember and resent the latter. Never before in the western political thought tradition has a philosopher put forward such a bold argument. Plato did not, nor did Cicero.

Force and Fraud

Indeed, Machiavelli examined ideas put forward by early republican philosophers and overturned them. In Cicero’s De Officiis, which guides honourable political life and republican virtues for young Patricians, he invented the lion and the fox simile. Cicero suggests, both the lion and fox are beastly, and a leader should never imitate the qualities the two beasts embody, namely violent use of force and fraud. Machiavelli rejects this view and argues that a prince needs to learn how to be beastly and use force. He also should know which particular beasts to imitate at appropriate times. ‘Those who have done best as princes in our time have known how to imitate the lion and the fox’, writes Machiavelli. Hence, a successful prince needs to be both forceful and cunning. 

lion and the fox

Reputation and Reality

Maintaining a respectable image involves such cunningness. The people must see the prince as an embodiment of generosity. But the prince should never exercise generosity in a conventional way. If generosity is exercised in the way it truly should be, as in humbly doing good without boasting, it will go unnoticed. Traditionally, rulers stage lavish feasts to develop a generous public image. This is wrong, costly, and economically unsustainable. It will eventually lead to an exhaustion of resources and excessive taxes. Consequently, the ruler loses popular support. Therefore, a prince wishing to have the reputation of generosity must be brazen about some small acts of kindness to let it be known. 


Nevertheless, the philosophies of The Prince are not without morality. Machiavelli argues that a prince should aim for gloria as the end goal, which exceeds the importance of power. Whilst wicked means can help a prince cement power, a prince cannot obtain gloria through pure evil. A truly magnificent prince cannot be devoid of conscience. Here Machiavelli uses the example of Agathocles of Syracuse to convey the point. 

Agathocles of Syracuse
Coin of Agathocles. Credit @ Wikipedia.

Agathocles was of low birth. But through his wit, fighting skills, and great energy, he became a military commander. He invited the senate and leading citizens to a meeting to become the ruler, where he massacred them. With obstacles out of the way, Agathocles transformed into the king of Sicily. Machiavelli argues, criminal acts gave Agathocles power, but they cannot place him among the truly great rulers in history, whose acts are to be admired and imitated. 

There is great nuance in Machiavelli’s arguments. Whilst he recognizes the importance of political realism and the need to use immoral means to achieve power, he also implies that a prince should exhibit restraint to how much cruelty he is willing to commit. A glorious prince needs to strike a balance; he is a man of conscience and moderation, instead of a tyrant of vaulting ambition.  

The Discourses – Republican Stability 

The Machiavelli here is very different. As Intellectual Historian James Muldoon puts it, ‘Imagine your friend telling you about some awful colleagues at work, but when you meet them, they are actually quite nice.’ In this work, Machiavelli commented on the first ten books of Livy’s History of Rome. He analyses the success behind the Roman Republic and advocates this form of government as superior to all. 

Benefits of class conflict

Why was the Roman Republic so enduring? Machiavelli’s answer is that occasional tumults and partisan conflict helped Rome to sustain long-term peace. The Roman citizenry ( plebeians) make up most of the army. They elect tribunes to represent their interests in the senate; the senate body mainly consists of patricians (nobles). Of course, patricians pass the laws, because they have wealth and influence. Machiavelli rates nobility lowly and suggests they have a desire to dominate: 

“No doubt, if we consider the goal of the nobles and that of the common people, we shall see in the former a strong desire to dominate and in the latter only the desire not to be dominated.” (Chapter 5, Book 1, The Discourses)

In contrast, Machiavelli views the plebeians very highly. He argues that the desires of free peoples are rarely harmful to liberty, because they arise either from oppression or from the suspicion that they will be oppressed. Therefore, the republican empowerment of the plebeians is essential. They have tribunes to voice their concern; they have arms, meaning that protests can be disruptive. Or they can withdraw from the city to make the nobles vulnerable to external attacks. The empowerment of the people fundamentally prevents the patricians from establishing an oligarchy that serves solely their interests. Whilst educated patricians should require genuine virtue that the people awe, and make policies that are fair to the masses and beneficial to the Republic. The Roman Republic, therefore, reached a class equilibrium of mutual fear and respect. 

Diplomacy and Expansionism 

As a rare continuity from The Prince, Machiavelli in The Discourses also advises foxlike cunningness in the sphere of diplomacy. Machiavelli suggests, the best method of expansion is to make alliances with friendly neighbouring states, given the condition that your state retains the commanding position. They conquer together, reducing kings to provinces. The allies would receive decent shares of spoils to benefit their state. Still, as Rome has the title of command, Roman officials ruled conquered states, so the ultimate political control of conquered territories belongs to Rome.

Hence, Roman allies found themselves in a stoke encircled by the Romans. With this process, Rome’s military manpower grew through the acceptance of immigrants in the army. When the allies notice this deception, they have no means to turn the table due to Rome’s sheer prowess after expansion. This is another glimpse of Machiavelli’s political realism – a state should use its allies to achieve its political agenda. 

The Rise of Rome. Credit @ Khan Academy.

The Grand Reset 

Despite class equilibrium and diplomatic successes, the Republic over time will inevitably become corrupted. Expansion sometimes leads to corruption. Expansion needs professional armies and generals; the latter are charismatic populists who could easily sway the soldiers to serve them instead of the Republic. That is how Sulla and Caesar become destroyers of the Republic. Machiavelli suggests, to counter these demagogues, a republic needs an illustrious statesman of exceptional strength and ability to return it to its foundational principles, such as the rule of law, empowerment of the masses. The Roman Republic’s citizens managed again and again to choose such leaders to help them find their way back from decay. Rome’s record of success is remarkable, lasting more than 400 years. 

Final Remarks

The philosophy of Niccolò Machiavelli is multi-faceted. This article challenged the popular conceptions of Machiavelli as a manipulative schemer and void in morality. It has tried to give an overview of his life and some fascinating themes in two of his major works, namely The Prince and The Discourses. When we read political philosophy, it is all too easy to judge a thinker by our contemporary values. We may also accept the mainstream criticism of a thinker. This is wrong. Past authors could not have supported ideas today because they had been unavailable in the authors’ context. Nor would they know how their ideas were articulated in history. Indeed, we cannot take hindsight for granted and prosecute past authors for other people’s wrongful use of their ideas.

Perhaps readers should take a contextualist approach, namely understanding the political and intellectual context in which a philosopher wrote. This not only ensures historical integrity, but also opens up new frames of analysis. This way, we would not bash Machiavelli from the hypocritical moral high ground, but empathise with an intellectual in a turbulent time of political paradoxes. 

2 thoughts on “Niccolò Machiavelli: The Florentine Philosopher and Diplomat Behind Political Realism in ‘The Prince’

  1. Véletlenül keveredtem ide Az eszmény keresése M-képéhez keresve ajánlható írásokat. E magyar nyelven írt blog a legelemibb kapcsolatban sincs az érettségizett diákok által használt helyénvaló nyelvvel és irodalommal. Felteszem, határon túli olvasókhoz szól. Ehhez képest azonban szakértőnek tünteti fel magát, holott nem vette magának a fáradságot a legelemibb hazai tájékozódáshoz.

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