niccolo-machiavelli

Niccolò Machiavelli

Thinker

Why good politicians can’t always be loved

Intro

Niccolò Machiavelli, an Italian Renaissance figure and statesman, is considered by many the father of modern political philosophy. Machiavelli’s legacy is immense, extending far beyond the realm of philosophy – so much so, the adjective ‘Machiavellian’ and its translations are used around the world to describe particularly cunning or devious ideas. Machiavelli is best remembered for his ideas about political leadership and state behaviour. The most powerful above all others, and most likely to endure, is his career-defining book The Prince, which was published posthumously in 1513. It offers a cynical and atheist view of politics, which sets it apart from earlier political commentary because it considers the world as it actually exists, rather than as it should. In contemporary philosophy, we often discuss ideal versus non-ideal theories of political action and we can think of behavioral science as taking a non-ideal approach to the study of human behavior. For this reason, Machiavelli is an important figure who brought the study of politics closer to a realistic understanding of the way individuals think and act.

 

Men are so simple of mind, and so much dominated by their immediate needs, that a deceitful man will always find plenty who are ready to be deceived.

– Machiavelli in his book, The Prince

Subscribe to get notified when a new podcast episode is out

Reality Versus Utopia

Machiavelli sets himself apart from his contemporaries with a far more realistic perspective when it came to politics, and specifically the behavior of politicians. He argued that political decisions should be based on ‘what is’ as opposed to what ‘should’ or ‘could’ be.1This was incredibly novel in political philosophy, as previous thinkers had generally philosophized about ideal scenarios, and how leaders should behave to bring states more in line with utopian values of democracy, equality, and prosperity. Machiavelli understood that politics and government generally operate in less-than-ideal situations, driven by things like conflict, scarcity of resources and external threats to the state. Decisions should therefore be considered in the context of the given political reality. This is felt deeply in modern-day political analysis. Machiavelli argued that since politicians can’t realistically expect to be both feared and loved, it is ‘safer’ to be feared because the dread of punishment is more resilient than the obligation of love.2


“It is much safer to be feared than loved because …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.”

– Machiavelli in his book, The Prince

Machiavelli’s realism carved an important path for thinkers and theories alike. Political realists like Thomas Hobbes and John Locke based their ideas on the corruptibility of man, and some modern political ideas, like checks and balances on executive power, trace back to his analysis of the deviousness of those in power.


“Let no man, therefore, lose heart from thinking that he cannot do what others have done before him; for, as I said in my Preface, men are born, and live, and die, always in accordance with the same rules.”

– Machiavelli in his book, Discourses on the First Decade of Titus Livius

Deception and Virtue

Machiavelli argued that although man was capable of doing good, he only did so when it suited his best interests. The theme of deception and virtue is discussed at length in almost all of his publications – with some of his most memorable quotes stemming from this idea. “Everyone sees what you appear to be, few experience what you really are” is one such example. His most famous book, The Prince 4, explores deception and virtue in a political context. Machiavelli maintains that a powerful, cunning, and sometimes cruel leader is exactly what Italian’s needed to help them recover from the aftermath of the Italian Wars, a series of Renaissance battles fought between the great powers of Europe. It’s important to note that Machivelli didn’t hold the view that a Prince should always be deceitful and cunning; he just believed that leaders shouldn’t be afraid to resort to unsavoury tactics if they thought them necessary. This was especially true when it came to public perception and communication, and Machiavelli once remarked to his friend and diplomat Raffaello Girlami: “Occasionally words must serve to veil the facts. But let this happen in such a way that none become aware of it; or, if it should be noticed, excuses must be at hand to be produced immediately”.5


“Occasionally words must serve to veil the facts. But let this happen in such a way that none become aware of it; or, if it should be noticed, excuses must be at hand to be produced immediately.”

– Machiavelli to diplomat Raffaello Girlami

Machiavelli also urged leaders to be aware of the deceit of others, especially those within their inner circle. He believed flattery could disarm a great man, and warned of the duplicity of so-called loyal political advisors and allies. His acceptance of the reality of deception in politics had a lasting influence on political thought, and we can detect clear Machiavellian tones in modern political satire 6 – for example, in the work of George Orwell.


“The prince who would accomplish great things must have learned how to deceive.”

– Machiavelli in his book, Discourses II

 

Biography

Niccolò Machiavelli was born on May 3, 1469 in Florence, Italy. The Machiavellis were a prominent and wealthy Florentian family, although Niccolo’s father Bernando was somewhat of an outcast, having been barred from public office due to his debts which left him insolvent. Little is known of Machiavelli’s early life, other than the likelihood of him receiving a high standard of education due to his ability to read and speak both Latin and Greek, and his rise to the position as head of Florence’s ‘second chancery’ by age 29, putting him in charge of the city’s foreign and diplomatic affairs.1

At the helm of the second chancery, Machiavelli persuaded the Chief Magistrate of Florence, Piero Soderini, to reduce the city’s reliance on mercenaries by creating a militia, which Machiavelli organized himself. He led several diplomatic missions, including to Pisa, the Court of France, the Holy Roman Empire, and to visit the Pope’s son Cesare Borgia – the Renaissance general upon whom Machiavelli would later base his ideal leader, in ‘The Prince.’4


“It is not titles that honour men, but men that honour titles.”

– Machiavelli in his book, The Prince

The Florentine Republic was overthrown in 1512 and the Medici family who had previously ruled Florence for much of the 15th century returned to the city. Due to his links to the Republic, Machiavelli was imprisoned and forced into exile at his father’s small property just south of Florence. It was here that he wrote his two major books, The Prince and Discourses on Livy, although both were published posthumously.


“Love peace, but know how to wage war.”

Machiavelli in his book, The Art of War: I

The Prince, by far Machiavelli’s best known work, was both a guide on how to maintain a prosperous and secure state, as well as an attempt by the author to redeem himself in the eyes of Lorenzo de Medici, the ruler of Florence. Machiavelli argued that at the centre of a strong state was an unwavering leader, or ‘Prince’, who should be attentive to the political realities they face. Believing that the end would always justify the means, Machiavelli didn’t think the Prince should concern himself with being virtuous, or loved by his subjects. He should be cunning and deceitful when required, and not fall victim to the flattery and duplicity of dangerous people in his inner circle. On the other hand, Discourses on Livy is presented as a series of practical lessons on the establishment and the structuring of successful republics. It speaks more of the advantages of the republic system, although still very much in the context of imperialism, and Machiavelli’s idea of a republic would not align much with our modern view of republicanism.


“He who wishes to be obeyed must know how to command”

– Machiavelli in his book, The Prince

Machiavelli was eventually re-accepted into Florentian life, although he did not directly participate in politics under the Medicis, despite desperately wanting to. ‘The Prince’ was actually dedicated to the Medici prince, but it failed to get Machiavelli the recognition he hoped for. He did get involved in various intellectual groups, and wrote several plays that were, quite ironically, well-received by people during his lifetime. His political theories, by contrast, didn’t reach prominence until well after his death in 1527.7 In fact, much of his political writings were banned by the Catholic Church later in the 16th century, due to the inclusion of supposedly immoral lessons and some outright attacks on the church itself. Nonetheless, Machievelli’s legacy became apparent in the Age of Enlightenment, when philosophers like Francis Bacon (the father of Empiricism) and Jean-Jacques Rousseau praised his ‘boldness’ and ability to root republican principles in actual fact, as opposed to moral imperatives. In later years and indeed centuries, appreciation for Machiavelli’s work would establish him as a key figure in the history of political thought.


“Never attempt to win by force, what can be won by deception.”

– Machiavelli in his book, The Prince

Other Resources

Books

  • Boucheron, P. (2020). Machiavelli: The art of teaching people what to fear. Other Press (NY).
  • Strauss, L. (2014). Thoughts on Machiavelli. University of Chicago Press.
  • Bing, S. (2009). What Would Machiavelli Do?: The Ends Justify the Meanness. Harper Collins.

Articles

Lectures

References

  1. Encyclopedia Britannica (2021). Niccolò Machiavelli – The Art of War and other writings. Retrieved 21 February 2021, from https://www.britannica.com/biography/Niccolo-Machiavelli/The-Art-of-War-and-other-writings#ref242864
  2. Dahm, P. C., & Greenbaum, B. E. (2019). Leadership through love and fear: an effective combination. Journal of Managerial Psychology.
  3. Berlin, I. (1971). “The Originality of Machiavelli.” In H. Hardy and R. Hausheer (Eds.), Isaiah Berlin: The Proper Study of Mankind. (pp. 269-326) (London: Chatto and Windus. 1999. pp. 269-326)
  4. Machiavelli, N. (1995). The Prince [1513]. The Prince and other Political Writings, ed. S. Milner.
  5. Goodreads. (2021). A quote by Niccolò Machiavelli. Retrieved 21 February 2021, from https://www.goodreads.com/quotes/526708-occasionally-words-must-serve-to-veil-the-facts-but-let
  6. Yale Insights. (2021). What can you learn from Machiavelli?. Retrieved 21 February 2021, from https://insights.som.yale.edu/insights/what-can-you-learn-machiavelli#gref
  7. di Carlo, A. (2020). Why Machiavelli still matters today. Retrieved 21 February 2021, from https://www.rte.ie/brainstorm/2020/0113/1106131-why-machiavelli-still-matters-today/
  8. Goodreads.com (2021). Niccolò Machiavelli. Retrieved 21 February 2021, from https://www.goodreads.com/author/show/16201.Niccol_Machiavelli

Read Next