Perspectives on “The Prince”

A statue of Niccolò Machiavelli found in the arcade of Florence’s Uffizi Museum.

The term “Machiavellian” has become a sort of boogeyman in the realm of modern politics and philosophy. Merriam-Webster describes Machiavellian politics as “marked by cunning, duplicity, or bad faith.” Dr. Jordan B. Peterson has taken to throwing the term around at any group he personally dislikes. A great example is when he suggested, in full seriousness, that “those who habitually use “dude” and “bro” are the derisive, narcissistic Machiavellian, sadistic trolls.” He has also been known to call anonymous users “Machiavellian.” What exactly does “Machiavellian” mean in these sentences? Nothing less than “bad” or “evil.” It is not too different where politics is concerned. In the context of liberal democratic politics, those who subvert the law, scheme, or partake in corrupt actions to gain or keep power are often called Machiavellian. There are even those who apply Machiavelli’s Prince to the world of business. In this case, “Machiavellian” refers to a mindset, a psychology, or a type of person which is marked by coldness, narcissism, and even psychopathy. Machiavelli has even been co-opted for self-help style books.

With all these stances on Machiavelli, the actual works and person of Machiavelli can become totally meaningless. He and his thoughts have essentially been stripped of all historical and political context, and the primary message of The Prince has become lost in a slew of later interpretations and projections.

Here, I will set out to explain the actual message of The Prince and provide clarity on the person and thought of Machiavelli. I am using the Harvey Mansfield translation, second edition.

The Prince is, more than anything, a handbook for rulers. It is neither a self-help book nor advice to corporate CEO’s. It is chiefly statecraft, in a very technical sense.

Machiavelli informs us in the Dedicatory Letter that The Prince is a compilation of his knowledge gained from “long experience with modern things, and a continuous reading of ancient ones.” It is a book meant to “give rules for the governments of princes.” This is necessary to keep in mind because it indicates that this is not primarily a work of philosophy per se (though it implicitly contains a philosophical outlook). It is a guide for a prince, for his real actions and real policies, in real life. The fact it was given to a real prince, Lorenzo de’ Medici, clearly suggests that Machiavelli had sovereigns in mind as his primary audience. But what is the purpose or philosophy of his writing? Sure, it’s a handbook for rulers, but to what end?

 One theory about the meaning of the Prince—that of Maurizio Viroli—posits, “Rather than a bible of unscrupulous politics, The Prince…is actually about political redemption―a book motivated by Machiavelli’s patriotic desire to see a new founding for Italy.” According to this theory, The Prince was, “Written in the form of an oration, following the rules of classical rhetoric, the book condens[ing] its main message in the final section, ‘Exhortation to liberate Italy from the Barbarians.’ There Machiavelli creates the myth of a redeemer, an ideal ruler who ushers in an era of peace, freedom, and unity” (The above quotes are taken from the Amazon description of Viroli’s book Redeeming The Prince: The Meaning of Machiavelli’s Masterpiece). According to this view, restoring Italy to its former glory is what primarily concerns Machiavelli and prompts him to write The Prince.

Carl Schmiit, in Dictatorship, attacks the view of Albericus Gentilis, Spinoza, and Rousseau, and Montesquieu, stating that their attempts to “explain away” The Prince’s “immoralities and contradictions” by painting the book as a “hidden attack against tyranny” are deficient. He also says that these immoralities and contradictions cannot be explained away by “understanding them as the suggestions of a desperate nationalist” which we just saw above. He also says, “Nor can they be explained through discourses about the interest of power and pragmatic utility, which puts egoism above morality.” Instead, according to Schmitt, “a purely technical interest was dominant…Even Machiavelli loved to preoccupy himself with technical problems such as military and strategic ones. This is evident in the passages where he discusses diplomatic and political issues: for example, how one can be successful, or how one ‘does’ certain things.” Instead, for Schmitt, passages like Chapter 8 (where Machiavelli discusses foreign auxillaries) are where “Machiavelli shows his true colors—that is, his hatred and dismissal of the dilettante, that inept character in political life who does things half-heartedly, with half-baked cruelty and half-baked virtue.” Schmitt also believes that Machiavelli could be described as having “anthropological pessimism” in as much as he “reiterates [in The Prince] that human beings are by nature evil: beasts, a mob.” And, “if people are irrational, then one cannot negotiate with them or forge contracts; rather they must be mastered through cunning or violence.” Therefore, in The Prince, “neither the moral nor the juridical justification [of the authority of the state] is examined, but rather the rational technique of political absolutism.” For Schmitt, Machiavelli was, above all, concerned primarily with the technicalities of how to rule. He was concerned with how an absolute sovereign in the modern state maintains power and ensures the security and good behavior of his subjects.

It is this understanding of Machiavelli which I find most persuasive. In addition to this perspective, I want to present my own analysis, particularly on the subject of “necessity.” Machiavelli is a man concerned with the technical aspects of governing well. But what happens when governing well requires less than virtuous actions? Is it even possible to govern well, or to govern at all, without immorality? St. Augustine would deny the possibility.

St. Augustine argued that earthly politics were inherently lacking in justice and goodness, and therefore always morally deficient. Consider, for instance, that he says in City of God Book II, Chapter 21, that “The fact is, true justice has no existence save in that republic whose founder and ruler is Christ, if at least any choose to call this a republic; and indeed we cannot deny that it is the people’s good.” Because true justice only exists in the Heavenly City, it must necessarily be the case that true justice is always lacking in the earthly city. And, as he says in Book IV, Chapter 4, “Justice being taken away, then, what are kingdoms but great robberies? For what are robberies themselves, but little kingdoms? The band itself is made up of men; it is ruled by the authority of a prince, it is knit together by the pact of the confederacy; the booty is divided by the law agreed on. If, by the admittance of abandoned men, this evil increases to such a degree that it holds places, fixes abodes, takes possession of cities, and subdues peoples, it assumes the more plainly the name of a kingdom, because the reality is now manifestly conferred on it, not by the removal of covetousness, but by the addition of impunity.” Now, one need not adhere to such a view of politics and of the State, but this should make clear that a tradition of viewing earthly politics as being incapable of true justice existed, and that un-idealistic politics was not a total novelty.

In The Prince, Machiavelli aims to inform Lorenzo how to be a good ruler; in this case though, “good” does not necessarily mean moral or upright. Instead, it means effective. Ruling a State effectively may require actions that are typically considered to be dishonest, cruel, or otherwise immoral. Simply consider some of history’s greatest political leaders. Were they perfectly moral men? I doubt there is a single instance of such a person. And what defines whether a leader is considered successful? Usually, it is based on whether they can properly maintain order, execute the law, protect the property and lives of their subjects from foreign and domestic threats, enact profitable economic policies, win victories during wartime, and ensure their country’s success when it comes to diplomatic affairs.

All these are clear signs of a leader’s success, but it is no simple task. The fact of the matter is that leaders are often faced with very difficult decisions, formidable enemies, internal strife, economic struggles, and threats to the state from all sides. Machiavelli’s main thesis, in my view, is that a leader must do what is necessary for his and his people’s good, not necessarily what is right, though I think he is also implicitly asserting that what is necessary is what is right, at least where politics is concerned. He is, at the very least, laying the groundwork for a sovereign to make immoral decisions so long as it serves the interests of the State. This is most clearly illustrated in Chapter 15, wherein he says, “it is so far from how one lives to how one should live that he who lets go of what is done for what should be done learns his ruin rather than his preservation. For a man who wants to make a profession of good in all regards must come to ruin among so many who are not good. Hence it is necessary to a prince, if he wants to maintain himself, to learn to be able not to be good, and to use this and not use it according to necessity.”

Reality is often disappointing, and the realm of politics is no different. The fact of the matter is that there are evil, vile, malicious people out there, many of whom want to bring destruction to the prince and his subjects. If one is totally honest, totally transparent, totally benevolent, totally merciful, and totally “good”, then the truly evil, vile, and malicious people will totally dominate. This calls back to Thrasymachus in Book I of The Republic, where his position reaches its climax in the claim that injustice is in the best interest of men and rulers. I must give the second half of this paragraph:

“Observe also what happens when they take an office; there is the just man neglecting his affairs and perhaps suffering other losses, and getting nothing out of the public, because he is just; moreover he is hated by his friends and acquaintance for refusing to serve them in unlawful ways. But all this is reversed in the case of the unjust man. I am speaking, as before, of injustice on a large scale in which the advantage of the unjust is most apparent; and my meaning will be most clearly seen if we turn to that highest form of injustice in which the criminal is the happiest of men, and the sufferers or those who refuse to do injustice are the most miserable—that is to say tyranny, which by fraud and force takes away the property of others, not little by little but wholesale; comprehending in one, things sacred as well as profane, private and public; for which acts of wrong, if he were detected perpetrating any one of them singly, he would be punished and incur great disgrace—they who do such wrong in particular cases are called robbers of temples, and man-stealers and burglars and swindlers and thieves. But when a man besides taking away the money of the citizens has made slaves of them, then, instead of these names of reproach, he is termed happy and blessed, not only by the citizens but by all who hear of his having achieved the consummation of injustice. For mankind censure injustice, fearing that they may be the victims of it and not because they shrink from committing it. And thus, as I have shown, Socrates, injustice, when on a sufficient scale, has more strength and freedom and mastery than justice; and, as I said at first, justice is the interest of the stronger, whereas injustice is a man’s own profit and interest.”

Now, to be clear, I am not suggesting that Machiavelli wholesale agrees with this position. However, we can see why being “just” 100% of the time may pose a risk to a ruler and his state. The unjust man always lurks nearby, wishing to establish a tyranny and “by fraud and force [take] away the property of others.” The tyrant would have the populace enslaved and direct the state wholly to his own personal interests. Though Plato points out the flaws of such a mindset, it is undeniable that such people really do exist and have existed throughout history, constantly threatening the just. And since the unjust man is willing to do anything and everything to establish his tyranny, the just man, from a Machiavellian point of view, may necessarily have to commit injustice or partake in immorality in order to guard against the thoroughly unjust man. Injustice is also not limited to matters of foreign affairs or domestic insurrection. Criminals, thieves, schemers, and all the rest are a constant threat in any State and have the potential to ruin a prince and his kingdom. If a prince is only concerned with doing good, he will inevitably be destroyed by those who have no moral boundaries.

Because of this, the prince himself must learn, as Machiavelli says in Chapter 15, “to be able not to be good, and to use this and not use it according to necessity.” The prince must concern himself not with the “imagination” of truth but with “effectual truth.” The effectual truth is that a prince will come to ruin if he attempts to “make a profession of good in all regards.”

However, reading The Prince carefully, one must understand that Machiavelli is as much a proponent of prudence as he is immorality. In no way does Machiavelli insist that the sovereign must simply forsake virtue, justice, and what is good altogether, or commit great evils with impunity. Rather, he advises that a prince must learn to assess situations and determine whether being good would benefit him or compromise his power altogether. Again, in Chapter 15, he says, after listing a number of good qualities in a person, that “I know that everyone will confess that it would be a very praiseworthy thing to find in a prince all of the above-mentioned qualities that are held good. But because he cannot have them, nor wholly possess them, since human conditions do not permit it, it is necessary for him to be so prudent as to know how to avoid the infamy of those vices that would take his state from him and to be on guard against those that do not, if that is possible.”

This is an especially fascinating passage, and to me seems to follow in the tradition of St. Augustine, since Machiavelli asserts that the human condition makes it impossible for a prince to be wholly good.

With that being said, in no way does Machiavelli insist a Prince must be wholly immoral, cold, tyrannical, or even unvirtuous. Sometimes Machiavelli even seems to suggest that a prince would actually prefer to be defeated because it would be a more virtuous thing. See Chapter 13, where he says, “A wise prince, therefore, has always avoided [auxillaries] and turned to his own. He has preferred to lose with his own than to win with others, since he judges it no true victory that is acquired with alien arms.” What can this mean, other than that maybe there is something higher than just keeping power and winning victories (i.e., the nation and loyalty to one’s own people). He also says that a leader ought to emulate other leaders, and cites Scipio’s imitation of Cyrus in Chapter 14, saying that the prince will “recognize…how much glory that imitation brought him, how much in chastity, affability, humanity, and liberality Scipio conformed to what had been written of Cyrus by Xenophon.”

Chastity, affability, humanity, and liberality? These are all hailed by Machiavelli! No doubt they are, to him, gainful to the prince, but it cannot be said that Machiavelli’s praise of these constitutes any endorsement of tyranny or evil conduct. Even more, consider what he says in Chapter 23. He says a prince should be “a very broad questioner, and then, in regard to the things he asked about, a patient listener to the truth; indeed, he should become upset when he learns that anyone has any hesitation to speak it to him.” Truth? Listening? Patience? What tyrant loves these? Consider also Chapter 21, on what a prince ought to do to be esteemed. He says, “A prince should also show himself to be a lover of the virtues, giving recognition to virtuous men, and he should honor those who are excellent in an art. Next, he should inspire his citizens to follow their pursuits quietly…so that one person does not fear to adorn his possessions for fear that they be taken away from him…he should take account of [guilds and clans], meet with them sometimes, and make himself an example of humanity and munificence…” Again, no tyrant has ever been known for loving the virtues, encouraging virtue in the populace, and creating an environment where citizens do not fear doing well.

A final nail in the coffin for those who would claim that Machiavelli’s Prince calls for a cruel or tyrannical leader is found in Chapter 8. He says, in his discussion on the maintenance of the state successfully through cruelty, that, “I believe that this comes from cruelties badly used or well used. Those can be called well used (if it is permissible to speak well of evil) that are done at a stroke, out of the necessity to secure oneself, and then are not persisted in but are turned to as much utility for the subjects as one can. Those cruelties are badly used which, though few in the beginning, rather grow with time than are eliminated. Those who observe the first mode can have some remedy for their state with God and with men, as had Agathocles; as for the others it is impossible for them to maintain themselves.”

This passage betrays the true reason why Machiavelli writes what he does. He believes that cruel and otherwise immoral actions are ultimately used to secure the prince and that it is also for the greater well-being of the subjects at the end of the day.

Now, Machiavelli certainly does not believe the prince needs to be a good person to be a good ruler. The prince does not need to be a bad person either. The prince simply needs to be capable of being bad. He says as much in Chapter 18, where he discusses “faith” which in this case means honesty or faithfulness to a promise. He says that a ruler needs to “know that there are two kinds of combat: one with laws, the other with force. The first is proper to man, the second to beasts; but because the first is often not enough, one must have recourse to the second. Therefore it is necessary for a prince to know well how to use the beast and the man.” The beast and the man. The brute and the sophisticate. Force and intellect. He suggests that the prince ought to “pick the fox and the lion” as his beasts. In other words, strength and cunning. The lion is frightening, powerful, large, and dominant. The fox is sly, dishonest, and maneuverable. This is similar to how Christ commanded the Apostles to “be ye therefore wise as serpents, and harmless as doves.”

Later in the chapter, Machiavelli says:

“It is not necessary for a prince to have all the above-mentioned qualities in fact, but it is indeed necessary to appear to have them. Nay, I dare say this, that by having them and always observing them, they are harmful; and by appearing to have them, they are useful, as it is to appear merciful, faithful, humane, honest, and religious, and to be so; but to remain with a spirit built so that, if you need not to be those things, you are able and know how to change to the contrary. This has to be understood; that a prince, and especially a new prince, cannot observe all those things for which men are held good, since he is often under a necessity to maintain his state, of acting against faith, against charity, against humanity, against religion. And so he needs to have a spirit disposed to change as the winds of fortune and variation of things command him, and as I said above, not depart from good, when possible, but know how to enter into evil when forced by necessity. A prince should thus take great care that nothing escape his mouth that is not full of the above-mentioned five qualities and that…he should appear all mercy, all faith, all honesty, all humanity, all religion. And nothing is more necessary to appear to have than this last quality.”

This is a long quote but the whole is vital to grasping all The Prince. In fact, I believe this to be the most important passage of all. Machiavelli does not want cruel, evil princes. He does not support tyranny or oppression. What he supports is prudence, judgement, adaptability, and wisdom to know how to act and when. He supports a prince having the ability to understand when to use cruelty and how to use it for himself and his subjects effectively. He supports a prince knowing how to use or how to appear as having “the beasts” when it is necessary. He ultimately believes that all these are meant to serve the good of the prince and subsequently his subjects. He even says that to always practice the ways of the beast—force and deception— is harmful! Notice, Machiavelli says that it is useful to appear merciful, humane, honest, and religious, “and to be so.” And to be so. Not merely to appear, but to be. Now, he does not hesitate to point out how important appearances are, make no mistake about that. He fully believes appearances are most vital to a prince. After all, people see the image, not necessarily the truth. Ultimately though, Machiavelli teaches that the ability to be bad when necessary—and being bad is necessary because others will inevitably choose to be bad, whether you like it or not—is the key to being a prince. If you meet them with peace and justice and mercy, you will be utterly destroyed. Instead, you must meet them with the beasts, the lion and the fox. One need not be a beast all the time, or even a beast at all. One merely needs to know how to use the beasts, or at least how to appear as one when the need arises. This ability to discern and to be bad when necessity arises is, finally, chiefly meant to be ordered towards the good and safety of the nation, the prince, and the prince’s subjects. This is Machiavellian politics.

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