Who Was Niccolò Machiavelli?
[This article is excerpted from An Austrian Perspective on the History of Economic Thought, vol. 1, Economic Thought Before Adam Smith. An audio version of this Mises Daily, read by Jeff Riggenbach, is available as a free download.]
The Italian humanists had propounded the doctrine of absolute political rule, first by republican oligarchs and next by the glorified despot, the monarch or prince. But one crucial point remained to free the ruler of all moral shackles and to allow and even glorify the unchecked and untrammeled rule of royal whim. For while the humanists would hear of no institutional check on state rule, one critical stumbling block still remained: Christian virtue. The ruler, the humanists all admonished, must be Christian, must cleave always to justice, and must be honest and honorable.
What was needed, then, to complete the development of absolutist theory, was a theoretician to fearlessly break the ethical chains that still bound the ruler to the claims of moral principle. That man was the Florentine bureaucrat Niccolò Machiavelli (1469–1527), in one of the most influential works of political philosophy ever written, The Prince.
Niccolò Machiavelli was born in Florence, to a moderately well-off Tuscan noble family. His personal preference was clearly for the old oligarchic republic rather than for the signori, and in 1494, when the republicans kicked the Medicis out of Florence, young Niccolò entered the city bureaucracy. Rising rapidly in the government, Machiavelli became secretary of the Council of Ten, which managed the foreign policy and the wars of Florence. He held this important post until the Medicis reconquered Florence in 1512, serving in a series of diplomatic and military missions.
Machiavelli was nothing if not "flexible," and this philosopher extraordinaire of opportunism greeted the return of the hated Medicis by attempting to ingratiate himself in their eyes. During the year 1513 he wrote The Prince, superficially yet another in the traditional series of advice-books and panegyrics to princes. Hoping to induce the Medicis to read it so that he might be restored to a top bureaucratic post, Machiavelli had the lack of shame needed to dedicate the book "to the magnificent Lorenzo de Medici."
The Medicis, however, did not take the bait, and the only thing left for Machiavelli was to embark on a literary career, and to drift back into republican conspiracies. Machiavelli took part in conspiratorial republican meetings at the Oricellari Gardens on the outskirts of Florence, owned by the aristocrat Cosimo Rucellai. It was at the Oricellari Gardens that Machiavelli discussed the drafts of his second most important book, the Discourses on the First Ten Books of Titus Livy, written from 1514 to 1519.
Niccolò Machiavelli was reviled throughout Europe during the 16th century and on into the next two centuries. He was considered to be someone unique in the history of the West, a conscious preacher of evil, a diabolic figure who had unleashed the demons in the world of politics. The English used his given name as a synonym for the Devil, "Old Nick." As Macaulay put it, "Out of his surname they have coined an epithet for a knave, and out of his Christian name a synonym for the Devil."
In modern times, Machiavelli's reputation as a preacher of evil has been replaced by the admiration of political scientists as the founder of their discipline. For Machiavelli had cast off outdated moralism to look at power coolly and hardheadedly. A tough-minded realist, he was the pioneer developer of modern, positive, value-free political science. As the mercantilist, power-oriented founder of modern "scientific" method, Sir Francis Bacon, was to write early in the 17th century: "We are much beholden to Machiavel and others, that write what men do, and not what they ought to do."
Well, which was Machiavelli, a teacher of evil or a value-free political scientist? Let us see. At first glance, The Prince was very much like other mirror-of-princes advice-books of the late 15th-century humanists. The prince was supposed to seek virtú, or excellence, and was supposed to pursue honor, glory, and fame in the development of such excellence. But within this traditional form, Machiavelli wrought a radical and drastic transformation, creating in this way a new paradigm for political theory. For what Machiavelli did was to redefine the critical concept of virtú. For the humanists, as for Christians and classical theorists alike, virtú, excellence, was the fulfillment of the traditional classical and Christian virtues: honesty, justice, benevolence, etc. For Old Nick, on the contrary, virtú in the ruler or prince — and for the late humanists, after all, it was only the prince who counted — was, simply and terribly, as Professor Skinner puts it, "any quality that helps a prince 'to keep his state.' In short, the overriding, if not the only, goal for the prince was to maintain and extend his power, his rule over the state. Keeping and expanding his power is the prince's goal, his virtue, and therefore any means necessary to achieve that goal becomes justified.
In his illuminating discussion of Machiavelli, Professor Skinner tries to defend him against the charge of being a "preacher of evil." Machiavelli did not praise evil per se, Skinner tells us; indeed, other things being equal, he probably preferred the orthodox Christian virtues. It is simply that when those virtues became inconvenient, that is, when they ran up against the overriding goal of keeping state power, the Christian virtues had to be set aside.
The more naive humanists also favored the prince's keeping his state and achieving greatness and glory. They believed, however, that this could only be done by always maintaining and cleaving to the Christian virtues. In contrast, Machiavelli realized that cleaving to justice, honesty, and other Christian virtues might sometimes, or even most of the time, conflict with the goal of maintaining and expanding state power. For Machiavelli, orthodox virtues would then have to go by the board. Skinner sums up Machiavelli as follows:
Machiavelli's final sense of what it is to be a man of virtú and his final words of advice to the prince, can thus be summarized by saying that he tells the prince to ensure above all that he becomes a man of "flexible disposition": he must be capable of varying his conduct from good to evil and back again "as fortune and circumstances dictate."
Professor Skinner, however, has a curious view of what "preaching evil" might really be. Who in the history of the world, after all, and outside a Dr Fu Manchu novel, has actually lauded evil per se and counseled evil and vice at every step of life's way? Preaching evil is to counsel precisely as Machiavelli has done: be good so long as goodness doesn't get in the way of something you want, in the case of the ruler that something being the maintenance and expansion of power. What else but such "flexibility" can the preaching of evil be all about?
Following straightaway from power as the overriding goal, and from his realism about power and standard morality being often in conflict, is Machiavelli's famous defense of deception and mendacity on the part of the prince. For then the prince is advised always to appear to be moral and virtuous in the Christian manner, since that enhances his popularity — but to practice the opposite if necessary to maintain power. Thus Machiavelli stressed the value of appearances, of what Christians and other moralists call "hypocrisy."
The prince, he writes, must be willing to become "a great liar and deceiver," taking advantage of all the credulous: for "men are so simple" that "the deceiver will always find someone ready to be deceived." Or, in the immortal words of P.T. Barnum centuries later, "There's a sucker born every minute." And again, in praising fraud and deceit, Machiavelli writes that "contemporary experience shows that princes who have achieved great things have been those who have given their word lightly, who have known how to trick men with their cunning, and who, in the end, have overcome those abiding by honest principles." Or, in the words of another astute American social critic: "nice guys finish last."
There is, of course, an inner contradiction in a preacher of deceit candidly(!) broadcasting such views to one and all. For, as rulers begin to adopt a "pragmatic" philosophy which is their natural inclination in any case, the deluded public may begin to awaken to the true state of affairs ("the suckers may wise up"), and then continuing deceit by the ruling class might well prove counterproductive. The "great liars and deceivers" might no longer find so many subjects so "ready to be deceived."
Niccolò Machiavelli, therefore, was unquestionably a new phenomenon in the western world: a conscious preacher of evil to the ruling class. What of his alleged contributions in founding a hard-nosed, realistic, value-free political science?
First, one of his main contributions has been claimed to be the overwhelming use of power, of force and violence, by the rulers of state. Machiavelli was scarcely the first political philosopher who understood that force and violence are at the heart of state power. Previous theorists, however, were anxious to have that power curbed by ancient or Christian virtues. But there is a certain refreshing realism in Machiavelli's total casting off the cloak of virtue in politics and in his seeing the state plainly as unadorned brutal force in the service of sheer power.
There is a profound sense, too, in which Machiavelli was the founder of modern political science. For the modern "policy scientist" — political scientist, economist, sociologist, or whatever — is a person who has put himself quite comfortably in the role of adviser to the prince or, more broadly, to the ruling class. As a pure technician, then, this counselor realistically advises the ruling class on how to achieve their goals, which, as Machiavelli sees, boils down to achieving greatness and glory by maintaining and expanding their power. The modern policy scientists eschew moral principles as being "unscientific" and therefore outside their sphere of interest.
In all this, modern social science is a faithful follower of the wily Florentine opportunist. But in one important sense the two differ. For Niccolò Machiavelli never had the presumption — or the cunning — to claim to be a true scientist because he is "value-free." There is no pretend value-freedom in Old Nick. He has simply replaced the goals of Christian virtue by another contrasting set of moral principles: that of maintaining and expanding the power of the prince. As Skinner writes:
it is often claimed that the originality of Machiavelli's argument… lies in the fact that he divorces politics from morality, and in consequence emphasises the "autonomy of politics."…[but] the difference between Machiavelli and his contemporaries cannot adequately be characterized as a difference between a moral view of politics and a view of politics as divorced from morality. The essential contrast is rather between two different moralities — two rival and incompatible accounts of what ought ultimately to be done.
Modern social scientists, in contrast, pride themselves on being realistic and value-free. But in this, ironically, they are far less realistic or perhaps less candid than their Florentine mentor. For, as Machiavelli knew full well, in taking on their role of adviser to the rulers of state, the "value-free scientist" is willy-nilly, committing himself to the end, and therefore to the overriding morality, of strengthening the power of those rulers. In advocating public policy, if nowhere else, value-freedom is a snare and a delusion; Old Nick was either too honest or too much of a realist even to consider thinking otherwise.
Niccolò Machiavelli, therefore, was both the founder of modern political science and a notable preacher of evil. In casting out Christian or natural-law morality, however, he did not presume to claim to be "value-free" as do his modern followers; he knew full well that he was advocating the new morality of subordinating all other considerations to power and to the reasons of state. Machiavelli was the philosopher and apologist par excellence for the untrammeled, unchecked power of the absolute state.
Some historians like to contrast the "bad" Machiavelli of The Prince with the "good" Machiavelli of his later though less influential Discourses. Failing to convince the Medicis of his change of heart, Machiavelli reverted, in the Discourses, to his republican leanings. But the Old Nick of the Discourses is in no sense transformed by goodness; he is simply adapting his doctrine to a republican as against a monarchical polity.
Obviously, as a republican Machiavelli can no longer stress the virtú and the greatness of the prince, and so he shifts ground to a kind of collective virtú by the community as a whole. Except that in the case of the community, of course, virtú can no longer be doing great deeds and maintaining one man's power. It now becomes acting always in the "public good" or the "common good," and always subordinating an individual's or a group's private, "selfish" interests to an alleged greater good.
In contrast, Machiavelli condemns the pursuit of private interest as "corruption." In short, Machiavelli is still holding the maintenance and expansion of state power to be the highest good, except that now the state is oligarchic and republican. What he is really preaching is similar to the creed of earlier republican humanists: each individual and group subordinates itself and obeys without question the decrees of the oligarchic ruling class of the republican city-state.
Niccolò Machiavelli is the same preacher of evil in the Discourses as he had been in The Prince. One of the first atheist writers, Machiavelli's attitude toward religion in the Discourses is typically cynical and manipulative. Religion is helpful, he opined, in keeping subjects united and obedient to the state, and thus "those princes and those Republics which desire to remain free from corruption should above all else maintain incorrupt the ceremonies of their religion." Religion could also make a positive contribution if it glorified strength and other warlike qualities, but unfortunately Christianity has sapped men's strength by preaching humility and contemplation. In a tirade anticipating Nietzsche, Machiavelli charged that Christian morality has "glorified humble and contemplative men" and that this peaceful spirit has led to existing corruption.
Machiavelli thundered that citizens can only achieve virtú if their highest goal is maintaining and expanding the state, and that therefore they must subordinate Christian ethics to that end. Specifically, they must be prepared to abandon the restraints of Christian ethics and be willing "to enter on the path of wrongdoing" in order to maintain the state. The state must always take precedence. Therefore, any attempt to judge politics or government on a scale of Christian ethics must be abandoned. As Machiavelli puts it with crystal clarity and great solemnity at the end of his final Discourse, "when the safety of one's country depends upon the decision to be taken, no considerations of justice or injustice, humanity or cruelty, nor of glory or shame, should be allowed to prevail."
Machiavelli's views, and the essential unity with his outlook in The Prince, are shown in his discussion in The Discourses of Romulus, the legendary founder of the city of Rome. The fact that Romulus murdered his brother and others is justified by Machiavelli's view that only one man should impose the founding constitution of a republic. Machiavelli's wily conflation of the "public good" with the private interests of the ruler is shown in the following mendacious passage:
"A sagacious legislator of a republic, therefore, whose object is to promote the public good, and not his private interests [sic] … should concentrate all authority in himself." In such concentration, the end of establishing the state excuses any necessary means: "a wise mind will never censure any one for taking any action, however extraordinary, which may be of service in the organizing of a kingdom or the constituting of a republic." Machiavelli concludes with what he calls the "sound maxim" that "reprehensible actions may be excused by their effects, and that when the effect is good, as it was in the case of Romulus, it always excuses the action."
Throughout the Discourses, Machiavelli preaches the virtue of deceit for the ruler. He insists, also, in contrast to previous humanists, that it is better for a ruler to be feared than to be loved, and that punishment is far better than clemency in dealing with his subjects. Furthermore, when a ruler finds that a whole city is rebelling against his rule, by far the best course of action is to "wipe them out" altogether.
Thus, Professor Skinner is perceptive and correct when he concludes, in re The Prince and the Discourses, that
the underlying political morality of the two books is thus the same. The only change in Machiavelli's basic stance arises out of the changing focus of his political advice. Whereas he was mainly concerned in The Prince with shaping the conduct of individual princes, he is more concerned in the Discourses with offering his counsel to the whole body of the citizens. The assumptions underlying his advice, however, remain the same as before.
Machiavelli is still at one and the same time a preacher of evil and a founder of modern political and policy science.
 Editor's Note: Aristocrats.
 Quentin Skinner, The Foundations of Modern Political Thought: Vol. I, The Renaissance (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1978), p. 138n.
 Ibid., p. 138.
 Ibid., pp. 134–5.