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Misunderstanding Machiavelli

In the course of my life I have engaged in two major discussions with people who have completely misunderstood Machiavelli, in both cases thinking that he argues for the acquisition of power for its own sake in politics. To be fair, one of these people was an idiot sandwich, who would go on to win the aus.politics Net Kook of the Year award, apparently revived just for their benefit. But the other, more recent, was far more disappointing. With a doctorate in the natural sciences and an interest in ensuring public policy was better informed by scientific knowledge, one cannot doubt the honour of their motives. But what was common between both was in astounding inability that they had completely misunderstood Machiavelli, misunderstood his book on the power-hungry, "The Prince", and misunderstood how social institutions are positive and normative. Misunderstandings, of course, are acceptable if one makes the effort to correct one's self. Our interpretations may be incorrect, or memories might be faulty. But also in common with the two encounters was their absolute refusal to admit error, even when direct, checkable, empirical evidence was provided. It is understandable that the idiot sandwich would do this. It is utterly tragic that the otherwise intelligent person would lack the humility to recognise when they have it wrong. In either case, the following is a few notes on how Machiavelli is misunderstood, and how honour can be restored to his name.

If one wants to reference "The Prince" itself, a multitude of editions are available online. Project Gutenberg has the Marriot edition, the first modern English translation. Wikisource offers the Hill Thomson translation. The Bennet translation is available on Early Modern texts, the Burd translation, with an introduction by Lord Acton via the Online Library of Liberty (Mises Institute), IULM University has the Parks translation, Monoskop has the Soares edition, in Italian, and there is the ever-useful Annotated Prince website.

Machiavelli Wasn't a Machiavellian

Niccolò Machiavelli was a diplomat and senior official in the Florentine Republic, and an author of comedies, songs, and poetry. His personal life and other writings, including his political writings, stand in stark contrast with his most famous work The Prince (Il Principe), which has come to denote rule by deceit, treachery, violence, and an indifference to moral reasoning, etc., leading to the term Machiavellian, a person who engages in such behaviour. In personality psychology, a Machiavellian is so bad that they are considered, along with narcissism and pychopathology, to be part of the "dark triad of personality". There is an even an online MachIV test (following Christie and Geis) available to help determine how Machiavellian you are.

But Machiavelli wasn't a Machiavellian. During his life, he taught, helped produce government documents, carried out diplomatic missions, helped prevent factional riots, and developed a citizen's militia. He certainly witnessed a great deal of the behaviour which he would be famous for, especially by Cesare Borgia and Pope Alexander VI, and was imprisoned and tortured by the Medici. But there is no evidence that Machiavelli ever attained any of his positions by deceit rather than competency, and there no evidence that he engaged in criminal or amoral deeds for political power. Rather, it seems that he was a loyal official of the Florentine Republic and did his best for a government that more democratic and enlightened with remarkably little corruption compared to its previous ruler, the religious fundamentalist, Girolamo Savonarola, or its contemporary neighbours.

The Prince isn't Universal

One of the most bizarre arguments that some people put forward (common to both my interlocutors) is that The Prince somehow represents universal political behaviour. In contemporary times one can find this as a byline to argue against political involvement, "all politicians are the same", which objectively is clearly not true. Not all politicians are the same, some are indeed corrupt, some are indeed paid shills for the corporate sponsors, some are chest-beating nationalists and sabre-rattlers, whilst others are genuinely interested in improving the life and welfare of their constituents and others. This is certainly clear to any who have actually been directly involved in politics; there is a great variation of behaviour, values, and objectives among those in politics.

Another important consideration is that The Prince does not represent the behaviour, observed or recommended, of all governments and political systems either. Indeed, it is incredible to even suggest this as it is written quite clearly that:

"I will leave out all discussion on republics, inasmuch as in another place I have written of them at length, and will address myself only to principalities. In doing so I will keep to the order indicated above, and discuss how such principalities are to be ruled and preserved."

"The Prince" does stand in rather stark contradiction to the careful views he espoused in "Discourses on Livy" ('Discorsi sopra la prima deca di Tito Livio') where he argues for the virtues of a balanced res publica over a tyrannical monarchy. Given that in the first chapter of "The Prince" Machiavelli says that there are only two types of government, Republics and Principalities, it is quite clear that "The Prince" is not designed for universal application. It is also curious that people overlook the fact that the book is dedicated to Lorenzo de' Medici, Duke of Urbino, as the recipient of his work. That is, the same Medici who had Machiavelli tortured. In what should be termed, using contemporary language, "the sickest burn in political theory", is often overlooked by those not particularly well-versed in reading in context.

It Is Normative as well as Descriptive

It is quite correct, as many have noted, that "The Prince" stands out as modern work of political theory, indeed some (e.g., Strauss, Thoughts on Machiavelli, 1958) identify Machiavelli as the originator of modern thought. But by "modern thought" what is meant is that Machiavelli wrote through a secular lens, removing theological considerations from the work and especially the emphasis on Fortune, favoured by the Church at the time. He most certainly does not, as has been argued (e.g., Kaplan, Political Theory: The Classic Texts and their Continuing Relevance, 2005), describe politics only in terms of what political rulers actually do, independent of moral considerations. Indeed, such a perspective would be impossible. Because politics is conducted by humans political systems embodied both matters of facts (resources, operational procedures) and normative considerations (practical reasoning, moral values). Rome had its moral reasoning, it was emblazoned on their standards, it was on their currency, it represented the benefits of a unified state; Senātus Populusque Rōmānus. Genghis Khan argued in the same manner, unifying a number of nomadic tribes. Whilst we may not always agree with the moral reasons of a governmental system, they always exist.

In "The Prince" this is evident by the dozens of "ought" statements that one finds. For example in chapter three: "the prince who holds a country differing in the above respects OUGHT to make himself the head and defender of his less powerful neighbours, and to weaken the more powerful amongst them, taking care that no foreigner as powerful as himself shall, by any accident, get a footing there" (emphasis mine). Further in the same chapter: "Therefore, if France could have attacked Naples with her own forces she ought to have done so; if she could not, then she OUGHT not to have divided it... " (again). In chapter seven:

"Only can he be blamed for the election of Julius the Second, in whom he made a bad choice, because, as is said, not being able to elect a Pope to his own mind, he could have hindered any other from being elected Pope; and he OUGHT never to have consented to the election of any cardinal whom he had injured or who had cause to fear him if they became pontiffs... The rest, in becoming Pope, had to fear him, Rouen and the Spaniards excepted; the latter from their relationship and obligations, the former from his influence, the kingdom of France having relations with him. Therefore, above everything, the duke OUGHT to have created a Spaniard Pope, and, failing him, he OUGHT to have consented to Rouen and not San Pietro ad Vincula."

And so on; there are almost a hundred examples of an opinion expressed of what ought to have happened as opposed to what did happen. The Prince is certainly an empirical text, describing matters of fact, of what actually happened. But it is also a normative text, noting what a Prince should do, if they are to maintain and extend their power through any means necessary.


It is, of course, always difficult to discern an author's intention in a text, and sometimes one must even seek to uncover their unconscious motivations. Why would Machiavelli write a text that was so in contrast with his own behaviour and that of his other writings? Was the book a work of an exposé, designed to illuminate the operations and motives of Princes? This was certainly the perspective of Jean-Jacques Rousseau (The Social Contract, 1762). More recently, Mattingly (Machiavelli's Prince: Political Science or Political Satire?, 1958) who notes also the use of the late medieval "mirror of the Princes" style, "a diabolical burlesque". Others have argued that the political advice in "The Prince" encourages such wicked behaviour that the book is actually a cunning trap, designed to provide the means for the Florentines to re-establish a republic (Deitz, Trapping the Prince: Machiavelli and the Politics of Deception", 1986).

There are some who advocate that The Prince should be read as writ as a sincere secular piece of Realpolitik; and that much is certainly true. But if one does so, one must also take into account the fact that it is explicitly for Principalities and not for Republics, and that the behaviour for the two types of political systems should differ - and given the writing between the two it should be pretty clear which one a person who want to live in. The second president of the United States, John Adams (A Defence of the Constitutions of Government of the United States of America, 1787), certainly gave their opinion on how "The Prince" illustrated the failings of absolute rule in favour of republican systems with distributed power.

Of course, both of these perspectives can be true at the same. The book (and the Discourses) are sincere and secular pieces of Realpolitik, which differentiates between the effective rule of Principalities and Republics. It should be quite obvious which type of government Machiavelli preferred; he wasn't a Machiavellian, he differentiated between Principalities and Republics and provided normative as well as descriptive statements in his works. But ultimately it is also an act of genius literary revenge, with a superb prescience, knowing in advance that the book dedicated to a Medici, would also be used extensively by mobsters such as John Gotti and Roy DeMeo (who would refer it as the called the "Mafia Bible"), because that is exactly what autocratic princes are. Machiavelli knew that there were people who would acquire and abuse power and attempt to build princedoms. Exposé and warning, "The Prince" tells us exactly what sort of political system to avoid and what sort of behaviour would-be princes will engage in. It is in that spirit, and with the practical desire to build better systems of governance, that "The Prince" should be read.

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