How Machiavellian was Machiavelli?

The adjective ‘Machiavellian’, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, means “cunning, scheming and duplicitous” and is regularly applied by journalists to political figures. But can it be applied to Niccolò Machiavelli (1469–1527) himself? Here, ahead of his lecture at University College London’s Festival of Culture, Andrew Campbell investigates…

Portrait of Niccolò Machiavelli. (Photo by Imagno/Getty Images)

To be Machiavellian is to be a follower of Machiavelli’s principles and someone “who practises expediency in preference to morality”, says the OED. This definition, along with the adjective meaning “cunning, scheming and duplicitous”, is often reduced to the maxim “the ends justify the means”. Journalists enjoy applying this epithet to British politicians, but an examination of Machiavelli’s work and sources reveals that it can also be applied to Machiavelli – but only with certain qualifications.

Machiavelli wrote The Prince in 1513 while in exile from Florence. He had served the Florentine government in various positions from 1498, eventually becoming secretary to the second chancellor, which entailed numerous diplomatic missions. In the course of these trips abroad Machiavelli met many of the figures who would feature prominently in The Prince, such as Cesare Borgia, the son of Pope Alexander VI. Machiavelli’s political career had come about after the Medici were expelled from Florence in 1494. The initial replacement government, the ‘theocracy’ of the Dominican friar Girolamo Savonarola, ended with Savonarola’s execution in 1498, before Piero Soderini was elected gonfaloniere (leader) for life in 1502. In 1512 the Medici, supported by Spanish troops, overthrew Soderini and took back Florence, shortly after which Machiavelli was accused of conspiracy, tortured and imprisoned, before being exiled in spring 1513 to his farm in Sant’Andrea in Percussina, outside the city.

On 10 December 1513, Machiavelli described his new routine in a letter to Francesco Vettori. After dinner, he wrote, he liked to retire to his study and “converse” with ancient philosophers and thinkers before making notes of their conversations. These debates, and his experiences as second chancellor, formed the basis of The Prince, as Machiavelli acknowledged in the dedication. Machiavelli claimed that the most valuable gift he could offer Lorenzo di Piero de’ Medici, the grandson of Lorenzo ‘il Magnifico’ (1449-1492), the famous de facto ruler of Florence, was his “understanding of the deeds of great men”, which he had earned through “a long acquaintance with contemporary affairs and a continuous study of the ancient world”.


The “real truth”

It was this blend of personal experience and study that informed the ‘dark heart’ of The Prince, namely chapters 15 to 19, in which Machiavelli outlined the virtues needed by a “new prince”. This distinction was crucial, because the new prince’s sole concern was to “maintain his state”, in both a personal and a political sense, and so Machiavelli had tailored his advice accordingly. As he made clear at the start of the chapter 15, he had little time for idealised republics or utopias: “since my intention is to say something that will prove of practical use to the inquirer, I have thought it proper to represent things as they are in a real truth, rather than as they are imagined”. Machiavelli’s desire to reflect the “real truth”, as he understood it, drove him to alter or ignore aspects of the classical and Christian ethical template that had dominated medieval and Renaissance political theory for centuries.

Machiavelli’s primary source for the chapters on princely virtues was Cicero’s On Duty (De officiis), the most popular work of classical Latin prose in the Renaissance. One of Cicero’s final works, it was a discussion of the basic principles of moral duty and practical rules for personal conduct, divided into three books, the third of which examined the conflict between moral rectitude and expediency. Cicero’s and Machiavelli’s approaches to this issue diverged sharply. For Cicero, there was no conflict: “it is never expedient to do wrong, because wrong is always immoral; and it is always expedient to be good, because goodness is always moral”.

In chapter 15 of The Prince, on the other hand, Machiavelli revealed a less monochromatic take on the matter: “if a prince wants to maintain his rule he must be prepared not to be virtuous, and to make use of this or not according to need”. Certain vices could bring the prince “security and prosperity”, while certain virtues could lead to his downfall.

Bust of Cicero. From Sabbioneta, in the province of Mantua, Italy. (Photo By DEA/A DAGLI ORTI/De Agostini/Getty Images)


Strength and cunning

When it came to deceit, Cicero was equally clear. True glory did not come from pretences or deception, even at times of war, when a dishonourable yet expedient course of action would often present itself. Cicero described force and fraud as belonging to the powerful lion and the cunning fox respectively, with both being “wholly unworthy of man”.

Machiavelli used the same fox-lion analogy in chapter 18 of The Prince, albeit in a markedly different way. The new prince needed to know how to behave like both the fox and the lion, because strength without cunning would lead to his ruin: “a prudent ruler cannot, and must not, honour his word when it places him at a disadvantage”.

His reasoning was cynical but perspicuous: “If all men were good, this precept would not be good; but because men are wretched creatures who would not keep their word to you, you need not keep your word to them.” A double negative, in Machiavelli’s view, occasionally made a positive.

Machiavelli took a similar stance when it came to cruelty. For Cicero, no cruelty could be expedient, because “cruelty is most abhorrent to human nature, whose lead we ought to follow”. Machiavelli examined the issue in chapter 8, giving an account of the careers of two cruel but effective leaders: Agathocles (361–289 BC), the Greek tyrant of Syracuse and king of Sicily; and Oliverotto of Fermo (c1475–1502), a mercenary who assassinated his uncle to take control of his home town Fermo. After having recounted their actions, Machiavelli concluded: “we can say that cruelty is used well (if it permissible to talk in this way of what is evil) when it is employed once for all, and one’s safety depends on it”. It may have been evil, but the new prince should make use of it to maintain his state. Machiavelli followed the lead of human nature, just not in the way that Cicero had intended.

Machiavelli did not, however, disagree with Cicero on all points. Cicero stressed the importance of patronage but advised against giving gifts of money, because the giver will soon exhaust his resources and have to take the property of others to fund further largesse. In chapter 16 Machiavelli recommended a similar approach, stating it was better to be reputed parsimonious than generous, because over time a prince’s subjects will realise that he is able to live within his means, which is a form of generosity towards them.

c1510, portrait of Machiavelli (1469–1527). Original artwork an engraving by R Cooper after a print by Raphael Morghen, after a painting by Bronzino. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)


Avoiding hatred

Machiavelli never encouraged immoral behaviour for its own sake. Moreover, there was an ultimate boundary when new princes had to behave immorally: they should not incur the hatred of their subjects. Avoiding hatred was the limit of any deviant behaviour, a point that Machiavelli stressed on several occasions in The Prince: people complain about misers but do not hate them (chapter 16); it is better to be feared than loved, but avoiding hatred is preferable to either (chapter 17); while the most effective fortress is not being hated by your subjects (chapter 20).

As Machiavelli made clear, his advice reflected the circumstances of his intended readers. Unfortunately, at least for Machiavelli’s reputation, those circumstances changed between 1513, when he wrote The Prince, and 1532, when it was published (only one of Machiavelli’s works, The Art of War in 1521, was published during his lifetime). In the intervening 19 years the Reformation had spread across Europe, so the lip service that Machiavelli apparently paid to religion in the text – being religious was one of the qualities that the prince should appear to have, while a surfeit of compassion undermined Scipio’s ability as a general – took on a significance that he could not have envisaged.

Some of the earliest, and most violent, reactions to The Prince, such as that of Cardinal Reginald Pole (the last Roman Catholic Archbishop of Canterbury), who claimed in 1539 that it was “written by the finger of Satan”, or Innocent Gentillet’s Anti-Machiavel (Contre-Machiavel) of 1576, were triggered by religious events – the Henrician Reformation [the religious changes of Henry VIII’s reign] and the 1572 St Bartholomew’s Day Massacre [of tens of thousands of Huguenots across France during the French Wars of Religion] respectively.

Gentillet’s critique of The Prince was arguably responsible for the popular dissemination of ‘Machiavellian’ in its modern, negative sense. By the end of the 16th century Machiavelli had become a figure of speech, the machinator of Elizabethan and Jacobean drama rather than a figure of authority. Yet many of Machiavelli’s detractors had not read The Prince and did not try to “converse” with it in the way that Machiavelli had done with the ancients.

As the brief extracts above show, Machiavelli did not fully deserve such demonisation. The only end that justified “cunning, scheming and duplicitous” means, in Machiavelli’s view, was the maintenance of a new prince’s state. He may have condoned “expediency in preference to morality”, but only because men were “wretched creatures” who behaved despicably. The mirror for Machiavelli’s new prince reflected the imperfections of his subjects and times as much as the positive qualities of the ruler.

Andrew Campbell is a teaching fellow at UCL’s Department of Italian. On Thursday, as part of University College London’s Festival of Culture, he will deliver a lecture titled ‘How Machiavellian was Machiavelli?’

To read more about UCL’s Festival of Culture, click here.

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