Why We Should Read Machiavelli

Why We Should Read Machiavelli

Jonathan Church
Jonathan Church
7 min read

In the mid-1990s, film critic David Denby wrote Great Books, in which he recounted a year spent at Columbia University taking two core courses in the humanities that focused on “Western classics” written by so-called “Dead White European Males.” It was “thirty years after [Denby entered] Columbia University for the first time,” when “[n]o one…could possibly have imagined that in the following decades the courses would be alternatively reviled as an iniquitous oppression and adored as a bulwark of the West.” Indeed, a prevalent critique was (and still is) that the classics were written by white men relevant primarily in connection to a regime of power that exerted cultural and political hegemony over large parts of the world.

“Dead white males” had had their time in the sun.

One of the most recognizable “dead white males” was Niccolo Machiavelli. Famous for having written the how-to book on power politics, Machiavelli might seem to have deserved special censure for writing about power at the dawn of the age of exploration which preceded European imperialism. Fortunately, however, one still finds Machiavelli on college course curriculums. Moreover, one still comes across books like this one on Machiavelli’s relevance to the art of politics in business, or this one on what Machiavelli has to say on how to wield power in the modern world. Nevertheless, whenever we read about political developments that expose hypocrisy, cynicism, or the nefarious pursuit of power at any cost, it is not uncommon for Machiavelli’s name to be invoked. But does he deserve a reputation as the favorite philosopher of grubby politicians for whom the end always justifies the means?

In The Prince, a book of bold advice on how “various kinds” of principalities “can be governed and maintained” (Ch. II), Machiavelli famously advised that a prince “ought to be both feared and loved, but as it is difficult for the two to go together, it is much safer to be feared than loved” (Ch. XVII). This basic precept of power politics is perhaps the most famous proclamation in all Machiavelli’s writings and helps account for why, when we think of Machiavelli, words like cunning, unscrupulous, and ruthless come to mind, and why we are inclined to see Machiavelli, as Leo Strauss did, as “a teacher of evil.”

But this view does Machiavelli a disservice and does not adequately account for the lasting influence of The Prince and his other writings.

Let’s start with Machiavelli’s emphasis that a “prince must…avoid those things which will make him hated or despised” (Ch. XIX). While “a prince, who wishes to maintain himself, [must] learn how not to be good” (Ch. XV), Machiavelli also advised that “a prince should make himself feared in such a way that if he does not gain love, he at any rate avoids hatred: for fear and the absence of hatred may well go together” (Ch. XVII).

With this qualification alone, we have good reason to doubt that the father of modern power politics deserves his reputation as a mere apologist for amoral, power-hungry cynics. A prince should make himself both loved and feared. But what if the prince is not loved? If the question is how to pursue and preserve power, then he should make himself feared. But, he continues, the prince should try and avoid becoming hated. In other words, politics is about power, and when it comes to power, the real world is what matters. In the real world, virtue in affairs of state is a matter of efficacy, not piety.

Machiavelli was born in 1469 in Florence. Entering public life at the age of 29, he joined the Florentine Second Chancery in 1498, four years after a French invasion set in motion the Italian Wars. Though the city-states in Italy proved strong enough to resist French control over Italy (Holy Leagues of 1495 and 1511), disunity among Italian city-states had been exposed, facilitating further intervention by foreign powers in subsequent years, ending with the Peace of Cateau-Cambresis in 1559 and Spain as a hegemonic presence in Italy. Machiavelli saw it all first-hand. In the Chancery, Machiavelli’s duties included stints as a diplomat, secretary, and military official. He observed the eminent political players of the time and learned about the operations of government. But when Florentine gonfalonier Piero Soderini was deposed in 1512 and the Medicis were restored, Machiavelli found himself unemployed and out of favor with the new regime. He was arrested and tortured for having his name on a list of suspected anti-Medici conspirators. Being stranded in a country villa on the outskirts of the city, he set to work writing The Prince. Dedicating it to Lorenzo de’ Medici, he hoped to regain a role in the Florentine government, but also set out practical precepts of power and ended with a vision for a unified Italy after years of political strife.

In sum, Machiavelli was steeped in the realities of power politics in a balkanized Italy as the 15th century merged into the 16th. Machiavelli was, as Max Lerner wrote, “utterly secular in his thinking,” rejecting “metaphysics, theology, idealism,” and drifting “toward a political realism, unknown to the formal writing of his time.”

Ironically, Machiavelli’s political leanings were republican at heart. He nursed a great love for the ancient Roman Republic and, among other works, wrote Discourses on the First Ten Books of Titius Livius. To Machiavelli, Republican Rome had been the peak of civilization. It illustrated why republican government was the most conducive to the political unity and stability of a state. His main impetus for writing The Prince was simply to set down practical precepts about the nature of power as a way to reenter politics and, as conveyed in the final chapter, to inspire Italian city-states to put aside their divisions, unite, and stave off foreign intervention. Now credited by many as an Italian patriot, Machiavelli, in the words of Max Lerner, “only dimly foresaw nationalism,” but ended up writing “a grammar of power, not only for the 16th century, but for the ages that have followed.” Machiavelli’s “greatness does not emerge until we see that when he wrote his grammar of power he came close to setting down the imperatives by which men govern and are governed in political communities, whatever the epoch and whatever the governmental structure.”

Machiavelli did not advocate or condone unmitigated depravity: “…it cannot be called virtue to kill one’s fellow-citizens, to betray one’s friends, be without faith, without pity, and without religion” (Ch. VIII). Of Agathocles of Syracuse, Machiavelli wrote that his “barbarous cruelty and inhumanity” and other “countless atrocities” did not “permit of his being named among the most famous men” (Ch. VIII). Machiavelli did advise that cruelty can be “exploited well or badly” (Ch. VIII). But “…if [the prince] is obliged to take the life of anyone, let him do so when there is a justification and manifest reason for it” (Ch. XVII). Again, though, this was for pragmatic rather than moral reasons. No matter how “strong your armies may be, you will always need the favor of the inhabitants to take possession of a province” (Ch. III).

Machiavelli did not lionize villains for whom the end justifies the means. Rather, he explained why principalities (and republics) are well-served by bold leaders who rely on initiative and ability rather than on fortune for their political survival and success. Initiative and ability, however, were interweaved with a realistic assessment of human nature and its implications for how to rule: “…how we live is so far removed from how we ought to live, that he who abandons what is done for what ought to be done, will rather learn to bring about his own ruin than his preservation” (Ch. XV). Machiavelli did not have a lofty opinion of human nature (“For it may be said of men in general that they are ungrateful, voluble, dissemblers, anxious to avoid danger, and covetous of gain” – Ch. XVII), and believed that “men will always be false to you unless they are compelled by necessity to be true” (Ch. XXIII). He believed a prince “must be a fox to recognize traps and a lion to frighten wolves” (Ch. XVIII).

The upshot is that politics in the modern age lives in the shadow of Machiavelli. Although Machiavelli wrote many other works—not only on politics and the art of war, but in theatre, history, and literature, as well as letters, prose, and poetry—he is famous for a conceptual apparatus of power which detached itself from medieval religious pieties and articulated a secular worldview that was already becoming paramount in the age in which he lived. Indeed, the superficial interpretation of Machiavelli as a nefarious schemer arises in large part from the antagonistic backlash of a European religious community frustrated with the growing emphasis during the Renaissance on the temporal and secular world as opposed to otherworldliness. Few exemplified this transition more than Machiavelli, who was among the authors listed on the Index of Prohibited Books sanctioned by the Council of Trent and first published by Pope Paul IV in 1557.

Machiavelli’s reading and experience gave him extensive knowledge of ancient and contemporary political figures, positioning him to write the how-to book on winning and maintaining power. In so doing, however, Machiavelli exerted a profound influence on modern political thought. Beginning The Prince with the contention that “all states and dominions which hold or have held power over mankind are either republics or monarchies” (Ch. I), and are acquired either by fortune or ability, he did not, as Harvey Mansfield informs us, “seek to establish exact or universal laws of politics in the manner of modern political science.” Instead, he posited maxims a prince should consider, not blindly obey, when acquiring and maintaining a state or principality according to circumstance. Some princes “are reputed for certain qualities which bring them either praise or blame”—some liberal, others miserly; some generous, others rapacious; some cruel, others merciful; some duplicitous, others trustworthy; some pusillanimous, others fierce and high-spirited; some humane, others haughty; some lascivious, others chaste; some frank, others astute; and so on. He wrote that “it is necessary that [a prince] should be prudent enough to avoid the scandal of those vices which would lose him the state, and guard himself if possible” against those vices which are not deemed necessary to preserve power.

However, “he must not mind incurring the scandal of those vices, without which it would be difficult to save the state, for if one considers well, it will be found that some things which seem virtues would, if followed, lead to one’s ruin, and some others which appear vices result in one’s greater security and well-being” (Ch. XV). Machiavelli focused his analysis of power not on ideals, but on the feasible. In affairs of state, virtue was a matter of efficacy, not piety. In laying out his vision in a short book, he expertly articulated what was already happening: the Renaissance transformation from the ecclesiastical to the secular, from a realm of otherworldly ideals to a world of secular expediency.


Jonathan Church

Jonathan Church is an economist and writer.