Machiavelli’s & politics

The quote given in the essay title refers to Machiavelli's belief that politics, unlike our personal relationships, is not based on an ethical need to act in a just fashion. This essay will set out Machiavelli's beliefs and then examine them to see if he successfully justifies his method of governing. Machiavelli's The Prince was based on similar works that had been written at the time, all of which purported to advise the rulers of the Principalities as to the methods by which they should rule.

These other works generally recommended compassion, generosity and a need to be loved by the people as the main factors for being a successful ruler. Machiavelli disagreed. He looked at politics and took it exactly as he saw it: a world of deceit and corruption, in which even your closest friend could not be trusted to keep his promises to you. According to Machiavelli, "Everybody recognises how praiseworthy it is for a ruler to keep his word and live a life of integrity, without relying on craftiness.

Nevertheless, we see that in practice, in these days, those rulers who have not thought it important to keep their word have achieved great things, and have known how to employ cunning to confuse and disorientate other men. In the end, they have been able to overcome those who have placed store in integrity. " (Machiavelli, 2001, p451). He is clearly saying, as in the quote in the essay title, that, while being trustworthy and kind is an admirable thing, it will not help you in politics, where people will be more than happy to take advantage of these qualities in you.

Later in the same chapter, he says "A ruler… must seem, to those who listen to him and watch him, entirely pious, truthful, reliable, sympathetic and religious… In general, men judge more by sight than by touch. Everyone sees what is happening, but not everyone feels the consequences. Everyone sees what you seem to be; few have direct experience of who you really are. Those few will not dare speak out in the face of public opinion when that opinion is reinforced by the authority of the state. " (Machiavelli, 2001, p452).

Machiavelli is actually telling the Prince that he should deceive his court and his citizens wherever possible, so as to give the impression that he is a worthy man, without ever compromising his state by actually acting in such a fashion. This leads on to Machiavelli's most widely known theory, that the end justifies the means – "… if a ruler wins wars and holds on to power, the means he has employed will always be judged honourable, and everyone will praise them. " (Machiavelli, 2001, p452). Machiavelli believes that, for the safety of the state, anything is allowed.

He believes this because he sees the ultimate goal of a leader as being to ensure that the state and it's citizens are protected. For Machiavelli, the relationship between the government and the citizens is impersonal, and therefore the government cannot effectively justify itself to people it doesn't know except as their only means of protection. The state must be strong in order both to protect and to justify its protection. Thus Machiavelli emphasises his belief that the ruler may use any means necessary in order to guarantee the strength and security of the state.

He does not state this freely – he does not believe that rulers should be able to abuse this for their own ends. To give an example of this, Machiavelli would have condoned the shooting down of the 9/11 airliners before they hit as necessary for the safety of the state, but he would condemn the actions of Silvio Berlusconi changing the law in Italy so that he could not be prosecuted while in power as being for purely personal gain. Central to his theory is the concept of the 'contextual ethic' – there is no absolute right or wrong action: what the ruler does is determined entirely by the context of the situation.

Machiavelli tells us that leaders who succeed have 'virtu', or virtue. The successful leader has virtu because he grasps the situation and takes what are contextually the correct actions in order to solve the problem. However, Machiavelli believes a successful leader must also have 'fortuna', or fortune. He considers fortuna to be an absolute necessity: "… Francesco Sforza… by using the right methods and consummate skill [virtu], started out as a private citizen and ended up Duke of Milan…

On the other hand Cesare Borgia, who was called Duke Valentino by the common people, acquired his state thanks to the good fortune of his father, and when that came to an end he lost it. This despite the fact he used every technique and did all the things a prudent and skillful [virtuoso] man ought to do… " (Machiavelli, 2001, p432). The concept of fortuna is Machiavelli's representation of what he saw as the wheel of fortune, from the beginning, a state of nature or civil war, through the growth of a state to it's success, and then the onset of 'selfishness' and the decline back to civil war.

From the outset, the stage of growth, Machiavelli considers a republic to be the best form of government – hence his deep interest in the history of the Roman Empire, which he studied in some depth in order to try and discover how to maintain a republic for as long as possible at the height of it's power. "Those who read how the city of Rome began, who established its laws, and how it was organised will not marvel that so much excellence [virtu] was preserved in that city for so many centuries; and that later it gave birth to the vast empire the Roman republic eventually controlled. " (Machiavelli, 2001, p468).

Machiavelli emphasised the role of state institutions to maintain a republic: he felt that Principality could descend into tyranny, rule by aristocracy into oligarchy and democracy into anarchy. He thus thought that combining aspects of all three types of government after the style of the Romans, and with stable institutions, was the surest way of maintaining a republic at the height of its powers. Just as in The Prince, Machiavelli condones any means in order to keep the republic from degenerating back to anarchy; indeed, The Discourses cover many similar topics to The Prince, but apply them to a republic.

Ultimately, whatever style of government Machiavelli is discussing, he comes to the same conclusions: that the ruler must do what he can to maintain the security of the state, no matter what the cost – "… a man who neglects what is actually done for what should be done learns the way to self-destruction… " The political thought of Machiavelli is challenging in many ways: it goes against everything which was generally accepted at the time of its publishing, and even today it is at odds with the acceptable methods of government.

The most obvious starting point in criticism of Machiavelli is his claim that the ruler may take any action to preserve the security of the state and to prevent the state from passing its peak on the wheel of fortune. This concept means that there are no absolute moral standards when governing a Machiavellian state – his contextual ethic means that there is no wrong action to take, indeed anything is permissible, provided it can be said to be for the good of the state.

Even with Machiavelli's stated intent that this can only be done for the good of the state, and not for personal gain, he still leaves the theory very open to abuse. Combined with Machiavelli's beliefs that the ruler should put up a front of being righteous and caring, and that ultimately the people will forgive you anything provided you can show it to be in their interests as citizens, it is not hard to envisage several scenarios whereby a skilled politician can effectively control the state and people for his own gain while still being able to pass his actions off as being necessary for security.

Indeed, a state governed after the politics of Machiavelli would appear to be an easy state to manipulate, since without a specific moral code to follow, the citizens simply cannot know what their ruler is actually doing. According to Quentin Skinner, "… Machiavelli refuses to admit that the dilemma can be resolved by setting stringent limits to princely wickedness, and in general behaving honourably towards one's subjects and allies. This is exactly what one cannot hope to do, because all men at all times 'are ungrateful, changeable, simulators and dissimulators, runaways in danger, eager for gain'…

" (Skinner, 1992, p50). Machiavelli believes that human nature is a fixed quantity, that people who seek power will behave in exactly the way he suggests that the Prince should behave, and that only through taking violent action where necessary can the Prince keep the state secure from enemies both internally and externally. Thus there cannot be a moral code, even built into a constitution, because the maintenance of the state at its peak may require the ruler to act in ways unconscionable to those who drew up the constitution.

In this way, Machiavelli attempts to justify violence for the good of the state; yet without any morality behind the state, he is leaving its subjects wide open to abuse by their ruler. Machiavelli therefore has not satisfactorily justified his belief that violence on behalf of the state is a necessary part of statecraft. Machiavelli's argument also relies on his assumption that human nature is a fixed quantity, a given value that can always be relied upon.

He believes that this human nature keeps the cycle of fortune going: at the outset, in an anarchic state of nature, it is in everybody's selfish interests to create and protect a viable state. Once the state has reached its peak, this same selfish streak causes people to become greedy and protective of their own property, at the expense of the state. From here, the cycle moves inexorably downward until the state becomes anarchic once more. But human nature cannot be a fixed quantity – if it were, why would Machiavelli be writing a book telling people they should not necessarily be just, merciful rulers?

Machiavelli's work seems likely to force people to become immoral/amoral in order to succeed, because where they could have grown a reputation for trustworthiness in power, they must now somehow overcome someone who projects an image of trustworthiness yet all the while breaks his promises and lies to his subjects – as Savigear puts it, "… he urged… the constant adapting and adjusting [of] strength and cunning as the needs and circumstances required… This flexibility of character might require a ruler to learn how to be evil… " (Savigear, 1988, p112).

Secondary to Machiavelli's concept of human nature is the concept of the wheel of fortune. If history were truly a cycle, then come what may, Machiavelli's state will collapse back into anarchy, regardless of what actions are taken to prevent this. Machiavelli does not seem to take into account the possibility that the actions of a leader following the rules outlined in The Prince or The Discourses could ultimately bring down the state of their own accord, since a situation where only the leader knows what he is going to do, and he is potentially constantly lying to his subjects, is tantamount to dictatorship.

A lot of Machiavelli's examples are based on historical events, events which Machiavelli sees as precipitating the next step around the wheel of fortune. Quite apart from the improbability inherent in the assumption that history is a repetitive cycle of events, there is a major problem here: history, as they say, is written by the winner. As a result of this fact, much of the history used by Machiavelli to illustrate his examples is very likely to be strongly biased one way or another.

What Machiavelli picks out as a great example of virtu could in reality be an occasion of fortuna, rewritten from serendipity to superb leadership by a scribe employed by the victor. Thus, the reliance on a fixed concept of human nature, a fixed concept of history, and a potentially suspect source of evidence all lead to the conclusion that Machiavelli fails to satisfactorily justify the need for violence to maintain the state. In conclusion, while Machiavelli, through emphasising the need for security and stability, makes a good case for the use of violence to maintain the state, he ultimately fails to justify his theory satisfactorily.

By arguing that a constitutional limit on this power would undermine the ability of the ruler to react in context to the situation, Machiavelli leaves the state in a situation where it is protected at any cost by a ruler who must be trusted to do no more than necessary to protect the state, yet who has been advised by Machiavelli to merely act as if he were trustworthy. And the emphasis on the concept of history as a cycle, and on historical examples that are more likely than not biased, gives the argument that the ruler needs these special powers in order to maintain a state at its peak a very weak basis indeed.

McClelland says "There has always been a feeling that Machiavelli is hard to pin down in that shadowy ground that lies between politics and ethics. " (McClelland, 1996, p154). Machiavelli's ideas are very interesting, and certainly contain many elements that can still be seen in politics today, but without limits and without convincing justification, the implications are simply too fearsome to condone.


Machiavelli, Niccolo (2001), "The Prince" in Morgan, M (Ed) Classics Of Moral And Political 

Theory, (Hackett), pp422-466

Machiavelli, Niccolo (2001), "The Discourses" in Morgan, M (Ed) Classics Of Moral And Political 

Theory, (Hackett), pp467-487

McClelland, J.S. (1996) A History Of Western Political Thought, (Routledge), pp149-167

Savigear, Peter (1988), "Machiavelli: The Prince And The Discourses" in Forsyth, M and Keens-

Soper, M (Eds) The Political Classics: A Guide To The Essential Texts From Plato To 

Rousseau (OUP), pp96-119

Skinner, Quentin (1992), "Machiavelli" in Great Political Thinkers, (OUP), pp1-106