Machiavellianism (politics)

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Machiavellianism (or Machiavellism) is widely defined as the political philosophy of the Italian Renaissance diplomat Niccolò Machiavelli, usually associated with realism in politics and foreign policy.[1] There is no scholarly consensus as to the precise nature of Machiavelli's philosophy, or what his intentions were with his works.[2]


The Prince[edit]

After his exile from political life in 1512, Machiavelli took to a life of writing, which led to the publishing of his most famous work, The Prince. The book would become infamous for its recommendations for absolute rulers to be ready to act in unscrupulous ways, such as resorting to fraud and treachery, elimination of political opponents, and the usage of fear as a means of controlling subjects.[3] Machiavelli's view that acquiring a state and maintaining it requires evil means has been noted as the chief theme of the treatise.[4][5] He has become infamous for this advice, so much so that the adjective Machiavellian would later on describe a type of politics that is "marked by cunning, duplicity, or bad faith".[6]

Republicanism and other ideas[edit]

While Machiavelli has become widely popular for his work on principalities, his other major work, The Discourses on Livy, focused mainly on republican statecraft, and his recommendations for a well ordered republic. Machiavelli noted how free republics have power structures that are better than principalities. He also notes how advantageous a government by a republic could be as opposed to just a single ruler. However, Machiavelli's more controversial statements on politics can also be found even in his other works.[7][8] For example, Machiavelli notes that sometimes extraordinary means, such as violence, can be used in re-ordering a corrupt city.[9] In one area, he praises Romulus, who murdered his brother and co-ruler in order to have power by himself to found the city of Rome.[10] In a few passages he sometimes explicitly acts as an advisor of tyrants as well.[11][12][13]

Some scholars have even asserted that the goal of his ideal republic does not differ greatly from his principality, as both rely on rather ruthless measures for aggrandizement and empire.[14]

In one passage of The Prince, Machiavelli subverts the advice given by Cicero to avoid duplicity and violence, by saying that the prince should "be the fox to avoid the snares, and a lion to overwhelm the wolves". It would become one of Machiavelli's most notable statements.[15]

Because cruelty and deception play such important roles in his politics, it is not unusual for related issues—such as murder and betrayal—to rear their heads with regularity.[16]

Machiavelli's own concept of virtue, which he calls "virtù", is original and is usually seen by scholars as different from the traditional viewpoints of other political philosophers.[17] Virtù can consist of any quality at the moment that helps a ruler maintain his state, even being ready to engage in necessary evil when it is advantageous.[18][19]

Due to the treatise's controversial analysis on politics, in 1559, the Catholic Church banned The Prince, putting it on the Index Librorum Prohibitorum.

Machiavelli criticized and rejected the classical biblical and Christian thought as he viewed that it celebrated humility and otherworldly things, and thus it made the Italians of his day "weak and effeminate".[20] While Machiavelli's own religious allegiance has been debated, it is assumed that he had a low regard of contemporary Christianity.[21]

Realism and political opportunism[edit]

Machiavelli provides a pragmatic framework for acquiring and maintaining power specifically designed for the context of his time. His ideas often sets aside moral considerations, religious teachings, and traditional doctrines, focusing instead on a realistic approach to leadership. He encourages leaders to prioritize practical concerns over ethical ones, emphasizing that safeguarding one's own position should be done for pragmatic reasons alone. [22]

According to Machiavelli, noble elites are rarely satisfied by honorable conduct, whereas common people can be won over more easily. Regardless of the means by which a ruler ascends to power, it is crucial to earn the favor of the populace. In times of crisis, the support of the people is vital for the survival of a ruler. Although a ruler should not be under any illusions about the steadfastness of the common people, those who are well-prepared and competent in leadership are less likely to be betrayed. A wise leader ensures that all citizens are dependent on him and the state, fostering loyalty through their reliance on his authority.

Machiavelli suggests that the general populace, being farther removed from the seat of power than the nobility, poses less of a threat to a ruler's authority. By securing the allegiance of the masses, a ruler can effectively neutralize the influence of the nobility. He recommends that a leader make the common people believe that the middle class, or the noble elites, are the root of their problems. This strategy diverts dissatisfaction away from the ruler and maintains his control.

Machiavelli also argues that mercenaries, driven by financial incentives rather than loyalty, lack the dedication and courage of soldiers who are defending their own territory. Mercenaries tend to be unfaithful, lazy, and unwilling to take significant risks, rendering them unreliable in combat. On the other hand, citizen soldiers, who have a personal stake in the protection of their homeland, exhibit greater loyalty, diligence, and bravery. Machiavelli criticizes mercenaries for their lack of spirit compared to citizen soldiers who fight to defend their homes. He underscores the importance of citizen armies for a ruler's security and effectiveness, as they are more likely to commit to hard work and face danger willingly.

Machiavelli advocates for a ruler to focus on practical strategies for maintaining power, emphasizing the importance of public support, realistic assessments of loyalty, and the value of citizen armies over mercenaries. His approach prioritizes pragmatism over morality, aiming to ensure the stability and longevity of a ruler's reign. [23]

Reception of Machiavelli[edit]

In the late 1530s, immediately following the publication of The Prince, Machiavelli's philosophy was seen as an immoral ideology that corrupted European politics. Reginald Pole read the treatise while he was in Italy, and on which he commented: "I found this type of book to be written by an enemy of the human race. It explains every means whereby religion, justice and any inclination toward virtue could be destroyed".[24] Machiavelli's works were received similarly by other popular European authors, especially in Elizabethan England. The English playwrights William Shakespeare and Christopher Marlowe incorporated their views into some of their works. Shakespeare's titular character, Richard III, refers to Machiavelli in Henry VI, Part III, as the "murderous Machiavel".

The Anti-Machiavel is an 18th-century essay by Frederick the Great, king of Prussia and patron of Voltaire, rebutting The Prince. It was first published in September 1740, a few months after Frederick became king.[25] Denis Diderot, the French philosopher, viewed Machiavellianism as "an abhorrent type of politics" and the "art of tyranny".[26]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "Definition of MACHIAVELLIANISM". Retrieved 2018-11-07.
  2. ^ "Machiavelli, Niccolò | Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy". Retrieved 2024-04-19.
  3. ^ The Prince, especially chapters VIII, XVII, and XVIII
  4. ^ Strauss, Leo; Cropsey, Joseph (2012-06-15). History of Political Philosophy. University of Chicago Press. p. 301. ISBN 9780226924717.
  5. ^ "We shall not shock anyone, we shall merely expose ourselves to good-natured or at any rate harmless ridicule, if we profess ourselves inclined to the old fashioned and simple opinion according to which Machiavelli was a teacher of evil." -Leo Strauss, Thoughts on Machiavelli
  6. ^ "Definition of MACHIAVELLIAN". Retrieved 2019-02-26.
  7. ^ Mansfield, Harvey C. (1998-02-25). Machiavelli's Virtue. University of Chicago Press. ISBN 9780226503721.
  8. ^ Mansfield, Harvey C. (2001-04-15). Machiavelli's New Modes and Orders: A Study of the Discourses on Livy. University of Chicago Press. ISBN 9780226503707.
  9. ^ "Niccolo Machiavelli | Biography, Books, Philosophy, & Facts". Encyclopedia Britannica. Retrieved 2019-02-22.
  10. ^ "Discourses on Livy: Book 1". Retrieved 2019-02-22.
  11. ^ Strauss, Leo (2014-07-04). Thoughts on Machiavelli. University of Chicago Press. ISBN 9780226230979. pg. 48
  12. ^ Machiavelli, Niccolò, The Discourses on Livy trans. by Harvey Mansfield. Chap 16
  13. ^ See Harvey Mansfield and Nathan Tarcov's essay at the beginning of their translation of The Discourses.
  14. ^ Rahe, Paul A. (2005-11-14). Machiavelli's Liberal Republican Legacy. Cambridge University Press. ISBN 9781139448338.
  15. ^ Skinner, Quentin (2000-10-12). Machiavelli: A Very Short Introduction. OUP Oxford. ISBN 9780191540349.
  16. ^ "Niccolò Machiavelli, The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy".
  17. ^ Mansfield, Harvey C. (1998-02-25). Machiavelli's Virtue. University of Chicago Press. ISBN 9780226503721.
  18. ^ Hulliung, Mark (2017-07-05). Citizen Machiavelli. Routledge. ISBN 9781351528481.
  19. ^ Skinner, Quentin (2000-10-12). Machiavelli: A Very Short Introduction. OUP Oxford. ISBN 9780191540349.
  20. ^ "Discourses on Livy: Book 2 Chapter 2". Retrieved 2019-05-05.
  21. ^ Mansfield, Harvey C. (1998-02-25). Machiavelli's Virtue. University of Chicago Press. ISBN 9780226503721.
  22. ^ "Summary and Analysis Chapter 9". Retrieved 6 June 2022.
  23. ^ "Summary and Analysis Chapter 12". Retrieved 8 June 2022.
  24. ^ Benner, Erica (2013-11-28). Machiavelli's Prince: A New Reading. OUP Oxford. ISBN 9780191003929.
  25. ^ "Anti-Machiavel | treatise by Frederick the Great". Encyclopedia Britannica. Retrieved 2019-04-16.
  26. ^ Diderot, Denis (ascribed by Jacques Proust). "Machiavellianism." The Encyclopedia of Diderot & d'Alembert Collaborative Translation Project. Translated by Timothy Cleary. Ann Arbor: Michigan Publishing, University of Michigan Library, 2004. Trans. of "Machiavelisme," Encyclopédie ou Dictionnaire raisonné des sciences, des arts et des métiers, vol. 9. Paris, 1765. Accessed 31 March 2015.

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