Who Was Niccol Machiavelli?

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The Italian
humanists had propounded the doctrine of absolute political rule,
first by republican oligarchs and next by the glorified despot,
the monarch or prince. But one crucial point remained to free
the ruler of all moral shackles and to allow and even glorify
the unchecked and untrammeled rule of royal whim. For while the
humanists would hear of no institutional check on state rule,
one critical stumbling block still remained: Christian virtue.
The ruler, the humanists all admonished, must be Christian, must
cleave always to justice, and must be honest and honorable.

What was
needed, then, to complete the development of absolutist theory,
was a theoretician to fearlessly break the ethical chains that
still bound the ruler to the claims of moral principle. That man
was the Florentine bureaucrat Niccolò Machiavelli (1469–1527),
in one of the most influential works of political philosophy ever
written, The

Machiavelli was born in Florence, to a moderately well-off Tuscan
noble family. His personal preference was clearly for the old
oligarchic republic rather than for the signori,[1]
and in 1494, when the republicans kicked the Medicis out of Florence,
young Niccolò entered the city bureaucracy. Rising rapidly
in the government, Machiavelli became secretary of the Council
of Ten, which managed the foreign policy and the wars of Florence.
He held this important post until the Medicis reconquered Florence
in 1512, serving in a series of diplomatic and military missions.

was nothing if not "flexible," and this philosopher
extraordinaire of opportunism greeted the return of the
hated Medicis by attempting to ingratiate himself in their eyes.
During the year 1513 he wrote The Prince, superficially
yet another in the traditional series of advice-books and panegyrics
to princes. Hoping to induce the Medicis to read it so that he
might be restored to a top bureaucratic post, Machiavelli had
the lack of shame needed to dedicate the book "to the magnificent
Lorenzo de Medici."

The Medicis,
however, did not take the bait, and the only thing left for Machiavelli
was to embark on a literary career, and to drift back into republican
conspiracies. Machiavelli took part in conspiratorial republican
meetings at the Oricellari Gardens on the outskirts of Florence,
owned by the aristocrat Cosimo Rucellai. It was at the Oricellari
Gardens that Machiavelli discussed the drafts of his second most
important book, the Discourses
on the First Ten Books of Titus Livy
, written from 1514
to 1519.

Machiavelli was reviled throughout Europe during the 16th century
and on into the next two centuries. He was considered to be someone
unique in the history of the West, a conscious preacher of evil,
a diabolic figure who had unleashed the demons in the world of
politics. The English used his given name as a synonym for the
Devil, "Old Nick." As Macaulay put it, "Out of
his surname they have coined an epithet for a knave, and out of
his Christian name a synonym for the Devil."

In modern
times, Machiavelli’s reputation as a preacher of evil has been
replaced by the admiration of political scientists as the founder
of their discipline. For Machiavelli had cast off outdated moralism
to look at power coolly and hardheadedly. A tough-minded realist,
he was the pioneer developer of modern, positive, value-free political
science. As the mercantilist, power-oriented founder of modern
"scientific" method, Sir Francis Bacon, was to write
early in the 17th century: "We are much beholden to Machiavel
and others, that write what men do, and not what they ought to

Well, which
was Machiavelli, a teacher of evil or a value-free political scientist?
Let us see. At first glance, The Prince was very much like
other mirror-of-princes advice-books of the late 15th-century
humanists. The prince was supposed to seek virtú,
or excellence, and was supposed to pursue honor, glory, and fame
in the development of such excellence. But within this traditional
form, Machiavelli wrought a radical and drastic transformation,
creating in this way a new paradigm for political theory. For
what Machiavelli did was to redefine the critical concept of virtú.
For the humanists, as for Christians and classical theorists alike,
virtú, excellence, was the fulfillment of the traditional
classical and Christian virtues: honesty, justice, benevolence,
etc. For Old Nick, on the contrary, virtú in the
ruler or prince – and for the late humanists, after all,
it was only the prince who counted – was, simply and terribly,
as Professor Skinner puts it, "any quality that helps a prince
'to keep his state.'[2]
In short, the overriding, if not the only, goal for the prince
was to maintain and extend his power, his rule over the state.
Keeping and expanding his power is the prince’s goal, his
virtue, and therefore any means necessary to achieve that goal
becomes justified.

In his illuminating
discussion of Machiavelli, Professor Skinner tries to defend him
against the charge of being a "preacher of evil." Machiavelli
did not praise evil per se, Skinner tells us; indeed, other
things being equal, he probably preferred the orthodox Christian
virtues. It is simply that when those virtues became inconvenient,
that is, when they ran up against the overriding goal of keeping
state power, the Christian virtues had to be set aside.

The more
nave humanists also favored the prince’s keeping his state and
achieving greatness and glory. They believed, however, that this
could only be done by always maintaining and cleaving to the Christian
virtues. In contrast, Machiavelli realized that cleaving to justice,
honesty, and other Christian virtues might sometimes, or even
most of the time, conflict with the goal of maintaining and expanding
state power. For Machiavelli, orthodox virtues would then have
to go by the board. Skinner sums up Machiavelli as follows:

final sense of what it is to be a man of virtú
and his final words of advice to the prince, can thus be summarized
by saying that he tells the prince to ensure above all that
he becomes a man of "flexible disposition": he must
be capable of varying his conduct from good to evil and back
again "as fortune and circumstances dictate."[3]

Skinner, however, has a curious view of what "preaching evil"
might really be. Who in the history of the world, after all, and
outside a Dr Fu Manchu novel, has actually lauded evil per
se and counseled evil and vice at every step of life’s way?
Preaching evil is to counsel precisely as Machiavelli has done:
be good so long as goodness doesn’t get in the way of something
you want, in the case of the ruler that something being the maintenance
and expansion of power. What else but such "flexibility"
can the preaching of evil be all about?

straightaway from power as the overriding goal, and from his realism
about power and standard morality being often in conflict, is
Machiavelli’s famous defense of deception and mendacity on the
part of the prince. For then the prince is advised always to appear
to be moral and virtuous in the Christian manner, since that enhances
his popularity – but to practice the opposite if necessary
to maintain power. Thus Machiavelli stressed the value of appearances,
of what Christians and other moralists call "hypocrisy."

The prince,
he writes, must be willing to become "a great liar and deceiver,"
taking advantage of all the credulous: for "men are so simple"
that "the deceiver will always find someone ready to be deceived."
Or, in the immortal words of P.T. Barnum centuries later, "There’s
a sucker born every minute." And again, in praising fraud
and deceit, Machiavelli writes that "contemporary experience
shows that princes who have achieved great things have been those
who have given their word lightly, who have known how to trick
men with their cunning, and who, in the end, have overcome those
abiding by honest principles." Or, in the words of another
astute American social critic: "nice guys finish last."

There is,
of course, an inner contradiction in a preacher of deceit candidly(!)
broadcasting such views to one and all. For, as rulers begin to
adopt a "pragmatic" philosophy which is their natural
inclination in any case, the deluded public may begin to awaken
to the true state of affairs ("the suckers may wise up"),
and then continuing deceit by the ruling class might well prove
counterproductive. The "great liars and deceivers" might
no longer find so many subjects so "ready to be deceived."

Machiavelli, therefore, was unquestionably a new phenomenon in
the western world: a conscious preacher of evil to the ruling
class. What of his alleged contributions in founding a hard-nosed,
realistic, value-free political science?


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First, one
of his main contributions has been claimed to be the overwhelming
use of power, of force and violence, by the rulers of state. Machiavelli
was scarcely the first political philosopher who understood that
force and violence are at the heart of state power. Previous theorists,
however, were anxious to have that power curbed by ancient or
Christian virtues. But there is a certain refreshing realism in
Machiavelli’s total casting off the cloak of virtue in politics
and in his seeing the state plainly as unadorned brutal force
in the service of sheer power.

There is
a profound sense, too, in which Machiavelli was the founder of
modern political science. For the modern "policy scientist"
– political scientist, economist, sociologist, or whatever
– is a person who has put himself quite comfortably in the
role of adviser to the prince or, more broadly, to the ruling
class. As a pure technician, then, this counselor realistically
advises the ruling class on how to achieve their goals, which,
as Machiavelli sees, boils down to achieving greatness and glory
by maintaining and expanding their power. The modern policy scientists
eschew moral principles as being "unscientific" and
therefore outside their sphere of interest.

In all this,
modern social science is a faithful follower of the wily Florentine
opportunist. But in one important sense the two differ. For Niccolò
Machiavelli never had the presumption – or the cunning –
to claim to be a true scientist because he is "value-free."
There is no pretend value-freedom in Old Nick. He has simply replaced
the goals of Christian virtue by another contrasting set
of moral principles: that of maintaining and expanding the power
of the prince. As Skinner writes:

it is often
claimed that the originality of Machiavelli’s argument… lies
in the fact that he divorces politics from morality, and in
consequence emphasises the "autonomy of politics."…[but]
the difference between Machiavelli and his contemporaries cannot
adequately be characterized as a difference between a moral
view of politics and a view of politics as divorced from morality.
The essential contrast is rather between two different moralities
– two rival and incompatible accounts of what ought ultimately
to be done.[4]

Modern social
scientists, in contrast, pride themselves on being realistic and
value-free. But in this, ironically, they are far less
realistic or perhaps less candid than their Florentine mentor.
For, as Machiavelli knew full well, in taking on their role of
adviser to the rulers of state, the "value-free scientist"
is willy-nilly, committing himself to the end, and therefore to
the overriding morality, of strengthening the power of those rulers.
In advocating public policy, if nowhere else, value-freedom is
a snare and a delusion; Old Nick was either too honest or too
much of a realist even to consider thinking otherwise.

Machiavelli, therefore, was both the founder of modern
political science and a notable preacher of evil. In casting
out Christian or natural-law morality, however, he did not presume
to claim to be "value-free" as do his modern followers;
he knew full well that he was advocating the new morality of subordinating
all other considerations to power and to the reasons of state.
Machiavelli was the philosopher and apologist par excellence
for the untrammeled, unchecked power of the absolute state.

Some historians
like to contrast the "bad" Machiavelli of The Prince
with the "good" Machiavelli of his later though less
influential Discourses. Failing to convince the Medicis
of his change of heart, Machiavelli reverted, in the Discourses,
to his republican leanings. But the Old Nick of the Discourses
is in no sense transformed by goodness; he is simply adapting
his doctrine to a republican as against a monarchical polity.

as a republican Machiavelli can no longer stress the virtú
and the greatness of the prince, and so he shifts ground to a
kind of collective virtú by the community as a whole.
Except that in the case of the community, of course, virtú
can no longer be doing great deeds and maintaining one man’s power.
It now becomes acting always in the "public good" or
the "common good," and always subordinating an individual’s
or a group’s private, "selfish" interests to an alleged
greater good.

In contrast,
Machiavelli condemns the pursuit of private interest as "corruption."
In short, Machiavelli is still holding the maintenance
and expansion of state power to be the highest good, except that
now the state is oligarchic and republican. What he is really
preaching is similar to the creed of earlier republican humanists:
each individual and group subordinates itself and obeys without
question the decrees of the oligarchic ruling class of the republican

Machiavelli is the same preacher of evil in the Discourses
as he had been in The Prince. One of the first atheist
writers, Machiavelli’s attitude toward religion in the Discourses
is typically cynical and manipulative. Religion is helpful, he
opined, in keeping subjects united and obedient to the state,
and thus "those princes and those Republics which desire
to remain free from corruption should above all else maintain
incorrupt the ceremonies of their religion." Religion could
also make a positive contribution if it glorified strength and
other warlike qualities, but unfortunately Christianity has sapped
men’s strength by preaching humility and contemplation. In a tirade
anticipating Nietzsche, Machiavelli charged that Christian morality
has "glorified humble and contemplative men" and that
this peaceful spirit has led to existing corruption.

thundered that citizens can only achieve virtú if
their highest goal is maintaining and expanding the state, and
that therefore they must subordinate Christian ethics to that
end. Specifically, they must be prepared to abandon the restraints
of Christian ethics and be willing "to enter on the path
of wrongdoing" in order to maintain the state. The state
must always take precedence. Therefore, any attempt to judge politics
or government on a scale of Christian ethics must be abandoned.
As Machiavelli puts it with crystal clarity and great solemnity
at the end of his final Discourse, "when the safety
of one’s country depends upon the decision to be taken, no considerations
of justice or injustice, humanity or cruelty, nor of glory or
shame, should be allowed to prevail."

thundered that citizens can only achieve virt if their highest
goal is maintaining and expanding the state, and that therefore
they must subordinate Christian ethics to that end."

views, and the essential unity with his outlook in The Prince,
are shown in his discussion in The Discourses of Romulus,
the legendary founder of the city of Rome. The fact that Romulus
murdered his brother and others is justified by Machiavelli’s
view that only one man should impose the founding constitution
of a republic. Machiavelli’s wily conflation of the "public
good" with the private interests of the ruler is shown in
the following mendacious passage:

"A sagacious
legislator of a republic, therefore, whose object is to promote
the public good, and not his private interests [sic] … should
concentrate all authority in himself." In such concentration,
the end of establishing the state excuses any necessary means:
"a wise mind will never censure any one for taking any action,
however extraordinary, which may be of service in the organizing
of a kingdom or the constituting of a republic." Machiavelli
concludes with what he calls the "sound maxim" that
"reprehensible actions may be excused by their effects, and
that when the effect is good, as it was in the case of Romulus,
it always excuses the action."

the Discourses, Machiavelli preaches the virtue of deceit
for the ruler. He insists, also, in contrast to previous humanists,
that it is better for a ruler to be feared than to be loved, and
that punishment is far better than clemency in dealing with his
subjects. Furthermore, when a ruler finds that a whole city is
rebelling against his rule, by far the best course of action is
to "wipe them out" altogether.

Thus, Professor
Skinner is perceptive and correct when he concludes, in re
The Prince and the Discourses, that

the underlying
political morality of the two books is thus the same. The only
change in Machiavelli’s basic stance arises out of the changing
focus of his political advice. Whereas he was mainly concerned
in The Prince with shaping the conduct of individual
princes, he is more concerned in the Discourses with
offering his counsel to the whole body of the citizens. The
assumptions underlying his advice, however, remain the same
as before.

is still at one and the same time a preacher of evil and a founder
of modern political and policy science.


Editor’s Note: Aristocrats.

Quentin Skinner, The Foundations of Modern Political Thought:
Vol. I, The Renaissance (Cambridge: Cambridge University
Press, 1978), p. 138n.

Ibid., p. 138.

Ibid., pp. 134–5.

from Mises.org.

N. Rothbard
(1926–1995) was dean of the Austrian
School, founder of modern libertarianism, and academic
vice president of the Mises
. He was also editor — with Lew Rockwell —
of The
Rothbard-Rockwell Report
, and appointed Lew as his
literary executor.

Best of Murray Rothbard

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