Reading Revolutions: Great Minds, Great Thoughts

Machiavelli and Power Politics

Scott Erb

The following is a paper written by Scott Erb. 

If anyone doubts the ghost of Niccolo Machiavelli is still with us, here is a quote posted in an article on the website for U.S. News and World Report on October 18, 2005.  The article was speculating that Dick Cheney might resign so that Condoleezza Rice can become Vice President should he be implicated in the on going investigation into the leaking of the name of Valerie Plame to reporters:

"It's certainly an interesting but I still think highly doubtful scenario," said a Bush insider.  "And if that should happen," added the official, "there will undoubtedly be those who believe the whole thing was orchestrated – another brilliant Machiavellian move by the VP."

A “Machiavellian move.”  If you do a web search on “Machiavellian” you find everything from news stories, academic articles, and even a self test “how Machiavellian are you.”  (Which is inaccurate in its premise; Machiavelli would not want average folk to abide by his advice, this was meant only for leaders of a state).  We use the term to say someone is ruthless, amoral and focused on power, someone who puts expediency before principle.

Is it an accurate reflection on Machiavelli’s thought? Tonight I’ll approach that question by looking first at Machiavelli’s life and the context in which he wrote, then his specific theory and ideas, citing mostly from Il Principe or The Prince.  This will be a limited look at Machiavelli’s ideas, to be sure.  I am not a political philosopher.  My field is international relations, and so I’ll approach Machiavelli with an emphasis on the impact of his thought on how international relations is understood today.  I finally consider Machiavelli’s relevance today, including relating his ideas to the war in Iraq.

1.  Life and Context of Niccolo Machiavelli

Before I go into the details on Machiavelli’s life, I want to tell a story about an event that might provide insight into Machiavelli’s perspective.  The town of Pistoia lies near Florence, less than an hour away now by train.  In the early 1500’s it was under the Florentine sphere of influence, but a rivalry between two families, the Cancellieri and Panciatichi families, started riots and unrest.

At that time Florence was a Republic, and from 1498 to 1512, when the Republic would fall, Niccolo Machiavelli was Chancellor of the Florence Republic.  He was sent to try to broker a peace between the rival factions.  He did not like what he saw, he realized that the whole place was going to blow up, and blow up badly.  He came back and told the leaders of the Republic that there was no hope, the two sides were going to butcher each other.  Florence should avoid anarchy so close to the city, he argued, by going in with its overwhelming power and simply take control from the Pistoians.

In Florence, the premier city of renaissance Italy, public opinion was against such a move.  They feared a reputation for cruelty, and instead tried to simply continue to broker a deal.  The result was a civil war and unrest in 1502-03 where people were hacked in the streets, and mass killing and anarchy occurred.  Machiavelli was to write:

I say that every prince ought to desire to be considered clement and not cruel.  Nevertheless he ought to take care not to misuse this clemency.  Cesare Borgia was considered cruel; notwithstanding, his cruelty reconciled the Romagna, unified it, and restored it to peace and loyalty.  And if this be rightly considered, he will be seen to have been much more merciful than the Florentine people, who, to avoid a reputation for cruelty, permitted Pistoia to be destroyed.[*] Therefore a prince, so long as he keeps his subjects united and loyal, ought not to mind the reproach of cruelty; because with a few examples he will be more merciful than those who, through too much mercy, allow disorders to arise, from which follow murders or robberies; for these are wont to injure the whole people, whilst those executions which originate with a prince offend the individual only.

This says something profound about Machiavelli’s motives, and displays what could be called a hidden moral agenda.  Machiavelli thought a Prince or a leader had to act in a way that assured stability and order; the leader had a duty to the people, in other words.  His emphasis on political expediency was not in the service of the personal power of a politician or leader, but in allowing that leader to do what is necessary for the sake of the people.  The reason for this often misunderstood aspect of Machiavelli’s thought is evident when looking at his life.

Machiavelli was born May 3, 1469 in Florence.  In his early years, Florence was considered a major Italian power, and was the cultural center of the renaissance.  But when he was 25, in 1494, French armies crossed into Italy with a major invasion, and over the coming years French and Spanish armies would fight for dominance in Italy.  On the year of Machiavelli’s death, 1527, Rome would be sacked by armies from across Europe.  Italy was, during Machiavelli’s lifetime, falling into disarray due to lack of leadership or unity, and the result was that it was at the mercy of armies and monarchs from elsewhere in Europe.  After serving 14 years as Chancellor of Florence, an important post in the Republic, he was exiled in 1513 when the Republic fell, and the Medicis came back to power.  He would write The Prince while in exile.

While Italy was descending into chaos, the rest of Europe was seeing the major consolidation of what would become the fundamental nation-states of Europe: France, Spain, and Great Britain.  At around the same time he wrote Il Principe, Martin Luther was posting his theses on the door in Wittenberg, igniting what would be a violent struggle in Germany against the Church.  The world was changing, and becoming more violent. Machiavelli correctly recognized that Italy was slipping into crisis, and without some kind of leadership or unity would lose its place as a major European center of power.  He was right – it would be 350 years before Italy would unify, and during that time it would more often than not be the victim of outside power plays. Machiavelli correctly recognized that disorder and disunity in Italy put the Italian people at risk, at the mercy of stronger neighbors.  He yearned for a leader to unite Italy and provide the stability needed to allow Italy to be able to defend itself against outsiders, and create order and stability in the country.  The Prince can be seen as a call for that kind of leader, an attempt to inspire someone – if not the Medicis then someone else – to recognize the need for action, and to have the understanding necessary to succeed.

II.  Machiavelli’s thought

Machiavelli is known as being an archetypical realist.  By that I mean someone who says that we should not try to figure out how people should be, but to accept and deal with the world as it actually is.  For instance, he says in Chapter 15:

It remains now to see what ought to be the rules of conduct for a prince towards subject and friends.  And as I know that many have written on this point, I expect I shall be considered presumptuous in mentioning it again, especially as in discussing it I shall depart from the methods of other people.  But, it being my intention to write a thing which shall be useful to him who apprehends it, it appears to me more appropriate to follow up the real truth of the matter than the imagination of it; for many have pictured republics and principalities which in fact have never been known or seen, because how one lives is so far distant from how one ought to live, that he who neglects what is done for what ought to be done, sooner effects his ruin than his preservation; for a man who wishes to act entirely up to his professions of virtue soon meets with what destroys him among so much that is evil.

This is a direct reference to works like those of Plato, who posited an idealist view of a philosopher king ruling through virtue.  For Machiavelli, that is dangerous delusion, since it ignores what he considers the reality of the human condition: that humans are brutal, selfish, and fickle.

Machiavelli is introducing the “is/ought” distinction, and doing so in a way that dismisses the traditional form of political philosophy – thinking about what ought to be – as perhaps interesting, but not very useful.  Trying to live by what ought to be in ignorance of what actually is will only lead to ruin.

Interestingly, there are similarities between Plato and Machiavelli – each saw their state in crisis, culturally strong but declining in power and becoming susceptible to outside force.  Plato took the idealist route: what kind of republic would be strong and virtuous, and avoid the moral decay destroying Athens from within? Machiavelli the realist route: what is the pragmatic way to be able to fend off foes and restore order and stability? For that you don’t need a philosopher king, you need a Prince, a leader who understands what it takes to lead.

Such a prince, Machiavelli argues, must learn NOT to be limited by morality when necessary.  A leader has to be able to use lies, force, and deception if needed in the world that is.  The reason for this is clear when Machiavelli addresses the question of whether it be better to be feared or loved.

From Chapter 17: Upon this a question arises: whether it be better to be loved than feared or feared than loved? It may be answered that one should wish to be both, but, because it is difficult to unite them in one person, it is much safer to be feared than loved, when, of the two, either must be dispensed with.  Because this is to be asserted in general of men, that they are ungrateful, fickle, false, cowardly, covetous, and as long as you succeed they are yours entirely; they will offer you their blood, property, life, and children, as is said above, when the need is far distant; but when it approaches they turn against you.”

People are ungrateful, fickle, false, cowardly, and covetous.  You can’t trust them.  They will turn on you.  Human nature means that doing what you ought to do according to some moral code simply puts you at a disadvantage because humans, by their nature, are usually willing to throw out such moral concerns if it is to their advantage.

Consider what he thinks of love:

“ men have less scruple in offending one who is beloved than one who is feared, for love is preserved by the link of obligation which, owing to the baseness of men, is broken at every opportunity for their advantage; but fear preserves you by a dread of punishment which never fails.”

And “above all things he must keep his hands off the property of others, because men more quickly forget the death of their father than the loss of their patrimony.”

Not only is man fickle, cowardly, ungrateful, covetous and disloyal, but they’re they’ll forgive you for killing their father before they’ll forgive taking their inheritance! And, though I usually try to be careful not to have sexist language, I’m going to use “man” for most of this lecture for a reason that will be obvious later on. 

These quotes show two aspects of Machiavellian realism.  First, it is a very negative view on human nature.  Second, it is pragmatic.  If you are a Prince, if you are a leader, and you do not recognize the evil inherent in men, and do not take into account the fact that you may be required to inspire fear in order to preserve the state and its security, you will fail.  Power will be held by those most ruthless, that is simply a fact.  If you want power, you must play that game; otherwise you will bring ruin not only to yourself, but also to your people.

Yet you cannot be so brutal and obscene as to turn the people against you.  You should be feared, but not hated.  Keep your word when you can – it is good to be considered trustworthy, but understand when you should lie or deceive.  Don’t execute innocent people if you don’t have to, but know that at times it might be necessary.  Create the illusion that you are virtuous and noble, but in reality break from that when you must.

Note that this is pragmatic perspective; you have to do what is necessary to succeed.  Consider this quote from Chapter 18:

A prince, therefore, being compelled knowingly to adopt the beast, ought to choose the fox and the lion; because the lion cannot defend himself against snares and the fox cannot defend himself against wolves.  Therefore, it is necessary to be a fox to discover the snares and a lion to terrify the wolves.

What Machiavelli is saying in his book is that a leader has to deal with the realities of deception and power politics.  He sees is what happened in Pistoia, and what is happening in Italy in general, and considers it folly to think it virtuous to try to be moral in the affairs of state.  The moral man will lose out to a ruthless one.

Let’s take a second here, though, and think about what this is not.  It is not Hitlerian or in favor of someone like Stalin, even though Stalin’s rise to power in the Soviet Union has been called “Machiavellian” as he ruthlessly and without morality pursued his own personal power.  Machiavelli, in fact, would look at Stalin’s rise as an example of why men of virtue must adopt his methods; if not, then only men of evil will succeed.  For Machiavelli the ends justify the means, but the ends themselves are not simply power for power’s sake.  Rather, anarchy must be averted, and a Prince must protect his subjects and create conditions for stability, peace, and prosperity.  The ends are noble, but due to human nature – greed, avarice, and weakness – you need to do whatever it takes to achieve those ends.

In Machiavelli’s career and in his other works, most notably The Discourses, he puts forth a view in favor of a Republic without corruption and with rights for the citizens.  He is, in essence, arguing that such a condition cannot be achieved without recognizing the reality of politics, the need for cunning, deception, and sometimes injustice and violence.  A Stalin or Hitler could overwhelm the “good guys” because the good guys simply didn’t know how to be ruthless enough to stop people like Stalin and Hitler.  The only way, says Machiavelli, is to learn not to be moral; to be ruthless when you must.

Finally, there is – and this suggests a critique – an inherently masculine aspect to this theory (this is why I have used ‘man’ for the third person undefined).  Consider the following quote:

Chapter 25: For my part I consider that it is better to be adventurous than cautious, because fortune is a woman, and if you wish to keep her under it is necessary to beat and ill-use her; and it is seen that she allows herself to be mastered by the adventurous rather than by those who go to work more coldly.  She is, therefore, always, woman-like, a lover of young men, because they are less cautious, more violent, and with more audacity command her.

For Machiavelli politics is masculine, it is power and control; fortune is feminine, it is anarchy.  If not under control, it will be unpredictable and dangerous.  I won’t get into various feminist responses to this, but as you can imagine, the view Machiavelli has on human nature and how people must behave can be questioned.  Yet given his time, what was happening in Italy, and what he experienced, his perspective can certainly be understood.  His influence, however, reaches far beyond Italy in the 16th century, and remains with us today in how we study and understand the world of international relations.

III.  Machiavelli and International Relations

Machiavelli as the archetypical realist reflects a dominant theory of international relations: realism.  It builds on the work of others such as Thomas Hobbes and later Hans Morgenthau.  Almost all are people who wrote during a time of crisis in the world, and who saw the most evil which humans can do.

Realism fears anarchy, believes that without order the international system will slip into chaos.  They promote power politics and peace through strength not because they yearn for war but because they think that’s the only way to have stability.

Because the modern realist fears anarchy, desires order, and believes order and stability a moral good which can only be obtained by playing the game the way it must be played, they believe that international politics is neither moral nor immoral, but amoral.  In a world where the ruthless win, you give in to either evildoers or to anarchy if you aren’t smart enough to play the game well.  The goal must not be to expand your state or ideals, but simply protect the status quo and order of the system while keeping your state strong and prosperous.

Idealists and liberals – and ideological liberalism is really different than our political jargon, here it means in support of capitalism and individual human rights; most Republicans are ideologically liberal, as are most Democrats – tend to have a different view of human nature.  They look to the thought of Immanuel Kant, who argued that Republics could form a pacific alliance that would show the power of cooperation to be greater than that of conflict.

While they admit that humanity is capable of acting like Machiavelli notes, they argue that humans are essentially rational and self-interested, and in the right conditions they will make choices that can yield cooperation and stability.  A liberal would see the workings of the European Union as reflecting what can be; the world of the realist is only what happens when humans ignore their true self-interest.  If the negative view on human nature were accurate, wouldn’t there be much less cooperation in the world today?

Moreover, they argue that interdependence and economic links have made the world of power politics an anachronism.  The key is to build cooperative institutions which can work to assure that others will follow the same rules, thus allowing one to avoid the fear that the other side will deceive or cheat.

Others worry that realism could be a self-fulfilling prophecy.  If everyone acts like Machiavelli’s prince – and he admired Cesare Borgia, a brutal “war lord” at the time who did bring peace, if also repression, to places like Emilia and Romanga – then that’s the world we’ll get.  They argue that morality should not be divorced from international affairs, and thus propose such things as Just War theory, or other efforts to make world governed by laws and moral codes rather than the power of the strong in anarchy.  Based on the work of Hugo Grotius, who is considered the father of international law, and first applied the concept of ‘sovereignty’ to territorial units, many such as Hedley Bull and Robert Jervis argue that states can form a society based on rules and norms, which isn’t a realist style anarchy or war of all against all, but rather an anarchical society, where conflict is relatively rare.  They note Machiavelli can be right, but states have managed out of rational self-interest to construct rules of behavior – a kind of international morality – which limits the kind of evil and ruthlessness Machiavelli sees.

Humanists, including but not limited to feminists, note that realist thought is abstract and ignores the reality of human experience with the impact of such things as war and violence.  Realists care about power, but not the way politics impacts real people, destroying families, ruining lives, and causing pain and suffering.  Those things are acknowledged by realists as simply unfortunate byproducts of human nature.  Feminists also note the way that realist thought emphasizes masculine attributes and diminishes feminine ones, creating an imbalance.  Sure, one has to be able to understand power politics, but that can be balanced with such things as concern for human experience and knowledge that all acts have some ethical content.

IV.  Machiavelli’s relevance today

Perhaps the best way to begin this is through a thought experiment: what if we could take a time machine and snatch Machiavelli and bring him to 2005 and ask him to analyze the war in Iraq.  What would he say?

Would Machiavelli have gone to war in Iraq? My guess is that this would be a case where he’d have relied on deception, delusion, and secret deals, perhaps even with Saddam Hussein.  He clearly preferred that to force, and it would be hard to argue that force was necessary, and it obviously has proven to be risky.  But it’s not absolutely clear.

Modern realists are split on the subject.  Indeed, Hans Morgenthau, who borrowed directly from Machiavelli the notion of the amorality of the means in international relations in his 1948 theory, was one of the first to oppose US involvement in Vietnam, on the grounds that it was not in support of specific national interest, but rather about ideology and trying to spread our own beliefs about democracy.  For realists the key is national interest, not to spread democracy or some other crusade.

How would Machiavelli assess the war in Iraq? Here it seems to me pretty obvious that Machiavelli would assess it as a dismal failure.  He’d argue that if you are to fight a war, and you are a major power, you must come at it with everything you need to totally dominate.  He’d be appalled at the way the US has allowed itself to be weakened and humiliated by not having enough forces to control the country, but yet enough to create dissent at home and chaos in Iraq.  He’d also think the idea of spreading democracy or nation building was absurd; better to simply put an authoritarian leader in power who will be friendly to us.

Machiavelli and the World Today

It is tempting to say that our world is nothing like the Italian statelets of the early 16th century, but that would at best be an overstatement.  We may not be completely like that world, but there are parts of the world as chaotic.

Each person can make their call as to whether or not you think Machiavelli’s thought, or those of modern realists make more sense than others.  But Machiavelli’s relevance cannot be denied.  Any time someone justifies ruthless or disingenuous behavior because “that’s the way the game is played,” they’re noting that is/ought distinction emphasized by Machiavelli.  Any time in international affairs spying, deceit, dishonesty, disloyalty, and ruthlessness is justified by saying “this is how we have to act against an enemy like ours, or to protect our security,” they are directly following the Machiavellian perspective.

Machiavelli is the cynic who says that idealism is naïve, and can put aside sentimentality and emotion to do what is necessary to achieve his goals.  It should also not be forgotten that his willingness to accept deception, force and ruthlessness – his amorality – is accepted because it is necessary to achieve a greater moral good, order and stability in a polity.

The reality may be somewhere between Machiavelli and what might be considered is polar opposite: Mahatma Gandhi.

Gandhi denies Machiavelli’s distinction between the ends and the means (Kant did this as well, as did thinkers/activists such as Martin Luther King and Henry David Thoreau) and instead focus the unity of ends and means.  This argument claims that the means create the kind of end that ultimately is achieved; violence and unjust action as means will simply reinforce those kinds of behavior in whatever end is accomplished.  For Gandhi the oneness of humanity (and the self) was the truth, and violence and denial of this caused separation from that truth, and human suffering.  Gandhi would not be surprised that the century of realism was also the century of mass killing and violence: our attitudes on human nature and power are reflected in our political outcomes.  Gandhi would consider himself more realistic than the realist, whom he would think fooled by the temptation of petty power, and the illusion of short-term expediency.

Clearly in the world today more politicians are considered “Machiavellian” than “Gandhian,” and although we may admire Gandhi more than Machiavelli, the world does often seem to comport to Machiavelli’s expectations.  From Pistoia to Bosnia and Rwanda, we see that disorder and anarchy can breed immense evil.  From Cesare Borgia to perhaps Dick Cheney (or if you want to be bi-partisan here, some might add Hillary Clinton) we can see that politicians that put political expediency above moral concerns usually come out on top.

Yet Machiavelli’s world was one of tumult and change; Italy was a state in crisis, it was an era of anarchy and violence.  It would be wrong, I think, to take the pragmatic reflections of someone from that context and apply them universally.  Rather, we must understand Machiavelli in his context, and thereby glimpse a piece of the western mind, that rational and sometimes cold piece which sometimes needs to be brought forth to deal with chaos and danger.

Machiavelli fits in with other thinkers, and has something to say about the broad picture of politics, morality, and human nature.  But my hope is that we can create conditions where the kind of world confronted by Machiavelli becomes increasingly rare, and that the almost depraved nature he attributed to humans is less true human nature, and rather a result of the beliefs and culture of the times.  Perhaps we can construct a world where the pragmatic and expedient approach is also the moral and ethical approach.

Machiavelli would be skeptical, but there is a lot of cooperation in the world.  When I travel and meet people of different cultures, usually there is a friendliness and desire to help that seems universal; Rousseau would consider that the instinct to compassion.

One thing is certain, though: Machiavelli’s ideas can’t be ignored or dismissed simply because we do not wish them to be true.  He captures an aspect of politics that existed in Italy in the 16th century, and exists yet today.  The challenge to idealists and humanists is to not simply deny or reject Machiavelli, but confront what gives his ideas power centuries after they were written, and think seriously about what it might take to have a world where political expediency does not require amorality.  The challenge of the realist is clear and present: to talk about the “ought” question while ignoring the “is” question risks self-delusion.

I had my lecture written to this point, but as of last night I still couldn’t think of an interesting or slightly fun way to conclude it.  So, I gave up and watched TV.  I turned on the new ABC show Commander In Chief.  In that show, President Gina Davis was confronted with a case where terrorists were planning an attack on American schools around the country.  One of them had been captured, and her intelligence chief argued that they should use torture to try to get information to stop such an attack.  When she said she wasn’t ready to sacrifice our values to get that information, her intelligence chief, who could have been channeling Machiavelli, replied “well, maybe you aren’t ready to be President.” In other words, a Prince has to know when to sacrifice morality for the security of the people.  Clearly, these issues are as relevant today as they were in the 16th century.  Thank you.


Following the presentation the audience was invited to examine the collected works of Machiavelli translated into English in 1680.

Machiavelli portraits from Wikipedia and NNDB.

Text (c) Scott Erb

The photographs of the books may be used freely on non-commercial sites (no advertisements).  Please provide a link to this page with the image.


Erb, Scott.  "Machiavelli and Power Politics."  Paper presented at the University of Maine at Farmington, October 26, 2005.  Retrieved _______.  <>.


Marilyn Shea, 2005