A Special Supplement: The Question of Machiavelli

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Niccoló Machiavelli
Niccoló Machiavelli; drawing by David Levine


There is something surprising about the sheer number of interpretations of Machiavelli’s political opinions. There exist, even now, over a score of leading theories of how to interpret The Prince and The Discourses—apart from a cloud of subsidiary views and glosses. The bibliography of this is vast and growing faster than ever. While there may exist no more than the normal extent of disagreement about the meaning of particular terms or theses contained in these works, there is a startling degree of divergence about the central view, the basic political attitude of Machiavelli.

This phenomenon is easier to understand in the case of other thinkers whose opinions have continued to puzzle or agitate mankind—Plato, for example, or Rousseau or Hegel or Marx. But then it might be said that Plato wrote in a world and in a language that we cannot be sure we understand; that Rousseau, Hegel, Marx were prolific theorists and that their works are scarcely models of clarity or consistency. But The Prince is a short book: its style is usually described as being singularly lucid, succinct, and pungent—a model of clear Renaissance prose. The Discourses are not, as treatises on politics go, of undue length and they are equally clear and definite. Yet there is no consensus about the significance of either; they have not been absorbed into the texture of traditional political theory; they continue to arouse passionate feelings; The Prince has evidently excited the interest and admiration of some of the most formidable men of action of the last four centuries, especially our own, men not normally addicted to reading classical texts.

There is evidently something peculiarly disturbing about what Machiavelli said or implied, something that has caused profound and lasting uneasiness. Modern scholars have pointed out certain real or apparent inconsistencies between the (for the most part) republican sentiment of The Discourses (and The Histories) and the advice to absolute rulers in The Prince. Indeed there is a great difference of tone between the two treatises, as well as chronological puzzles: this raises problems about Machiavelli’s character, motives, and convictions which for three hundred years and more have formed a rich field of investigation and speculation for literary and linguistic scholars, psychologists, and historians.

But it is not this that has shocked Western feeling. Nor can it be only Machiavelli’s “realism” or his advocacy of brutal or unscrupulous or ruthless politics that has so deeply upset so many later thinkers and driven some of them to explain or explain away his advocacy of force and fraud. The fact that the wicked are seen to flourish or that wicked courses appear to pay has never been very remote from the consciousness of mankind. The Bible, Herodotus, Thucydides, Plato, Aristotle—to take only some of the fundamental works of Western culture—the characters of Jacob or Joshua, Samuel’s advice to Saul, Thucydides’ Melian dialogue or his account of at least one ferocious but rescinded Athenian resolution, the philosophies of Thrasymachus and Callicles, Aristotle’s more cynical advice in The Politics, and, after these, Carneades’ speeches to the Roman Senate as described by Cicero, Augustine’s view of the secular state from one vantage point, and Marsilio’s from another—all these had cast enough light on political realities to shock the credulous and naïve out of uncritical idealism.

The explanation can scarcely lie in Machiavelli’s tough-mindedness alone, even though he did perhaps dot the i’s and cross the t’s more sharply than anyone before him. Even if the initial shock—the reactions of, say, Pole or Gentillet—is to be so explained, this does not account for the reactions of one who had read or even heard about the opinions of Hobbes or Spinoza or Hegel or the Jacobins and their heirs. Something else is surely needed to account both for the continuing horror and for the differences among the commentators. The two phenomena may not be unconnected. To indicate the nature of the latter phenomenon one may cite only the best known interpretations of Machiavelli’s political views produced since the sixteenth century.

According to Alberico Gentile and the late Professor Garrett Mattingly, the author of The Prince wrote a satire—for he certainly cannot literally have meant what he said. For Spinoza, Rousseau, Ugo Foscolo, Signor Ricci (who introduces The Prince to the readers of the Oxford Classics), it is a cautionary tale; for whatever else he was, Machiavelli was a passionate patriot, a democrat, a believer in liberty, and The Prince must have been intended (Spinoza is particularly clear on this) to warn men of what tyrants could be and do, the better to resist them. Perhaps the author could not write openly with two rival powers—those of the Church and of the Medici—eying him with equal (and not unjustified) suspicion. The Prince is therefore a satire (though no work seems to me to read less like one).

For Professor A. H. Gilbert it is anything but this—it is a typical piece of its period, a mirror for princes, a genre exercise common enough in the Renaissance and before (and after) it, with very obvious borrowings and “echoes”; more gifted than most of these, and certainly more hard-boiled (and influential), but not so very different in style, content, or intention.

Professors Giuseppe Prezzolini and Hiram Haydn, more plausibly, regard it as an anti-Christian piece (in this following Fichte and others) and see it as an attack on the Church and all her principles, a defense of the pagan view of life. Professor Toffanin, however, thinks Machiavelli was a Christian, though a somewhat peculiar one, a view from which Marchese Ridolfi, his most distinguished living biographer, and Father Leslie Walker (in his English edition of The Discourses) do not wholly dissent. Alderisio, indeed, regards him as a passionate and sincere Catholic, although he does not go quite so far as the anonymous nineteenth-century compiler of Religious Maxims faithfully extracted from the works of Niccolò Machiavelli (referred to by Ridolfi in the last chapter of his biography).

For Benedetto Croce and all the many scholars who have followed him, Machiavelli is an anguished humanist, and one who, so far from seeking to soften the impression made by the crimes that he describes, laments the vices of men which make such wicked courses politically unavoidable—a moralist who wrings his hands over a world in which political ends can only be achieved by means that are morally evil, and therefore the man who divorced the province of politics from that of ethics. But for the Swiss scholars Wälder, Kaegi, and von Muralt, he is a peace-loving humanist, who believed in order, stability, pleasure in life, in the disciplining of the aggressive elements of our nature into the kind of civilized harmony that he found in its finest form among the well-armed Swiss democracies of his own time.

For the great sixteenth-century neo-Stoic Justus Lipsius and later for Algarotti (in 1759) and Alfieri (in 1796) he was a passionate patriot who saw in Cesare Borgia the man who, if he had lived, might have liberated Italy from the barbarous French and Spaniards and Austrians who were trampling on her and had reduced her to misery and poverty, decadence and chaos. The late Professor Mattingly could not credit this because it was obvious to him, and he did not doubt that it must have been no less obvious to Machiavelli, that Cesare was incompetent, a mountebank, a squalid failure; while Professor Vögelin seems to suggest that it is not Cesare, but (of all men) Tamerlane who was hovering before Machiavelli’s fancy-laden gaze.

For Cassirer, Renaudet, Olschki, and Sir Keith Hancock, Machiavelli is a cold technician, ethically and politically uncommitted, an objective analyst of politics, a morally neutral scientist, who (K. Schmid tells us) anticipated Galileo in applying inductive methods to social and historical material, and had no moral interest in the use made of his technical discoveries—being equally ready to place them at the disposal of liberators and despots, good men and scoundrels. Renaudet describes his method as “purely positivist,” Cassirer, as concerned with “political statics.” But for Federico Chabod he is not coldly calculating at all, but passionate to the point of unrealism. Ridolfi, too, speaks of il grande appassionato and De Caprariis thinks him positively visionary.

For Herder he is, above all, a marvelous mirror of his age, a man sensitive to the contours of his time, who faithfully described what others did not admit or recognize, an inexhaustible mine of acute contemporary observation; and this is accepted by Ranke and Macaulay, Burd, and, in our day, Gennaro Sasso. For Fichte he is a man of deep insight into the real historical (or super-historical) forces that mold men and transform their morality—in particular, a man who rejected Christian principles for those of reason, political unity, and centralization. For Hegel he is the man of genius who saw the need for uniting a chaotic collection of small and feeble principalities into a coherent whole. His specific nostrums may excite disgust, but they are accidents due to the conditions of their own time, now long past. Yet, however obsolete his precepts, he understood something move important—the demands of his own age—that the hour had struck for the birth of the modern, centralized, political state, for the formation of which he “established the truly necessary fundamental principles.”

The thesis that Machiavelli was above all an Italian and a patriot, speaking above all to his own generation, and if not solely to Florentines, at any rate only to Italians, and that he must be judged solely, or at least mainly, in terms of his historical context is a position common to Herder and Hegel, Macaulay and Burd.1 Yet for Professors Butterfield and Ramat he suffers from an equal lack of scientific and historical sense. Obsessed by classical authors, his gaze is on an imaginary past; he deduces his political maxims in an unhistorical and a priori manner from dogmatic axioms (according to Professor Huovinen)—a method that was already becoming obsolete at the time at which he was writing. In this respect his slavish imitation of antiquity is judged to be inferior to the historical sense and sagacious judgment of his friend Guicciardini (so much for the discovery in him of inklings of modern scientific method).

For Bacon (as for Spinoza, and later for Lassalle) he is above all the supreme realist and avoider of utopian fantasies. Boccalini is shocked by him, but cannot deny the accuracy or importance of his observations; so is Meinecke for whom he is the father of Staatsraison, with which he plunged a dagger into the body politic of the West, inflicting a wound which only Hegel would know how to heal. (This is Meinecke’s optimistic verdict half a century ago, implicitly withdrawn after the Second World War.)

But for Koenig he is not a tough-minded cynic at all, but an aesthete seeking to escape from the chaotic and squalid world of the decadent Italy of his time into a dream of pure art, a man not interested in practice who painted an ideal political landscape much (if I understand this view correctly) as Piero della Francesca painted an ideal city. The Prince is to be read as an idyl in the best neoclassical, neo-pastoral, Renaissance style. Yet De Sanctis in the second volume of his History of Italian Literature denies The Prince a place in the humanist tradition on account of Machiavelli’s hostility to imaginative visions.

For Renzo Sereni it is a fantasy indeed but of a bitterly frustrated man, and its dedication is the “desperate plea” of a victim of “severe and constant misfortune.” A psychoanalytic interpretation of one queer episode in Machiavelli’s life is offered in support of this thesis.

For Macaulay he is a political pragmatist and a patriot who cared most of all for the independence of Florence, and acclaimed any form of rule that would ensure it. Marx calls The Discourses a “genuine masterpiece,” and Engels (in the Dialectics of Nature) speaks of Machiavelli as “one of the giants of the Enlightenment,” a man “free from petit-bourgeois outlook….” Soviet criticism is more ambivalent.2

For the restorers of the short-lived Florentine republic he was evidently nothing but a venal and treacherous toady, anxious to serve any master, who had unsuccessfully tried to flatter the Medici in the hope of gaining their favor. Professor Sabine in his well-known textbook views him as an anti-metaphysical empiricist, a Hume or Popper before his time, free from obscurantist, theological, and metaphysical preconceptions. For Antonio Gramsci he is above all a revolutionary innovator who directs his shafts against the obsolescent feudal aristocracy and Papacy and their mercenaries. His Prince is a myth which signifies the dictatorship of new, progressive forces: ultimately of the coming role of the masses and of the need for the emergence of new politically realistic leaders—The Prince is “an anthropomorphic symbol” of the hegemony of the “collective will.”

Like Jakob Burckhardt and Friedrich Meinecke, Professors C. J. Friedrich and Charles Singleton maintain that he has a developed conception of the state as a work of art. The great men who have founded or maintain human associations are conceived as analogous to artists whose aim is beauty, and whose essential qualification is understanding of their material—they are molders of men, as sculptors are molders of marble or clay. Politics, in this view, leaves the realm of ethics and approaches that of aesthetics. Singleton argues that Machiavelli’s originality consists in his view of political action as a form of what Aristotle called “making”—the goal of which is a non-moral artifact, an object of beauty or use external to man (in this case a particular arrangement of human affairs)—and not of “doing” (where Aristotle and Aquinas had placed it), the goal of which is internal and moral, not the creation of an object, but a particular kind—the right way—of living or being.

This position is not distant from that of Villari, Croce, and others, inasmuch as it ascribes to Machiavelli the divorce of politics from ethics. Professor Singleton transfers Machiavelli’s conception of politics to the region of art, which is conceived as being amoral. Croce gives it an independent status of its own: of politics for politics’ sake.

But the commonest view of him, at least as a political thinker, is still that of most Elizabethans, dramatists and scholars alike, for whom he is a man inspired by the Devil to lead good men to their doom, the great subverter, the teacher of evil, le docteur de la scélératesse, the inspirer of St. Bartholomew’s Eve, the original of Iago. This is the “murderous Machiavel” of the famous 400 references in Elizabethan literature.

His name adds a new ingredient to the more ancient figure of Old Nick. For the Jesuits he is “the devil’s partner in crime,” “a dishonorable writer and an unbeliever,” and The Prince is, in Bertrand Russell’s words, “a handbook for gangsters” (compare with this Mussolini’s description of it as a “vade mecum for statesmen,” a view tacitly shared, perhaps, by other heads of state). This is the view common to Protestants and Catholics, Gentillet and François Hotman, Cardinal Pole, Bodin, and Frederick the Great, followed by the authors of all the many anti-Machiavels, the latest of whom are Jacques Maritain and Professor Leo Strauss.

There is prima facie something strange about so violent a disparity of judgments. What other thinker has presented so many facets to the students of his ideas? What other writer—and he not even a recognized philosopher—has caused his readers to disagree about his purposes so deeply and so widely? Yet I must repeat, Machiavelli does not write obscurely; nearly all his interpreters praise him for his terse, dry, clear prose.

What is it that has proved so arresting to so many?


Machiavelli, we are often told, was not concerned with morals. The most influential of all modern interpretations—that of Benedetto Croce, followed to some extent by Chabod, Russo, and others—is that Machiavelli, in E. W. Cochrane’s words, “did not deny the validity of Christian morality, and did not pretend that a crime required by political necessity was any the less a crime. Rather he discovered…that this morality simply did not hold in political affairs, and that any policy based on the assumption that it did, would end in disaster. His factual objective description of contemporary practices is a sign not of cynicism or detachment but of anguish.”

This account, it seems to me, contains two basic misinterpretations. The first is that the clash is one between “this [i.e., Christian] morality” and “political necessity.” The implication is that there is an incompatibility between, on the one hand, morality—the region of ultimate values sought after for their own sakes, values recognition of which alone enables us to speak of “crimes” or morally to justify and condemn anything; and on the other, politics—the art of adapting means to ends, the region of technical skills, of what Kant was to call “hypothetical imperatives,” which take the form “If you want to achieve x, do y” (e.g., betray a friend, kill an innocent man) without necessarily asking whether x is itself intrinsically desirable or not. This is the heart of the divorce of politics from ethics which Croce and many others attribute to Machiavelli. But this seems to me to rest on a mistake.

If ethics is confined to, let us say, Stoic or Christian or Kantian, or even some types of utilitarian ethics, where the source and criterion of value are the word of God, or eternal reason, or some inner sense or knowledge of good and evil, of right and wrong, voices which speak directly to the individual consciousness with absolute authority, this might have been tenable. But there exists an equally time-honored ethics, that of the Greek polis, of which Aristotle provided the clearest exposition. Since men are beings made by nature to live in communities, their communal purposes are the ultimate values from which the rest are derived, or with which their ends as individuals are identified. Politics—the art of living in a polis—is not an activity that can be dispensed with by those who prefer private life: it is not like seafaring or sculpture which those who do not wish to do so need not undertake. Political conduct is intrinsic to being a human being at a certain stage of civilization, and what it demands is intrinsic to living a successful human life.

Ethics so conceived—the code of conduct or the ideal to be pursued by the individual—cannot be known save by understanding the purpose and character of his polis; still less be capable of being divorced from it, even in thought. This is the kind of pre-Christian morality that Machiavelli takes for granted. “It is well-known,” says Benedetto Croce, “that Machiavelli discovered the necessity and autonomy of politics, which is beyond moral good and evil, which has its own laws against which it is useless to rebel, which cannot be exorcised and made to vanish by holy water.” Beyond good and evil in some non-Aristotelian, religious, or liberal-Kantian sense; but not beyond the good and evil of those communities, ancient or modern, whose sacred values are social through and through. The arts of colonization or of mass murder (let us say) may also have their “own laws against which it is useless to rebel” for those who wish to practice them successfully. But if or when these laws collide with those of morality, it is possible, and indeed morally imperative, to abandon such activities.

But if Aristotle and Machiavelli are right about what men are (and should be—and Machiavelli’s ideal is, particularly in The Discourses, drawn in vivid colors), political activity is intrinsic to human nature, and while individuals here and there may opt out, the mass of mankind cannot do so; and its communal life determines the moral duties of its members. Hence in opposing the “laws of politics” to “good and evil” Machiavelli is not contrasting two “autonomous” spheres of acting—the “political” and the “moral”: he is contrasting his own “political” ethics with another ethical conception which governs the lives of persons who are of no interest to him. He is indeed rejecting one morality—the Christian—but not in favor of something that is not a morality at all but a game of skill, an activity called political, which is not concerned with ultimate human ends and is therefore not ethical at all.

He is indeed rejecting Christian ethics, but in favor of another system, another moral universe—the world of Pericles or of Scipio, or even of the Duke Valentino, a society geared to ends just as ultimate as the Christian faith, a society in which men fight and are ready to die for (public) ends which they pursue for their own sakes. They are choosing not a realm of means (called politics) as opposed to a realm of ends (called morals), but opt for a rival (Roman or classical) morality, an alternative realm of ends. In other, words the conflict is between two moralities, Christian and pagan (or as some wish to call it, aesthetic), not between autonomous realms of morals and politics.

Nor is this a mere question of nomenclature, unless politics is conceived as being concerned (as it usually is) not with means, skills, methods, technique, “knowhow” (whether or not governed by unbreakable rules of its own), but with an independent kingdom of ends of its own, sought for their own sake; unless politics is conceived as a substitute for ethics. When Machiavelli said (in a letter to Guicciardini) that he loved his country more than his soul, he revealed his basic moral beliefs—a position with which Croce does not credit him.

The second implausible hypothesis in this connection is the idea that Machiavelli viewed the crimes of his society with anguish. (Chabod in his excellent study, unlike Croce and some Croceans, does not insist on this.) This entails that he accepts the dire necessities of the raison d’état with reluctance, because he sees no alternative. But there is no evidence for this: there is no trace of agony in his political works, any more than in his plays or letters.

The pagan world that Machiavelli prefers is built on recognition of the need for systematic guile and force by rulers, and he seems to think it natural and not at all exceptional or morally agonizing that they should employ these weapons wherever they are needed. Nor does he seem to think exceptional the distinction he draws between the rulers and the ruled. The subjects or citizens must be Romans too: they do not need the virtù of the rulers, but if they also cheat, Machiavelli’s maxims will not work; they must be poor, militarized, honest, and obedient; if they lead Christian lives, they will accept too uncomplainingly the rule of mere bullies and scoundrels. No sound republic can be built of such materials as these. Theseus and Romulus, Moses and Cyrus did not preach humility or a view of this world as but a temporary resting place for their subjects.

But it is the first misinterpretation that goes deepest, that which represents Machiavelli as caring little or nothing for moral issues. This is surely not borne out by his own language. Anyone whose thought revolves round central concepts such as the good and the bad, the corrupt and the pure, has an ethical scale in mind in terms of which he gives moral praise and blame. Machiavelli’s values are not Christian, but they are moral values.

On this crucial point Professor Hans Baron’s criticism of the Croce-Russo thesis seems to me correct. Against the view that for Machiavelli politics were beyond moral criticism Professor Baron cites some of the passionately patriotic, republican, and libertarian passages in The Discourses in which the (moral) qualities of the citizens of a republic are favorably compared with those of the subjects of a despotic prince. The last chapter of The Prince is scarcely the work of a detached, morally neutral observer, or of a self-absorbed man, preoccupied with his own inner personal problems, who looks on public life “with anguish” as the graveyard of moral principles. Like Aristotle’s or Cicero’s, Machiavelli’s morality was social and not individual: but it was a morality no less than theirs, not an amoral region, beyond good or evil.

It does not, of course, follow that he was not often fascinated by the techniques of political life as such. The advice given equally to conspirators and their enemies, the professional appraisal of the methods of Oliverotto or Sforza or Baglioni spring from typical humanist curiosity, the search for an applied science of politics, fascination by knowledge for its own sake, whatever the implications. But the moral ideal, that of the citizen of the Roman Republic, is never far away. Political skills are valued solely as means—for their effectiveness in re-creating conditions in which sick men recover their health and can flourish. And this is precisely what Aristotle would have called the moral end proper to man.

This leaves still with us the thorny problem of the relation of The Prince to The Discourses. But whatever the disparities, the central strain which runs through both is one and the same. The vision, the dream—typical of many writers who see themselves as tough-minded realists—of the strong, united, effective, morally regenerated, splendid, and victorious patria, whether it is saved by the virtù of one man or many, remains central and constant. Political judgments, attitudes toward individuals or states, toward Fortuna and necessità, evaluation of methods, degree of optimism, the fundamental mood—these vary between one work and another, perhaps within the same exposition. But the basic values, the ultimate end—Machiavelli’s beatific vision—does not vary.

His vision is social and political. Hence the traditional view of him as simply a specialist in how to get the better of others, a vulgar cynic who says that Sunday school precepts are all very well, but in a world full of evil men, a man must lie, kill, and betray if he is to get somewhere, is incorrect. The philosophy summarized by “eat or be eaten, beat or be beaten”—the kind of worldly wisdom to be found in, say, Lappo Mazzei or Giovanni Morelli, with whom he has been compared, is not what is central in him. Machiavelli is not specially concerned with the opportunism of ambitious individuals; the ideal before his eyes is a shining vision of Florence or of Italy. In this respect he is a typically impassioned humanist of the Renaissance, save that his ideal is not artistic or cultural but political, unless the state—or regenerated Italy—is considered, in Burckhardt’s sense, as an artistic goal. This is very different from mere advocacy of tough-mindedness as such, or of a realism irrespective of its goal.

Machiavelli’s values, I should like to repeat, are not instrumental but moral and ultimate, and he calls for great sacrifices in their name. For them he rejects the rival scale—the Christian principles of ozio and meekness, not, indeed, as being defective in themselves, but as inapplicable to the conditions of real life; and real life for him means not merely (as is sometimes alleged) life as it was lived around him in Italy—the crimes, hypocrisies, brutalities, follies of Florence, Rome, Venice, Milan. This is not the touchstone of reality. His purpose is not to leave unchanged or to reproduce this kind of life, but to lift it to a new plane, to rescue Italy from squalor and slavery, to restore her to health and sanity.

The moral ideal for which he thinks no sacrifice too great—the welfare of the patria—is for him the highest form of social existence attainable by man; but attainable, not unattainable; not a world outside the limits of human capacity, given human beings as we know them, that is, creatures compounded out of those emotional, intellectual, and physical properties of which history and observation provide examples. He asks for men improved but not transfigured, not superhuman; not for a world of angelic beings unknown on this earth, who, even if they could be created, could not be called human.

If you object to the political methods recommended because they seem to you morally detestable, if you refuse to embark upon them because they are, to use Ritter’s word, “erschreckend,” too frightening, Machiavelli has no answer, no argument. In that case you are perfectly entitled to lead a morally good life, be a private citizen (or a monk), seek some corner of your own. But, in that event, you must not make yourself responsible for the lives of others or expect good fortune; in a material sense you must expect to be ignored or destroyed.

In other words you can opt out of the public world, but in that case he has nothing to say to you, for it is to the public world and to the men in it that he addresses himself. This is expressed most clearly in his notorious advice to the victor who has to hold down a conquered province. He advises a clean sweep: new governors, new titles, new powers, and new men; “He should make the poor rich and the rich poor, as David did when he became king…who heaped riches on the needy and dismissed the wealthy empty-handed.” Besides this, he should destroy the old cities and build new ones, and transfer the inhabitants from one place to another. In short, he should leave nothing unchanged in that province, so that there should be “neither rank, nor grade, nor honor, nor wealth that would not be recognized as coming from him.” He should take Philip of Macedon as his model, who “by proceeding in that manner became…master of all Greece.”

Now Philip’s historian informs us—Machiavelli goes on to say—that he transferred the inhabitants from one province to another “as shepherds move their flocks” from one place to another. “Doubtless,” Machiavelli continues, “these means are cruel and destructive of all civilized life, and neither Christian nor even human, and should be avoided by everyone. In fact, the life of a private citizen would be preferable to that of a king at the expense of the ruin of so many human beings. Nevertheless, whoever is unwilling to adopt the first and humane course must, if he wishes to maintain his power, follow the latter evil course. But men generally decide upon a middle course which is most hazardous; for they know neither how to be wholly good nor wholly bad, and so lose both worlds.”

This is plain enough. There are two worlds, that of personal morality and that of public organization. There are two ethical codes, both ultimate; not two “autonomous” regions, one of “ethics,” another of “politics,” but two (for him) exhaustive alternatives between two conflicting systems of value. If a man chooses the “first, humane course,” he must presumably give up all hope of Athens and Rome, of a noble and glorious society in which human beings can thrive and grow strong, proud, wise, and productive. Indeed, he must abandon all hope of a tolerable life on earth: for men cannot live outside society; they will not survive collectively if they are led by men who (like Soderini) are influenced by the first, “private” morality; they will not be able to realize their minimal goals as men; they will end in a state of moral, not merely political, degradation. But if a man chooses, as Machiavelli himself has done, the second course, then he must suppress his private qualms, if he has any, for it is certain that those who are too squeamish during the remaking of a society, or even during its pursuit and maintenance of its power and glory, will go to the wall. Whoever has chosen to make an omelette cannot do so without breaking eggs.

Machiavelli is sometimes accused of too much relish at the prospect of breaking eggs—almost for its own sake. This is unjust. He thinks these ruthless methods are necessary—necessary as means to provide good results, good in terms not of a Christian, but of a secular, humanistic, naturalistic morality. His most shocking examples show this. The most famous, perhaps, is that of Giovanpaolo Baglioni, who caught Julius II during one of his campaigns, and let him escape, when in Machiavelli’s view he might have destroyed him and his cardinals and thereby committed a crime “the greatness of which would have overshadowed the infamy and all the danger that could possibly result from it.”

Like Frederick the Great (who called Machiavelli “the enemy of mankind” and followed his advice),3 Machiavelli is, in effect, saying “Le vin est tiré: il faut le boire.” Once you embark on a plan for the transformation of a society you must carry it through no matter at what cost: to fumble, to retreat, to be overcome by scruples is to betray your chosen cause. To be a physician is to be a professional, ready to burn, to cauterize, to amputate; if that is what the disease requires, then to stop halfway because of personal qualms, or some rule unrelated to your art and its technique, is a sign of muddle and weakness, and will always give you the worst of both worlds. And there are at least two worlds: each of them has much, indeed everything, to be said for it; but they are two and not one. One must learn to choose between them and, having chosen, not look back.

There is more than one world, and more than one set of virtues: confusion between them is disastrous. One of the chief illusions caused by ignoring this is the Platonic-Hebraic-Christian view that virtuous rulers create virtuous men. This, according to Machiavelli, is not true. Generosity is a virtue, but not in princes. A generous prince will ruin the citizens by taxing them too heavily, a mean prince (and Machiavelli does not say that meanness is a good quality in private men) will save the purses of the citizens and so add to public welfare. A kind ruler—and kindness is a virtue—may let intriguers and stronger characters dominate him, and so cause chaos and corruption.

Other writers of “Mirrors for Princes” are also rich in such maxims, but they do not draw the implications. Machiavelli’s use of such generalizations is not theirs; he is not moralizing at large, but illustrating a specific thesis: that the nature of men dictates a public morality that is different from, and may come into collision with, the virtues of men who profess to believe in, and try to act by, Christian precepts. These may not be wholly unrealizable in quiet times, in private life, but they lead to ruin outside this. The analogy between a state and people and an individual is a fallacy: “The state and people are governed in a different way from an individual.” “It is not the well-being of individuals that makes cities great, but of the community.”

One may disagree with this. One may argue that the greatness, glory, and wealth of a state are hollow ideals, or detestable, if the citizens are oppressed and treated as mere means to the grandeur of the whole. Like Christian thinkers, or like Constant and the liberals, or like Sismondi and the theorists of the welfare state, one may prefer a state in which citizens are prosperous even though the public treasury is poor, in which government is neither centralized nor omnipotent, nor, perhaps, sovereign at all, but the citizens enjoy a wide degree of individual freedom; one may contrast this favorably with the great authoritarian concentrations of power built by Alexander or Frederick the Great or Napoleon, or the great autocrats of the twentieth century.

If so, one is simply contradicting Machiavelli’s thesis: he sees no merit in such loose political textures. They cannot last. Men cannot long survive in such conditions. He is convinced that states that have lost the appetite for power are doomed to decadence and are likely to be destroyed by their more vigorous and better armed neighbors; and Vico and modern “realistic” thinkers have echoed this.


Machiavelli is possessed by a clear, intense, narrow vision of a society in which human talents can be made to contribute to a powerful and splendid whole. He prefers republican rule in which the interests of the rulers do not conflict with those of the ruled. But (as Macaulay perceived) he prefers a well-governed principate to a decadent republic, and the qualities he admires and thinks capable of being welded into—indeed, indispensable to—a durable society are not different in The Prince and The Discourses: energy, boldness, practical skill, imagination, vitality, self-discipline, shrewdness, public spirit, good fortune, antiqua virtus, virtù—firmness in adversity, strength of character, as celebrated by Xenophon or Livy. All his more shocking maxims—those responsible for the “murderous Machiavel” of the Elizabethan stage—are descriptions of methods of realizing this single end: the classical, humanistic, and patriotic vision that dominates him.

Let me cite the best known of his most notoriously wicked pieces of advice to princes. One must employ terrorism or kindness, as the case dictates. Severity is usually more effective, but humanity, in some situations, brings better fruit. You may excite fear but not hatred, for hatred will destroy you in the end. It is best to keep men poor and on a permanent war footing, for this will be an antidote to the two great enemies of obedience—ambition and boredom—and the ruled will then feel in constant need of great men to lead them (the twentieth century offers us only too much evidence for this sharp insight). Competition—divisions between classes—in a society is desirable, for it generates energy and ambition in the right degree.

Religion must be promoted even though it may be false, provided it is of a kind that preserves social solidarity and promotes manly virtues, as Christianity has historically failed to do. When you confer benefits (he says, following Aristotle), do so yourself; but if dirty work is to be done, let others do it, for then they, not the prince, will be blamed and the prince can gain favor by duly cutting off their heads: for men prefer vengeance and security to liberty. Do what you must do in any case, but try to represent it as a special favor to the people. If you must commit a crime do not advertise it beforehand, since otherwise your enemies may destroy you before you destroy them. If your action must be drastic, do it in one fell swoop, not in agonizing stages. Do not be surrounded by over-powerful servants—victorious generals are best got rid of, otherwise they may get rid of you.

You may be violent and use your power to overawe, but you must not break your own laws, for that destroys confidence and disintegrates the social texture. Men should either be caressed or annihilated; appeasement and neutralism are always fatal. Excellent plans without arms are not enough or else Florence would still be a republic. Rulers must live in the constant expectation of war. Success creates more devotion than an amiable character; remember the fate of Pertinax, Savonarola, Soderini. Severus was unscrupulous and cruel, Ferdinand of Spain is treacherous and crafty: but by practicing the arts of both the lion and the fox they escaped both snares and wolves. Men will be false to you unless you compel them to be true by creating circumstances in which falsehood will not pay. And so on.

These examples are typical of “the devil’s partner.” Now and then doubts assail our author: he wonders whether a man high-minded enough to labor to create a state admirable by Roman standards will be tough enough to use the violent and wicked means prescribed; and, conversely, whether a sufficiently ruthless and brutal man will be disinterested enough to compass the public good which alone justifies the evil means. Yet Moses and Theseus, Romulus and Cyrus combined these properties.4 What has been once can be again: the implication is optimistic.

These maxims have one property in common: they are designed to create or resurrect or maintain an order that will satisfy what the author conceives as men’s most permanent interests. Machiavelli’s values may be erroneous, dangerous, odious; but he is in earnest. He is not cynical. The end is always the same: a state conceived after the analogy of Periclean Athens, or Sparta, but above all the Roman Republic. Such an end, for which men naturally crave (of this he thinks that history and observation provide conclusive evidence), “excuses” any means. In judging means, look only to the end: if the state goes under, all is lost. Hence the famous paragraph in the forty-first chapter of the third book of The Discourses where he says:

When the very safety of the country depends upon the resolution to be taken, no considerations of justice or injustice, humanity or cruelty, not of glory or of infamy, should be allowed to prevail. But putting all other considerations aside, the only question should be “What course will save the life and liberty of the country?”

The French have reasoned thus, and the “majesty of their King and the greatness of France” have come from it. Romulus could not have founded Rome without killing Remus. Brutus would not have preserved the republic if he did not kill his sons. Moses and Theseus, Romulus, Cyrus, and the liberators of Athens had to destroy in order to build. Such conduct, so far from being condemned, is held up to admiration by the classical historians and the Bible. Machiavelli is their admirer and faithful spokesman.

What is there, then, about his words, about his tone, which has caused such tremors among his readers? Not, indeed, in his own lifetime—there was a delayed reaction of some quarter of a century. But after that it is one of continuous and mounting horror. Fichte, Hegel, Treitschke “reinterpreted” his doctrines and assimilated them to their own views. But the sense of horror was not thereby greatly mitigated. It is evident that the effect of the shock that he administered was not a temporary one: it has lasted almost into our own day.

Leaving aside the historical problem of why there was no immediate contemporary criticism, let us consider the continuous discomfort caused to its readers during the four centuries that have passed since The Prince was placed upon the Index. The great originality, the tragic implications of Machiavelli’s theses seem to me to reside in their relation to a Christian civilization. It was all very well to live by the light of pagan ideals in pagan times; but to preach paganism more than a thousand years after the triumph of Christianity was to do so after the loss of innocence—and to be forcing men to make a conscious choice. The choice is painful because it is a choice between two entire worlds. Men have lived in both, and fought and died to preserve them against each other. Machiavelli has opted for one of them, and he is prepared to commit crimes for its sake.

In killing, deceiving, betraying, Machiavelli’s princes and republicans are doing evil things not condonable in terms of common morality. It is Machiavelli’s great merit that he does not deny this. Marsilio, Hobbes, Spinoza, and, in their own fashion, Hegel and Marx did try to deny it. So did many a defender of the raison d’état, Imperialist and Populist, Catholic and Protestant. These thinkers argue for a single moral system, and seek to show that the morality which justifies, and indeed demands, such deeds is continuous with, and a more rational form of, the confused ethical beliefs of the uninstructed morality which forbids them absolutely.

From the vantage point of the great social objectives in the name of which these (prima facie wicked) acts are to be performed, they will be seen (so the argument goes) as no longer wicked, but as rational—demanded by the very nature of things, by the common good, or man’s true ends, or the dialectic of history—condemned only by those who cannot or will not see a large enough segment of the logical or theological or metaphysical or historical pattern; misjudged, denounced only by the spiritually blind or short-sighted. At worst, these “crimes” are discords demanded by the larger harmony, and therefore, to those who hear this harmony, no longer discordant.

Machiavelli is not a defender of any such abstract theory. It does not occur to him to employ such casuistry. He is transparently honest and clear. In choosing the life of a statesman, or even the life of a citizen with enough civic sense to want his state to be as successful and splendid as possible, a man commits himself to rejection of Christian behavior.5 It may be that Christians are right about the well-being of the individual soul, taken outside the social or political context. But the well-being of the state is not the same as the well-being of the individual—“they cannot be governed in the same way.” You have made your choice: the only crimes are weakness, cowardice, stupidity which may cause you to draw back in midstream and fail.

Compromise with current morality leads to bungling, which is always despicable, and when practiced by statesmen involves men in ruin. The end “excuses” the means, however horrible these may be in terms of even pagan ethics, if it is (in terms of the ideal of Thucydides or Polybius, Cicero or Livy) lofty enough. Brutus was right to kill his children: he saved Rome. Soderini did not have the stomach to perpetrate such deeds, and ruined Florence. Savonarola, who had sound ideas about austerity and moral strength and corruption, perished because he did not realize that an unarmed prophet will always go to the gallows.

If one can produce the right result by using the devotion and affection of men, let this be done by all means. There is no value in causing suffering as such. But if one cannot, then Moses, Romulus, Theseus, Cyrus are the exemplars, and fear must be employed. There is no sinister satanism in Machiavelli, nothing of Dostoevsky’s great sinner, pursuing evil for evil’s sake. To Dostoevsky’s famous question “Is everything permitted?” Machiavelli, who for Dostoevsky would surely have been an atheist, answers, “Yes, if the end—that is, the pursuit of a society’s basic interests in a specific situation—cannot be realized in any other way.”

This position has not been properly understood by some of those who claim to be not unsympathetic to Machiavelli. Figgis, for example, thinks that he “permanently suspended the habeas corpus of the human race,” that is to say, that he advocated methods of terrorism because for him the situation was always critical, always desperate, so that he confused ordinary political principles with rules needed, if at all, only in extreme cases.

Others—perhaps the majority of his interpreters—look on him as the originator, or at least a defender, of what later came to be called “raison d’état,” “Staatsraison,” “Ragion di Stato“—the justification of immoral acts when undertaken on behalf of the state in exceptional circumstances. More than one scholar has pointed out, reasonably enough, that the notion that desperate cases require desperate remedies—that “necessity knows no law”—is to be found not only in antiquity but equally in Aquinas and Dante and other medieval writers long before Bellarmine or Machiavelli.

These parallels seem to me to rest on a deep but characteristic misunderstanding of Machiavelli’s thesis. He is not saying that while in normal situations current morality—that is, the Christian or semi-Christian code of ethics—should prevail, yet abnormal conditions can occur, in which the entire social structure in which alone this code can function becomes jeopardized, and that in emergencies of this kind acts that are usually regarded as wicked and rightly forbidden are justified.

This is the position of, among others, those who think that all morality ultimately rests on the existence of certain institutions—say, Roman Catholics who regard the existence of the Church and the Papacy as indispensable to Christianity, or nationalists who see in the political power of a nation the sole source of spiritual life. Such persons maintain that extreme and “frightful” measures needed for protecting the state or the Church or the national culture in moments of acute crisis may be justified, since the ruin of these institutions may fatally damage the indispensable framework of all other values. This is a doctrine in terms of which both Catholics and Protestants, both conservatives and communists have defended enormities which freeze the blood of ordinary men.

But it is not Machiavelli’s position. For the defenders of the raison d’état, the sole justification of these measures is that they are exceptional—that they are needed to preserve a system the purpose of which is precisely to preclude the need for such odious measures, so that the sole justification of such steps is that they will end the situations that render them necessary. But for Machiavelli these measures are, in a sense, themselves quite normal. No doubt they are called for only by extreme need; yet political life tends to generate a good many such needs, of varying degrees of “extremity”; hence Baglioni, who shied from the logical consequences of his own policies, was clearly unfit to rule.

The notion of raison d’état entails a conflict of values which may be agonizing to morally good and sensitive men. For Machiavelli there is no conflict. Public life has its own morality, to which Christian principles (or any absolute personal values) tend to be a gratuitous obstacle. This life has its own standards: it does not require perpetual terror, but it approves, or at least permits, the use of force where it is needed to promote the ends of political society.

Professor Sheldon Wolin6 seems to me right in insisting that Machiavelli believes in a permanent “economy of violence”—the need for a consistent reserve of force always in the background to keep things going in such a way that the virtues admired by him, and by the classical thinkers to whom he appeals, can be protected and allowed to flower. Men brought up within a community in which such force, or its possibility, is used rightly will live the happy lives of Greeks or Romans during their finest hours. They will be characterized by vitality, genius, variety, pride, power, success (Machiavelli scarcely ever speaks of arts or sciences); but it will not, in any clear sense, be a Christian commonwealth. The moral conflict which this situation raises will trouble only those who are not prepared to abandon either course: those who assume that the two incompatible lives are, in fact, reconcilable.

But to Machiavelli the claims of the official morality are scarcely worth discussing: they are not translatable into social practice. “If men were good…” but he feels sure that they can never be improved beyond the point at which power considerations are relevant. If morals relate to human conduct, and men are by nature social, Christian morality cannot be a guide for normal social existence. It remained for someone to state this. Machiavelli did so.

One is obliged to choose: and in choosing one form of life, give up the other. That is the central point. If Machiavelli is right, if it is in principle (or in fact: the frontier seems dim) impossible to be morally good and do one’s duty as this was conceived by common European, and especially Christian, ethics, and at the same time build Sparta or Periclean Athens or the Rome of the Republic or even of the Antonines, then a conclusion of the first importance follows: that the belief that the correct, objectively valid solution to the question of how men should live can in principle be discovered is itself, in principle, not true. This was a truly erschreckend proposition. Let me try to put it in its proper context.

One of the deepest assumptions of Western political thought is the doctrine, scarcely questioned during its long ascendancy, that there exists some single principle that not only regulates the course of the sun and the stars, but prescribes their proper behavior to all animate creatures. Animals and subrational beings of all kinds follow it by instinct; higher beings attain to consciousness of it, and are free to abandon it, but only to their doom. This doctrine in one version or another has dominated European thought since Plato; it has appeared in many forms, and has generated many similes and allegories. At its center is the vision of an impersonal Nature or Reason or cosmic purpose, or of a divine Creator whose power has endowed all things and creatures each with a specific function; these functions are elements in a single harmonious whole, and are intelligible in terms of it alone.

This was often expressed by images taken from architecture: of a great edifice of which each part fits uniquely in the total structure; or from the human body as an all-embracing organic whole; or from the life of society as a great hierarchy, with God as the ens realissimum at the summit of two parallel systems—the feudal order and the natural order—stretching downward from Him, and reaching upward to Him, obedient to His will. Or it is seen as the Great Chain of Being, the Platonic-Christian analogue of the world-tree Ygdrasil, which links time and space and all that they contain. Or it has been represented by an analogy drawn from music, as an orchestra in which each instrument or group of instruments has its own tune to play in the infinitely rich polyphonic score. When, after the seventeenth century, harmonic metaphors replaced polyphonic images, the instruments were no longer conceived as playing specific melodies, but as producing sounds which, although they might not be wholly intelligible to any given group of players (and even sound discordant or superfluous if taken in isolation), yet contributed to the total pattern perceptible only from a loftier stand-point.

The idea of the world and of human society as a single intelligible structure is at the root of all the many various versions of Natural Law—the mathematical harmonies of the Pythagoreans, the logical ladder of Platonic Forms, the genetic-logical pattern of Aristotle, the divine logos of the Stoics and the Christian churches and of their secularized offshoots. The advance of the natural sciences generated more empirically conceived versions of this image as well as anthropomorphic similes: of Dame Nature as an adjuster of conflicting tendencies (as in Hume or Adam Smith), of Mistress Nature as the teacher of the best way to happiness (as in the works of some French Encyclopaedists), of Nature as embodied in the actual customs or habits of organized social wholes; biological, aesthetic, psychological similes have reflected the dominant ideas of an age.

This unifying monistic pattern is at the very heart of traditional rationalism, religious and atheistic, metaphysical and scientific, transcendental and naturalistic, which has been characteristic of Western civilization. It is this rock, upon which Western beliefs and lives had been founded, that Machiavelli seems, in effect, to have split open. So great a reversal cannot, of course, be due to the acts of a single individual. It could scarcely have taken place in a stable social and moral order; many besides him, ancient Skeptics, medieval nominalists and secularists, Renaissance humanists, doubtless supplied their share of the dynamite. The purpose of this paper is to suggest that it was Machiavelli who lit the fatal fuse.

If to ask what are the ends of life is to ask a real question, it must be capable of being correctly answered. To claim rationality in matters of conduct was to claim that correct and final solutions to such questions can in principle be found.

When such solutions were discussed in earlier periods, it was normally assumed that the perfect society could be conceived, at least in outline; for otherwise what standard could one use to condemn existing arrangements as imperfect? It might not be realizable here, below. Men were too ignorant or too weak or too vicious to create it. Or it was said (by some materialistic thinkers in the centuries following The Prince) that it was technical means that were lacking, that no one had yet discovered methods of overcoming the material obstacles to the golden age; that we were not technologically or educationally or morally sufficiently advanced. But it was never said that there was something incoherent in the very notion itself.

Plato and the Stoics, the Hebrew prophets and Christian medieval thinkers, and the writers of utopias from More onward had a vision of what it was that men fell short of; they claimed, as it were, to be able to measure the gap between the reality and the ideal. But if Machiavelli is right, this entire tradition—the central current of Western thought—is fallacious. For if his position is valid then it is impossible to construct even the notion of such a perfect society, for there exist at least two sets of virtues—let us call them the Christian and the pagan—which are not merely in practice, but in principle, incompatible.

If men practice Christian humility, they cannot also be inspired by the burning ambitions of the great classical founders of cultures and religions; if their gaze is centered upon the world beyond—if their ideas are infected by even lip-service to such an outlook—they will not be likely to give all that they have to an attempt to build a perfect city. If suffering and sacrifice and martyrdom are not always evil and inescapable necessities, but may be of supreme value in themselves, then the glorious victories over fortune, which go to the bold, the impetuous, and the young, might neither be won nor thought worth winning. If spiritual goods alone are worth striving for, then of how much value is the study of necessita—of the laws that govern nature and human lives—by the manipulation of which men might accomplish unheard-of things in the arts and the sciences and the organization of social lives?

To abandon the pursuit of secular goals may lead to disintegration and a new barbarism; but even if this is so, is this the worst that could happen? Whatever the differences between Plato and Aristotle, or of either of these thinkers from the Sophists or Epicureans or the other Greek schools of the fourth and later centuries, they and their disciples, the European rationalists and empiricists of the modern age, were agreed that the study of reality by minds undeluded by appearances could reveal the correct ends to be pursued by men—that which would make men free and happy, strong and rational.

Some thought that there was a single end for all men in all circumstances, or different ends for men of different kinds or in dissimilar historical environments. Objectivists and universalists were opposed by relativists and subjectivists, metaphysicians by empiricists, theists by atheists. There was profound disagreement about moral issues; but what none of these thinkers, not even the Skeptics, had suggested was that there might exist ends—ends in themselves in terms of which alone everything else was justified—which were equally ultimate, but incompatible with one another, that there might exist no single universal overarching standard that would enable a man to choose rationally between them.

This was indeed a profoundly upsetting conclusion. It entailed that if men wished to live and act consistently, and understand what goals they were pursuing, they were obliged to examine their moral values. What if they found that they were compelled to make a choice between two incommensurable systems? To choose as they did without the aid of an infallible measuring rod which certified one form of life as being superior to all others and which could be used to demonstrate this to the satisfaction of all rational men? Is it, perhaps, this awful truth, implicit in Machiavelli’s exposition, that has upset the moral consciousness of men, and has haunted their minds so permanently and obsessively ever since?

Machiavelli did not himself propound it. There was no problem and no agony for him; he shows no trace of skepticism or relativism; he chose his side, and took little interest in the values that this choice ignored or flouted. The conflict between his scale of values and that of conventional morality clearly did not (pace Croce and the other defenders of the “anguished humanist” interpretation) seem to worry Machiavelli himself. It upset only those who came after him, and were not prepared, on the one hand, to abandon their own moral values (Christian or humanist) together with the entire way of thought and action of which these were a part; nor, on the other, to deny the validity of, at any rate, much of Machiavelli’s analysis of the political facts, and the (largely pagan) values and outlook that went with it, embodied in the social structure which he painted so brilliantly and convincingly.

Whenever a thinker, however distant from us in time or culture, still stirs passion, enthusiasm, or indignation, any kind of intense debate, it is generally the case that he has propounded a thesis that upsets some deeply established idée reçue, a thesis that those who wish to cling to the old conviction nevertheless find it hard or impossible to dismiss or refute. This is the case with Plato, Hobbes, Rousseau, Marx.

I should like to suggest that it is Machiavelli’s juxtaposition of the two outlooks—the two incompatible moral worlds, as it were—in the minds of his readers, and the collision and acute discomfort that follow that, over the years, has been responsible for the desperate efforts to interpret his doctrines away, to represent him as a cynical and therefore ultimately shallow defender of power politics; or as a diabolist; or as a patriot prescribing for particularly desperate situations which seldom arise; or as a mere time server; or as an embittered political failure; or as a mere mouthpiece of truths we have always known but did not like to utter; or again as the enlightened translator of universally accepted ancient social principles into empirical terms; or as a crypto-republican satirist (a descendant of Juvenal, a forerunner of Orwell); or as a cold scientist, a mere political technologist free from moral implications; or as a typical Renaissance publicist practicing a now obsolete genre; or in any of the numerous other roles that have been and are still being cast for him.

Machiavelli may have possessed some of these attributes, but concentration on one or other of them as constituting his essential, “true” character seems to me to stem from reluctance to face and, still more, discuss the uncomfortable truth that Machiavelli had, unintentionally, almost casually, uncovered: namely, that not all ultimate values are necessarily compatible with one another—that there might be a conceptual (what used to be called “philosophical”), and not merely a material, obstacle to the notion of the single ultimate solution which, if it were only realized, would establish the perfect society.


Yet if no such solution can, even in principle, be formulated, then all political and, indeed, moral problems are thereby transformed. This is not a division of politics from ethics. It is the uncovering of the possibility of more than one system of values, with no criterion common to the systems whereby a rational choice can be made between them. This is not the rejection of Christianity for paganism (although Machiavelli clearly prefers the latter), nor of paganism for Christianity (which, at least in its historical form, he thought incompatible with the basic needs of normal men), but the setting of them side by side with the implicit invitation to men to choose either a good, virtuous private life or a good, successful social existence, but not both.

What has been shown by Machiavelli, who is often (like Nietzsche) congratulated for tearing off hypocritical masks, brutally revealing the truth, and so on, is not that men profess one thing and do another (although no doubt he shows this too) but that when they assume that the two ideals are compatible, or perhaps are even one and the same ideal, and do not allow this assumption to be questioned, they are guilty of bad faith (as the existentialists call it, or of “false consciousness,” to use a Marxist formula) which their actual behavior exhibits. Machiavelli calls the bluff not just of official morality—the hypocrisies of ordinary life—but of one of the foundations of the central Western philosophical tradition, the belief in the ultimate compatibility of all genuine values. His own withers are unwrung. He has made his choice. He seems wholly unworried by, indeed scarcely aware of, parting company with traditional Western morality.

But the question that his writings have dramatized, if not for himself, then for others in the centuries that followed, is this: what reason have we for supposing that justice and mercy, humility and virtù, happiness and knowledge, glory and liberty, magnificence and sanctity will always coincide, or indeed be compatible at all? Poetic justice is, after all, so called not because it does, but because it does not, as a rule, occur in the prose of ordinary life, where, ex hypothesi, a very different kind of justice operates. “States and people are governed in a different way from an individual.” Hence what talk can there be of indestructible rights, either in the medieval or the liberal sense? The wise man must eliminate fantasies from his own head, and should seek to dispel them from the heads of others; or, if they are too resistant, he should at least, as Pareto or Dostoevsky’s Grand Inquisitor recommended, exploit them as a means to a viable society.

“The march of world history stands outside virtue, vice and justice,” said Hegel. If for the march of history you substitute “a well governed patria,” and interpret Hegel’s notion of virtue as it is understood by Christians or ordinary men, then Machiavelli is one of the earliest proponents of this doctrine. Like all great innovators, he is not without ancestry. But the names of Palmieri and Pontano, and even of Carneades and Sextus Empiricus, have left little mark on European thought.

Croce has rightly insisted that Machiavelli is not detached nor cynical nor irresponsible. His patriotism, his republicanism, his commitment are not in doubt. He suffered for his convictions. He thought continually about Florence and Italy, and of how to save them. Yet it is not his character, nor his plays, his poetry, his histories, his diplomatic or political activities that have gained him his unique fame.7 Nor can this be due only to his psychological or sociological imagination. His psychology is often excessively primitive. He scarcely seems to allow for the bare possibility of sustained and genuine altruism, he refuses to consider the motives of men who are prepared to fight against enormous odds, who ignore necessità and are prepared to lose their lives in a hopeless cause.

His distrust of unworldly attitudes, absolute principles divorced from empirical observation, is fanatically strong—almost romantic in its violence; the vision of the great prince playing upon human beings like an instrument intoxicates him. He assumes that different societies must always be at war with each other, since they have conflicting purposes. He sees history as one endless process of cutthroat competition, in which the only goal that rational men can have is to succeed in the eyes of their contemporaries and of posterity. He is good at bringing fantasies down to earth, but he assumes, as Mill was to complain about Bentham, that this is enough. He allows too little to the ideal impulses of men. He has no historical sense and little sense of economics. He has no inkling of the technological progress that is about to transform political and social life, and in particular the art of war. He does not understand how either individuals, communities, or cultures develop and transform themselves. Like Hobbes, he assumes that the argument or motive for self-preservation automatically outweighs all others.

He tells men above all not to be fools: to follow a principle when this may involve you in ruin is absurd, at least if judged by worldly standards; other standards he mentions respectfully, but takes no interest in them: those who adopt them are not likely to create anything that will perpetuate their name. His Romans are no more real than the stylized figures in his brilliant comedies. His human beings have so little inner life or capacity for cooperation or social solidarity that, as in the case of Hobbes’s not dissimilar creatures, it is difficult to see how they could develop enough reciprocal confidence to create a lasting social whole, even under the perpetual shadow of carefully regulated violence.

Few would deny that Machiavelli’s writings, more particularly The Prince, have scandalized mankind more deeply and continuously than any other political treatise. The reason for this, let me say again, is not the discovery that politics is the play of power—that political relationships between and within independent communities involve the use of force and fraud, and are unrelated to the principles professed by the players. That knowledge is as old as conscious thought about politics—certainly as old as Thucydides and Plato. Nor is it merely caused by the examples that he offers of success in acquiring or holding power—the descriptions of the massacre at Sinigaglia or the behavior of Agathocles or Oliverotto da Fermo are no more or less horrifying than similar stories in Tacitus or Guicciardini. The proposition that crime can pay is nothing new in Western historiography.

Nor is it merely his recommendation of ruthless measures that so upsets his readers. Aristotle had long ago allowed that exceptional situations might arise, that principles and rules could not be rigidly applied to all situations; the advice to rulers in The Politics is tough-minded enough. Cicero is aware that critical situations demand exceptional measures; ratio publicae utilitatis, ratio status were familiar in the thought of the Middle Ages. “Necessity is not subject to law” is a Thomist sentiment; Pierre d’Auvergne says much the same. Harrington said this in the following century, and Hume applauded him.

These opinions were not thought original by these, or perhaps any, thinkers. Machiavelli did not originate nor did he make much use of the notion of raison d’état. He stressed will, boldness, address, at the expense of the rules laid down by the calm ragione, to which his colleagues in the Pratiche Fiorentine, and perhaps the Oricellari Gardens, may have appealed. So did Leon Battista Alberti when he declared that fortuna crushes only the weak and propertyless; so did contemporary poets; so, too, in his own fashion, did Pico della Mirandola in his great apostrophe to the powers of man the creator, who, unlike the angels, can transform himself into any shape—the ardent image that lies at the heart of European humanism in the North as well as the Mediterranean.

Far more original, as has often been noted, is Machiavelli’s divorce of political behavior as a field of study from the theological world picture in terms of which this topic was discussed before him (even by Marsilio) and after him. Yet it is not his secularism, however audacious in his own day, that could have disturbed the contemporaries of Voltaire or Bentham or their successors. What shocked them is something different.

Machiavelli’s cardinal achievement is his uncovering of an insoluble dilemma, the planting of a permanent question mark in the path of posterity. It stems from his de facto recognition that ends equally ultimate, equally sacred, may contradict each other, that entire systems of value may come into collision without possibility of rational arbitration, and that not merely in exceptional circumstances, as a result of abnormality or accident or error—the clash of Antigone and Creon or in the story of Tristan—but (this was surely new) as part of the normal human situation.

For those who look on such collisions as rare, exceptional, and disastrous, the choice to be made is necessarily an agonizing experience for which, as a rational being, one cannot prepare (since no rules apply). But for Machiavelli, at least in The Prince, The Discourses, Mandragola, there is no agony. One chooses as one chooses because one knows what one wants, and is ready to pay the price. One chooses classical civilization rather than the Theban desert, Rome and not Jerusalem, whatever the priests may say, because such is one’s nature, and—he is no existentialist or romantic individualist avant la parole—because it is that of men in general, at all times, everywhere. If others prefer solitude or martyrdom, he shrugs his shoulders. Such men are not for him. He has nothing to say to them, nothing to argue with them about. All that matters to him and those who agree with him is that such men be not allowed to meddle with politics or education or any of the cardinal factors in human life; their outlook unfits them for such tasks.

I do not mean that Machiavelli explicitly asserts that there is a pluralism or even a dualism of values between which conscious choices must be made. But this follows from the contrasts he draws between the conduct he admires and that which he condemns. He seems to take for granted the obvious superiority of classical civic virtue and brushes aside Christian values, as well as conventional morality, with a disparaging or patronizing sentence or two, or smooth words about the misinterpretation of Christianity.8 This worries or infuriates those who disagree with him the more because it goes against their convictions without seeming to be aware of doing so—and recommends wicked courses as obviously the most sensible, something that only fools or visionaries will reject.

If what Machiavelli believed is true, this undermines one major assumption of Western thought: namely, that somewhere in the past or the future, in this world or the next, in the church or the laboratory, in the speculations of the metaphysician or the findings of the social scientist or in the uncorrupted heart of the simple good man, there is to be found the final solution of the question of how men should live. If this is false (and if more than one equally valid answer to the question can be returned, then it is false) the idea of the sole true, objective, universal human ideal crumbles. The very search for it becomes not merely utopian in practice, but conceptually incoherent.

One can surely see how this might seem unfaceable to men, believers or atheists, empiricist or apriorists, brought up on the opposite assumption. Nothing could well be more upsetting to those brought up in a monistic religious or, at any rate, moral, social, or political system than a breach in it. This is the dagger of which Meinecke speaks, with which Machiavelli inflicted the wound that has never healed; even though Professor Felix Gilbert is right in thinking that he did not bear the scars of it himself. For he remained a monist, albeit a pagan one.

Machiavelli was doubtless guilty of much confusion and exaggeration. He confused the proposition that ultimate ideals may be incompatible with the very different proposition that the more conventional human ideals—founded on ideas of Natural Law, brotherly love, and human goodness—were unrealizable and that those who acted on the opposite assumption were fools, and at times dangerous ones; and he attributed this dubious proposition to antiquity and believed that it was verified by history.

The first of these assertions strikes at the root of all doctrines committed to the possibility of attaining, or at least formulating, final solutions; the second is empirical, commonplace, and not self-evident. The two propositions are not, in any case, identical or logically connected. Moreover he exaggerated wildly: the idealized types of the Periclean Greek or the Roman of the old Republic may be irreconcilable with the ideal citizen of a Christian commonwealth (supposing such were conceivable), but in practice—above all in history, to which our author went for illustrations if not for evidence—pure types seldom obtain: mixtures and compounds and compromises and forms of communal life that do not fit into easy classifications, but which neither Christians nor liberal humanists nor Machiavelli would be compelled by their beliefs to reject, can be conceived without too much intellectual difficulty. Still, to attack and inflict lasting damage on a central assumption of an entire civilization is an achievement of the first order.

He does not affirm this dualism. He merely takes for granted the superiority of Roman antiqua virtus (which may be maddening to those who do not) over the Christian life as taught by the Church. He utters a few casual words about what Christianity might have become, but does not expect it to change its actual character. There he leaves the matter. Anyone who believes in Christian morality regards the Christian Commonwealth as its embodiment, but at the same time largely accepts the validity of Machiavelli’s political and psychological analysis and does not reject the secular heritage of Rome—a man in this predicament is faced with a dilemma which, if Machiavelli is right, is not merely unsolved, but insoluble. This is the Gordian knot which, according to Vanini and Leibniz, the author of The Prince had tied, a knot which can only be cut, not untied. Hence the efforts to dilute his doctrines, or interpret them in such a way as to remove their sting.

After Machiavelli, doubt is liable to infect all monistic constructions. The sense of certainty that there is somewhere a hidden treasure—the final solution to our ills—and that some path must lead to it (for, in principle, it must be discoverable); or else, to alter the image, the conviction that the fragments constituted by our beliefs and habits are all pieces of a jigsaw puzzle, which (since there is an a priori guarantee for this) can, in principle, be solved; so that it is only because of lack of skill or stupidity or bad fortune that we have not so far succeeded in discovering the solution whereby all interests will be brought into harmony—this fundamental belief of Western political thought has been severely shaken. Surely in an age that looks for certainties, this is sufficient to account for the unending efforts, more numerous today than ever, to explain The Prince and The Discourses, or to explain them away?

This is the negative implication. There is also one that is positive, and might have surprised and perhaps displeased Machiavelli. So long as only one ideal is the true goal, it will always seem to men that no means can be too difficult, no price too high, to do whatever is required to realize the ultimate goal. Such certainty is one of the great justifications of fanaticism, compulsion, persecution. But if not all values are compatible with one another, and choices must be made for no better reason than that each value is what it is, and we choose it for what it is, and not because it can be shown on some single scale to be higher than another. If we choose forms of life because we believe in them, because we take them for granted, or, upon examination, find that we are morally unprepared to live in any other way (although others choose differently); if rationality and calculation can be applied only to means or subordinate ends, but never to ultimate ends; then a picture emerges different from that constructed round the ancient principle that there is only one good for men.

If there is only one solution to the puzzle, then the only problems are first how to find it, then how to realize it, and finally how to convert others to the solution by persuasion or by force. But if this is not so (Machiavelli contrasts two ways of life, but there could be, and, save for fanatical monists, there obviously are, more than two), then the path is open to empiricism, pluralism, toleration, compromise. Toleration is historically the product of the realization of the irreconcilability of equally dogmatic faiths, and the practical improbability of complete victory of one over the other. Those who wished to survive realized that they had to tolerate error. They gradually came to see merits in diversity, and so became skeptical about definitive solutions in human affairs.

But it is one thing to accept something in practice, another to justify it rationally. Machiavelli’s “scandalous” writings begin the latter process. This was a major turning point, and its intellectual consequences, wholly unintended by its originator, were, by a fortunate irony of history (which some call its dialectic), the basis of the very liberalism that Machiavelli would surely have condemned as feeble and characterless, lacking in single-minded pursuit of power, in splendor, in organization, in virtù, in power to discipline unruly men against huge odds into one energetic whole. Yet he is, in spite of himself, one of the makers of pluralism, and of its—to him—perilous acceptance of toleration.

By breaking the original unity he helped to cause men to become aware of the necessity of making agonizing choices between incompatible alternatives, incompatible in practice or, worse still, for logical reasons, in public and private life (for the two could not, it became obvious, be genuinely kept distinct). His achievement is of the first order, if only because the dilemma has never given men peace since it came to light (it remains unsolved, but we have learned to live with it). Men had, no doubt, in practice, often enough experienced the conflict that Machiavelli made explicit. He converted its expression from a paradox into something approaching a commonplace.

The sword of which Meinecke spoke has not lost its edge: the wound has not healed. To know the worst is not always to be liberated from its consequences; nevertheless it is preferable to ignorance. It is this painful truth that Machiavelli forced on our attention, not by formulating it explicitly, but perhaps the more effectively by relegating much uncriticized traditional morality to the realm of utopia. This is what, at any rate, I should like to suggest. Where more than twenty interpretations hold the field, the addition of one more cannot be deemed an impertinence. At worst it will be no more than yet another attempt to solve the problem, now more than four centuries old, of which Croce at the end of his long life spoke as “una questione che forse non si chiuderà mai: la questione de Machiavelli.”


An Exchange on Machiavelli April 6, 1972

  1. 1

    Ernst Cassirer makes the valid and relevant point that to value—or justify—Machiavelli’s opinions solely as a mirror of their times is one thing; to maintain that he was himself consciously addressing only his own countrymen, and, if Burd is to be believed, not even all of them, is a very different one, and entails a false view of him and the civilization to which he belonged. The Renaissance did not view itself in historical perspective. Machiavelli was looking for—and thought that he had found—timeless, universal laws of social behavior. 

  2. 2

    The only extended treatment of Machiavelli by a prominent Bolshevik intellectual known to me is in Kamenev’s short-lived introduction to the Russian translation of The Prince (Akademia, Moscow, 1934). This unswervingly follows the full historicist-sociological approach criticized by Cassirer. Machiavelli is described as an active publicist, preoccupied by the “mechanism of the struggles for power” within and between the Italian principalities, a sociologist who gave a masterly analysis of the “sociological” jungle that preceded the formation of “a powerful, national, essentially bourgeois” Italian state. His almost “dialectical” grasp of the realities of power and freedom from metaphysical and theological fantasies establish him as a worthy forerunner of Marx, Engels, Lenin, and Stalin. 

  3. 3

    It is still not clear how much of this Frederick owed to his mentor Voltaire. 

  4. 4

    Professor H.L. Trevor-Roper has drawn my attention to the irony of the fact that the heroes of this supreme realist are all, wholly or in part, mythical. 

  5. 5

    At the risk of exhausting the patience of the reader, I must repeat that this is a conflict not of pagan statecraft with Christian morals, but of pagan morals (indissolubly connected with social life and inconceivable without it) with Christian ethics which, whatever its implication for politics, can be stated independently of it, as, e.g., Aristotle’s or Hegel’s ethics cannot. 

  6. 6

    In his book Politics and Vision (Little, Brown, 1960). 

  7. 7

    The moral of his best comedy, Mandragola, seems to me close to that of the political tracts: that the ethical doctrines professed by the characters are wholly at variance with what they do to attain their various ends. Virtually every one of them in the end obtains what he wants; if Callimaco had resisted temptation, or the lady he seduces had been smitten with remorse, or Fra Timoteo attempted to practice the maxims of the Fathers and the Schoolmen with which he liberally seasons his speeches, this could not have occurred. But all turns out for the best, though not from the point of view of accepted morality. If the play castigates hypocrisy and stupidity, the standpoint is not that of virtue but of candid hedonism. The notion that Callimaco is a kind of Prince in private life, successful in creating and maintaining his own world by the correct use of guile and fraud, the exercise of virtù and a bold challenge to fortuna, appears highly plausible. For this, see Henry Paolucci, Introduction to Mandragola (Library of Liberal Arts, 1957). 

  8. 8

    E.g., in the passages from The Discourses cited above, or as when he says, “I believe that the greatest good that can be done, and the most pleasing to God, is that which is done to one’s country.” My thanks are due to Professor Myron Gilmore for this reference to The Discourse on Reforming Florence. This sentiment is by no means unique in Machiavelli’s works: but, leaving aside his wish to flatter Leo X, or the liability of all authors to fall into the clichés of their own time, are we to suppose that Machiavelli means us to think that when Philip of Macedon transplanted populations in a manner that (unavoidable as it is said to have been) caused even Machiavelli a qualm, what Philip did, provided it was good for Macedon, was pleasing to God and, per contra, that Giovanpaolo Baglioni’s failure to kill the Pope and the Curia were displeasing to Him? Such a notion of the deity is, to say the least, remote from that of the New Testament. Are the needs of the patria automatically identical with the will of the Almighty? Are those who permit themselves to doubt this in danger of heresy?