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A Special Supplement: The Question of Machiavelli

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.

  1. 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.

  2. 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.

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