A wicked adviser of sinister intentions, he deviously wins the trust of friends and enemies alike and delights in betraying them as soon as it is expedient. He counsels subterfuge as the prime virtue of a ruler and disregards the requirements of ethics and moral rectitude. This is the image that the word ‘Machiavelli’ conjures up the politics and business of the modern world whether it be in North America, Europe or Asia.
‘Machiavellian’ is even an adjective that means to be devious or deceitful towards the achievement of one’s (mostly political) goals. Indeed, this unfavourable view of the medieval Florentine writer is not something new. The evil reputation of Machiavelli began as soon as he died and it has persisted through the centuries until today. But, how much truth is there to such a conception? Was Machiavelli truly an unscrupulous adviser who scorned moral virtues that he is frequently portrayed to be? An inquiry into his life and works would help us answer these questions.
Machiavelli was born in Florence in a middle-class family in 1469. While his pedigree did not accord any special privileges, he distinguished himself by acquiring a solid education in the humanities. A humanist education, the most celebrated and sought-after stream of learning in the Renaissance era, required the student to read the classics, develop an ability to appreciate and create high-flowing poetry, master the nuances of rhetoric and become proficient in Latin. A brilliant student, Machiavelli excelled at each of these and it paved the war for him to secure a respected position in the government of his native city-state. At the age of 29, Machiavelli became a sort of diplomat and defence minister for Florence and the experiences he would acquire in office through the next fifteen years informed his understanding of political power and morality, above all else.
Florence was not a stable entity in Machiavelli’s times. It faced a constant threat of invasion from superior powers within the Italian peninsula as well as from what is now France and Spain. Machiavelli was frequently deputed to call on foreign rulers and engage in negotiations with them as part of Florence’s attempts to protect itself from foreign intrusion. The several meetings that Machiavelli had with contemporary leaders overseas afforded him an opportunity to observe the behaviour of rulers up-close. He pondered deeply about what distinguished great leaders from weak ones? What qualities a king must exhibit in order to achieve glory? An extensive experience in diplomacy buttressed by a remarkable capacity for penetrating analysis gave Machiavelli deep insights into politics, governance and leadership. When the regime he was serving was overthrown violently in 1513 by the incoming Medici rulers, Machiavelli was convicted, incarcerated and punished brutally. Fortuitously, even though he suffered grievous injuries, he was spared his life.
Seeking employment and patronage under the Medici government, Machiavelli decided to prove his worth to the new rulers and worked on an application. This application would go on to become a widely read but much derided text; The Prince. Drawing from his wide experience in diplomacy and his mastery of history and classics, Machiavelli conceived The Prince to be a manual towards greatness and glory for a fresh and young ruler. The Prince was replete with astute precepts for a Prince to follow if he was to lead his state to victory and glory. The basic synthesis went like this; the ultimate goal of a ruler is to achieve glory for his state and himself; fortuna, the female god of luck, must be conquered towards that end; the prince must embody virtù in order to tempt fortuna; and the rest of his analysis examine how best a ruler could acquire virtù. Virtù should not be confused with the conventional notion of virtue. Virtù can be broadly defined as anything that helps the ruler advance his ends, including immoral acts.
In essence, the conventional understanding of Machiavelli as promoting the maxim ‘end justifies the means’, is fairly accurate. He justified violence, deceit and immorality when the end is noble. And the only noble end worth striving for was, Machiavelli thought, victory and glory. In fact, this was a view shared by most of Machiavelli’s contemporaries. The humanists of medieval Europe all thought glory to be the most important virtue a king should seek to accumulate. But where Machiavelli diverged from the conventional wisdom of his times was in advocating for an immoral means to achieve glory. ‘So long as the outcome is to preserve the ruler’s standing and power, his means are always judged honourable and everywhere praised’, Quentin Skinner pointed out in Machiavelli: A Very Short Introduction.
While the rest of the humanist thinkers of his time thought it unsavoury or even unworthy of a king to adopt nefarious means to satisfy his objectives, Machiavelli sanctioned it as legitimate. In other words, the generally accepted set of beliefs at the time held that it was rational for a king to be moral. Machiavelli was squarely opposed to this line of reasoning and maintained that it was irrational for a king to be moral. If by seeking to adhere to moral principles, a king comes to grief, the conventional humanists would not fault the king for his folly, but instead would extol his reverence for righteousness. But Machiavelli would hold the king culpable for his downfall and fault him for his inability to prioritise political expediency over moral rectitude.
Such a proclivity to favour chicanery in pursuit of one’s goals might initially appall the reader.
‘I had scarcely begun to read the book when I recognised the finger of Satan,’ a medieval reader of The Prince wrote. On deeper reflection though, it might be discernible that Machiavelli in fact held no brief for immorality and his reputation for evil is undeserved. The first step towards recognizing Machiavelli’s moral neutrality is to understand that his espousal of vice in furthering one’s ends is not unqualified. It came with important restrictions.
As will be recalled, Machiavelli justified vice when it serves a noble end. But more significantly, he justified vice only when it serves a noble end. This distinction is of crucial importance. Machiavelli did not promote violence or ruthlessness for the sake of it. He did not champion immorality because it is inherently beneficial. Instead, he sanctified it only when it served a ruler’s purpose of making his state stronger. Indeed Machiavelli derided heads of state who employed violence for purposes other than the attainment of virtù or ensuring the safety of the realm. The following line from The Discourses demonstrates his scorn for violence for violence’s sake: ‘…he who is violent to destroy, not he who is violent to restore, ought to be censured’.
In a similar vein, Machiavelli did not disregard the conventional Christian virtues such as morality, liberality, clemency and peaceability. In fact, he held those in very high esteem. He even recognized that a ruler who strives to rule in accordance to these moral principles would be an admirable leader. However, in the event of Christian morality conflicting with the requirements of the state, Machiavelli would counsel the leader to prioritise the latter and disregard the requirements of the former. In all other cases, Machiavelli would see no contradiction in encouraging the Prince to abide by the prevailing moral ethos of his times. Machiavelli’s high regard for morality dispels the misconception that he detested it. He was not someone who took qualities like clemency and generosity on the part of the king as displaying naivete or inept rulership. He would dissuade a ruler from practising them only on those occasions when they run counter to political expediency. It is also worth remembering that some other Renaissance-era humanist political thinkers like Thomas Hobbes, in contrast to Machiavelli, actively favoured absolute rule and squarely repudiated the significance of Christian morality in a monarch’s administration. This leads us to the conclusion that Machiavelli did not disdain morality, but simply separated it from politics.
The renowned political philosopher Isaiah Berlin argued that Machiavelli did not exactly distinguish politics from morality. Rather, he discerned two different strands of morality in the political and social sphere; those of Christian and pagan morality. Whilst Christian morality refers to the conventional understanding of ethics, pagan morality implies that protecting the state through immoral means is itself a moral act. Because safeguarding the security of the state is considered a noble deed, the means deployed to achieve it, whether considered moral or immoral in the Christian strand, is always upheld as moral in the pagan Weltanschauung. The pagan way of looking at things impugns the sanctimonious position the Christian strand enjoys in society and introduces an inventive alternative way of exploring morality in the utilisation of state power. The pagan standpoint affords readers a distinct and original way to explore the moral neutrality of Machiavelli. As George Sabine argues in his seminal text A History of Political Theory, Machiavelli was not so much immoral as amoral.
Much of contemporary discourse attributes Machiavelli to remorseless deceit in politics and international relations. Wicked politicians and their accomplices are dubbed ‘Machiavellian’. But as I laid out in this article, Machiavelli’s evil reputation is uncalled for. His inclination to favour vice over virtue applies only to situations when political expediency demands it. On all other occasions, Machiavelli would fain promote Christian morality. Indeed, Machiavelli averred that liberty was the greatest virtue a state could possess and argued that it would lead the state to honour and glory. One of the most notable aspects he admired in ancient Rome was the importance it accorded to liberty. Also significant to note is that other political thinkers who followed in his wake, such as Hobbes, diverged from his attachment to conventional morality and overtly disdained it. Also, as a piece in The Guardian pointed out, Machiavelli said to one of his friends that he intended his work to be a caution for citizens to carefully protect their liberty from callous rulers. ‘I’d like to teach them the way to hell, so they can steer clear of it.’ Machiavelli, furthermore, attempted to counsel rulers who were fresh to the throne and faced recurrent threats to the territorial integrity of the state they presided over. With the Westphalian state system enshrining sovereignty of the state as the concept of overriding importance in the global system, few states face existential threats to their realms. Therefore, modern politicians who seek to explain away their acts of chicanery by taking recourse to Machiavelli might do well to note that they stand on shaky ground.
-Prasanna Aditya (Freelancer)