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Compiled by Anthony Harrison-Barbet


(1469 — 1527)



Niccolo Machiavelli was born in Firenze, Italy, into a poor family (though his father was a doctor of law); and he was largely self-educated. In 1488 he became secretary of 'The Ten' (Il Dieci) — effectively the Foreign Ministry, and was sent on a number of political missions. He was imprisoned in 1512 — accused of involvement in a conspiracy against the Medici, but he was released at the request of Pope Leo X. He devoted the remainder of his life to writing.



[1] [See Discourses.] For human beings are basically egoistic — though not beyond redemption. But his solution and his general approach to politics and morality is secular and 'humanistic' [a] — to be contrasted sharply with the positions held by medieval Christian philosophers. He argued that to ensure the state is unified, strong, viable an absolute ruler (the 'Prince' or Leader) is needed [The Prince] [b]. Moreover, he must be allowed to use all means at his disposal, even if immoral, to preserve his power. But Machiavelli adds that even if the Prince has no good qualities, such as being merciful, religious, humane, it is advantageous if he can appear to possess them. He allows that once an absolute 'monarchy' has been firmly established the general good, including greater liberty for all, is more likely to be achieved in a republic on the Roman model, in which there can be some participation by citizens [c] in their government, than in an absolutist state [see Discourses]. The people, he thinks, are generally more prudent and have better judgement than princes.

Underlying Machiavelli's political philosophy is a distinction he makes between fortuna (chance circumstance) and virt ('vitality' — resolution, courage, ruthlessness) [d]. On the one hand he sees men as victims of fortuna. But through cultivation of virt individuals, and thence the state as a whole (civic virtue), might recover a degree of control over human affairs. However, in the course of time the contentment thereby engendered may in turn give way to corruption, and this often renders states susceptible to attack by others before the process can be reversed and order restored [see Florentine History].



[2] [Discourses] Machiavelli tried to discover general practical rules for achieving particular ends in society by making use of an inductive method [a]. This involves a consideration of negative and positive instances and a study of causes (especially virt) and effects discoverable from history — which he supposed to be a cyclical process [b]. His assumption thus seems to have been that like causes will bring about like consequences; and that the study of these could assist the Prince to rule and legislate effectively.



Machiavelli seems to have been concerned more with practical politics than with abstract political theory. He is significant for his emphasis on absolutism and for his implicit advocacy of the justification of means by ends. And it is here perhaps that the main difficulty with his political philosophy lies. If immoral means are allowed in order to bring about a particular end, there will be the danger of producing an immoral society — even if the security of the state is achieved. Genuine well-being of the people would seem to require some conception of virtue. Does a ruler have to be immoral to guarantee the state's security and the people's welfare? His undoubted approval of the virtues of republican Rome would suggest that he was himself aware of this problem: but the tension within his thought remains. However, one must also take into consideration his realistic view of man as thoroughly egoistical (though it may be objected that Machiavelli is here too pessimistic). It is arguable also that there is an inconsistency between absolute monarchy and Machiavelli's suggestion that a participatory government might later be admissible. Finally, he shows a limited appreciation of the role played by cultural factors other than political ones in the development of states.



Machiavelli: Il Principe (1513) (The Prince); Istorie fiorentine (1520-25) (Florentine History); Discorsi sopra la prima deca di Tito Livia (1526) (Discourses on the First Decade of Tito Livy). For English translations see A. Gilbert, Machiavelli: The Chief Works and Others, 3 vols. There are several single editions of The Prince in English translation.



Q. Skinner, Machiavelli: A Very Short Introduction.


Fischer, M., Well-Ordered License: On the Unity of Machiavelli's Thought.

Viroli, M., Machiavelli.






[1a] Men egoistic; secular, not Christian politics and ethics





[9a c]

[10a c]


[2b d]


[1b] Need for absolute ruler






[9a b]




[1c] Liberty and the general good achievable in the 'republic' (the ideal); participation by citizens    Cicero [2f]


[1d] 'Chance' and 'virtue'; natural law






[2a] Inductive method to find practical rules; end justifies means

   Bacon (Francis)



[2b 7c]


[2b] Historical cycle theory; causes    Vico [2a]