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Thinking Out Loud

Just Definitions: Machiavellian

by Michael Jinkins | Apr 07, 2017

Editor’s Note: Occasionally, “Thinking Out Loud” addresses subjects of a very specific nature. In this special series, “Thinking Out Loud” readers are asked to consider the true meanings of certain terms that have recently found prevalence in the current public discourse. What are your thoughts? E-mail us.

MachiavellianOur final word takes its name from a historical person, rather than a mythological figure (as in the case of “Narcissism”). However a vast mythology has grown up around Machiavelli, especially in relationship to Renaissance popes, the Medici family, and, of course, the Borgias.

Those of you who are familiar with the book Deborah and I wrote on leadership, which used certain insights from Niccolo Machiavelli to explore political realism and public virtue (The Character of Leadership, Jossey-Bass, 1998) or the research I later did on Isaiah Berlin, which touches on the pioneering place Machiavelli holds for understanding cultural pluralism (Christianity, Tolerance and Pluralism, Routledge, 2004), will know that Machiavelli is a great deal more complex than the popular image of him would lead us to believe. There are, however, aspects of Machiavelli's thought that do reinforce his popular image as the inspiration for nicknaming the devil himself "Old Nick," and this comes through especially in the book for which he is best known today, The Prince. Machiavelli wrote this book (and lavishly dedicated it) in a failed attempt to gain favor with a new ruler, Lorenzo de Medici, after Machiavelli's long exile from power. When placed on the scales of history, this slim volume far outweighs other, arguably more important and certainly less cynical, works by Machiavelli.

On the positive side, Machiavelli was the counselor of the mighty who advised them that it is always wisest for a ruler to base decisions on the way the world actually works, rather than the way the leader wishes the world would work. Thus, Machiavelli writes, in The Prince: "[S]ince my intention is to write something useful for anyone who understands it, it seemed suitable to me to search after the effectual truth of the matter rather than its imagined one." [Niccolo Machiavelli, The Prince (Oxford University Press, 1984), p. 52.] This remains great advice. But, as helpful as Machiavelli's approach is (encouraging leaders to face reality rather than be guided by wishful thinking), this very perspective soon leads him, when combined with his pessimistic view of human nature, to conclude that because humanity is inconstant and corrupt, the prince must be a master of deceit, force and even cruelty if he wants to rule effectively and long.

The people whom the prince rules are held in very low esteem by Machiavelli. They are, he says, so fickle that it is easy to persuade them of something, but difficult to "hold them to that conviction." Thus the prince must be prepared to use whatever resources he has, including force, to make the people do what he wills. (Machiavelli, Prince, p. 22)

Machiavelli recognizes that people want to believe that their ruler is fundamentally virtuous, although the meaning of virtue is defined by the culture in which the ruler leads. The ruled want to believe their ruler is good, merciful and just, the kind of person to whom they can look up morally, the kind of person who inspires love. But, if forced to make a choice between being loved or being feared, as desirable as it may be to be both, it is inevitably safer for the ruler to be feared. Machiavelli writes:

"For one can generally say this about men: that they are ungrateful, fickle, simulators and deceivers, avoiders of danger, greedy for gain; and while you work for their good they are completely yours, offering you their blood, their property, their lives, and their sons, as I said earlier, when danger is far away; but when it comes nearer to you they turn away. And that prince who bases his power entirely on their words, finding himself completely without other preparations, comes to ruin; for friendships that are acquired by a prince and not by greatness and nobility of character are purchased but are not owned, and at the proper moment they cannot be spent. And men are less hesitant about harming someone who makes himself loved than one who makes himself feared because love is held together by a chain of obligations which, since men are wretched creatures, is broken on every occasion in which their own interests are concerned; but fear is sustained by a dread of punishment which will never abandon you." (Machiavelli, Prince, p. 56)


The love of one’s subjects may fade, according to Machiavelli, but fear remains. And a ruler must adapt his position as the prevailing wind blows, if, that is, he wants to continue sailing.

"A wise ruler," Machiavelli writes, "therefore, cannot and should not keep his word when such an observance to faith would be to his disadvantage and when the reasons which made him promise are removed. And if men were all good, this rule would not be good; but since men are a contemptible lot and will not keep their promises to you, you likewise need not keep yours to them." (Machiavelli, Prince, pp. 58-59) Furthermore, Machiavelli writes, because men want to believe their rulers are just and good, it is wise for a ruler not to hesitate to practice hypocrisy and to become a practiced liar. People will demand the appearance of goodness. But, fortunately, Machiavelli says, the public is so simple-minded and so absorbed by their immediate wants and needs, the deceptive ruler is always able to find followers who will believe what he says. (Machiavelli, Prince, pp. 59-60)

My old friend, Ismael Garcia, the ethicist, once said to me that Machiavelli didn't so much have a system of ethics or morality as a system of prudence. On the other hand, Isaiah Berlin, in his groundbreaking paper, "The Originality of Machiavelli," sees this Renaissance philosopher and political counselor as a proponent of the virtues of the ancient Roman Republic. [Berlin, The Proper Study of Mankind: An Anthology of Essay, edited by Henry Hardy, (Pimlico Press, 1998), pp. 269-325.]

When a politician is referred to as "Machiavellian" it ordinarily means that he is behaving cynically or deceptively with only his own selfish gain or power in mind, and that he is a sharp practitioner of the principle: "the ends justify the means." While this picture, does not, in fact, accord with all aspects of the complex reality of Machiavelli himself as represented in books other than The Prince (because in those other contexts Machiavelli does sometimes speak of the purpose of justice and laws as the promotion of equality, and the need for leaders to serve the greater good), nevertheless, the fact that the same man could write such divergent treatises, depending upon changes in his own personal circumstances, does lead one to conclude that Machiavelli was fairly Machiavellian himself.

Jesus taught us, of course, to be as smart as serpents and as gentle as doves. The modern Machiavellian, by contrast, seems to believe that it is always better to be as mean as a snake; whether you are a bird-brain or not appears to be optional.

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