Machiavelli is a pivotal figure in the history of political thought. His views of human nature, society and government mark a break with medieval philosophy and sixteenth century political thought based on assumptions about God’s purposes for man.
Machiavelli divorced politics from Christian morality and from religion. He conceived the state as functioning solely for human purposes and constructed rules of conduct that were informed by a realistic and practical view of the world. Machiavelli radically secularised political thought and initiated new ways of looking at man and society. It is with Machiavelli, that modern social and political theory begins.
Machiavelli’s best known and most notorious work is The Prince , a short, sharp rapier of a book, though some believe The Discourses more accurately reflects his own republican sympathies. In The Prince, Machiavelli aimed to blaze a new trail of political analysis, departing from ‘the methods of others’ in order to write something useful for practical politics.
The Prince was written in the genre of royal advice books which, since the Middle Ages, had compiled lists of virtues a good prince should acquire. Machiavelli aimed to purge politics of this kind of moralising and ‘fanciful’ thinking. He intended to discuss historical facts and examples from his own political experience as a civil servant and diplomat in the government of Florence, and from this establish rules for successful political action.
Machiavelli took it for granted that the only real concern of a political ruler was the acquiring and keeping of power. In order to provide useful advice, Machiavelli wanted to establish what kinds of qualities rulers needed to be successful. Consequently, he overturns the idealised conception of the virtues found in the works of his predecessors. He exhorts the prince to be generous, merciful and honest when he can. But the prince must be adaptable and ‘know how to do wrong when he must’.
In order to maintain his state and achieve great things, the prince must cultivate, not traditional virtue, but Machiavellian virtù. He must be bold, resolute, flexible, prepared to break promises and act against charity, truth, religion and humanity. The prince must combine the cunning of the fox with the strength of the lion and be devious, ruthless, violent or cruel as the situation demands. Political necessity frequently demands that the prince learns how not to be good. If princes succeed in conquest and in preserving states, they will be honoured and praised regardless of the wrongness of the means used, since in politics, actions are judged by their success.
It is this simple and devastating message which has led to the popular understanding of Machiavelli as the author of the cynical doctrine ‘the end justifies the means’ and to the association of Machiavelli’s name with astute, cunning and unscrupulous political behaviour.
Machiavelli’s focus in The Prince was on successful princely behaviour, whereas in The Discourses he offers advice on how to preserve republican government. Here, he expresses pro-republican sentiments which many find difficult to reconcile with his advice to princes. As in The Prince, though, he applies his method, using historical studies and his own experience to draw practical conclusions.
He again emphasises that means must be adapted to circumstances. Actions which display virtù rather than traditional moral virtues are necessary for the effective exercise of political power. Just as a ruler should not shrink from ‘setting aside every scruple’, neither should citizens if the survival of the republic is at stake, and in any case, political success excuses any ‘unjust’, ‘cruel’, or ‘disgraceful’ deed. In both works, there is the same controversial view of power politics for which Machiavelli is infamous.