Definition Rewrite – Gracchus Babeuf

Niccolò  Machiavelli : A Bad Machiavellian?

An unscrupulous character, wheeling and dealing in the halls of power with no concern for feeble-minded “morality”. The acquisition and wielding of power his only concern. Perhaps, such a character is dressed in dark colors and a sharp, evil-looking suit. This swamp creature is, to the modern audience, the archetypical “Machiavellian” figure: unscrupulous, immoral, and single-minded in pursuit of power. Whether named as such or not, this scheming, contemptible creature is present in plenty of modern media. One such creature who populated many home television sets in recent memory was Frank Underwood on Netflix’s House of Cards, a clever but immoral politician played too convincingly by the now-disgraced Kevin Spacey. For those in the know about “Machiavellian” characters, Frank and other scheming politicians form an American cultural memory of what these disciples of Machiavelli’s book of dark rituals, Il Principe, look and behave like.

Machiavelli, then, should be the arch-fiend of these immoral men. The progenitor from whom all these evil-hearted politicians take their cues. Unfortunately for aspiring dramatists, Machiavelli himself is a far-cry from the politicians, both real and fictional, who we often describe as “Machiavellian”. As is often the case, reality is less flashy and provocative than fiction.

What exactly is a “Machiavellian”? At its most simple reading, a Machiavellian is simply a person who behaves in the manner of Machiavelli. This, of course, is insufficient to understand the label. It would be like trying to define a modern christian using only the idea that they are followers of Jesus Christ. While true, it is not enough to unpack all the meaning in the word for a contemporary reader. All the other nuances and intricacies that had been read into that word over the last two-thousand years are critically important. The same is true of the concept of a Machiavellian.

Born in 15th century Florence the third son of an attorney, Machiavelli was neither born of great status or total obscurity. As the son of a man of letters, Machiavelli was afforded an education, an incredible privilege even in the relatively literate world of the Italian city states. It should be noted that this relative literacy is only in comparison to the almost entirely illiterate societies of the day, as opposed to the mostly illiterate Italian republic. For Machiavelli’s early life, the nominally republican Florence was dominated by the Medici family, who had de facto dynastic control over the city. In 1494, the citizenry of Florence, lead by the firebrand Dominican Girolamo Savonarola, overthrew the Medici family and restored the Florentine republic. Savonarola, an intense critic of excesses in the catholic church, was responsible for the burning of the vanities in which books and art were destroyed. Such religious fanaticism would see him driven from power and executed, though the republic he helped restore would last until 1512.

Following Savonarola execution and the religious moderation of the republic’s government, Machiavelli received his first posting in government. Until the defeat of the republic in 1512 by Giovanni de’ Medici (Pope Leo X), Machiavelli served as a diplomat and bureaucrat within the republic’s government. Following the Medici reconquest of the city, Machiavelli, like many of his comrades, was exiled from the city to the hinterlands. From exile and reflecting on his decade and half on the inside of European politics, Machiavelli wrote The Prince in an attempt to win favor with a member of the Medici family. While its unclear if the Medici’s ever took his work seriously (they did not commute his sentence), the work has proved an enduring foundational text of European theory. In determining the definition of a “Machiavellian” person, it is always The Prince which is scrutinized for answers.

Should we take the most shallow and ill-researched reading of The Prince, it is easy to decide that Machiavelli truly is the master “Machiavellian” that his critics have slandered him as for some five centuries. After all, Machiavelli does not shy away from reccomending acts of terror, violence, and deceit should it be the best course of action for a “Prince”.

A quick definitional aside within the larger definition argument: A prince, notably, is not exclusively a dynastic title in Machiavelli’s writing. It is better understood as a Sovereign, like that described in Hobbes’ Leviathan. A prince could be an elected ruler or a dynastic one, but they ultimately hold the authority from which the law originates.

Returning to the shocking acts advised within the Prince, it is not sufficient to read Machiavelli counciling a prince to execute political opposition as an endorsement of such behavior. Detractors of Machiavelli are quick to determine that hid diagnosis of what is politically necessary is, in. fact, his own satanic political morality. Nothing could be further from the truth. Yes, it is not unreasonable to consider Machiavelli to be a cynic. While his apologists, like the author of this paper, would prefer the term “realist”, Machiavelli has a distinctly dismal view of the nature of politics. As professor Narasingha Prosad Sil expertly described,

“Even if we concede that Machiavelli is a cynic, his cynicism cannot be the the testament of a heartless misanthrope. It is the confession of a conscientious man who would like to live under the reign of virtue but cannot find it among people

A Machiavellian is a cynic (or a realist), but they are not “immoral”. When an immoral action is politically necessary, it is only advised because they alternative is worse. For instance, should the citizens of Florence not risen up against their social betters, the Medici’s, and strived to rule themselves simply because they might need to break a few eggs? The infantile political philosopher will wring their hands about abrogations of justice and the misdeeds that an upstart regime like the Florentine republic undoubtedly perpetrated. Yet, what goes unremarked upon is the cost of the status quo. It is not as if the Medici’s themselves did not perpetrate countless injustices to attain their de facto hereditary control over Florence.

Machiavelli does not fit the archtype of an unscrupulous immoral schemer. He is a man who wishes for the “reign of virtue”, but cannot find it. Therefore, he develops a system of analysis which teaches not how to be immoral, but how to combat those who are. The good, chivalrous prince, as Machiavelli describes, is one who finds themself dead or exiled. Should we be naive and believe only in the good hearts of men, the truly dark figures, the modern “Machiavellians”, will take power. The princes of past and present ignore Machiavelli’s warning at their peril and that of their subjects.


Colish, Marcia L. “Republicanism, Religion, and Machiavelli’s Savonarolan Moment.Journal of the History of Ideas 60, no. 4 (1999): 597–616.

Sil, Narasingha Prosad. “POLITICAL MORALITY vs. POLITICAL NECESSITY: KAUṬILYA AND MACHIAVELLI REVISITED.” Journal of Asian History 19, no. 2 (1985): 101–42.

Soll, Jacob. “The Reception of The Prince 1513–1700, or Why We Understand Machiavelli the Way We Do.” Social Research 81, no. 1 (2014): 31–60.

About gracchusbabeuf

French journalist for "Le tribun du peuple".
This entry was posted in Definition Rewrite, GracchusBabeuf. Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to Definition Rewrite – Gracchus Babeuf

  1. davidbdale says:

    In the first minute or so of the opening episode of House of Cards,” the “Kevin Spacey” character, whose initials are “FU,” strangles a dog to death as an act of mercy. The strangulation happens off-screen, of course, because America, but Frank’s face is visible throughout the death-throes, and he narrates, explaining that “nobody wants to do what needs to be done.” Just sayin’.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s