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 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 archetypal example 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 critics 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 akin to defining 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. 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 recommending 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 his 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 the alternative is worse. For instance, should the citizens of Florence not have 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, of permitting an ancien regime to persist. It is not as if the Medici’s themselves did not perpetrate countless injustices to attain and maintain their de facto hereditary control over Florence. Therefore, it is unreasonable to profess horror that the Machiavellian political actor is willing to do what is politically necessary instead of simply rolling over. A critic can object to Machiavelli’s proposal that “the ends justify the means”, but cannot deny that the same ruthlessness is perpetrated by an ancien regime against their opposition. Power politics is a zero-sum game, and the Machiavellian plays to win, content that their crimes will be justified by the good outcomes they ensure. Whether the ends truly did justify the means is for history to decide.

Machiavelli does not fit the archetype 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".
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18 Responses 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’.


  2. davidbdale says:

    You do a fine job in your Introduction of detailing how popular culture portrays characters you’re describing here as “Machiavellian.” But notice, they’re characters YOU’RE describing as such. The term might be used in the work of art itself; a character might describe another as Machiavellian; but as often as not (in House of Cards, for example), nobody inside the show uses the term. Perhaps in Stage Directions the character is described as M’ian. Very likely critics covering the show will describe the character so.

    As you suggest with “Whether named as such or not,” audiences or readers are not always provided the term. They might use it, though, to tell a friend what to expect from the show or book. And you also carefully identify Machiavellians NOT as imitators of Machiavelli the man BUT as wannabe Princes.

    I say all this to recommend that you might need to make clearer who you’re arguing with: not artists but their critics and their audiences (or artists who don’t know better, of which there are probably more than a few).


    • gracchusbabeuf says:

      It seems a clearer attack on the critics is in order. A better focus than aimlessly shooting at the barn door.


  3. davidbdale says:

    The trouble it took me to suss out this distinction from your text was compounded for another moment by the first sentence of P2, in which you suggest “Machiavelli, then, should be the arch-fiend of these immoral men. The progenitor from whom all these evil-hearted politicians take their cues.”

    Maybe you’re using arch- to suggest archetypal, (the ur-fiend) but it’s easy to confuse it with arch-enemy, which in a popular culture context always means the primary opponent of the superhero.

    It’s not unfortunate for dramatists unless they want to deliberately perpetuate the misapplication of Machiavelli’s name with their unscrupulous characters’ behaviors and knowing the truth prevents them. It would surely be inconvenient for them to learn the truth you have to share.

    I wouldn’t bother to quibble about your language choices if they weren’t so often impeccable.


    • gracchusbabeuf says:

      Yes I do mean arch- in the sense of an archetypal character. I will see how I can make this more precise. I do love my occult reference to demonology and religion.


  4. davidbdale says:

    Your third paragraph doesn’t resolve the confusion. Please don’t resist applying blunt labels to your two meanings.

    You could consider literal/figurative or fanciful/defensible or sloppy/accurate, but never just say “What’s a Machiavellian?” without revealing in which sense you’re answering the question.

    What exactly is a literary “Machiavellian”? A person who acts like the Prince. What is a literal “Machiavellian”? If there is such a person, he acts like Machiavelli or aspires to or wishes he could, or who simply admires the man, not his book. I know you know this, but you don’t quite say it.


    • gracchusbabeuf says:

      I am too often prone to veiled allusions and, deliberately or otherwise, conceal the core of my arguments behind dramatic prose. I’ll work to remove the haziness at the edges of the paper. More accurately, this is a 1000 word polemic against the western european political tradition which often has such decidedly negative views of figures like Machiavelli (and Caesar, but I really don’t have time in a 3000 word paper to get into that). Maybe that would have actually been a better topic, I have a lot of “big names” to pillory in Classics who are the most insufferable sycophants of Cicero.


  5. davidbdale says:

    What’s the point of this second comparison?

    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.


    • gracchusbabeuf says:

      Needless qualifying of my information. At best, it provides more characterization for machiavelli. Should likely go.


      • davidbdale says:

        I like that his literacy is relative, I just don’t understand why
        1) in comparison to the almost entirely illiterate societies of the day
        2) as opposed to the mostly illiterate Italian republic.
        How is one illiteracy opposed to another illiteracy?


        • gracchusbabeuf says:

          Right, it’s more just my brain vomiting out every bit of information on a subject. It’s not relevant for the paper, as the fact of the greater per capita illiteracy in Spain compared to Florence doesn’t advance the argument at all.


  6. davidbdale says:

    I would permit you a Rhetorical Question if you want one to open your fourth paragraph as a transition from the abstract third:

    What would it mean to act like Niccolo Machiavelli? First, one should arrange to be born the third son of an attorney in 15th century Florence . . . .

    Otherwise, the transition is too abrupt to the biography.


  7. davidbdale says:

    I had a thought. Using two adjectives to distinguish good/bad, old/new, accurate/sloppy Machiavellians is still too clumsy. Coin a new word?

    For the purposes of this paper, Niccolonian will describe attitudes that can be ascribed to the author of The Prince, and readers who distinguish between the author and his character will be Niccolonians.


    Liked by 1 person

  8. davidbdale says:

    Enough for starters? I have other authors to irritate. 🙂


    • gracchusbabeuf says:

      Never an irritation, and arguably too light a hand. I’ve felt the sting of the editor’s red pen plenty. It’s almost an old friend by now.


  9. davidbdale says:

    Drop this back into Feedback Please anytime you wish.


  10. davidbdale says:

    Stronger for the additions to P10.
    Graded WED MAY 03


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