Rebuttal — GracchusBabeuf

“Pro-Machiavel”: Refuting Gentillet’s Anti-Machiavel

The infamous Florentine political philosopher, Niccolo Machiavelli, has earned a reputation so controversial that his name is used as a slur: Machiavellian. It describes a person, usually involved in politics, who readily deploys underhanded, unscrupulous schemes. These figures behave ruthlessly to achieve their ends, not concerning themselves with morality, even reveling in their supposed immorality at times. In the decades and centuries following the posthumous publication of his most (in)famous work, Il Principe (The Prince), Machiavelli has been a source of inspiration, fear, and misunderstanding for all types of people, from mighty kings to lowly printers. Fundamentally, Machiavelli’s name has been deliberately slandered by successive generations who have lost sight of the nuances of his works.

Initially, the Florentine writer saw his work published rather unceremoniously — neither eliciting great praise or ire. This changed dramatically in the decades following the publication of The Prince in the 1530s, as Machiavelli’s writings gained popularity concurrently with mounting religious tensions in Western Europe. With his writings in every court in Europe and atrocities like the Saint Bartholomew’s day massacre striking fear in the minds of people across Europe, it was only a matter of time before his unorthodox came under criticism. After all, Machiavelli broke with the traditional Christian understanding of politics by removing the (public) emphasis on morality and godliness, replaced instead with a focus on shrewd politicking, the ruthless pursuit of power, and the role of fortuna in determining political outcomes. Further earning the ire of traditionally-minded elements within Europe, Machiavelli was a staunch Republican and, if he did not outright detest monarchy, he at least had an incredibly strong preference for republican governments. With this in mind, it is unsurprising that the first prominent and lengthy denunciation of Machiavelli came from a devout Huguenot and Monarchist, Innocent Gentillet.

Incensed by the Saint Bartholomew’s day Massacre and balking at the influence of the Italian Queen Mother of France, Catherine d’Medici, Gentillet wrote a nearly six-hundred page screed in the 1570s against Machiavelli (who had already been in the ground some fifty years). This anti-machiavellian manifesto, fitting titled Anti-Machiavel: A Discourse Upon the Means of Well Governing, covers in detail Gentillet’s point-by-point refutation of the core arguments presented by Machiavelli in The Prince as well as Discourses on Livy. From this long-winded screed, we can find a scholastic starting point for the thorough misunderstanding and slandering of Machiavelli.

Gentillet’s menacing tome serves as a useful origin for the argument which outlines Machiavelli as a black-hearted “Teacher of Evil”, in the words of Leo Strauss. Within the English literary tradition, the propagation of this conception of Machiavelli the Evil was perhaps done most famously by English playwright William Shakespeare. According to the modern translator of the Anti-Machiavel, Simon Patericke, echoes of the Anti-Machiavel can be found in at least eighteen of Shakespeare’s plays as well as The Rape of Lucrece. The terms “Machiavel” is used to describe characters who are duplicitous, deceitful, and generally immoral. Shakespeare’s plays’ enduring influence on the English language has unfairly laundered Gentillet’s criticisms of Machiavelli into two functionally identical slurs: “Machiavel” for an archaic audience and “Machiavellian” for the modern.

For Gentillet, Machiavelli represented everything he despised in French politics. A man too pragmatic to be sufficiently pious for his high protestant standards, Machiavelli’s criticisms of Christianity incensed him. Furthermore, Gentillet, rather hilariously, saw Machiavelli as representative of a pervasive and treacherous influence of Italians in France. To quote one of his more racists denunciations directly, he declared that “Machiavelli shows himself a man of very good grace when he says that the Italians are a people of nimble and light bodies; for he cannot more properly note them of inconstancy and infidelity”. The irony in such a declaration is that Gentillet’s most hated Italian, Catherine d’Medici, was a scion of the very family which drove Machiavelli into exile from Florence. There was no great love between Machiavelli and the Medici’s, though a narrow-minded 16th century French nobleman can hardly be expected to understand such nuances. Returning to the main argument as to whether Machiavelli is a teacher of evil, one must concede that he is, in fact, guilty of one of the primary “crimes” his critics levy against him.

Put plainly, Machiavelli does, in fact, counsel evil. He does so without relying on characters like the philosophers of old; he does it in his own name. The critics of Machiavelli are correct: he is an unrepentant teacher of evil. Where they fatally misstep is determining that the “Teacher of Evil” revels in these actions he councils. Gentillet cries that Machiavelli is a man “full of all wickedness, impiety, and ignorance”. This hyperbolic denunciation scratches at the truth, but only does just that: claw feebly towards an actually nuanced understanding of Machiavelli. Rather than a caricature of evil and immorality, Machiavelli is man who would, in the words scholar Narasingha Prosad Sil, “like to live under the reign of virtue”. However, he is unable to find it among people. Therefore, “his cynicism cannot be the the testament of a heartless misanthrope”. Machiavelli is concerned for ideas like “justice”, but he will not empty platitudes interfere with sound political advice.

For Machiavelli, the reign of virtue, ultimately determined to be unattainable, must be instead replaced by the rule of necessity. The chivalrous Prince will find himself deposed by a “Machiavellian” figure, unscrupulous and scheming. Machiavelli’s advice is as follows: fight fire with fire. The prince who wisely and pragmatically utilizes the teachings of Machiavelli’s transgressive pamphlet has the requisite tools to fight off the most evil-hearted and opportunistic of men. Concerns of morality and virtue are a luxury for a successful prince to consider: the upstart prince must first wrest control of their polity by any means necessary. Machiavelli argues, through this, that the ends justify the means. Irregardless of if one agrees with his analysis, he can not be, in good faith, written off as some immoral monster. A tolerance for amoral actions is not an endorsement of wholesale immorality.


Gentillet, I. (2018). Anti-Machiavel: A Discourse upon the Means of Well Governing. (S. Patericke, Trans.). Wipf and Stock Publishers.


Lukes, T. J. (2001). “Lionizing Machiavelli”The American Political Science Review95(3), 561–575.

About gracchusbabeuf

French journalist for "Le tribun du peuple".
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