Rethinking “Machiavellian” Morality
Niccoló Machiavelli, Secretary of War for the Florentine Republic (1494-1512) learned a great deal about the harsh world of politics during his time on the inside of the European “great game”. Machiavelli served the republic until its defeat in 1512 by Giovanni de’ Medici (Pope Leo X). 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, a rather short work. Despite its small size, the work has proved foundational for European political theory and the European “Enlightenment”.
Despite, or perhaps because of, its influence, Machiavelli has earned a rather dark reputation from his little book. His unrestrained advice, which often condones the use of violence and incredibly underhanded tactics, has been reviled by both the “Godly” men of yore and the squeamish philosophers of modernity. This reputation is exemplified by the english word, “Machiavellian”, which is a pejorative to describe a deceitful, underhanded person. Recognizing The Prince as the primary battleground of Machiavelli historiography, this paper will focus itself almost entirely on scholarship related to it. After all, in determining the definition of a “Machiavellian” person, it is always The Prince which is scrutinized for answers. Additionally, when criticizing Machiavelli, his critics rely most heavily on arguments made within The Prince. In the argument to follow, the word “Machiavellian” will be revealed as an overly-simplistic caricature of the man who most famously held the name. Fundamentally, the critical pejorative, “Machiavellian”, unfairly equates Machiavelli’s unobscured political analysis with a preference for immoral behavior. In a straightforward manner, this paper aims to
1) define what “Machiavellian” actually means.
2) determine how Machiavelli’s name became a pejorative.
3) refute the argument which motivated the name’s transformation.
However, it first bears asking, who was Niccoló Machiavelli?
Niccoló Machiavelli: A Brief Biography
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, according to scholar Marcia Colish, 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 sometime around 1498. Following Savonarola’s execution and the religious moderation of the republic’s government, Machiavelli received his first posting in the government. Eventually, he would rise to become of the Secretary of War, where he would oversee a successful campaign in Pisa.
During his public career, Machiavelli worked with and among the prominent political actors in Florence and in the broader Italian Wars. It was here where he made his entrance into the great game of power politics. On the inside of this often brutal machine, Machiavelli would learn his infamous cynicism by observation. Interacting with foreign diplomats, working and fighting against mercenaries, and politicking inside Florence itself, Machiavelli decade and a half of public service gave him the wealth of experience that his later, more famous, career would rest upon. That career which he is know best for today, as an author and political philosopher, would not begin in earnest until his exile at the hands of the victorious Medici family in 1512, following the defeat and destruction of the nascent Florentine Republic. Writing from the countryside, estranged from his beloved Florence, Machiavelli would write several books such as The Art of War and The Discourses. While fascinating, Machiavelli’s most important book was his seminal and most controversial text of political science, The Prince.
Section 1: What is a 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. Looking further back into the literary tradition, the scheming character Iago in Shakespeare’s Othello serves as one of the first introductions of an explicitly Machiavellian character in the English literary cannon. For those in the know about “Machiavellian” characters, Frank, Iago and other scheming politicians form an Anglophone cultural memory of what these disciples of Machiavelli’s book of dark rituals, The Prince, 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. It is what one of his primary (nearly) contemporary opponents, Innocent Gentillet, described him as. For Gentillet, Machiavelli was “both wicked and ignorant”, preaching a doctrine of godless opportunism. Unfortunately for overwrought dramatists, both dead and alive, 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”.
Expanding further upon the shocking acts advised within the Prince, it is not sufficient to read Machiavelli counceling 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 does indeed have a distinctly dismal view of the nature of politics. For instance, in chapter VIII of The Prince, Machiavelli reflects on the ancient king of Syracuse, Agathocles. He achieved his control over the city through “wickedness”, which is to say by force and treachery. Despite this, because he appropriately employed cruelty, he lived a long life within his city. Not indulging in senseless violence but also perpetrating as much as necessary to secure his rule meant the usurper lived long.
Using this example from The Prince, it can be seen how a Machiavellian is a cynic (or a realist), but they are not “immoral”. Machiavelli does not praise Agathocles: far from it, he recognizes that Agathocles is quite the villain. However, he concludes from his study of wickedness that
“injuries ought to be done all at one time, so that, being tasted less, they offend less; benefits ought to be given little by little, so that the flavour of them may last longer”
A Machiavellian is pragmatic: while not liking the behaviors of Agathocles, one can still study them and consider their efficacy. Therefore, when the time comes that an immoral action is politically necessary, it can be employed effectively by a Prince. Ultimately, this is the application of the techniques of the wicked to serve the own interests of a (presumably) more moral end. For instance, the citizens of Florence rose up against their social betters, the Medici’s, and strived to rule themselves. Along the way, they had to “break a few eggs”, but a Machiavellian would argue that they simply were playing the game of politics. 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. A Machiavelli, ultimately, is one who recognizes all tools available to them and makes no apologies for using them. Naivety, for the Machiavellian, is a terribly crippling character flaw
Section 2: How does a name become a pejorative?
The exiled Florentine Secretary was hardly such a well-known figure in his own day. His name, certainly, was not yet used as an insult, or at least not widely. If not for the posthumous publication of his enduringly influential and infamous text, The Prince, Machiavelli would likely have remained a historical footnote, remembered only for his time within a short-lived government. Rising over the last half-millenia from an obscure trivia-night answer to the infamous founder of amoral politicking, the name of the once-obscure Florentine has warped into a pejorative adjective to describe immoral and unethical political operators.
Exemplifying his rather unimportant status, his magnum opus, The Prince, was only circulated among his friends during his life, sometime shortly after his exile from Florence. During his lifetime, a later work of his, The Art of War, was published in 1521 to some positive reception. However, following his death, The Prince would be published posthumously by friends and associates in 1532. While not a smash hit among the urban burghers of Europe like the works of reformation celebrity Martin Luther, it did find its way into the courts of Europe. In the ensuing decades and centuries, the name of the obscure Florentine secretary would become synonymous with immoral and unscrupulous political actors, developing into the slur “Machiavel” (as made famous by Shakespeare) and later culminating in the modern adjective “Machiavellian.” As religious tensions and violence escalated in Western Europe, the Florentine’s transgressive political writing developed into a convenient slur to describe and explain one’s political opposition. While hyperbolic, the analysis is understandable: Machiavelli does advise sovereigns to behave in ways which are frequently contrary to traditional European Christian morality.
Following his death and the publication of The Prince, the work became both increasingly influential and controversial. It was rumored, both then and now, that King Henry VIII of England was inspired to break with the Catholic Church, in part, by Machiavelli. As tensions heightened and the fires of reformation broke out across Europe, influential figures on both the Catholic and Protestant sides came to associate their opposition with that teacher of evil, Machiavelli. According to Andrew Curry of The Washington Post, zealous counter-reformer Pope Paul IV added the works of Machiavelli to the Index Librorum Prohibitorum in 1557. The index was an official list of banned books begun by Paul IV in 1555 to combat protestantism, but broadened in scope to include any works he felt offensive or immoral. Despite the addition of his books to the Index Machiavelli was, decidedly, a Catholic. He did have his issues with Christianity, but he was no crypto-Lutheran. Machiavelli wrote of how he felt Christian morals limited princes; he did not write of specifically breaking with the Catholic church or of forming some new Christian sect.
After all, the Prince itself was written before there even were “Lutherans”. At the time of The Prince’s initial writing in 1512 or 1513, Luther was still an unimaginably obscure figure in Northern Germany. It would not be until 1517 that he would dramatically nail his 95 theses to the Wittenberg Cathedral. In spite of these basic, simple-to-observe refutations of any protestant sentiments in Machiavelli’s writing, the Pope still saw his works (or, specifically, The Prince) as threatening enough to the Catholic social order to warrant their banning. A work which advocates prudence over piety was intolerable for the zealous Pope. Therefore, this offensive political philosophy made Machiavelli an enemy of pious Catholics all the same as heretics and heathens.
On the other side of the religious conflict, important protestant commentators of the day identified in their Catholic opponents a dark “Machiavel” influence. One such protestant was Innocent Gentillet, a French Huguenot, Lawyer, and courtier of Henry II. In 1576, as it is argued by scholar C. Edward Rathe, Gentillet first circulated his Anti-Machiavel. This, importantly, places the work four years after the great betrayal of the French protestants during the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre.
On the 18th of August, 1572, much of the French Huguenot nobility had gathered in Paris for the marriage of Margaret of Valois, King Charles IX’s sister, and King Henry III of Navarre (later King Henry IV of France). A few days after the marriage, on the eve of the feast of Saint Bartholomew, King Charles IX ordered the killing of a group of these Huguenot leaders which would spiral into a massacre that would claim between 5,000 and 30,000 Huguenots throughout France. The massacre, it came to be believed, was instigated by the Queen Mother, Catherine de’ Medici, an ardent Catholic. It was one of the worst atrocities in the age of the European reformation and would instigate the French wars of religion between the Catholic children of Catherine de’ Medici and the protestant Henry III of Navarre.
Raging against this atrocity and Machiavelli, Gentillet’s 600-page Anti-Machiavel decries the Florentine Secretary of War as a profoundly immoral influence on the politics of Europe. After all, Machiavelli’s political analysis in The Prince does create a justification of sorts for a heinous act like the Saint Bartholomew’s Day Massacre. Other apologists of Machiavelli have identified Gentillet as one of the first in a long line of Anti-Machiavellian writers who unfairly slandered the name of the Florentine writer. While Gentillet is certainly part of this tradition, his objections to Machiavelli are understandable and not unreasonable. He may tread into the territory of a zealous religious partisan and French nationalist, but he does correctly identify that Machiavelli’s writing can justify extreme political violence. Where he misunderstands Machiavelli is in interpreting Machivelli’s special political maxims as general moral maxims, according again to scholar C. Edward Rathe. Gentillet’s traditional christian view of politics and ethics as inseparable led him to, rather expectedly, contribute greatly to the transformation of Machiavelli’s name into a slur. Additionally, according to Jacob Soll, Gentillet’s fierce attacks on Machiavelli helped create a legacy for his poltical writing, but mostly as a “diabolical author defending the methods of tyranny.”
Essentially, the campaign to transform the name of Niccolo Machiavelli into a political slur began in earnest rather quickly in the decades following his death, with both major Catholic figures like Pope Paul IV and protestant writers like Innocent Gentillet levying major attacks against the name of the Florentine political philosopher. In both cases, Machiavelli became associated with the immoral actions of the other side of the European religious conflict, and his name became a descriptor for one’s political and religious enemies. Regardless of Machiavelli’s writings, the nature of European politics was already shifting violently towards a more recognizably modern orientation during the 16th century. He did not will modernity into existence, he was simply one of the first recognize the inflection point in European history. Therefore, the argument posited by both prominent Catholic and Protestant partisans that his influence was to blame for the atrocities of the other side is unfair. Machiavelli’s Il Principe does offer advice to rulers, but it is most critically a text which observes the reality of 16th century European politics. Machiavelli’s diagnosis of what actions are political necessity has been misread, deliberately or otherwise, to twist his name into the political slur, “Machiavellian.”
Section Three: Refuting Gentillet’s Anti-Machiavel
The transformation of Machiavelli’s name into the slur, “Machiavellian”, developed from a deliberate association between the Florentine writer in the context of an increasingly violent European political landscape. Machiavelli is, to his critics, an immoral and wicked man who was unquestionably evil. He did not practice or understand political science, he was simply a proponent of tyranny. This is categorically false. Machiavelli is a teacher of evil, yes, but is not himself an immoral person who loves evil.
One of his earliest published critics, Innocent Gentillet, had this to say of Machiavelli:
“Nicholas Machiavelli… understood little or nothing [of political science]… he has taken maxims and rules altogether wicked, and has built upon them not a political, but a tyrannical science.”
This “tyrannical” science is the most uncharitable description of unobscured political analysis. A sovereign rules because they maintain a preponderance of force over their realm, and Machiavelli’s great crime is recognizing this as such. It is not by God’s grace that Prince’s rule, but by force and fortune. One must, however, recognize Gentillet’s perspective and the context in which he wrote the Anti-Machiavel.
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.
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 the primary “crime” 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 allow empty platitudes to 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, ruthless 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, however, 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 immoral actions as a means to an end is not a preference for immorality: it is the recognition of political necessity above all.
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I feel my own revision are getting weaker and less sound. Ultimately, it seemed I needed to submit it and humbly ask for some biting feedback.
Looking forward to class tomorrow,
I suspect you plan might be to incorporate revised versions of your short arguments into this omnibus piece when they’re ready, so for the time being I’ll stand on recommendations I made for your little bits.
You pass through a forest of needles but ultimately thread the one you want quite nicely.