Niccolò Machiavelli

Niccolò Machiavelli

It’s good to be bad!


Niccolò di Bernardo dei Machiavelli, popularly known as Machiavelli, was a 16th-century Florentine philosopher. He is known primarily for his political ideas but his philosophical legacy remains enigmatic. His most famous book ‘The Prince’ is considered his magnum opus. Machiavelli stood out from his contemporaries because he believed that politics and morality should be separated. Classical political theory had argued that the two were linked; that political law was connected to a higher moral law. Machiavelli, whether through realism or calculated cynicism, rubbished this idea and argued that political action must be judged purely on its practical consequences. He described immoral behaviour, such as dishonesty and the killing of innocents, as being normal and effective in politics. “Machiavellianism” is widely used as a negative term to characterize unscrupulous politicians of the sort Machiavelli described most famously in The Prince.

Historical milieu

In seeking the national integration of Italian states, Machiavelli was searching for answers to domestic instability caused by the rise and fall of successive political regimes. In order to replace political flux with a relative assurance of continuity and harmony, he sought the following conditions in a ruler he called the Prince:

  • least dependent on external interferences;
  • capable of extracting internal obedience by invincible power and force; and
  • viable not solely through forced acquiescence but through the allegiance of a citizenry recognizing the power-holder as the legitimate sovereign.

Prepositions of a monarch as highlighted in ‘The Prince’

New monarch

The first eleven chapters of the book deal with the art of coming into power and then ruling a state. The matter of hereditary monarchies is very briefly considered because Machiavelli’s main concern is with Italy and it is apparent to him that no hereditary monarch is going to fulfil the country’s need for a ruler. According to Machiavelli, a monarch who inherits the throne has much easier career than a newly-installed ruler. He should avoid serious breach with tradition and be reasonably intelligent in caring for his problems. And, this path is not difficult to follow since he has a well-established setup on his side.

It is much harder for a new monarch to consolidate his control. Much depends on the particular conditions in the country as well as the method by which the new ruler came to power. For example, a conquering prince can establish his position more easily when the people of the state he has conquered share the language and traditions of his own subjects. A despot issuing his commands in a foreign language and fundamentally altering the norms of the country would quickly provoke resentment, putting his own position in jeopardy. Irrespective of the course he adopts, a conqueror must be quick to suppress opposition wherever it occurs. The antagonists must be eliminated with complete ruthlessness because a half-hearted action would not curb the power of the opposition.

Read More: Machiavelli to Modern Leaders, How to be – and stay – powerful

The new ruler should seek out and cultivate the minority groups that were opposed under the previous ruler, for they may provide some foundation of support in cases where the majority of the people resent the opposition of a new tyranny. The Prince must be careful, however, and should not go too far in this regard for he can really trust no one and it is a cardinal rule that the despot must never consciously add to the power of anyone who might later threaten his position.

A Prince must come to power as a result of class conflict. The noble may fear the people and support a ruler they hope will suppress the majority. The general people, on the other hand, may support a Prince who presumably will give them relief from oppressive nobility. In the first case, prince will seek to obtain the support of the people; in the second, he will endeavour to maintain that.

For a tyrant may not require popular acclaim to achieve power, he must know that only the people can provide him with the solid foundation which is a prerequisite for his government’s stability. The masses are more dependable than the nobility; all they ask is freedom from oppression, while the nobility will compete for power with the Prince himself.

Certain principalities are governed by ‘Ecclesiastical authorities’. Such dominions may be acquired by ability or good fortune, but they require less effort in their maintenance than do other types of government. In these states a built-in stability rests upon the fact that they are held together by ‘ancient religious customs’.

Even though the princes are corrupt and lack capacity, they may enjoy success because their citizens will follow the dictates of a religion that acts as a powerful political element. Machiavelli said:

“These princes alone have states and do not defend them; and they have subjects and do not rule them; and the states, although unguarded, are not taken from them, and the subjects, although not ruled, do not care, and they have neither the desire nor the ability to alienate themselves.”

The conqueror that imposes his rule upon a republic faces unique, painful problems. Those accustomed to tyranny may or may not resent a new tyrant, but the people of a republic are resentful of their loss of freedom. They will not easily give up; they will fight for its restoration at the slightest provocation. Machiavelli said: “But in republics there is more vitality, greater hatred, and more desire for vengeance, which will never permit them to allow the memory of their former liberty to rest; so that the safest way is to destroy them or to reside there.” The only recourse for the ruler is to destroy completely the customs and institutions of a free people.

“Reform” is a troublesome business as the people are naturally conservative, resisting change of any kind. The successful ruler must persevere and must be tough in order to alter any society. The change can be made, however, as when the ruler has attained his goal, he will be honoured for having done so.

Some rulers reach their highest positions by sheer treachery and brutality. But harsh and perfidious methods do not create a solid foundation upon which to build the long-term success of the Prince. For one thing, brutality, though it may be necessary, should be intelligently, not senselessly, applied or used thoroughly but briefly. A continuous reign of terror will defeat the purposes of the ruler.

There are two methods of settling the conflicts: law and force. Law is the way of men; force is the way of beasts. There is greater deal of force in men and the Prince must understand his nature and act accordingly. He must combine the cunning of the fox with the strength of the lion; he must learn to play the game. A cunning Prince can always find an acceptable pretext for breaking his promises. A faithless Prince, then, is by no means a bad one if his objective is the maintenance of the state; nevertheless he ought not to openly break his word. He ought to be “a great feigner and dissembler”. He should not be concerned about the people for they are easy to deceive, particularly if the deceiver does not have the appearance of a rouge.


In chapters 12 to 14, Machiavelli discussed the use of military power. Regardless of the method employed by a ruler to gain power and irrespective of the type of government system established, two things are necessary to the maintenance of the state: good laws and the strength required to enforce them.

Concerning the basis of an effective military force, Machiavelli introduces the theme to which he returns again and again in his writings. The subjects interest him to the point of obsession. The armed forces, according to him, must consist of citizen-soldiers despite his disappointing experience with the Florentine Militia; he places his interest in this kind of military force.

Mercenary troops are not to be trusted; those who fight for money alone are without honour. Only those who fight to defend their homes, their honour and the virtue of their women will lay down their lives in the battle, and soldiers who will not risk death will fail.

Auxiliaries are not much better; the troops of another sovereign give their primary loyalty to him. Even if a prince wins his battle by employing the armed forces of another, he generally ends up as the prisoner of the one who has supplied the soldiers.

The foremost duty of a ruler is to create an efficient army. Both the military and psychological training is necessary.


In chapters 15 through 18, Machiavelli offers advice to prince that is largely responsible for his unenviable reputation. Rulers are admonished to secure their power by employing whatever tactics they may apply. They will only waste their time and count days if they try to plan perfect commonwealth and ideal lives. Human nature is dominated by egoistic drive, provides no realistic basis for such endeavour.

A wise Prince would avoid excessive liberty. Generosity in the finer analysis, is less advantageous than parsimony.

A ruler who is lavish with favours must advertise this fact and the people will soon resent a policy of prodigality for they will realize that they themselves are paying for it.

The ruler who is parsimonious will discover that while the people may, at first, resent his attitude they will, after consideration, appreciate the fact that the Prince is being courteous to their property. Thus, economy will be appreciated and stability of the state will be strengthened.

A prince must not be kind, for kindness must be construed as laxity, and anarchy will be the result. His greatest responsibility is to hold the state together. This often necessitates measures which are not as cruel in fact as they appear to be, or which are at least preferable to the greater cruelty that attends the disintegration of body politic.

The prince would prefer to have both the affection and respect of his subjects, respect is more important. If the respect would not be given, then it would turn to hatred among masses which would weaken the foundation of authority. To avoid malevolence, he must respect the property and the women of his subjects.

He may have to execute his people, but he should abstain from taking patrimony of the people.

Consolidation of his power

Chapters 19 through 25 deals with Machiavelli’s advice on how consolidate his power. He is prone to repeat himself on many occasions throughout.

Prince must create a favourable image of himself in the minds of people. He must appear to possess integrity, courage, determination and strength of will.

In the event of war between two of his neighbourS, the prince must take a stand with one or two. If possible, he should play the balance-of-power game by supporting the weaker from the two. He should at any cost avoid neutrality for both countries would hate him.

In selecting his officers and advisers the Prince must bear in mind that they will advance their own cause rather than his own if they are permitted to do so. The Prince must be ruthless in purging his officials’ ranks of those who do not serve him well. A Prince who is feared must also guard against sycophancy among the members of his official family. Advisors may tell him what they think he wishes to hear rather than what he ought to hear. A prudent monarch must seek trust-worthiness above all other virtues in a council and he should demonstrate that no person need fear the giving of sound advice, no matter how unpalatable it may be.

Critical Acclaim

In Bertrand Russell’s words—Machiavelli in fact occupies a more complicated ethical terrain. His central claim is that politics has a moral logic of its own, at times requiring actions to preserve the state that might be regarded as reprehensible within polite society. There are times, in other words, when conventional ethics must be set aside for the pragmatic and expedient dictates of (what would later become known as) raison d’etat or “reasons of state”.

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