How Morality Is Anti-realistic in Politics According to Machiavelli


By Charles Mathewes, Ph.D., University of Virginia

For Italian philosopher Machiavelli, the idea that a ruler had to be good and moral was unrealistic. He believed that the main aim of a prince is to care for the polis or the state. According to him, if a ruler is too moral or too righteous, he may not be able to take the necessary actions to maintain safety and stability in the state.

Image of a scene from 'The Prince', showing Cesare Borgia with his sister Lucrezia Borgia and their father Pope Alexander VI, along with a guest.
Cesare Borgia was greatly admired by Machiavelli and his rise to power inspired Machiavelli’s The Prince. (Image: Everett Collection/Shutterstock)

Machiavelli’s Admiration of Cesare Borgia

In Machiavelli’s time, one of the greatest enemies of liberty and freedom was the family of the Borgia. Cesare Borgia was an Italian politician and the illegitimate son of Pope Alexander VI. His fight for power was a major inspiration for one of Machiavelli’s greatest works—The Prince.

Machiavelli admires Borgia’s ruthlessness mainly but because Borgia, for Machiavelli, exhibited a unity and coherence of purpose and intents that was good for the polity. People under Cesare Borgia’s rule and inside his community knew what he was about. Even people outside his community knew what he was about. There was never any uncertainty about what he would do at any moment unless he wanted to surprise people.

In other words, the integrity of a political agenda, its predictability, was, for Machiavelli, the absolute baseline for a successful political regime. To be chaotic, unpredictable, and unstable is not a recipe for success; it is not a recipe for a happy polity. However, a leader should be able to surprise people from time to time, while simultaneously should also be able to be a predictable and stable place for them.

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Machiavelli’s Arguments for the ‘Mirror of the Prince’

A popular genre of medieval political writing, known as the ‘mirror of the prince’ emerged during Machiavelli’s time. In these treatises, the writers repeatedly talked about the first and foremost thing that a ruler has to be: being good. He has to be ordered, moral, and right.

A portrait of Machiavelli.
Machiavelli believed that a good and decent ruler may appear weak to the people. (Image: Santi di Tito/Public domain)

Machiavelli, however, rips all of that away; according to him, it is simply unrealistic. There are two different ways in which this is unrealistic: First, it is unrealistic to know what is possible for political rulers. Many of them are not essentially going to be good people. Second, Machiavelli believed it is deeply unrealistic because it mistakes the cause and effect of certain actions in the polity. A simple moralism in politics for Machiavelli is anti-realistic and anti-political; it is against the good of the polis.

A nice and decent ruler may seem weak to some people; a kind and generous and merciful ruler may let rebels go when he should not do that; a just ruler may generate resentment among those people who supported his getting into power and yet not be able to defuse the resentment of those people who were against his getting into power about the fact that he got into power.

To talk about people being good as the first virtue of politics is morally bad for politics. The whole point of his argument was to care for the polis, for the polity, and the rhetoric. Machiavelli claims in the text ‘to see the world as it is, not how we would like it to be.’

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Machiavelli’s Central Political Anxiety

The central political anxiety that Machiavelli had was instability. He had seen too much anarchy and chaos in his world and realized that in important ways, people have to ensure stability in the world for any of the other goods of politics or private life to go forward.

This means, for Machiavelli, the stability of the political order has to come before the ethical happiness of that order. This raises profound questions, and Machiavelli is the first one to raise them—about the continuity of political life with our ordinary, everyday, day-to-day interpersonal, ethical lives.

Understanding that the basic claim of Machiavelli is important to see how he thinks people ought to understand the world properly. That unlocks the whole political psychology for him. Once one gets away from the idea that one ought to be good, one can then look around and see how people act, especially in politics.

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Machiavelli Makes an Interesting Point

Machiavelli has an interesting point to make about politics. According to him, in politics, people are governed by two large bodies or families of motivation. They are governed by their loves and their fears; mostly, they are governed by their fears. Occasionally love will help and manifest itself in some good thing.

However, one can mostly rely on the thought that people are going to be able to do things more if one scares them with certain concrete threats than if one offers them certain vague hopes of good things in the future. That is one fact, this interesting political psychology for Machiavelli that people are driven more by their fears, and that is a fact that we have to acknowledge.

The other fact is another very crucial word for him: “fortuna” or fortune. Fortuna, for Machiavelli, plays a huge role in politics. Fortuna is an accident, luck; all sorts of things that happened over which one had no control.

For instance, one becomes the ruler of a country that faces an immediate economic crisis, and his agenda for changing the country’s way has to take second place to deal with that economic crisis. Perhaps, there are enormous military threats on a country’s border from an unstable regime that has collapsed. Suddenly, the ruler’s polity has to be organized to defend itself against that unstable regime.

Machiavelli believed that a ruler had to be bad because at times they would find that the events they have to face were not in their control; nonetheless, they were responsible for facing those events.

Common Questions about How Morality Was Anti-realistic in Politics According to Machiavelli

Q: According to Machiavelli, what was the main aim of a prince or a ruler?

According to Machiavelli, the main aim of a prince was to care for the polis or the state.

Q: What was the central political anxiety that Machiavelli had?

The central political anxiety that Machiavelli had was instability.

Q: According to Machiavelli, what are the two large bodies or families of motivation that govern people in politics?

According to Machiavelli, in politics, people are governed by two large bodies or families of motivation—their loves and fears.

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