By Charles Mathewes, Ph.D., University of Virginia
Italian philosopher Niccolò di Bernardo dei Machiavelli, in his most famous work The Prince, states that immoral behavior was quite common and effective in politics. A guide for new princes and royals, this text asks an important question—is it justifiable to use immoral means to achieve one’s goals?
Does the End Justify the Means?
After the Reformation of the 16th century, a secular view of evil was seen to be possible in Europe in a way that was not seen before. In these views, God seems to be very far away, and morality becomes something different for the thinkers of this period. The difference can be shown by a simple question: Does the end justify the means?
For earlier thinkers, such as Augustine or Aquinas, it was a thought that was hard to conceive. Some ancient thinkers, such as Thrasymachus or Thucydides, would have rejected justice as a coherent idea, while others might say that justice does not need worldly justification. It is only with Niccolò Machiavelli that we begin to get the idea that some things may be made good by what they accomplish. In other words, morality may be real, but in only a small part of the world that we inhabit.
Learn more about the Reformation.
Machiavelli: A Misunderstood Figure?
Although Machiavelli is a famous figure, he is often misunderstood. He was born in Florence in 1469 and died in 1527. He was Secretary and Second Chancellor to the government, which meant he was quite involved in foreign affairs and European affairs in an age of profound political turbulence, violence, and political skullduggery.
In 1512, Machiavelli’s faction, his party, was driven from power in Florence. Machiavelli was first exiled to private life, then he was imprisoned and tortured. When he was released, he was compelled to retire to the Florentine countryside. It was there on his estate that he wrote his great works.
This is a transcript from the video series Why Evil Exists. Watch it now Wondrium.
Machiavelli’s Views on Political Evil
In his book The Prince, Machiavelli notoriously states, “The prince must love his city more than his soul.” Furthermore, to love his city fully, the prince must “learn how not to be good.” These two quotes of Machiavelli are not only significant but also obscure. Understanding what they mean, and why Machiavelli thought that understanding them demanded that a prince had to undergo a new kind of education before he could be an effective leader tells the readers about political evil.
Machiavelli seems to be the first person to think that the reality of evil in politics is in some important way inescapable. Instead of trying to resist it everywhere, a prince should, at certain points and in certain ways, work with the grain of politics rather than attempt to resist it for a larger, moral aim at the end of his efforts.
Queen Elizabeth I’s Love for The Prince
The Prince is one of the most publicly vilified and privately read books. William Shakespeare, in his plays, speaks of ‘the Murderous Machiavelli’, and yet Shakespeare’s sovereign, Queen Elizabeth I of England, read Machiavelli quite avidly.
She was, in fact, quite a learned sovereign, an educated woman, and adept at translations, especially of classical historians. In fact, she kept one book under lock and key in her bedchamber in her palace, and that was a French translation of Machiavelli’s The Prince.
Learn more about Dante, Hell, and the Abandonment of Hope.
Machiavelli: The First Modern Political Man
Machiavelli is sometimes called ‘the first modern political man’ because of his cold-eyed vision of what is at stake in politics and what must be done. His basic idea—which is somewhat visible in The Prince makes sense—is that goodness and virtue are real, but that moral perfection cannot provide any simple guidelines for the governance of our world, especially in politics.
This is why the prince, or any political ruler, or anyone involved in politics for that matter, must learn, as Machiavelli puts it, ‘how not to be good’. Here are two examples of this: First, a prince, according to Machiavelli, is wise to punish with unremitting fierceness rebels against the realm even after they have surrendered; not because they truly deserve that punishment, but rather because when they are seen to be so punished, it will deter others from undertaking similar rebellions, ultimately securing the stability of the realm.
Machiavelli: Okay to Use Proxies
Second, a more controversial recommendation of Machiavelli is the use of proxies for unpleasant deeds; proxies whom the prince can later turn on and punish for performing those very deeds. In other words, the dirty work of politics should not be done by the prince. It should be done by someone else who can later be stained with the nastiness of it.
Machiavelli recommends this not so that the prince himself can ‘get away with’ these crimes but because that way the dirty work that needs to be done to keep the community moderately safe and stable manages to get done while the resentments of the citizenry could find a suitable target who is seen to be properly punished in a way that dissipates those resentments.
The central aim is stability, but one has to understand people’s psychologies, how they resent things, and how to quiet those resentments. This is not because one wants to win people’s favor but because one does not want them to render the political community unstable.
Common Questions about Machiavelli’s Views on Morality in Politics
Niccolò di Bernardo dei Machiavelli was an Italian philosopher. He was Secretary and Second Chancellor to the Italian government.
Machiavelli is sometimes called ‘the first modern political man’ because of his cold-eyed vision of what is at stake in politics and what must be done.
According to Machiavelli, to keep the community moderately safe and stable, a prince should use proxies for unpleasant deeds, who could later be stained with the nastiness of it.