The Truth Behind Machiavelli: An Ethical Politician at Heart

March 20, 2019 by Essay Writer

In the Oxford English Dictionary there exists an irony: a definition of a term, which originated from the Italian politician Niccolò di Bernardo dei Machiavelli, implies the exact opposite of what its originator argued. This irony is simultaneously a cause and a result of the common misinterpretation of Machiavelli’s writings: that he favored, as the Oxford dictionary puts it, one “who practices expediency in preference to morality; an intriguer or schemer.” (Oxford, 1989). But in truth, Machiavelli argued for the prosperity of ethics through a fundamentally selfless leader. In this way he favored morality over all else, and attempted to convey a set of guidelines that would preserve it throughout time.

To begin, the specific state that allows for the voluntary exercise of ethics requires protection because humans are naturally self-driven. As self-driven motivation frequently leads men to behave Unchristian-like, a particular construct is required to prevent men from practicing unethical behavior. In The Prince, Machiavelli writes, “The wish to acquire is in truth the very natural and common, and men always do so when they can…” (Prince, 3). Due to this, men often resort to immoral behavior such as deceit, ignorance, disloyalty and more, in attempts to satisfy their desires. Consequently, a constitution is necessary in civic life to protect against this type of behavior in order to sustain a unified state. Yet in addition to outlining wrongdoings, the constitution must also oblige allegiance. A beneficial parallel are the 10 Commandments in Christian religious life. These commandments, ordained by God, guide men to create symbiotic relationships and live in a community. But arguably most importantly, they demand exclusive submission to the one and only Christian God, written in the very first commandment.

Similarly, Machiavelli thought the perfect constitution would seize the loyalties of the people and incentivize ethical behavior so that the subjects would voluntarily exhibit it. But he acknowledged the difficulty in constructing such a set of laws, and so accounted for a margin of error. In Discourses, it states, “Those others which do not have a perfect constitution, but had made a good beginning, are capable of becoming better, and can become perfect through the occurrence of events.” (Discourses, 1.2). Yet he advised for caution in reform because men often required experience to believe in new rules, and the “innovator has for enemies all those who have done well under the old conditions” (Prince, 6). Additionally, he knew a constitution, by itself, was vulnerable to selfish manipulation and/or destruction and so saw the need to protect it. Therefore, Machiavelli made it the responsibility of the sovereign to create (if not already in place) a just constitution, implement it, and defend it. Granted that this is no easy job for any ruling entity, Machiavelli concluded unchristian virtues were a necessary means.

One of the most difficult aspects of ruling is obtaining the people’s compliance to the sovereign. As a group of people are never in total agreement nor synchrony, never do a set of laws and/or commands go completely undisputed nor unbroken. Additionally, Machiavelli thinks of humans as complex beings, consisting not only of morals, but of a multitude of things that vary from individual to individual such as desires, aversions, experiences, and beliefs. Out of this complexity comes the difficulty in predicting and consequently protecting the state from individual threat. Therefore Machiavelli argues that “one of the greatest and most real helps would be that he who has acquired [the state(s)] should go and reside there” (Prince, 2). Then the ruler can keep close watch over his subjects and assimilate their customs. By best knowing his people, the ruler will be best prepared for times of rebellion, in which some of his people become his enemy. Yet just as the ruler is empowered by knowledge, the people can also gain power by knowing the ruler. With this power, they can acquire the ability to overthrow and/or destroy him. Thus it becomes clear that a very specific relationship between the sovereign and the subjects must be sculpted in order to give security to the ruler and the people.

For Machiavelli, it is the responsibility of the ruler to reign in the correct manner that creates this relationship. Although he acknowledges a virtuous people is just as vital in maintaining the state as the correct type of ruler, it is the ruler actively dictating the characteristics of the relationship. One may argue that love should characterize this relationship because it demands loyalty and disarms threats, but Machiavelli believed that men often broke the bonds of love for self-interest. Consequently, his writings argue that fear better secures the loyalties of the people because fear, as a motivator, wins out over self-interest. But it is also notable that, “…men injure either from fear or hatred,” so fear must always be checked by love to prevent potential violence (Prince, 7). Inevitably, the perfect relationship consists of a balance between love and fear. Love can be maintained through ethical laws that treat the subjects well but fear, according to Machiavelli, requires something else.

Accordingly, Machiavelli deems violence as a necessary means in acquiring fear. Out of context, his argument can seem immoral or evil, but one must realize his reasoning and goals to see that it is quite the opposite. Machiavelli only advocates for violence because it is the surest way of instilling fear, not because he is fulfilling selfish needs. This fear must be the fear of death as humans are not only born with survival instincts, but are often willing to sacrifice all else in order to avoid death. Consequently, the ruler needs the ability to inflict violence and threaten the lives of the citizens to maintain this fear. So, the ruler must have armed forces to not only protect against foreign forces, but to make the citizens aware of the power of the ruler. Awareness requires constant rejuvenation and so active examples of violence inflicted upon the disloyal serve to also maintain the fear. Therefore, Machiavelli argues the ruler must “…make himself beloved and feared by the people,” (Prince, 7). Along with a delicate balance of fear and love, there must also be a balance between security and individual freedom due to the inverse relationship they share. This balance must ensure that the subjects continue to make the necessary sacrifices of freedom to live in the sovereign state as they are safer in it then in nature, although not totally secure.

Additionally the subjects must feel that within the state, their safety is only compromised when they have broken the laws and ultimately the ethical code. Consequently, the ruler must not punish those who obey unless utmost necessary and if then, the ruler must also take measures to eliminate all possible forces who may seek to avenge the death. This is vital because not only must the ruler crush the present, obvious threats, but must also extinguish the seeds of rebellion that exist in the memories of men. Machiavelli writes, “…men ought either to be well treated or crushed, because they can avenge themselves of lighter injuries, of more serious ones they cannot.” (Prince, 3). Because ‘serious injuries’ demand violence, the ruler has no choice but to inflict it upon those who threaten the state. Generally this follows that the ruler only exhibits violence towards those who break the laws but occasional occurrences require constitutionally unjust killing. In this regard, the citizens will understand the violence as opposed to feeling it is driven by the self-interest of the ruler. Consequently, they are able to predict its targets and gain a feeling of security through knowing how to better avoid punishment.

In summation, Machiavelli acknowledges the immorality of violence like all Christians, but believes it is a necessary evil in sustaining the ethical system in the long run. This is why he writes, “For injuries ought to be done all at one time, so that being tasted less, they offend less…” (Prince, 8). Timing is of the essence for violence is most effective in the early stages of a rebellion, when it can be simply and fully eradicated. Similarly, a disease is easy to remedy when foreseen, but not when it comes about in surprise, as Machiavelli continues, “if you wait until [it] approach[s], the medicine is no longer in time because the malady has become incurable” (Prince, 3). By the time a rebellion has reached a certain threshold of strength, violence no longer “cures” the state. Instead, it likely perpetuates the resistance, giving reason to the people to take arms against the sovereign who can no longer contain the violence and offense.

Therefore, in the Machiavellian state, the people can choose the manner in how they live ethically, but are forced through fear tactics and violence to be ethical nonetheless. Still, the greater purpose for the army, (or at least it must appear so for the citizens), is to protect against foreign forces, as a body must secure itself in the external world before it can refine its interior. Additionally, the citizens and the army would not agree to empowering the sovereign if only for the purpose of repressing and punishing them. So it must be that they agree to this with the benefit of a sufficient amount of protection that renders the deal worth making. Machiavelli also believes that simply the existence of foreign entities, demands a guardianship of the state. This is because peace is only an illusion in the context of sovereign states as “war is not to be avoided, but is only to be put off to the advantage of others” (Prince, 3). Additionally “…time drives everything before it, and is able to bring with it good as well as evil…” meaning the safest way to handle the mystery of what time brings is to always maintain dominance among neighboring states (Prince, 3). This must be attempted peacefully at first, making allies to regulate the power of their states, and only resorting to violence if necessary. Therefore he ensures that any violence used prioritizes the benefit of the citizens because if not used, the state guarantees its own end and that of the medium for the ethical system.

Consequently, it is not Machiavelli himself who demands unethical Christian ways, but factors which he cannot control that require them in order for an ethical state to exist. These factors include chance which Machiavelli refers to as fortune, and the effects of time. Fortune with its infinite possibilities and utter randomness, can only be handled with the reciprocal ability to react in infinite manners at any time for “…more or less difficulty is found in keeping [the principalities]… as there is more or less ability in [the ruler]” (Prince, 6). Therefore ethics must not limit a ruler’s actions because this would make the state vulnerable to fortune, virtually leaving its fate to a gamble. In summation, Machiavelli has constructed an intricate methodology in maintaining the ethical state from each and every opposing force in existence. By dealing the responsibility of protection of the state to the sovereign, which requires unethical Christian means, the rest of the state can preserve its morality, live in peace and never have to sacrifice their Christian principles. In this way, the ruler is also ethical at a different level. At first he must be ethically Christian in order to check his self-interest, but even more difficult, must also love the people more than himself. Then he can see that his own morality means less than that of the common, and will be able to sacrifice it when required to save the common morality.

A great figure, who practiced Machiavellianism and legitimized its claims was Catherine the Great. Known as one of the most successful rulers in history, she both empowered and modernized Russia in the 19th century, bringing it into a period of prosperity later labeled the Golden Age of Russia. With her guardianship, she maintained the state for 34 years retaining the loyalty of her subjects and expanding its dominion (HISTORY 2014). To begin, Catherine ruled in the interest of the people. Although often criticized for practicing unethical principles, her primary concern was the good of the common and like Machiavelli, she prioritized her people over all else. In an attempt to design an ethical constitution, she elected a group of delegates to draft laws based on principles of justice and the wishes of the people. Yet, this turned out to be too liberal and was never fully enacted due to the dangers of giving the people too much freedom. Like Machiavelli, Catherine knew excessive freedom quickly gave way to a state in which “…neither private men or public men were feared” and consequently ethics deteriorated (Discourses 1.2). With this in mind, she crafted other laws which cunningly imposed ethical behavior upon the lords and serfs who made up most of the Russian population.

For example, in regards to getting the Lords to treat their serfs more fairly she wrote, “It is highly necessary that the Law should prescribe a Rule to the Lords, for a more judicious Method of raising their Revenues; and oblige them to levy such a Tax, as tends least to separate the Peasant from his House and Family…” (Catherine II. 1767). By using a tax as the means to prescribe justice to the serfs, Catherine cleverly incentivized the Lords to act morally as opposed to forcing them. This preservation of choice gave the Lords feelings of security and control over their lives. Accordingly, this strengthened the people’s loyalties to Catherine as they knew Russia could not survive without her and as Machiavelli puts it, “he who keeps a city accustomed to freedom will hold it more easily by the means of its own citizens than in any other way” (Prince, 5). Provided that, Catherine also maintained a strong military, instilling fear in her people and defending them from foreign enemies just as Machiavelli advised.

From the start, Catherine strategically utilized her military exemplified by her domination of Ukraine, the Crimea, and the Black Sea. Victories continued throughout her rule allowing for expansion of land and resources which benefited both her reputation and her people (Moss, 1997). Yet she also sustained fear in the people through heavy military presence which Machiavelli argued was vital. This was mainly how she acquired the obedience of the serfs who were the majority at the time and concentrated acts of violence kept rebellions in check. For example, when Lieutenant Vasiliy Mirovich led an attempt to free Ivan VI, the previously proclaimed emperor of Russia, Catherine made sure to extinguish the totality of the rebellion. Because Ivan was already killed during the attempt, she only had to deal with Mirovich, who she had executed without a trial (Moss, 1997). This way, the disobedience was terminated, the spread of the rebellion was impeded, and she demonstrated the suicidal risk of challenging her sovereignty. By killing Mirovich quickly without a trial, the people had little chance to entertain the rebellion or strengthen their memory of a possible injustice that occurred. Therefore Catherine displayed her Machiavellian ability to perceive the necessary course of action based on the variables of time, environment, and people.

Additionally, she proves Machiavelli’s statement, “he who relied least on fortune is established the strongest” as she consistently maintained her rule with and without the aid of chance (Prince, 6). Consequently Catherine simultaneously embodies Machiavelli’s famous ‘fox’ and ‘lion’. As the fox, she deceptively imposed her will, gained support, and limited any resistance against her. As the lion, she fueled a large army, secured dominance among foreign powers, and inspired fearsome admiration in her homeland. But arguably her most important quality was her morality despite her ability to set it aside when necessary. This was recognized by the French Diplomat Baron de Breteuil who wrote, “She will endeavor to reform the administration of justice and to invigorate the laws; but her policies will be based on Machiavellianism… She will adopt the prejudices of her entourage regarding the superiority of her power and will endeavor to win respect not by the sincerity and probity of her actions but also by an ostentatious display of her strength… Cunning and falsity appear to be vices in her character; woe to him who puts too much trust in her. (Baron de Breteuil. 1787) Consequently her vices were simply a means for bettering Russia, which reflected her ethical values, even though she could have easily abused her power for self-interest.

Furthermore, it was evident that she prioritized the condition of the monarch as she believed, “The Intention and the End of Monarchy, is the Glory of the Citizens, of the State, and of the Sovereign…From this Glory, a Sense of Liberty arises in a People governed by a Monarch; which may produce in these States as much Energy in transacting the most important Affairs, and may contribute as much to the Happiness of the Subjects…” (Catherine II. 1767). In this quote, it is also obvious she hoped to make her people happy but knew happiness was fundamentally the choice of the individual. So, she enabled her subjects by freeing them from their self-driven nature and constructing an ethical system. But, it was her preservation of their free will that ultimately allowed for their cultivation of happiness. On the other hand, Catherine arguably sacrificed her own happiness for the greater good. She enslaved herself to doing always what was in the interest of Russia regardless of her individuality which made her a true Machiavellian ruler. Consequently, it was her inner morality that led to her devotion of the preservation of ethics. Therefore, it is evident that the contemporary interpretation of Machiavelli favoring expediency over morality is incorrect. In fact, Machiavelli always favors ethicality, no matter the means, no matter the fortune, and no matter the time.


1. Baron de Breteuil. 1787. Letter of Baron de Breteuil A Source Book for Russian History, G. Vernadsky, trans. (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1972), Vol. 2.

2. Catherine II. 1767. Documents of Catherine the Great: The Correspondence with Voltaire and the Instruction of l767 in the English Text of l768, W. F. Reddaway, trans. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1931)

3. HISTORY. “Catherine the Great Biography.” History of Russia. N.p., n.d. Web. 23 Nov. 2014.

4. Machiavelli, Niccolò, and Bernard Crick. The Discourses. Harmondsworth, Eng.: Penguin, 1970. Print.

5. Machiavelli, Niccolò, Edward Dacres, and William Edward Colston Baynes.The Prince. London: A. Moring, 1929. Print.

6. Moss, Walter. 1997. “Volume 1.” A History of Russia. New York: McGraw-Hill. N. pag. Print.

7. Oxford English Dictionary. 2nd ed. 20 vols. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1989.

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