In modern usage, the name "Machiavelli" is a byword for cynical, selfish scheming. In this post, a Renaissance scholar places Machiavelli the human being into historical context, illuminating that Machiavelli was not cynical so much as desirous of an accurate map of the territory, and not selfish at all but rather relentlessly goal-oriented. (The post starts slowly -- that's historical context for ya.) In writing Il Principe, Machiavelli (quite possibly unintentionally) committed to posterity two major breakthroughs, which we would now call (i) the creation of modern political science and history and (ii) the introduction of utilitarian/consequentialist ethics. 


In 1498, at the age of 29, Machiavelli was made a high official of the Florentine analogue of the State Department/Ministry of Foreign Affairs. His job was to shut up and do the impossible:

  • Goal: Prevent Florence from being conquered by any of 10+ different incredibly enormous foreign powers.
  • Resources: 100 bags of gold, 4 sheep, 1 wood, lots of books and a bust of Caesar.
  • Go!
And thus did Machiavelli come to invent consequentialism.

Modern Political Science

1508. The Italian territories destabilized by the Borgias are ripe for conquest.  Everyone in Europe wants to go to war with everyone else and Italy will be the biggest battlefield.  Machaivelli’s job now is to figure out who to ally with, and who to bribe.  If he can’t predict the sides there’s no way to know where Florence should commit its precious resources.  How will it fall out?  Will Tudor claims on the French throne drive England to ally with Spain against France?  Or will French and Spanish rival claims to Southern Italy lead France to recruit England against the houses of Aragon and Habsburg?  Will the Holy Roman Emperor try to seize Milan from the French?  Will the Ottomans ally with France to seize and divide the Spanish holdings in the Mediterranean?  Will the Swiss finally wake up and notice that they have all the best armies in Europe and could conquer whatever the heck they wanted if they tried?  (Seriously, Machiavelli spends a lot of time worrying about this possibility.)  All the ambassadors from the great kingdoms and empires meet, and Machiavelli spends frantic months exchanging letters with colleagues evaluating the psychology of every prince, what each has to gain, to lose, to prove.  He comes up with several probable scenarios and begins preparations.  At last a courier rushes in with the news.  The day has come.  The alliance has formed.  It is: everyone joins forces to attack Venice.
O_O      ????????
Conclusion: must invent Modern Political Science.


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I'd argue that Machiavelli didn't really believe much of what was written in The Prince. First, Machiavelli, aside from in The Prince, was a very consistent supporter of republican government (contrast, eg his Discourses on Livy); also, he held several high offices in the Republic, and was fired, tortured, and sentenced to house arrest following the Medici return to power. Second off, much of his advice given in The Prince was objectively terrible, and would have increased the likelihood of a counter-counter-coup against the Medici- Mary Dietz gives a longer argument here (HT Gwern), which Wikipedia summarizes as:

  • He discourages liberality and favors niggardliness to guarantee support from the people. Yet Machiavelli is keenly aware of the fact that an earlier pro-republican coup had been thwarted by the people's inaction that itself stemmed from the prince's liberality.
  • He supports arming the people despite the fact that he knows the Florentines are decidedly pro-democratic and would oppose the prince
  • He encourages the prince to live in the city he conquers. This opposes the Medicis' habitual policy of living outside the city. It also makes it easier for rebels or a civilian militia to attack and overthrow the prince.

(Even if it wasn't a trap, it's likely Machiavelli had severely compromised his own principles and ideas in The Prince in order to gain favor with the Medici.)

If I am not mistaken, Burnham argues in his Machiavellians: Defenders of Freedom that although Machiavelli believed republicanism to be generally the best form of government, he did not hold that republicanism was the best form of government for the Italian city-states at that time.

Having not read the article, I cannot criticize the arguments that it contains. However, I am inclined to say that it goes against the mainstream view of Machiavelli (that is, mainstream view of experts on Machiavelli, not just mainstream view of the masses).

I find it rather amusing that people remember the quote about Love and Fear, but forget this passage, which occured literally one paragraph later:

Nevertheless a prince ought to inspire fear in such a way that, if he does not win love, he avoids hatred; because he can endure very well being feared whilst he is not hated, which will always be as long as he abstains from the property of his citizens and subjects and from their women. But when it is necessary for him to proceed against the life of someone, he must do it on proper justification and for manifest cause, but above all things he must keep his hands off the property of others, because men more quickly forget the death of their father than the loss of their patrimony.

When I read the article, it struck me that the author talked about Machiavelli founding utilitarianism/consequentialism at the beginning, but never really came back to it. And then you took a passage and labeled it the origin of consequentialism. Why did you distinguish that passage from the other? It is not clear to me what either you or she means by these things, in particular how to distinguish two innovations. It seems to me that the claimed innovation is realism, having a model of the world and using history to tune it.

I suppose that when Machiavelli considers the moral choice and rejects it because of its consequences, that is consequentialism, but that is scandalous not because of his choice, but because of the factual claim.

And then you took a passage and labeled it the origin of consequentialism. Why did you distinguish that passage from the other?

It's actually the passage immediately following the one I quoted which exemplifies consequentialism, in sharp contrast to the classically influenced, religiously founded deontology that public figures in Europe claimed to espouse if they wanted to avoid the wrath of the Church.

Machiavelli is an educated man. He has read all the ancients, all the histories, all the moral maxims and manuals of government. He negotiates... He negotiates anything he has to.

If he is making public that which everyone is thinking, but afraid to say, then his historical importance is not in any of the passages you quote, but that he writes a book about it.

Yup. From the OP:

In writing Il Principe, Machiavelli committed to posterity two major breakthroughs [emphasis added]

One of the claims Dietz makes is that Machiavelli made no attempt at all to publicize The Prince; he wrote & delivered it to the respective palace, and that was it.

So what if he meant to do it gently in the Discourses on Livy rather than brazenly in the Prince?

Added: note that the Discourses were also banned. Subtracted: actually, that might have been a blanket ban, providing no evidence.

It seems entirely plausible to me that it was written with no other goal than gaining patronage. I'll update the post.

the author talked about Machiavelli founding utilitarianism/consequentialism at the beginning, but never really came back to it

The post I linked is the first of three; the second and third posts are still to be written.

I was only surprised because the author did come back to political science and pinpoint it in time. You restored a symmetry which the author broke. Either you are correcting an oversight or you disagree with her. In neither case are the future posts relevant.

If I recall, Machiavelli was actually considered a rather mediocre statesman. His fame only came through his writings.

An expert on political ruthlessness, not an expert at political ruthlessness!

That is interesting.

!!! This was written by one of my friends from college. I read a precursor to this article when it was just something sent around to friends.

Nothing really significant, just surprised to see it pop up here.