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Machiavelli's Prince and His Idea of Statecraft

  • 30 Nov 2021


It is unlikely for anyone in politics, academically or otherwise, to not know the famous Italian Philosopher Machiavelli. Most certainly, you must have heard of Machiavelli or "Machiavellianism". Whether he is famous or infamous is a matter of many debates. Still, one thing remains certain, that is, his ideas of statecraft and that of politics are widely read and identified in the practice of realpolitik.

Niccolo Machiavelli was an Italian Philosopher who served the Republic of Florence in Italy. He is arguably referred to as the first modern political thinker for various reasons. His work reflects the effect of cultural values of Europe, and the Renaissance influenced him to a great extent.

Machiavelli wrote a monograph, "The Prince (1513)", which is well recognised even today. It is addressed to the Governor of France, Lorenzo de Medici, and was written by Machiavelli to attain his favour and obtain a position in the government. The Discourses on the First Ten Books of Titus Livius, also known as Discourses on Livy, is considered another of his famous work.


In psychology, Machiavellianism is a word that denotes the potential to be manipulative, to act cunningly, or for someone who tries every way to gain power. The word is used in a negative connotation, and interestingly, it is one among the three personality traits of " The Dark Triad", along with Narcissism and Psychopathy. However, in Politics, Machiavellianism is used in a slightly different context.

The two books written by Machiavelli, namely The Prince, and Discourses on Livy, exhibit contrasting suggestions by Machiavelli on how Governments should behave. In most cases, The Prince is regarded as the real political thought of Machiavelli, and thinkers often notice "Duplicity" in his work. Rousseau has also asserted that Machiavelli's thoughts, according to his two books, are conflicting against each other.

Machiavelli in his book "The Prince " suggests two different codes of conduct; one is for the ruler and the ordinary code of conduct for the people. In simpler words, the general public should stick to the normal understanding of morality and follow the same. However, the Prince or the ruler has only one moral objective to follow - the interest of his state. The ruler can exceed conventional morality as long as it meets his state's interest.

Thus, deception and hypocrisy are often considered a trait of "Machiavellianism" Machiavelli is referred to as "Devil's Disciple" and the teacher of evil. In his book, ‘Thoughts on Machiavelli,’ Leo Strauss criticises him for motivating leaders and rulers to employ violence and fear and avoid the goodness of justice, love and compassion.

Interesting to note here is that the opinions of scholars are as contradictory as his work. For instance, Ernest Cassier, in his book, 'The myth of the State', describes Machiavelli as a scientist and calls him "Galileo of Politics". An Italian Philosopher, Benedetto Croce, believes that Machiavelli was nothing but a realist in the true sense.

In the book, The Foundations of Modern Political Thought, Quentin Skinner clarifies that Machiavelli allowed deviation from conventional morality only as a last resort, taking a favourable stance for him. He further states that Machiavelli advises "that the Prince ought to do good if he can but must be prepared to commit evil if he must".

Machiavelli's Methodology

There is a broad consensus among thinkers on calling Machiavelli a realist. It can be credited to the fact that Machiavelli employed empirical methods to conclude his idea of politics. He has used the historical method like that of Aristotle. One can say that his method is a combination of realistic and historical manners. His method is not based on speculation but on observation of facts that he draws from history. His practical method with the backing of history makes him a political thinker and not a political theorist.

In his book, The Prince , Machiavelli writes about his method as "drawing maxims or rules for successful political behaviour from history and experience." It is true to the extent that he has drawn historical examples to prove his stance. For instance, in the book Discourses, Machiavelli points out that "if a ruler is accused of committing a wrong act, but its result proves to be good, it will absolve him from the blame". To justify this stance, he draws the example of Romulus, who was exempted from the murder of his brother. Further, he states that similar action in the same situation leads to the same result.

However, many critics assert that Machiavelli was not historical in his approach. In the book "A History of Political Theory", George H Sabine has observed, “It is misleading to say... that Machiavelli followed a ‘historical’ method because his examples were often drawn from the past. He used history exactly as he used his observation to illustrate or support a conclusion that he had reached without any historical reference... His method, insofar as he had one, was observation guided by shrewdness and common sense."

Machiavelli on Politics and Governments

Machiavelli does not treat politics as the end of the "good life." Instead, he treats politics as a way to acquire power, know how to preserve it, and expand it. He believed that this could be attained through utilising the faculties that a Prince can cultivate in himself.

In the era of Greek tradition, ethics was the foundational brick on which politics was conceptualised. However, Machiavelli took a farewell from connecting ethics and politics and, in fact, separated the two from one other. Therefore, he was the first thinker to view politics as separate from ethics.

He classifies governments into two forms, the ideal form and the practical form. According to him, the Republic is a perfect form of government, but it can only exist if the public is virtuous in themselves. The second best form of government and perhaps a more practical one is a Monarchy which he proposes for vicious people. It is worth noting here that during Machiavelli’s time period, in Italy, monarchy was not uncommon.

According to him, the field of politics does not follow the same conventional ethical standards. It's important to note here that in the case of the republican government, which he suggested as the best form of government, ethics played an important role. But since most people were not virtuous, the republican government wasn't a possibility, and only a monarchy could rule them. Thus, a Prince should be bothered about preserving and maintaining his state rather than being concerned with moral standards of conduct.

Machiavelli's thoughts on Statecraft

As stated above, Machiavelli has been a controversial figure for his ideas. Indeed, Machiavelli's advice to the "Prince " (Ruler) on the subject of Statecraft has been a matter of debate and discussion. For understanding, Statecraft can be referred to as an art, methods or strategies that are employed to regulate affairs of the state. According to the Oxford Dictionary, statecraft is the skilful management of state affairs.

The broader meaning of Statecraft not only considers the management of state affairs but also examines it in the light of foreign threats that a state faces in an international sphere. Among Machiavelli's work, the two books that deal with the subject of Statecraft are majorly two: "The Prince ", which was published posthumously, and "The Art of War", is also widely read to understand his idea of Statecraft.

  • On Human nature

Machiavelli's stance on human nature is important to comprehend as it explains his suggestions to the Prince for controlling the state. Machiavelli views humans as selfish by nature and opportunists. He asserts that human beings tend to fulfil their self-interest. His view on the nature of human beings is essentially negative.

According to him, men want protection but lack the strength to protect themselves. They rely on the state to seek security, and the government provides protection from internal as well external conflicts and rivals. Machiavelli also viewed humans as possessive of property. In Prince, he writes, "Men sooner forget the death of their father than the loss of their patrimony".

Also, Machiavelli advised the ruler to take the right steps and protect the honour of women. He opines that if the public is assured that their life, property, possessions, and women and family are protected, they will naturally be loyal to the ruler.

  • On State

Machiavelli viewed the state as supreme to which all citizens should abide. He wanted Italy to be a strong nation-state. The purpose of the state's creation is to check the selfish ends of human nature and build a strong nation that protects the possessions of its people. He would have preferred a republic in Italy only if the people were virtuous. However, the only option that was left was monarchy since the citizens of Italy were corrupt.

He writes, "Single rulers are necessary to found and reform states, republican governments are better at sustaining them once established".

Machiavelli was in favour of Monarchy in the absence of a republican government only due to its people. The States can further be classified as usual or perverted. In a normal or an ideal state, there is civic virtue and a sense of patriotism. However, he was worried about the condition of Italy during his time and saw the corruption. In such a case, Machiavelli is left with no option other than suggesting a strong Prince who can check his public's selfish interest and build a strong state.

He laid down directions for the Prince to ensure a strong state. He suggested a powerful army with soldiers employed from within the state. As per him, a strong state and a strong ruler should possess the tendency to expand and gain more power. He indicated that laws are substantial in maintaining the state's purpose, and if necessary, fear can be employed for a smooth administration.

  • On Statesmen

Statesmanship is the highlight of Machiavelli's thought. He views the Prince as a person whose objective should be maintaining the state as well as creating strong laws. Virtue is cultivated among the public through the laws laid down by the ruler.

When a state is corrupt, a monarch will build a strong state and cultivate a strong moral character of its people. So, a Statesman is not only the ruler but also the creator of laws and the engineer of society. According to him, a good Prince is never afraid of making strong decisions promptly. Uncertainty and delay can prove harmful to the state.

Machiavelli's Prince is not afraid of employing cruelty. Compassion is undoubtedly better than being cruel, but if the cruelty leads to an orderly regime, then he must not be afraid of using it. In fact, he warns that if a Prince has to be cruel for the sake of his state, it should be with full force. "Men should be either treated generously or crushed because they take revenge for slight injuries- for heavy ones they cannot".

  • Ideas in Prince

It is argued that Machiavelli supported "End Justify Means''. He suggests that a Prince should focus on the preservation of his state. Ideally, he should be honest and ethical, which is possible only when people are virtuous. But since they are not, a Prince can even use disgraceful means to achieve a noble end, for people will forgive him as the public ignores the means once they notice the promising results of achieving the end. Contrastingly, it is said that what Machiavelli meant was that a ruler is judged by his people through their verdict, and if a Prince turns out to be successful in the end, he will be excused.

"Let a Prince set about the task of conquering and maintaining his state, his methods will always be judged honourable, and he will be universally praised". Niccolo Machiavelli (The Prince)

In the present day, this statement is used to justify the use of immoral means to gain so-called moral ends, which draws our attention to the never-ending debate of means and ends theory. Using this same example, Machiavelli is debunked for allowing the "dirty hands" to play in politics.

Machiavelli is often misunderstood for his views on Morality. He suggested a double standard of morality, because he held the view that politics has its own moral standards. He did not disregard conventional morality and in fact, believed that ordinary citizens should abide by ethical conduct. According to him, if the ordinary citizens do not follow morality, then the whole objective of the state's existence would be defeated. It was only the Ruler/Prince alone who could take a departure from conventional morality for the sake of his State. In fact, he suggests that the Prince too should follow morals as far as possible and only depart from it when it is absolutely essential.

However, a ruler's morality lies in the preservation of his state. He asserts that a Prince with righteous conduct would have greater legitimacy and thus suggested the Prince follow the moral code of conduct as far as it is possible. If it is absolutely a requirement to depart from traditional morality, he should do it for the sake of his state. And even if he does take a departure from morality, he must pretend to be moral.

"It is well to seem merciful, faithful, humane, sincere, religious and also to be so, but you must have the mind so disposed that when it is needful to be otherwise, you may be able to change to the opposite qualities... A Prince... must not deviate from what is good, if possible, but be able to do evil if constrained". Niccolo Machiavelli (Discourses on Livy)

A Prince is better feared than be loved. He opines that men are more concerned with hurting the fearful person than hurting the one they love. He further states, "The bond of love is one which men, wretched creatures that they are, break when it is to their advantage to do so, but fear is strengthened by a dread of punishment which is always effective."

"A Prince must understand how to make a nice use of the beast and the man".

There are two ways to fight, through law and by force. Laws should be strong enough to provide justice, but if required, a Prince can also use force to succeed. On the question of how a Prince should keep his word, Machiavelli suggests that if the circumstances are normal, the Prince should be true to his word. Yet, if it's required to use deception to achieve greatness, he shouldn't be afraid to do so.

He advises the Prince to be both a Fox and a Lion. A fox cannot defend itself in front of wolves, and a lion cannot defend itself from traps, but a fox can recognise traps and save itself, and a Lion can scare wolves. Here, Fox is used to depict cleverness and Lion to portray strength. Machiavelli suggests that a Prince should be both a Fox and a Lion, in the sense that he should be aware of the circumstances that require action and decide to behave accordingly. A lion can be brave but not every crisis can be solved through bravery. Similarly, a Prince should be both brave (Lion's Trait) but also know how and when to act cleverly to solve a dilemma (Fox's trait).

A good Prince should also be aware of the strength of his enemy. He should have reasonable knowledge of war and its strategies. Also, he should maintain secrecy in certain affairs of state. Even if he does not keep his word, a Prince should colour himself with understanding and kindness and gain the praise of his public.


Machiavelli has been called a modern thinker. It was probably because he made his suggestions on the behaviour of human beings and not on any superficial law. He has been called the pioneer of ‘Behaviouralism’ by William T. Bluhm in the book ‘Theories of Political System.’ He does not pay heed to the divine law, which was the order of the day in Machiavelli's period.

Machiavelli advised on various subjects. From viewing human nature as negative and corrupt to creating a wall between ethics and politics. He viewed ethics and politics from a separate lens in the case of a ruler and ordinary citizens. His idea of a Republican ideal type of government could not come to reality, and thus, he suggested a despotic ruler of a monarch to govern vicious people.

Statecraft has been the primary topic of his thoughts. Almost universally, he is read for his thoughts on the art of war and politics. In the field of politics, Machiavelli has left his powerful print. He was the proponent of "power politics" and asserted the expansion of power. In contemporary times, Machiavelli's ideas are widely debated among scholars. Regardless of criticism of his views, Machiavelli's thoughts in political science can not be ignored and deserve our full attention.

 Annie Pruthi 

Annie Pruthi is currently pursuing her masters in Political Science from JMI, New Delhi and is a first division Arts graduate from Delhi University. She is an avid reader and an award-winning best selling author. Her book "Will You Stay?" recently won the title of "Most Promising Book, 2020 (Fiction)" in the Coimbatore Literary Awards.

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