Italian diplomat and political theorist Niccolò Machiavelli inspired the generations that came after him to theorize a particular approach to leadership and a brand of governance, as well as a political philosophy now referred to as Machiavellianism.
Through his 16th-century mirror-for-princes book “The Prince,” a political treatise that has been subjected to analyses and numerous interpretations, Machiavelli provided an instruction guide on how new princes and royals should rule. It eventually influenced actual rulers to such an extent that some would brand themselves as Machiavellian.
Some political theorists and analysts would use the term Machiavellian in their analyses of a particular political setting or governance situation, as well as in branding leaders who displayed traits or characteristics attuned to the traits laid down by Machiavelli.
However, to set things straight, it is important to note that the terms “Machiavellian” and “Machiavellianism” did not originate from Machiavelli himself. He never used these terminologies in “The Prince” or in his other written works. These were products of analyses and interpretations made by theorists and casual readers.
But what exactly is a Machiavellian leader? What does it mean when a person claims to be one or when others brand a particular individual as one? How does Machiavellianism apply to modern political discourse? What is a Machiavellian state and how does it work?
Understanding Machiavellianism as it Applies to Politics
Machiavellianism is a political philosophy drawn from the works of Machiavelli. The Italian diplomat and political theorist did not invent and introduce the terminologies associated with his writings. Hence, the definition or meaning of Machiavellianism as it applies to politics would be best understood under the context of leadership and governance system.
Characteristics of a Machiavellian Leader
The generally accepted theme of “The Prince” is that a ruler can justify the use of immoral means to achieve his or her primary goals and objectives. These goals and objectives revolve around acquiring power, creating a state, and retaining both.
Hence, in other words, the basic principle of Machiavellianism argues that the end justifies the means. A Machiavellian leader uses all means regardless if it is moral or immoral to retain his or her position, maintain influence over the people, and fend off his or her adversaries.
Machiavelli expounded this princple across his treatise. For example, in chapter six, he claimed that the biblical character Moses killed countless numbers of his people to enforce his will. A leader must have all the means to keep his or her supporters in check.
Chapter 8 also talks about conquests through criminal virtues. It advises the readers to imitate Agathocles of Syracuse and Oliverotto Euffreducci who secured power and authority through cruelty and immoral deeds, including the elimination of rivals.
In another example, Machiavelli weighed cruelty versus mercy in chapter 17. He said compassion could harm the ruler and his or her dominion. A ruler should not reduce his or her viciousness if it is the only way to keep his or her people in line.
German-American political philosopher and classicist Leo Strauss noted that Machiavelli introduced a kind of politics guided by considerations of expediency, which uses all means, whether fair or foul, for achieving its end.
Strauss added further that these include maintaining and expanding the dominion of the ruler, as well as using the dominion in the service of the ruler or in modern politics, to advance the interest of the politician or his or her political party.
Describing a Machiavellian State
The concept of a Machiavellian state has emerged from the general understanding of Machiavellianism as laid down by Machiavelli in “The Prince.” This concept of state organization has been placed in contrast to the Madisonian state of James Madison.
According to political science professor Cary Nederman, Machiavelli wrote “The Prince” to criticize the moralistic view of authority. His political treatise was refreshing for its time because it is the first written work to divorce politics from ethics.
He added further that “The Prince” advances the argument that goodness does not ensure power, and that goodness and righteousness are not enough to succeed in gaining power and maintaining this position. Machiavelli was a realist in this aspect.
Insights regarding political decision-making and political judgment can also be drawn from the treatise of Machiavelli. As mentioned by Nederman, good laws and good arms comprise the basic foundations of a well-ordered political system.
However, the Italian diplomat and political philosopher also added that coercion creates legality and as such, the use of force is often necessary. This is interpreted as Machiavelli arguing that the legitimacy of law is based on the threat of coercive force or the use of fear.
Machiavellianism essentially includes the Machiavellian theory of the state and the mechanics of state power. Political scientist Ellen Grigsby explained that “The Prince” could be read as a text for strong centralized leaders who govern using absolute authority.
She added that the classic work of Machiavelli argues that the state is organized for the purpose of maximizing its power. A so-called Machiavellian state maximizes its power such as the use of cultural traditions, promotion of fear-based rule, and weakening of economic classes.
Understanding Machiavellianism From Another Perspective
Remember that “The Prince” has numerous interpretations. The political treatise laid down by Niccolò Machiavelli remains extensively analyzed and discussed by modern thinkers in the field of politics and philosophy, as well as in more specific fields of leadership.
Several thinkers perceive the treatise as a mere illustration of the political realities of the time it was written. The concept of Machiavellianism can be understood and defined outside the outright descriptions of political behavior made by Machiavelli.
For example, Italian literature professor Robert P. Harrison mentioned that the enduring values of “The Prince” are not in its political theories. For him, it provides readers with a lens for viewing the world from a strictly demoralized perspective.
Harrison added that Machiavelli considered human beings as wretched creatures governed by their self-interest. For a ruler to survive, he or she must accept this fact. “The Prince” provides the traits this ruler must possess to achieve his or her goals and objectives.
These traits are not confined to amoral behavior. One example is that the ruler must have “virtu” or “ingenuity,” which has been related to foresight. The most virtuous ruler is the one who can anticipate occurrences within his or her dominion.
Furthermore, as explained by Harrison, a Machiavellian leader, especially when applied in politics, is someone who exercises both power and the capability to control and manipulate the signs of power. “The Prince” exemplified this through Cesare Borgia.
Christopher E. Cosans and Christopher S. Reina also examined the leadership ethics of Machiavelli. Their close reading of his political treatise made them conclude that Machiavelli advances an ethical system for uprooting corruption and establishing a rule of law.
The researchers also noted that Machiavelli referenced history and the current events of his time to paint a realistic picture of human behavior. His political treatise is not only a product of this observation but also a mirror that reflects the realities of politics.
French philosopher Denis Diderot explained that it is possible that the political treatise was written not to mock but to expose corruption among rulers of its time. Acclaimed Genevan philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau also echoed the same sentiments.
To be specific, in his infamous “Social Contract,” Rousseau that the hidden aim of Machiavelli was to promote his love of liberty by exposing the oppression in Italy. He exemplified this veiled agenda when he referenced the rulership of Cesare Borgia.
Political theory professor Mary Dietz argued that “The Prince” was not meant to be satirical. Instead, it is a treatise for advising the common people on how to undo their ruler. This argument has been based on the paradoxes of Machiavelli.
Nevertheless, regardless if it is interpreted as a satire or an exposition of oppression, the alternative perspectives suggest that Machiavellianism can be considered as a concept that includes principles on how to advance morality in rulership and politics.
FURTHER READINGS AND REFERENCES
- Cosans, C. E. and Reina, C. S. 2017. “The Leadership Ethics of Machiavelli’s Prince.” Business Ethics Quarterly. 28(3): 275-300. DOI: 1017/beq.2017.13
- Dietz, M. G. 1986. “Trapping The Prince: Machiavelli and the Politics of Deception.” The American Political Science Review. 80(3): 777-799. DOI: 2307/1960538
- Diderot, D. 1765. “Machiavellianism.” In 2004, trans. T. Cleary, The Encyclopedia of Diderot & d’Alembert Collaborative Translation Project. Michigan Publishing
- Grigsby, E. 2009. “Should States Be Organized to Maximize Their Power or Organize to Restrain This Power.” Analyzing Politics. 4th ed. Wadsworth. ISBN: 978-0-495-50112-1
- Harrison, R. B. 2011. “What Can You Learn From Machiavelli.” Yale Insights. Yale University. Available online
- Nederman, C. 2019. “Niccolò Machiavelli.” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Stanford University. Available online
- Straus, L. 1987. “Niccolò Machiavelli.” In eds. Straus, L. and Cropsey, J, History of Political Philosophy. 3rd ed. University of Chicago Press. ISBN: 0226777081