Machiavellian Politics

Article written by Ruby O’Connell

Niccolò Machiavelli (1469 – 1527)

One of the most notorious classical realists is Machiavelli. If you have ever heard the term “Machiavellian” then you will understand how his political philosophy is associated with intrigue, mystery and the “dark” aspects of politics. 

The phrase “Machiavellian” refers to behaviours and actions that are guided by selfish motivations, characterised by cunning and scheming, deception and manipulation. It suggests a disregard for other people when obtaining desired ends.


Machiavelli was born in Florence, Italy, during an era of turbulence involving conflict between the Pope and the Italian city-states. The key European powers such as France, the Holy Roman Empire and Spain were competing for European dominance, meaning territories were subject to frequent changes in authority. The Prince was written when Italy was divided into a variety of small independent city-states with their own rulers (princes). One of the most significant city-states was the republic of Florence. Florence had an alliance with France, however when Pope Julius II defeated France, this led to the conquest of Florence and the loss of their republican government. Instead, the infamous Medicis were put in charge 

Machiavelli’s most infamous work The Prince was a arguably an attempt to curry favour  with the Medicis. Sent into exile after the Medicis took power, it is difficult to say whether The Prince achieved its intended effect, as Machiavelli remained in exile. 


The Prince ~ 1532

Machiavelli’s most well-known book is effectively a guide book on how to run a country, written as a gift to the new ruler Lorenzo de Medici.. Machiavelli offers an observation of rulers and the effectiveness of their statesmanship. It is in The Prince that Machiavelli earns his reputation as the promoter of political deception and other immoral means to hold onto power. 

Machiavelli argues that human nature is inherently selfish, thus, people act in predictable ways according to their desire for self-preservation. A ruler shouldn’t be worried about seeming cruel or violent therefore, as fear is a better guarantee of obedience that kindness. In a world dominated by violence and backstabbing, a ruler has to “learn to be both the lion and the fox”. What Machiavelli means, is that a ruler has to be both a fox to deceive and trick his opponents, to “sniff out the hunter’s traps”, as well as a violent and aggressive lion to “scare off the wolves”. The twin pillars of statecraft then, rely on deception and violence. 

The point of Machiavelli’s argument is quite simple: “get real”. Most of the philosophies of statecraft at the time focused on holiness, honesty and kindness. Christian philosophers such as Augstine and Aquinas told rulers of the benefits of kind and fair rule. For Machiavelli, looking out onto an Italy divided by war, violence and intrigue, he saw something completely different. If rulers really wanted stability and prosperity, they had to embrace unsavoury means. Getting results therefore justifies violent and immoral methods, as this is the only realist approach in a world inhabited by “evil, fickle and greedy” men. 

We can therefore describe Machiavelli as a consequentialist, where the “ends justifies the means”. At the same time, many modern scholars describe Machiavelli as a realist, focused on the world “how it is” and not “how it should be”. 

Is Machiavelli as bad as he seems?

Although this book is widely accepted as the key underpinning of Machiavelli’s realism, there is scepticism of the purpose of the book as well as controversy over whether this is a true reflection of Machiavelli’s political thought.

Prima facie, The Prince is a helpful guide to the prince of Florence. However there is contention over whether this was the true purpose of the book. Mary Dietz (1986) in her Trapping The Prince: Machiavelli and the Politics of Deception argues that The Prince was a plot for the Medici downfall, “it is itself an act of deception”. The irony is that for a book which advocated deception, the book itself was a piece of deception and trickery in order to lead to the Medici downfall.  In order words, Machiavelli truly wanted a republic and hoped to expose the Medici’sfor their immoral behaviour and schemes. Erica Benner (2009) too argues against Machiavelli’s perceived consequentialism to argue he is actually guided by moral principles in her Machiavelli’s Ethics.

Key Terms 

Consequentialism – A school of thought where the morality of an action is derived from its outcome, leading to conclusions such as the ends justifying the means.

Republic – A form of government where the country is thought of as belonging to the public and not the property of those ruling. 

Republican – A theory of freedom where “being free” is equated with being independent. The theory has origins in ancient Roman thought, and is distinct from modern liberal definitions of freedom as “being free from interference”. 

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