Niccolò Machiavelli

gigatos | December 10, 2021


Nicolas Machiavelli (in Italian: Niccolò di Bernardo dei Machiavelli) was a Florentine humanist of the Renaissance, born on May 3, 1469 in Florence, and died in the same city on June 21, 1527. A theorist of politics, history and war, but also a poet and playwright, he was for fourteen years a civil servant of the Florentine Republic for which he carried out several diplomatic missions, notably with the papacy and the French court. During all these years, he closely observed the mechanics of power and the game of competing ambitions. Machiavelli is as such, with Thucydides, one of the founders of the realist current in international politics. Two major books have especially ensured the fame of this Florentine: The Prince and Discourse on the First Decade of Livy.

A political philosopher of the first importance, he is one of the founders of modern politics and his writings will inspire several great theorists of the State, notably Jean Bodin, Thomas Hobbes and John Locke, as well as a renewed interest in the notion of conscription, which was very prevalent during the Roman Republic. His desire to separate politics from morality and religion also had a profound effect on political philosophy. It is on this point that interpretations of Machiavelli”s thought differ the most. For Leo Strauss, the rupture between politics and morality marks the border between classical and modern political philosophy, which will take off when Thomas Hobbes softens the Machiavellian radicality. Strauss follows the Huguenot Innocent Gentillet and sees Machiavelli as “a teacher of evil”: this is the whole theme of Machiavellianism seen as a will to deceive, a lesson in cynicism and immoralism. For others, such as Benedetto Croce, Machiavelli is a realist who distinguishes between political facts and moral values and for whom, according to the distinction proposed by Max Weber, all political action confronts statesmen with a conflict between the ethics of responsibility and the ethics of conviction. It is also in this perspective that Machiavelli is seen as a precursor of Francis Bacon, of empiricism and of science based on facts.

For him, politics is characterized by movement, violent breakdowns and conflict. If the use of force is a clearly accepted possibility, politics also requires rhetorical skills in order to convince others. Finally, it requires that politicians use virtù, one of the key concepts of his thought, which refers to skill, individual power and flair, to override the blind force of bad fortune and innovate so that the state can face the challenges that arise. There are two opposing traditions of interpretation here: those who insist, like Nietzsche, on the aristocratic character of the Machiavellian statesman, and those who, on the contrary, emphasize the fact that in a republic where everyone has the freedom to participate in politics, there will be many men with the virtue necessary to face the challenges.

In the Discourses on the First Decade of Titus Livius, Machiavelli”s republicanism emerges. It would inspire the republicanism of the English revolutions of the 17th century as well as the forms of republicanism that would emerge following the French and American revolutions. Far from seeing Machiavelli”s Prince as a model to be imitated, Jean-Jacques Rousseau saw it as a satire of tyranny that made the establishment of a republic all the more necessary. The republican interpretation of Machiavelli gained momentum at the end of the twentieth century with the work of John Greville Agard Pocock and Quentin Skinner. In contrast to this positive interpretation, Machiavelli”s thought has been implicated in the outbreak of the two world wars and the rise of totalitarianism. The great diversity of interpretations of Machiavelli comes, according to Charles Benoist, from the fact that there are at least four types of Machiavellianism: that of Machiavelli, that of his disciples, that of his opponents and that of people who have never read him.

The first years

Nicholas Machiavelli was born on May 3, 1469 in Florence, into an old family without wealth or political status. He was the third child of Bernard Machiavelli, a doctor of law and papal treasurer in Rome, and Bartolomea di Stefano Nelli, from an old Florentine merchant family. Although the family regularly experienced financial difficulties, Nicholas, who read widely, received a solid humanist education. Not having mastered ancient Greek, he read the works of the Greek philosophers in Latin: Aristotle, Plato, Plutarch, Polybius, Thucydides. He also read the great Latin authors: Cicero, Seneca, Caesar, Livy, Tacitus, Sallustus, Ovid and Virgil, Plautus and Terence. Lucretius, whose De rerum natura (1497) he copied, profoundly marked his approach to religion. Little is known of his life between 1489 and 1498, a troubled period marked by the First Italian War, the independence in 1494 of Pisa, a city that had until then served as a port for Florence, and the establishment of a theocracy in Florence under the leadership of Savonarola.

On May 6, 1476, he went to school for the first time. He studied the “donatello”, the abridged edition of the grammar of Donatus, a Latin author of the fourth century.

The government career (1498-1512)

In February 1498, Machiavelli was appointed second secretary of the Lordship. On May 28, he was proposed to be put at the head of the second chancellery.

Machiavelli was appointed by the Great Council to head the second chancellery of the city on June 19, 1498. On July 14, Machiavelli was also appointed secretary of the Ten of Liberty and Peace. Machiavelli carried out his first mission on March 24, 1499. It aimed at convincing a condottier to settle for the agreed price. In May, he wrote the Discourse on the affairs of Pisa. From July 16 to 25, Machiavelli carried out a new mission in Forli: Florence wanted to take the son of Catherine Sforza, who was lord of Forli, into its pay. Far from being a subordinate agent, he was the man to do everything for the Florentine Republic. He was first occupied with the management of Florence”s possessions in Tuscany, before becoming secretary to the office in charge of foreign affairs and one of the favorite special envoys of the Florentine government. However, he was never an ambassador, a task reserved for members of the most prominent families. Machiavelli was above all a man for missions requiring discretion and even secrecy, where he had to obtain information and decipher the intentions of the leaders he met. It is within this framework that in 1500, he goes to France where he meets the cardinal Georges d” Amboise, minister of Finances of Louis XII. To the cardinal who arrogantly asserted that the Italians understood nothing about war, he retorted that the French understood nothing about the state, because otherwise they would not have allowed the Church to acquire such strength. Between June and July, Machiavelli was involved in the siege of Pisa, encountering difficulties concerning the pay of the mercenaries lent by the king of France. From August 7 to the end of December, Machiavelli went to the French court to defend the cause of Florence in the mercenary affair and to settle the problem of the pay for the future.

In 1501, he married Marietta Corsini with whom he had a daughter, Bartolomea, and four sons who reached adulthood: Bernardo, Ludovico, Piero Machiavelli and Guido. On February 2, he went to Pistoia, a subjugated city of Florence, where he tried to calm the dissensions between two rival factions. He returned there in July, in October, and the following year. On August 18, Machiavelli was also sent to Siena to foil Caesar”s intrigues with Pandolfo Petrucci, lord of Siena. In 1502, the election of Pier Soderini as gonfalonnier of Florence strengthens the position of Machiavelli. Sent on a mission to the camp of Caesar Borgia, duke of Valentinois, then in Romagna, he admired in him the combination of audacity and prudence, the skilful use he made of cruelty and fraud, his confidence, his will to avoid half measures as well as the use of local troops and the rigorous administration of the conquered provinces. Machiavelli would later consider, in The Prince, that Caesar Borgia”s conduct in conquering provinces, creating a new state from scattered elements, and his treatment of false friends and dubious allies, was commendable and worthy of scrupulous imitation. From June 26 Machiavelli returns in haste to Florence to make known the threats of Caesar.

In 1505-1506, the mercenary troops recruited by Florence to reconquer Pisa having proved costly and ineffective, the government decided to follow Machiavelli”s advice and entrusted him with the mission of raising an army by means of conscription. In 1506, he met Pope Julius II. In 1507, Pier Soderini wanted to send Machiavelli to negotiate with Emperor Maximilian, but the aristocrats, who saw Machiavelli as his man and therefore as pro-French, blocked his appointment. Machiavelli, very disappointed, is disappointed by the attitude of Soderini. In June 1509, Florence reconquered Pisa partly thanks to the army he had raised. It is the summit of his governmental career, but also the beginning of the end. Indeed, he was already very isolated in the chancellery, as one of his colleagues, Biagio Buonaccorsi, told him in a cryptic passage: “there are so few people here who want to help you”. In spite of everything, Machiavelli can count on some faithful friends who hold him in high esteem, such as Biagio Buonaccorsi or Agostino Vespucci.

In 1511, Pope Julius II instigated the creation of the Holy League against France, an initiative that went against the policy of Soderini and Florence, allies of the French. Also, when these were defeated in 1512, the pope let the Spaniards put the Medici back in power. The republic of Florence fell, Machiavelli”s troops were defeated in Prato, Soderini was forced into exile. Machiavelli nevertheless tried to remain in office by writing a letter to Julian de Medici in which he posed as a defender of the public good and asked him to be reasonable in his request for the restitution of his stolen goods. Without success. At the beginning of November 1512, he is relieved of his functions of secretary of the chancellery. He had to provide a huge deposit and give an account of his management.


In January 1513, Machiavelli was suspected of having participated in a conspiracy fomented by Pietro Paolo Boscoli. Arrested on February 20, he was put in the dungeon and tortured. He was released in March 1513 during the general amnesty granted on the occasion of the accession to the papal throne of Cardinal Jean de Médicis under the name of Leo X. He then retired to his property in Sant”Andrea in Percussina, frazione of San Casciano in Val di Pesa. The following year, Machiavelli interrupted the writing of the Discourses to continue writing his most famous work, The Prince. In his letters to Francesco Vettori around 1513, two central themes of The Prince are perceptible: his despair about Italian affairs and the beginning of his theorization of what a virtuous prince could be, i.e. one capable of unifying the Italian people. He also shows a strong belief in the intelligibility of history and politics. The Prince, dedicated to Lorenzo II de” Medici, constitutes for him a means to try to find a place in the political life of Florence. The dedication of the book is very explicit:

“Those who wish to win the good graces of a prince, are generally accustomed to present themselves to him with those of their possessions to which they attach the most value Desiring therefore for my part to offer myself to Your Magnificence with some testimony of my respectful devotion to Him, I have found among my possessions nothing that I hold dearer or more esteemable than the knowledge of the deeds of great men, such as I have acquired of modern things by long experience and of the ancients by assiduous reading “

– Dedication of the Prince to Lorenzo II de Medici

During this period of relegation, he also wrote two books inspired by conversations held with his circle of friends in the gardens of the Rucellai family (Orti Oricellari): the Discourses on the First Decade of Livy and the Art of War. While in The Prince he poses as an advisor, in the Discourses he sees himself more as a teacher who teaches the young. The work of the historian Livy is for him a bible and he uses it a lot to analyze political events.

During this period, he also indulged in literature to cheer up this company of friends. In 1515, he wrote the very pleasant short story of the Archdeacon Belphegor, who took a wife, supposedly taken “from one of the ancient chronicles of Florence” and which “depicts Pluto in the underworld, who is very embarrassed to see how all his clients blame their wives. He wants to know for sure and sends the archdevil Belphegor to earth with the mission of marrying a pretty girl and seeing what happens. This tale is the only one written by Machiavelli and it will be published only in 1545.

At the same time, he began to write plays. The first was L”Andrienne, a faithful translation of a play by Terence, which was not very successful. On the other hand, the next one will be very well received: La Mandragore, a comedy in five acts, which puts in scene five characters and their servants. It shows the stratagems by which the young Callimaco tries to seduce the young and virtuous Lucrezia, married to the baron Nicia, sorry not to have any child. Callimaco pretends to be a famous doctor who promises success by means of a potion made of mandrake. The play, quite anticlerical, was first performed in Florence in 1518, for the wedding of Laurent de Medici with Madeleine de La Tour d”Auvergne.

In 1517, he wrote an allegorical poem, the Asino d”oro (The Golden Ass), where his sadness is pointed. He also wrote various poems and satirical pieces: “all present the same character of strength, anger, satirical spirit, amorous dispositions, complaints on his unhappy fate”. His disappointment is manifest in a letter of the same year to Vernacci: “The destiny made the worst that it could make me. I am reduced to a condition where I can do nothing for myself and even less for others”.

The last years: 1520-1527

At the request of Cardinal Julius de” Medici, the future Clement VII, he wrote from 1520 his History of Florence, which he did not complete until 1526. He also wrote a Discourse on the Reform of the State of Florence (1520), secretly commissioned by Leo X. In 1521, Florence sent Machiavelli to the general chapter of the Franciscans in Carpi, while the wool guild charged him with finding a preacher for the following year. This triggered an ironic remark from his friend Guicciardini (Guichardin), who knew the religious feelings of the Florentine. Guichardin, one of his attracted correspondents, would later publish Considerazioni sui Discorsi del Machiavelli. In 1525, Machiavelli”s friends made fun of his relationship with Barbara Salutati, the singer of his play La Mandragore. This relationship inspired Machiavelli to write a new comedy, Clizia, based on the plot of Plautus” Casina, in which the old Nicomaco falls madly in love with a young woman, Clizia. The comedy is a great success, which goes beyond Tuscany and Lombardy. This success revived La Mandragore, which was performed in 1526 in Venice, where it was received with enthusiasm.

From 1525 onwards, Machiavelli sensed that Italy was going to become the battlefield where Charles V and Francis I were going to clash. In 1526, Florence asked him for advice on strengthening its fortifications and raising an army. In 1527, the emperor Charles V, dissatisfied with the procrastination of Clement VII, launched a poorly paid imperial army on Florence. Machiavelli called Guicciardini, then lieutenant general of the papal armies in the North, to the rescue. With the help of the French, the latter saved Florence but could not avoid the sack of Rome in May 1527. There followed an anti-Medici revolt and the establishment of a new republic in Florence. Machiavelli died a few weeks later, on June 21, 1527, of peritonitis.

Machiavelli is buried in the Basilica of Santa Croce in Florence in the vault of the Machiavelli family. Towards the end of the 18th century, at the instigation of Lord Nassau Clavering, a monument was erected in his honor near the tomb of Michelangelo, surmounted by an allegory of the muse Clio, symbolizing History and Politics, with the maxim No praise equals so great a name.

The Prince

The circumstances of the writing of The Prince are known to us thanks to a letter of Machiavelli to his friend Vettori of December 10, 1513: “I noted from my talks with them what I thought essential and composed a pamphlet De Principatibus, in which I delve as best I can into the problems posed by such a subject: what sovereignty is, how many kinds there are, how it is acquired, how it is kept, how it is lost”. The original title was therefore not The Prince, but Of Principalities, which, according to Artaud, places this work in a different context.

This book has 26 short chapters. In the first eleven, Machiavelli considers how the main types of principalities can be governed and maintained. The next three chapters deal with military policy in cases of aggression and defense. Then, nine chapters examine the relationships that the prince should establish with his entourage and his subjects, and the qualities that he should demonstrate. The last three chapters dwell on the misfortunes of Italy, the need to deliver it from the barbarians as well as the respective powers of the virtù and the Fortune.

For Augustin Renaudet, The Prince is the “breviary of absolutism”, i.e. an analysis of the methods by which an ambitious man can rise to power. It is the same for Jacob Burckhardt. In contrast, for Rehhorn, the Prince described by Machiavelli is a mixture of an architect and a mason, who plans and builds the city or the state. Machiavelli uses the verb nascere (to be born) twenty-seven times and the verbs crescere (to grow) and accrescere (to increase) six times each. If, on two occasions, Machiavelli mentions that the Prince creates the State by introducing form into matter, for him, unlike the scholastics or Aristotle, growth is not fundamentally linked to something organic or sexual. It refers first of all to the foundations of the state and to reason: “his vision deals with freedom and power, and links the Prince to the epic tradition, in particular to an important epic hero of antiquity: Virgil”s Aeneas. Like Virgil, Machiavelli structures his thought by contrasting pastoral leisure with work and pain. Like Aeneas, the founder of Lavinium, Machiavelli”s Prince is always busy either founding the state or maintaining it. In support of this thesis, Rebhorn points out that virtù in Machiavelli refers to the attributes of the epic hero: valor, cunning, talent, character.

For Leo Strauss, “the main theme of the Prince is the entirely new prince of an entirely new state, in other words the founder”. For Machiavelli, according to this historian of philosophy, justice is not as in Augustine of Hippo the foundation of the kingdom, because here “the foundation of justice is injustice; the foundation of legitimacy is illegitimacy or revolution; the foundation of freedom is tyranny”. For Strauss, the most illuminating passage in the book is in the last chapter, when Machiavelli urges Lorenzo de Medici to liberate Italy. In this passage, according to Strauss, Machiavelli would prophesy:

“Machiavelli”s prophecy thus affirms that a new revelation, the revelation of a new Decalogue, is imminent. This new Moses is Machiavelli himself, and the new Decalogue is the entirely new teaching concerning the entirely new prince of an entirely new state. It is true that Moses was an armed prophet and that Machiavelli is one of the unarmed prophets who necessarily lead to disaster.”

Speech on the first decade of Titus Livius

If the Prince is Machiavelli”s most widely read book, the Discourses are the work where he most clearly expresses his vision of politics and his republican sympathies. It is also a book in which he pays great attention to the French monarchy, which he sees as the best of all monarchies tempered by laws and parliaments. However, if the people live in safety, they are not free. The king, distrusting his subjects, preferred to disarm them and use foreign mercenaries. The people were entirely passive and the nobility dependent. Also, even if the Kingdom of France is a “good monarchy”, it does not bear comparison with the Roman Republic where the people and the nobility took part in the government.

According to Leo Strauss, if the plan of the Prince is easy to understand, that of the Discourses is obscure. The general idea seems to be Machiavelli”s desire to rediscover the values of the ancients, values that Christianity has tended to equate with vices, so that in the Discourses he not only seeks to present ancient virtue, but also to rehabilitate it “in the face of Christian criticism”. For that, it is necessary for him to establish at the same time “the authority of ancient Rome… – what he does in book I. In book II, he maintains that whereas the Christian religion placed “the highest good in the humility, the degradation and the denigration of the human things the ancient religion placed the highest good in the greatness of soul”. In Book III, he insists on the fact that, in order to last, republics frequently need to look back to their beginnings. In the Church, the Franciscans and Dominicans have done this, but they have done it while leaving the hierarchy intact. For these resourcing efforts to really work, we must return, according to Machiavelli, to primitive terror. Pierre Manent comes to the same conclusion: the new political order that Machiavelli advocates presupposes “in an essential sense terror.

The problem of the continuity of Machiavelli”s thought between The Prince and the Discourses

Concerning this work and its link with the book The Prince, two interpretations dominate. For Geerken, who follows an established tradition, there is no major difference between the two books, Baron and Quentin Skinner, beyond common elements – “the same polarity between virtù and fortuna, the same importance of brute force to triumph over adversity, and the same political morality based on virtù” – the two books are not centered on the same “core value”. For Quentin Skinner, the core value of the Prince is security in order to “maintain his states”, while the core value of the Discourses is political freedom. This author rejects Cassirer”s interpretation of Machiavelli as “a scientific and technical specialist of political life”. For him, in fact, “Nicholas is in reality a constant and even fervent supporter of popular government”. Skinner argues that the general tone of the Discourses is one of “resolute hostility” to the monarchy. Indeed, he notes that the theme of the first Discourse is the advent of republican liberty, and that the second book deals with how military power supported the liberty of the people, with the third book devoted to showing the importance of the actions of free individuals in the greatness of Rome.

The Art of War

Several reasons led Machiavelli to write the Art of War, which was published in August 1521. First of all, during the First Italian War led by the King of France in 1494, Pisa, which was then an important port, broke away from Florence. So the gonfalone (head of the government) of Florence Pier Soderini wants to reconquer this city. To this end, he first called upon warlords (condottieres) and their troops (condotta) formed of mercenaries. The latter failed in their mission while costing the state a lot of money. So Machiavelli was asked to practice a kind of conscription (ordinanza) in the countryside around Florence. In spite of the fact that the training of the conscripts takes place only during the days off or Sundays, Machiavelli nevertheless succeeds in forming an army of approximately 2 000 men who behave honorably at the time of the reconquest of Pisa on June 8, 1509. They will be on the other hand defeated by the imperial troops which reinstall the Medici with the head of Florence in 1512.

At the time Machiavelli wrote his work, many books on the question of conscription and the armed forces appeared in Italy. In 1487 the ancient military writers were published; in 1496 Vegetius” Art of War was republished, as well as Frontinus” treatise on Stratagems. In reality, the first Italian war, led by the French supported by Swiss and Gascon infantry as well as by strong artillery, showed that warfare had changed its form and that the inexpensive wars led by condottieres belonged to the past. The French, whose Swiss had adopted the tactics of the Greek phalanxes, were in turn outclassed at the battle of Cerignole in 1503 by the Spanish infantry, who employed a technique inherited from the Roman legions.

The Art of War is presented in the form of a dialogue between three young aristocrats, the condottiere Fabrizio Colonna who participated in the battle of Cerignola and their host, the young Cosimo Rucellai, to whom the book is dedicated. The interview takes place in the gardens Rucellai, Orti Oricellari. The three young aristocrats are of republican sensibility and will be exiled after having fomented a plot against the Medici. In this work, divided into seven books, Machiavelli goes into great detail: he indicates how to place the soldiers in each company, how to maneuver, etc. For Jean-Yves Boriaud, Machiavelli wants “to prove to the reader that the Italian military system, currently ineffective, can find its value only by operating a return to the antique”.

Machiavelli, unlike Erasmus for whom war is “pure evil”, is not interested in the moral element, but in efficiency. Moreover, in the Prince, he wrote “A prince can have no other objective, no other thought than war and must give no other object to his art than its organization and discipline”, another way of saying that war is a state of fact. Very quickly, the Art of War became a classic. It will be quoted by Montaigne as well as by the Marshal of Saxony in his Reveries on the Art of War. Machiavelli is undeniably one of those who contributed to popularize the idea of conscription, which will spread in Europe with the French Revolution.

Florentine stories

On November 8, 1520, Machiavelli received a commission from Cardinal Julius de Medici to write a history of Florence. He devoted six years to its composition and presented it to the pope in May 1525. The letter of dedication seems to imply that he plans to enrich the text. The book traces the origin of the city to the death of Lorenzo de” Medici in 1492. For Machiavelli, history is a study, an investigation. As for the humanist historians, the historical research has practical and theoretical reasons. If, in this study, he approaches the context under the intellectual, cultural, economic and social aspects, it is to study their political consequences. Unlike Leonardo Bruni and Poggio Bracciolini, who preceded him in writing a history of Florence, he sees the divisions and discord that animated Florentine political life as signs of greatness and reproaches those two historians for not having been able to see them. In a certain way, according to him, these authors overestimate the power of morals and underestimate the ambition of men and their desire to see their name perpetuated.

The first two books are devoted to the history of Rome and Florence. In Book III, he argues that the ousting of the nobility led Florence to lose the “science of arms” and “the boldness of its spirit”. In the first chapter of Book IV, he accuses the plebs and the nobility of having given in to corruption, the former by indulging in licentiousness and the latter by instituting slavery. At the end of the 14th century, Florence, according to him, had lost its vigor and was living in corruption.

Opinions are very divided on the thought of Machiavelli, an author that Raymond Aron describes as “the sphinx, the diplomat in the service of Florence, the Italian patriot, the author whose prose, at every moment limpid and globally equivocal, conceals his intentions, whose successive illuminations have defied the ingenuity of commentators for four centuries”.

Break with the previous political philosophy

For Leo Strauss, Machiavelli signs the end of the classical political philosophy as inaugurated by Plato and Aristotle, whose goal was to develop virtue and where morality was “something substantial: a force in the soul of man”, while in Machiavelli, on the contrary, morality is distinct from politics. Because of the radical nature of Machiavelli”s thought, the historian believes that the true founder of modern political philosophy is Thomas Hobbes, who in some way softened the Florentine”s thought. Pierre Manent characterizes the differences between Machiavelli and Hobbes by a lapidary formula: “Machiavelli theorist of the political action, Hobbes theorist of the institution”.

Throughout his book The Prince, Machiavelli criticizes the dominant view of his time that legitimate authority derives from moral goodness. He believes that one cannot judge the legitimacy or illegitimacy of power on a moral basis. Maurizio Viroli argues that the most controversial passages in the Prince are explicit attacks on Cicero”s political theory. To a remark of the Roman noting that what is achieved by fraud and force is bestial and unworthy of man, Machiavelli retorts that the one who governs must employ both bestial and properly human means. To Cicero who argues that to ensure one”s influence, it is better to resort to love than to fear, Machiavelli replies that it is more effective “to be feared than to be loved”. To the Roman arguing that cruelty is what human nature abhors the most, Machiavelli retorts in chapter 8 of the Prince: “one can call cruelties well used (if of evil it is permitted to say of good) those which one does at once, because of the necessary security, and in which one does not persist afterwards, but which are converted into more profit for the subjects”. However, one should not imagine that Machiavelli is in total opposition with the principles of Cicero. According to Maurizio Viroli, the Roman is right except in cases where the survival of the state is at stake. In general, Nederman argues that for Machiavelli, “the notion of legitimate rights to govern adds nothing to the actual possession of power. The essence of politics lies in the study of how to use power to ensure the security of the state, to maintain oneself in power, and to be obeyed by the people. If Machiavelli believes that good laws and a strong army are the basis of an effective political system, nevertheless, for him force takes precedence over law.

For Leo Strauss, Machiavelli inaugurates “a politics based exclusively on considerations of convenience, a politics that employs all means, loyal or disloyal”, and prepares “the revolution carried out by Hobbes”. For this historian of political philosophy, in Machiavelli, as in Hobbes afterwards, “in the beginning, there is not Love, but Terror”. Machiavelli would thus be the Moses of a new Decalogue of political philosophy, a new Decalogue that leads to disaster.

Accentuating this critical vision, Pierre Manent considers that “Machiavelli”s ideas amount to a defeat of the universal. His conception of the double Prince, his obsessive thematic of the indispensable violence, of the salutary cruelty are logically and politically necessary only because of the elements from which Machiavelli builds his theory: the individual stripped of the prerogatives that the classical philosophy recognized to him and the event inassimilable in his eyes by the universals of which his time had “.

Maurice Merleau-Ponty finds Machiavelli ultimately more moral than those who profess morality and who, while claiming to care for others, are really only concerned with agreeing with themselves and ignoring the desires of those for whom they intend their moralism.

Machiavelli”s approach to politics is neutral as to who is in power. The reading of the Prince has made the word “Machiavellian” a synonym for deception, despotism and political manipulation. Leo Strauss tends to follow the tradition of seeing Machiavelli as a “teacher of evil” insofar as he advises princes to disregard the values of justice, mercy, temperance, wisdom and love of their people in favor of the use of cruelty, violence, fear and deception. In this sense, he sees Machiavelli as the opposite of Americanism and American aspirations.

As early as 1605, Bacon recognized that Machiavelli does nothing more than openly state what rulers do rather than what they should do. Similarly, for the Italian anti-fascist philosopher Benedetto Croce (1925), Machiavelli is a realist or pragmatist who understood that moral values have only limited influence on the decisions of political leaders. For the German philosopher Ernst Cassirer (1946), Machiavelli adopts the attitude of a man of political science, he is the Galileo of politics, who distinguishes between the facts of political life and the values of moral judgments.

Politics in Machiavelli: pure science, human science or art?

Insisting on the uselessness of theorizing from fictional situations, Machiavelli is sometimes seen as the prototype of the modern scientist who builds generalizations from experience and historical facts.

“He emancipated politics from theology and moral philosophy. He undertook to describe simply what the rulers did and anticipated what was later called the scientific mind in which questions of right and wrong are ignored, and the observer seeks to discover only what really happened.”

Baudrillart, more nuanced, considers that Machiavelli “conceived politics rather as an art than a science. His politics is all in action. Whether it is forgetfulness or skepticism, it does not matter: he left aside almost completely that which makes politics a science in the philosophical sense of the word, I mean the study of the very foundations of society and the rational comparison of legislations. This so philosophical notion of the law, as Montesquieu conceived it, is foreign and unsympathetic to his genius”. For Raymond Aron, Machiavelli”s politics is essentially a technique of action that thinks only in terms of means and that ends up confusing ends and means. The problem is that such a project of political science risks for him “to lead to an excessive amoralism”. Nevertheless, Aron insists on the scientific character of Machiavelli”s approach and he brings it closer to that of Vilfredo Pareto. It is worth noting that Aron”s studies have focused on what Machiavelli can teach us about foreign policy from a perspective close to realism, even though he believes that Machiavelli”s and Pareto”s methods give an “impoverished” vision because “human existence is disfigured by this realist mode of consideration.

For Leo Strauss, Machiavelli develops “a kind of degraded Aristotelianism”, by assuming without proof that a “teleological natural science”, that is to say guided by a final cause, was not possible. But, in doing so, Machiavelli was only anticipating the new natural science that would develop in the 17th century, with which he would have a “hidden kinship”. Indeed, whereas the classics were looking for the normal or average state, the moderns were going to rely more on extreme cases and the exception to theorize.

According to Maurizio Viroli, it is wrong to consider Machiavelli as the founder of political science because the Florentine is not a scientist in any sense of the word. He is not a scientist in the empirical sense of the term because he does not seek to collect or describe a set of adequate facts but interprets “words, actions, gestures and texts in order to give advice, make predictions and reconstruct histories post factum”. Nor is he a Hobbesian scientist whose system is based on deductions from irrefutable definitions of words. His method is not that of Galileo either, for Machiavelli makes neither experiments nor generalizations based on a significant number of facts. Finally, Machiavelli is not a scientist in the sense of a person who refuses to have recourse to the supernatural, because fortune (fate) is very important to him.

Maurizio Viroli argues that what has been taken as science is the art of the rhetorician. Machiavelli uses his knowledge of history and his ability to interpret actions, words and gestures to convince. In this view, politics is not only a test of strength, it also requires eloquence, and books like the Discourses and especially the Prince should be read not as writings to expound a scientific or moral truth but as a call to action. This way of reading The Prince is, according to Viroli, the only one that allows us to understand why Machiavelli put at the end of his book an “Exhortation to take Italy and free it from the barbarians”, a passage that has no place in a writing that is “scientific”.

In a word, for the Italian scholar, Machiavelli represents the apex of the Roman tradition of scientia civilis based on the art of deliberation. In doing so, he is part of a tradition in which rhetoric is seen as a political tool for shaping the responses of his interlocutors and influencing their will. Machiavelli is part of the tradition of political and legal rhetoric theorized by the works of Aristotle, Cicero and Quintilian as it was revived from the twelfth and thirteenth centuries in the Italian city-states. In Florence, the chancellor Brunetto Latini (c.1210-1294), best known today as one of the damned souls of Dante”s Inferno, wrote extensively on the usefulness of eloquence in dealing with political conflicts.

For Max Weber, there can be no pure science in the human sciences because there is always a conflict between “reality judgement” and “value judgement”, which is what attracted Raymond Aron to Weber because this distinction is missing in the French positivist sociology stemming from Auguste Comte. Weber”s idea being that the ultimate ends of humans are not a matter of science but of the choice of values made by the individual. In the human sciences, we have the choice between the ethics of responsibility and the ethics of conviction: in the former, we must foresee the consequences of our actions, whereas in the latter, we act according to our conscience at the risk of being ineffective. This conflict between two opposite ethics would be, according to Weber, present in Machiavelli: “in a beautiful passage of his Florentine Histories, if I remember correctly, Machiavelli alludes to this situation and puts in the mouth of a hero of this city the following words, to pay homage to his fellow-citizens: They preferred the greatness of their city to the salvation of their souls.

It follows that there is always an arbitration to be made between the ethics of responsibility and the ethics of conviction. Therefore, according to Aron, Weber did not see in Machiavelli”s realpolitik “a caricature of the morality of responsibility” but rather a realistic will to decide between two extremes, which makes “every politician a little Machiavellian”.

The notion of state

In The Prince, the word State (stato) no longer means “condition, position” but is used to mean the acquisition and exercise of coercive power. According to Maurizio Viroli, in Machiavelli”s time, the word state evoked not only the power of a man over the city but also the conflict between, on the one hand, the interest of the state and, on the other, Christian ethics and international law. Friedrich Meinecke, for his part, sees Machiavelli as the first to have formulated the modern concept of the state in the sense of Max Weber, that is, as a set of impersonal rules ensuring a monopoly of authority over a territory. Mansfield (1996), on the other hand, insists on the fact that the word still has the meaning of Dominium, of private domain, and does not yet have the impersonal, mechanical aspect of the modern concept of State. For the Medici, in fact, the term State designated the power of a family or a man over the institutions of the city. What is new, however, is Machiavelli”s insistence that for a state to truly own itself, it must have an army of its citizens or subjects.

While many scholars believe, following Friedrich Meinecke, that Machiavelli helped to forge the notion of raison dӃtat, according to which the good of the State must take precedence over all moral considerations, he is content to note that around the beginning of the 1520s, in the conflict between the interest of the State and moral and legal reason, the interest of the State was then perceived as equivalent to the reason of the State, so that the conflict became a clash between two reasons.

Raymond Aron insists on the fact that the conception of the State “as an instrument of legitimate constraint” is based on an anthropology where man is seen as naturally amoral, a concept that Fichte will take from Machiavelli to make it the “first principle of his philosophy of the State”. In a rather similar way, for Jacques Maritain, the cult of the State initiated by Hegel and his disciples would be “only a metaphysical sublimation of Machiavelli”s principles”. Even more pessimistically, Leo Strauss sees in Machiavelli a philosopher who envisages the human condition from the point of view of the subhuman rather than the superhuman.

Human condition, religion and politics

According to Machiavelli, men are driven by ambition and greed to discord and war. In his poem Song of Happy Spirits, he describes a world marked by cruelty and the miserable lives of mortals. Machiavelli witnessed many cruelties during his life, including the sack of the city of Prato in 1512, where, according to what he wrote in one of his letters, he would have seen more than four thousand people perish. For the Florentine, man is the most unfortunate animal and the most deprived of everything. In a poem entitled The Golden Ass, a pig tells him:

In this poem, Machiavelli sometimes makes explicit reference to Lucretius” De rerum natura, which he translated. The thinker does not see the human being as the master of the universe, but rather as the victim of nature and fate. In Machiavelli”s view, while human nature remains unchanged throughout history, which allows generalizations to be drawn from historical accounts, events also depend on cosmic elements and on the evolution of morals, which has a cyclical character. Machiavelli writes in this regard:

“Virtue will give tranquility to the States; tranquility gives birth to softness, and softness consumes nations and houses. Finally, after having gone through a period of disorder, the cities see the virtù reborn within their walls. He who governs the universe allows this order of things, so that nothing is or can be stable under the sun.”

Machiavelli”s cosmos includes the sky, fortune, which he describes in the poem Fortune as a goddess that even Jupiter fears, and finally God, the last resort of the unfortunate. If, in his work The Prince, the reference to God is not very present, Machiavelli mentions him five times in the “Exhortation to liberate Italy” a passage turned towards the future which concludes this work.

In the time of Lorenzo the Magnificent and just after in the time of Machiavelli, the popular thought in Florence mixed an astrological determinism with a Platonic idealism that valued wise men as Lorenzo had been. This framework, which lent itself to Christian providentialism, attracted Machiavelli as much as it repelled him. From the religious point of view, Machiavelli is very influenced by Lucretius. Virgilio Adriani, a professor at the University of Florence who served as his chief of chancery, argued that Lucretius eradicated superstitious fear by providing an understanding of the nature of things. He also maintained that the sacrifices intended to attract the good graces of the gods maintained the men in slavery by increasing their fears. Finally, Adriani insisted on the flexibility and mobility needed to cope with changes in fortune. However, if Machiavelli essentially accepts Adriani”s vision of Lucretius, he differs from Lucretius in one key respect. While the Roman wants to free men from their fear, Machiavelli wants to use it for political purposes. In the Discourses (I, 14), he shows how the Romans used religion and fear to gain acceptance and authority for their laws. In the Discourses (II, 2), he reproaches the Christian religion for encouraging passivity when the Roman religion encouraged a strong reaction. In fact, in Machiavelli”s case, politics is not only autonomous from religion as Benedetto Croce thinks; for Alison Brown, it subordinates it, and makes it one of its instruments. In this, he follows Polybius, more than Livy.

Machiavelli makes an indirect criticism of religion in his Discourses on the First Decade of Titus Livius, where he examines the causes of the decadence of the Roman Empire. He attributes it to the Christian religion:

“When we consider why the people of antiquity were more in love with freedom than those of our time, it seems to me that it is for the same reason that the men of today are less robust, which is due, in my opinion, to our education and that of the ancients, which are as different from each other as our religion and the ancient religions. Indeed, our religion, having shown us the truth and the only way to salvation, has diminished in our eyes the price of the honors of this world.”

– Machiavelli, Discourse, II, 2

Machiavelli returns to this aspect in The Art of War. To the question: “Why is military virtue extinct today?”, Fabrizio, Machiavelli”s spokesman, answers: “The new morals introduced by the Christian religion are to blame. Today, the life of the defeated is almost always respected… A city can revolt twenty times, but it is never destroyed”.Gérard Colonna d”Istria and Roland Frapet see in Machiavelli an “anti-Christian passion” carefully hidden in a strategy of writing which proceeds by dispersed attacks while ending in “a radical condemnation of Christianity”. Machiavelli deplores the lamentable state of an Italy torn apart by the politics of the popes, the vices of the latter, the Christian fanaticism which leads in particular to “the pious cruelty” of Ferdinand of Aragon, the first king of Christendom, who expels the Marranos from Spain. According to these authors, “Machiavelli believed he had discovered the striking proof that a too ambitious goal could lead man to bestiality. He studied with passion this unprecedented reversal which, although surprising in its excesses, testified however to an implacable logic”.

The notion of conflict

According to Machiavelli, it is the conflict between the nobles and the people that allowed the establishment of Roman freedom by pushing for the creation of adequate laws and institutions. In his view, conflict is inherent to any society because the opposition between the great and the people has something structural about it. In chapter IX of The Prince, Machiavelli notes:

“But, coming to the other case, where a private citizen, not by villainy or intolerable violence, but by the favor of his fellow-citizens, becomes the prince of his country, I say that one attains this supreme authority either by the favor of the people or by that of the great. Because in the body of any city one finds these two moods: it comes from the fact that the people desire not to be commanded nor oppressed by the great, and that the great desire to command and oppress the people. From these two diverse appetites there arises in cities one of these three effects: principality, or liberty or license.”

Similarly, for Claude Lefort, “one of the major contributions of Machiavelli lies in the recognition of the potential fecundity of social antagonism. He follows in this an approach of Machiavelli partly pursued by Maurice Merleau-Ponty in his book of 1947, Humanism and Terror; approach which allowed them to break with a central thesis of the Marxist orthodoxy wanting that “the political conflict can be definitively exceeded”.

For Machiavelli, conflict has the merit of taking human beings out of the quietude which, according to him, leads to corruption and indolence and hinders the realization of great projects. The problem is not the conflict but its management. In Rome, internal political conflicts were for a long time solved by rhetorical disputes (disputando), while in Florence they were solved by armed combat (combattendo). But if new laws can be born from discussion, nothing of the kind can emanate from conflicts aiming at the domination of one camp over the other. This approach leads an author like Pierre Manent to qualify the Machiavellian theory as democratic and to note :

“The violence and cruelty that are in the world are not born from the wickedness of each individual but from the plurality of separate existences. It is by keeping our eyes fixed on this center that we can understand why and to what extent the Machiavellian theory can be said to be democratic Machiavellian politics is therefore democratic in the first sense that it draws the consequences from the objective cunning of force. It is democratic in a second sense. Contrary to the aristocratic tradition which sees the cause of the internal troubles in the covetousness of the people, Machiavelli would find it rather in the greed of the Great ones.”

But eloquence is not enough to keep the people united, hence the need to resort sometimes to violence or at least to force, as Machiavelli implicitly says in the famous sentence of The Prince: “all armed prophets have triumphed, disarmed they have collapsed” (The Prince, VI). Machiavelli is all the more sensitive to this limit of eloquence that in The Art of War, he accuses the Italian princes of having relied too much on words and not enough on armed force. However, he recommends the use of violence only if necessity, i.e. the survival of the State, requires it.

The theme of necessity

According to Marina Marietti, the notion of necessity is one of the “key words of the work”. Indeed, in Machiavelli, it is the necessity, the circumstances external to the man which condition the action. To understand the Florentine, it is necessary to remember, underlines this researcher, that Italy was then the theater of confrontations between foreign powers that, in a certain way, forced the city-states to adapt to changing circumstances. In any case, the introduction of necessity in politics provokes a profound change. Indeed, the important thing is not any more the prudence but the adaptation to the circumstances by showing a spirit of innovation. It is, moreover, a break with the thought of Thomas Aquinas who wanted the choice of the statesman to be dictated only by his free will and the search for justice. With the introduction of necessity, the important thing is to face changing events (notion of fortune) and what counts is no longer virtue but virtù, which requires clairvoyance, courage and firmness in the decision. A thing of which lacked, according to Machiavelli, Maximilian of Austria.

Necessity is linked in Machiavelli to the good. In Machiavellian anthropology, in fact, man is subject to a weariness of good (lo stuccarsi del bene) caused by one of the main sources of corruption for this thinker: idleness, “proud laziness” (Discourse I, Foreword). For Machiavelli, “men never do good, except by necessity”, hence the well-known phrase of the Florentine: “to make of necessity virtue”.

Thucydides and Machiavelli, the two founders of the tradition of realism, give first place to the notion of necessity, which derives not only from external events but also from the necessity induced by a human nature considered as stable. However, whereas for the Greek historian there is “an unquenchable tension between immoral necessity and the ethical possibilities of politics”, a moral or human element that transcends necessity, for Machiavelli “external necessity and the realism it imposes allow the community to be saved”.

The notion of time

For Machiavelli, time is linear; therefore, failure means “immersion without return in the abyss of political non-being”: one must therefore adapt to the present time. In order to last over time, a republic can build an institutional architecture designed to resist the corruption of time. Machiavelli writes in this regard: “Nothing, on the contrary, will make a republic firm and secure like channelling, so to speak, by law the moods that agitate it.” (Speech 3, VII).

For the Florentine, the changes introduced by time can lead to a return to the original conditions and provoke a renewal, as it was the case in the Catholic religion thanks to Francis of Assisi and Dominic of Guzman and as it is the case, according to him, in the French monarchy of his time. Speaking of religion, he notes:

“But this renewal is no less necessary for religions, and ours itself provides proof of this. It would have been entirely lost if it had not been brought back to its principle by St. Francis and St. Dominic. The new orders they established were so powerful that they prevented religion from being lost by the licentiousness of the bishops and leaders of the Church.

– Machiavelli, Speech, 3, I1

Political corruption and religion

For Machiavelli, political corruption comes from the fact that human beings are not willing to put the common good of the city above the particular interests or the interests of a social category (community, social class, etc.). According to Viroli, “corruption is also an absence of virtue, a kind of laziness, of ineptitude for political activity, or a lack of moral and physical strength necessary to resist tyranny and to prevent ambitious and arrogant men from imposing their domination on society.

There is political corruption: when laws are no longer obeyed, when the fear of God has disappeared, when living under the sway of a prince for a long time the people have acquired servile habits and are no longer capable of deliberating on their own, when the differences in wealth become exaggerated, when the power becomes absolute.

He was very critical of the corruption of the Church of his time and believed that any link between religion and politics inevitably led to the corruption of both. Moreover, a Church that was not corrupt, while being more respectable, would be even more harmful to the public sphere, because of the very precepts of the Christian religion. He thus opposes the latter to the Roman religion:

“Our religion places supreme happiness in humility, abjection, contempt for human causes; and the other, on the contrary, consisted in greatness of soul, strength of body and in all the qualities that make men formidable (Speech II, 2)”.

For Machiavelli, corruption destroys political freedom and puts people in a state of servitude. To get out of such a state is difficult, because it requires a strength, a virtù, uncommon but which brings true glory. Such redemption must be done by establishing a new law, a new government by law. In this perspective, the use of force becomes legitimate when it is the only way. For this admirer of the Roman Republic described in the Ten Books of Livy, this restoration of virtue requires a republican regime.

Machiavelli, critic of the art of the Medici state

Cosimo de” Medici built up the power of his family by building up, through the distribution of favors, a network of supporters who gave him control over the institutions of Florence. He and his successors governed using their influence without putting themselves forward, without changing the constitution and without ever claiming the title of Prince. On the other hand, when in 1512 the restoration of Medici power in Florence resulted in the end of the Republic, the new rulers feared the supporters of the Republic. From then on, two paths were open to the Medici: to use force, a position supported by Paolo Vettori, or to establish a regime similar to that of Cosimo, a position recommended by Giuliano de Medici. Machiavelli believes that the new rulers overestimate the power of the Republicans. Indeed, in his opinion, they forget that the people are concerned first of all with their immediate interests and want to deal first with the present rulers whoever they are. On the other hand, he advises the Medici to be wary of the nobles because they are always ready to change sides if their interests and ambitions lead them to it. Moreover, Machiavelli thinks that the Medici cannot be satisfied any more to direct hidden, as at the time of Cosme, because nothing says that the people whom they intend to influence will follow them. He also advises them to abandon the politics of favors because “the friendships that one obtains at the price of money and not by the greatness and the nobility of heart, one buys them, but one does not possess them and, when the time comes, one cannot spend them”. Machiavelli therefore recommends that they have recourse to fear instead. He also advises them to turn their subjects into loyal supporters by enlisting them in an army of the city.

If we place ourselves at the level of the reflection that precedes the action, Machiavelli enjoins the politician to keep himself informed of the situation, to interpret the facts well and not to hesitate to compare his analysis with that of other experts in politics. For the Florentine, the art of interpretation is difficult, because the princes hide their game by dramatizing their actions or their words. The political expert or the statesman must then judge and decide while being based on the actions (the hands in Machiavelli) and not on the words (the eyes):

The interpretation of facts is also difficult because passions are involved, so that the art of politics always involves a degree of luck and depends on the ability to overcome headwinds.

The virtù and the control of the good or bad fortune

The translation of the word virtù, which often appears in Machiavelli”s writings, has long been problematic. From the 1970s onwards, its use became widespread, for example, with Claude Lefort (1972) and Jean-François Duvernoy (1974). In 1981, Quentin Skinner decided to assume this choice and noted: “I still consider that it is impossible to find, in the contemporary English language, a term or a set of periphrases likely to constitute a satisfactory translation of the concept of virtù (from the Latin virtus), a central concept in Machiavelli”s work. For this reason, I have kept this term or the expressions that contain it in their original form throughout the book. In France, to avoid the connotations attached to the French word “vertu”, which had more or less the same meaning at the time, most scholars have chosen to retain Machiavelli”s term for the past fifty years. The word comes from the Latin vir, which “characterizes man in the noblest sense of the word”. For the Gaffiot dictionary, vir designates the man of character, the man who plays a role in the city. A politician who has virtue must be able to adapt to situations and go from good to bad according to the circumstances imposed by fortuna. The virtù is an important concept because it is the quality that must possess or develop the politicians worthy of this name, that is to say, capable of safeguarding the State and of carrying out great things. In fact, according to Duvernoy, “far from being able to make of virtù a psychological trait, it is necessary to say on the contrary that the relations of psychology and virtù are those of a struggle”. For Helmuth Plessner (contemporary of Heidegger), politics is defined in a very “Machiavellian” way, as “the art of the favorable moment, of the propitious occasion”, what the ancient Greeks called the kairos. This search for the favorable moment also explains why Machiavelli often associates fortuna with virtù. Luciani defines it as “the capacity, the skill, the activity, the individual power, the sensitivity, the flair for opportunities and the measure of one”s own abilities”. For John Greville Agard Pocock, virtù also has a double meaning “of instruments of power, such as weapons, and of personal qualities required to handle these instruments”. In chapter twenty-five of The Prince, Machiavelli insists on the blind force of fortuna: “I compare it to an impetuous river which, when it overflows, floods the plains, overturns trees and buildings, takes away the land on one side and carries it to another: everything flees before its ravages, everything yields to its fury; nothing can hinder it” (The Prince, chapter XXV). Generally speaking, fortuna is a source of misery, affliction and disaster. To face fortuna, one needs “organized virtù” (ordinata virtù), capable of channelling it. To overcome or resist fortuna, requires to adapt quickly to new situations, which requires more impetuosity and virtù than wisdom. Machiavelli compares Fortune to a woman who “loves young men because they are less reserved, more violent, and with more audacity they command her”. If the notions of fortuna and virtù are so important in Machiavelli, it is, according to Pocock, because the book The Prince deals mainly with innovators in politics, not with princes who are heirs to long dynasties and who benefit from a “traditional legitimacy”. If these last ones can rely on the tradition and the existing structures, on the contrary the innovator must count more on the fortuna and the virtù to “impose the form of the politiea – the constitution – It is the function of the virtù to impose a form to the fortuna”. Speaking about the great legislators founders of great peoples or great cities, he writes:

Leo Strauss notes that in Machiavelli, virtue is sometimes opposed to goodness, an opposition that he would take from Cicero. The latter, in the continuity of Plato”s Republic, opposes temperance and justice, which are required of all, to courage and wisdom, which are required only of leaders. In Machiavelli”s work, a somewhat similar relationship is distinguished between virtue and “goodness”. The first is necessary to the leaders, the second, understood in a pejorative way in the sense of obedience mixed with fear, is characteristic of the great mass of the population engaged neither in politics nor in the military.

Glory as a principle of immortality and moderation

Machiavelli, like the humanists and Cicero, believes that glory does not need divine sanctification. In the manner of the ancient Romans and Greeks before Christianity, he believes that the pursuit of human honors, that is, of this world (understood as different from the other world, that of the divine), constitutes a great good, especially since men and women aspire to follow the example of glorious and respected princes. For the Florentine, the glory of this world, in spite of the inconstancy and the arbitrariness of men, can have something immortal when it is true, when it is what the statesmen must aspire to. For Machiavelli, glory and infamy have in common that they bring to their holder a kind of immortality in the sense that they remain always alive in the memory of humanity. The paths that lead to glory and infamy are equally close. In the thinker”s case, the statesman may resort to cruelty and cunning, but if he wishes to attain glory, he may use these means only for the good of human beings and limit their use to what is strictly necessary. If he indulges in extreme means without restraint then, like Agathocles of Syracuse, he sinks into infamy.

If in chapter XVIII of the Prince, Machiavelli suggests “a methodical and economical use of violence” and reminds us that the warrior heroes of Antiquity had been educated by the centaur Chiron and that therefore men have a double nature, man and beast, it remains that if the man does not want to fall in tyranny and if he wants to reach the glory, he must be careful, thrifty, in the use of the means by this half-man and half-beast teacher, they wanted to mean that a prince must have in some way these two natures, and that one needs to be supported by the other. The prince, therefore, having to act as a beast, will try to be both a fox and a lion: for if he is only a lion, he will not see the traps; if he is only a fox, he will not defend himself against the wolves; and he also needs to be a fox in order to see the traps, and a lion in order to frighten the wolves. Those who simply stick to being lions are very unskilled” (Chap. XVIII).

Machiavelli distinguishes between fame (fama) and glory (gloria). According to him, to acquire fame, it is necessary to accomplish great things as King Ferdinand the Catholic did, but this is not enough for glory. Indeed, glory requires splendor both in the goals pursued and in the means used, which this sovereign did not show enough.

Machiavelli”s republicanism in its context

Italy in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance has a singular history because it is neither a kingdom, like France or Spain, nor an empire like Germany (Habsburg Empire). It was divided into multiple commercial cities and states, including the very influential Papal States. Moreover, there was a latent conflict between the merchant bourgeoisie and the warrior nobility. Two great alliances opposed each other: that of the Guelphs, usually composed of the trading cities and the papacy, and that of the Ghibellines, which was favorable to the House of Hohenstaufen and later to the Spaniards and the Habsburg Empire. According to Pocock, all Florentine writers, including Machiavelli, were Guelphs. When the Papacy left Avignon and returned to Rome in 1377, it wanted to expand its states and thus became a threat to the autonomy of the city-states. The latter, in order to overcome the conflicts between factions, resorted to podestates who did not belong to the city. The management of these city-states usually opposes the republicans to the princes. For Hans Baron, the conceptualization of the notion of republic in Florence began with the crisis of 1400-1402 opposing the Florentine humanists to the Visconti of Milan. The inspirer of the republican idea would be Aristotle, notably through his book on politics. At that time, freedom would be republican in essence because it was seen as residing in active participation in government. Maurizio Viroli insists on Gilles of Rome”s interpretation of Aristotle, according to which living politically means living under the protection of the law and under a good constitution. According to Quentin Skinner, on the other hand, the republican idea was born in the 13th century and found its source not in Greek authors, but in the Latins, mainly Cicero and Sallustus. This recourse to Latin authors, haunted by the fall of Rome, led the republicans to meditate on the notions of decline and fall. The fall of Rome in particular is analyzed as resulting from an excess of conquest which destroyed the virtù of the Romans of the republic. According to Machiavelli, two types of republic are possible: the expanding one on the Roman model which requires virtù and pagan virtues, and the defensive one, disarmed, animated by Christian virtues. Clearly, the Florentine favors the first type of republic since he lives before the European wars of religion where the Christians will show themselves particularly active and very little peaceful. Machiavelli was thus confronted with different problems in matters of religion than those that Jean Bodin and Thomas Hobbes would face.

Machiavellian republicanism

In general, Machiavelli scholars agree that Machiavelli”s republicanism is of a special kind. For Friedrich Meinecke, it incorporates a part of monarchism because it can only come into being through the action of a few great men. Harvey Mansfield and Nathan Tarcov see it as a mixture of republicanism and tyranny. According to John Greville Agard Pocock, Machiavelli”s republic is a structure of virtue rooted in the virtue of citizen soldiers. For Mark Hulluing, Machiavelli defended republicanism only because he thought it was more suited to glory, state aggrandizement and violence than monarchy. For Hans Baron, Machiavelli”s republicanism is a princely republicanism rooted in civic virtue.

According to Maurizio Viroli, Machiavelli”s republicanism is rooted in the search for a well-ordered republic, a republic governed by the rule of law and by constitutional arrangements. Machiavelli took this idea from the jurists and civic humanists of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, for whom civil and political life could only be conceived under a republican government or under a mixed government that combined the virtues of monarchy, aristocracy and democracy. Alamanno Rinuccini, following Cicero, argued in 1493 that the foundation of a truly human life, that is, both political and civil, rests on justice and good laws.

According to Viroli, Machiavelli”s republicanism is a government by law, which means that everyone, even the rulers and the Prince, is subject to the law. It is also a mixed political regime where each component of the city has its place. It was a question here of following the example of the Roman Republic and avoiding the endless conflicts that Florence experienced. It is also a regime that ensures political freedom, that is to say the participation of all in public debates and the possibility for all, by virtue of their merit, to occupy high positions. The political freedom of the city is understood in the sense developed by the Italian jurists and political philosophers of the 14th century, that is, as the freedom for the city to make its own laws without reference to an emperor. To avoid the return of corruption, i.e. the non-respect of laws, magistrates must apply the law in an inflexible way, especially when it concerns powerful people.

The advantages of republicanism according to Machiavelli

First of all, Machiavelli”s republican regime allows for living both freely and safely. To live in security (vivere sicuro) requires a minimal constitutional order, such as the one that, according to him, existed in France in his time. On the contrary, to live free (vivere libero) requires an active participation in the government of the nobility and the people as well as an emulation between the two, as was the case in the Roman Republic. A regime, where the essential thing is to live in security, distrusts the people and refuses to arm them, preferring to resort to mercenaries for their defense. Also, such a regime makes the people passive and weak. For Machiavelli, when the citizens bear arms, when the defense of the city rests on them, then one can be assured that no one (neither government, nor usurper) will tyrannize the people. To reinforce this assertion, he takes the example of Rome and Sparta: “Thus Rome was free for four centuries and was armed, Sparta for eight centuries; many other cities were disarmed and free for less than forty years.” To this it is often retorted that the Roman Republic was the scene of conflict between the nobility and the people and that this was the cause of its fall. Machiavelli contests this approach, for him, the tension between the people and the nobility was creative, it is the very source of Roman greatness. He writes in the Discourses (I, 4):

“I submit to those who condemn the quarrels of the Senate and the people that they are condemning what was the principle of liberty, and that they are much more struck by the cries and noise they caused in the public square than by the good effects they produced.”

Is virtù proper only to an individual or is it widespread in the social body? For Machiavelli, virtù is widely distributed among citizens. This is a strong argument in favor of the republican regime. Indeed, the diversity of human beings possessing or capable of acquiring virtù makes it possible to better face events thanks to the rich panel of individuals capable of dealing with crisis situations. For example, when Rome had to face the Carthaginians of Hannibal Barca and after the first Carthaginian victories, it was necessary to temporize, the time to prepare the legions for the new situation, Quintus Fabius Maximus Verrucosus, called Cunctator (the Temporizer) was the right man for the situation. On the other hand, when the hour is with the offensive, it is Scipio the African who has the qualities (virtù) adequate. Machiavelli writes in this regard:

“Everyone knows with which prudence and which circumspection Fabius Maximus directed his army, very far in that of the impetuosity and the audacity accustomed of the Romans; and its good fortune wanted that this conduct was in conformity with the times If Fabius had been king of Rome, it would perhaps have been overcome in this war, because it would not have known how to vary the manner of making it in accordance with the diversity of the times, but it had been born in a republic where there existed various kinds of citizens and different characters: thus, as Rome possessed Fabius, man one cannot more suitable for the times when it was necessary to be limited to support the war, in the same way it had then Scipio for the times when it was necessary to triumph. “

– Machiavelli, Discourse (3, IX).

Democratic debate, common good and republic

According to Nederman, Machiavelli in the Discourse sees democratic debate as the best method of resolving conflict in a republic. As in classical rhetoric, and as in the Italian rhetorical theorists of the late Middle Ages, the art of discourse is aimed at convincing people of the merits of a thesis and at exposing the weaknesses of the opposing thesis. Thus, according to Viroli (1998), Machiavelli”s emphasis on conflict as a prerequisite for freedom is rhetorical in nature. Generally speaking, for the Florentine, the people are the best guarantor of freedom and the public good. Indeed, the diversity of points of view makes them less vulnerable to deception. In contrast, in monarchical regimes, those who would “deceive” are not faced with such a diversity of opinions and can therefore impose their views more easily. In the Discourses, Machiavelli shows great confidence in the people”s ability to act and judge and devotes a chapter to this subject:

“As for prudence and constancy, I maintain that a people is more prudent, more constant and better judge than a prince. It is not without reason that it is said that the voice of the people is also that of God. One sees public opinion prognosticating events in such a marvelous way that one would say that the people are gifted with the occult way of foreseeing both good and evil. As for the way of judging, one very rarely sees them making mistakes; when they hear two orators of equal eloquence proposing two opposite solutions, it is very rare that they do not discern and adopt the better one.”

– Speech (I, 58).

Claude Lefort sees in Machiavelli the appearance of a new thesis of justification of the democratic system: “Thus is stated this very new thesis: there is in the very disorder something to produce an order; the appetites of class are not necessarily bad since from their clash can be born a city”. Christian Nadeau joins this position by demonstrating that Machiavelli does not give “a discourse on the primacy of means over ends, but a true reflection on the conditions of possibility of political freedom”.

According to Maurizio Viroli, Machiavelli advocates that, in order to resolve conflicts in a non-destructive way and for the common good, citizens must be moved by a moral force that makes them capable of perceiving where the common good lies and that makes them want to achieve it, sometimes to the detriment of their own interests: this moral force is love of country. Viroli refers in particular to the chapter “A good citizen must, for love of his country, forget his particular insults” of the Discourses (III, 47), evoking a case which occurred during a war, when the Senate had to appoint a military leader to replace another, who was wounded. However, the general selected as successor was the sworn enemy of Fabius, who had to give his approval to this nomination. Machiavelli writes on this subject that the Senate “thus made him conjure up by two deputies to sacrifice his personal hatreds to the public interest… The love of the fatherland gained the upper hand in the heart of Fabius, although one saw by his silence and by many other proofs, how much it cost him to make this appointment”.

The stakes of the renewal of the republican reading of Machiavelli

The republican reading of Machiavelli experienced a strong moment of renewal with the publication of the book Machiavellian Moment. Florentine political thought and the republican tradition, by John Greville Agard Pocock, one of whose aims was to show that alongside the thought of John Locke, the path of Florentine republicanism was also open. For this author, the opposition between liberalism and republicanism would not only belong to the past but would remain today. Pocock insists on citizenship understood as active participation in political and military life, which is opposed to the Freedom of the moderns of contemporary liberalism. In so doing, he seeks to “expose the flaws in an exclusively legal and liberal way of thinking”. However, Pocock focuses mainly on the participation of citizens in political life, forgetting to address the question of institutional and legal order in Machiavelli, a topic that Maurizio Viroli will address in 1998. In 2004, Vickle B. Sullivan, in his book Machiavelli, Hobbes and the Formation of a liberal Republicanism in England, insists that there was a reconciliation between Machiavellian republicanism and Locke”s liberalism in England in the 17th century.

A rapid diffusion of the work

Machiavelli”s work has been “known, studied, discussed as few others have been in history”: “The scandal caused by the image of the prince, governing as he pleases, indifferent to Christian precepts, busy using his subjects for his own glory or pleasure, has more than strictly religious resonance. Its strength comes from the fact that it challenges a traditional representation of society. The Prince, which first circulated in manuscript form, was dedicated to a cardinal and was well received by the pope, who authorized its printing in 1531. The work spread rapidly, thanks to the development of printing. There were no less than 15 editions of the Prince and 19 of the Discourse, as well as 25 French translations published between 1572 and 1640. It was not until twenty years after its publication that the first attacks began, due to the English cardinal Reginald Pole who, in his Apology to the Emperor Charles V (1552), saw it as a work “written by the hand of Satan”. The Prince is also attacked by the Portuguese bishop Jeronymo Osorio as well as by the Italian bishop Ambrogio Catarino in his De libris a christiano detestandis (1552). These attacks will lead to the placing on the Index of the Prince, the Discourses and the Florentine Histories by Pope Paul IV in 1559, a measure which stops the publication in the areas of Catholic influence except France.

Machiavelli”s ideas had a profound impact on Western leaders. The Prince was soon held in high regard by Thomas Cromwell. Before him, the book influenced Henry VIII both in his tactics, for example during the Pilgrimage of Grace, and in his decision to turn to Protestantism. Emperor Charles V also had a copy of the book, in the 16th century, Catholics associated Machiavelli with Protestants and Protestants considered him an Italian, and therefore a Catholic. In fact, he influenced both Catholic and Protestant kings. Machiavelli”s influence is noticeable on most of the major political thinkers of the period. Francis Bacon wrote: “We are much indebted to Machiavelli and other such writers who openly and unfeignedly announce and describe what man does, not what he should do.

Also very present in the literary culture of the time, the figure of Machiavelli is evoked more than four hundred times in the Elizabethan theater (Marlowe, Shakespeare, Ben Jonson, etc.). In France, Jean de La Fontaine included in his last collection of fables an adaptation of Machiavelli”s tale Belphégor archidiable under the title Belphégor (he also adapted his play La Mandragore as a verse tale with the same title.

Saint Bartholomew, birth of Machiavellianism and Tacitism in the 16th century

In France, after an initial mixed reception, Machiavelli”s name was associated with Catherine de Medici and the St. Bartholomew”s Day massacre. In 1576, four years after this dark episode of the Wars of Religion, the Huguenot Innocent Gentillet published in Geneva a large work entitled Discourse on the Means of Good Government, often called Discourse against Machiavelli or Anti Machiavelli, which was widely distributed throughout Europe. From the epistle, addressed to François de France, duke of Alençon, Gentillet invites to “send back Machiavelli in Italy, from where she came, to our great misfortune and damage” because it is her who is at the origin of the massacre of the Saint-Barthélemy: “our Machiauelistes of France, who were autheurs and contractors of the massacres of the day of S. Barthelemy”. Machiavelli is described as an atheist and his book The Prince would be the Koran of the brokers. This work contributes to the lasting misunderstandings about Machiavelli”s work. It is as if the public revelation of the workings of power made the Florentine responsible for its corruption and the means used to maintain it. By revealing these mechanisms, by recommending their use when the situation requires it and when the weakness of character of the rulers would have worse consequences, Machiavelli shows a way out of it while never evacuating from his reasonings his mistrust of human nature. Through Machiavellianism, the question raised is that of the link between morality and politics: it is on this point that Innocent Gentillet insists.

In any case, this accusation of immoral strategies is often repeated in the political discourses of the sixteenth century, especially among the proponents of the Counter-Reformation such as Giovanni Botero, Justus Lipsius, Carlo Scribani, Adam Contzen, Pedro de Ribadeneira and Diego de Saavedra Fajardo.

Jean Bodin, who appreciates Machiavelli”s work in his Méthode pour une compréhension aisée de l”histoire published in 1566, gives it a scathing critique in the preface to his major book Les Six Livres de la République (The Six Books of the Republic), published a few months after Gentillet”s:

“Machiavelli, who had the vogue among the brokers of the tyrants, never fathomed the ford of Political science, which does not lie in tyrannical tricks, which he sought by all the corners of Italy, and like a sweet poison poured in his book of the Prince. And as for justice, if Machiavelli had cast his eyes on good authors, he would have found that Plato calls his books of the Republic, the books of Justice, as being one of the firmest pillars of all Republics.

Bodin”s hostility stems from the fact that he was busy developing a “theory of royal monarchy, in which the king”s sovereignty is absolute, but is exercised with respect for the laws and customs and for the good of the governed”. Many of these authors, despite their criticisms, take up many of Machiavelli”s ideas. They accepted the need for a prince to be concerned about his reputation, to resort to cunning and deception, but like the later modernists, they emphasized economic growth rather than the risks of risky wars

In order to avoid the polemics associated with Machiavelli, some critics prefer to speak of “tacitism” after Tacitus, a Roman historian who wrote the history of the Roman emperors from Tiberius to Nero. Tacitism – in fact Machiavelli”s thought stripped of its most questionable aspect – is used to teach the advisors of princes or kings to serve absolute monarchs and to advise them realistic policies. Tacitism is divided into two tendencies: “black Tacitism” which supports the law of the prince and “red Tacitism” which supports the Republic, and can be classified as being in continuity with Machiavelli”s Discourses on the First Decade of Titelive.

Machiavelli the republican (17th century – 18th century)

In 1597, the appointment of Alberico Gentili, a Perugian-trained jurist, as professor of civil law at Oxford helped establish Machiavelli”s reputation as a republican author. Indeed, in his De legationibus of 1685, Gentili eloquently treats Machiavelli in the Discourses. In the 17th century in England and Holland, and in the 18th century in France, Machiavelli is often presented as a defender of the Venetian republic and of republicanism in general, partly under the influence of Gentili, an interpretation taken up by Boccalini.

During the Commonwealth of England and Oliver Cromwell”s protectorate, Machiavelli”s Discourses served as a source of inspiration for republicans, as in Marchamont Needham”s The Case of the Commonwealth of England in 1650 and James Harrington”s Oceana in 1656. The republicans in the sense of the time, that of the Commonwealth, John Milton, Algernon Sydney and Henry Neville, adapted the Machiavellian notions of civic virtue, participation and the salutary effect of conflicts to the English case. Henry Neville, who edited Machiavelli”s works in 1675 and 1680, in a fictional letter from Nicholas Machiavelli to Zanobius Buondelmontius, addresses the converts in the garden of the Rucellais, i.e., the Republicans. In republican imagery, it is in this garden that the discussions reported in the Discourse on the First Decade of Titus Live would have taken place, to point out to them that The Prince is first and foremost a satire of tyrants intended to show their true character. Although he is not always mentioned as a source of inspiration because of the controversies surrounding his name, Machiavelli also marked the thought of other major philosophers in England, such as Hobbes and Locke.

In Holland, Johan and Pieter de la Court used the Discourses to defend the idea that in a republic, the interests of all are better taken into account because a sort of balance of interests is established. Their writings influenced Spinoza who, in his Tractatus theologicopoliticus (1670), defended a realist view of politics based on chapter 15 of the Prince and proposed a democratic interpretation of Machiavelli by presenting him also as a republican.

In France at the beginning of the 17th century, from a non-republican perspective, Machiavelli was appreciated by the Cardinal of Richelieu “who was not the last to follow the most Machiavellian precepts of the Prince. The cardinal would have incited Louis Machon to write a book favorable to Machiavelli: The Apology of Machiavelli, book which was not published and which remained in the state of manuscript. Montesquieu said of Machiavelli that he was “a great man”, while believing that Machiavelli made Caesar Borgia “his idol”. In De l”esprit des lois (1748), he adopts a pragmatic point of view: “One has begun to cure oneself of Machiavellianism, & one will be cured of it every day. We need more moderation in the councils: what we used to call coups d”état would be today, independently of the horror, only imprudences”. Attributing a central role to passions and interests in human affairs, he establishes a distinction between moral virtue and political virtue (virtù).

In Prussia, where Machiavelli”s republicanism was little appreciated, the young king Frederick II of Prussia nevertheless undertook to refute The Prince and asked Voltaire for help. This led to the book Anti-Machiavel, or Essai de critique sur le Prince de Machiavelli published by Voltaire in 1740. The page is divided into two columns, with the text of the Prince in La Houssaye”s translation on the left in italics and, in parallel, the comments of the king revised and amplified by Voltaire. In chapter VIII, Voltaire corrects Machiavelli on the historical level, by recalling the sad fate of certain tyrants (“one villain punishes another”). But, on the whole, according to Artaud de Montor, “Voltaire”s book is rather a perpetual declamation than a refutation in form”. The foreword sets the tone:

“Machiavelli”s Prince is to morality what Spinoza”s work is to faith. Spinoza undermined the foundations of faith, and tended no less than to overthrow the edifice of religion; Machiavelli corrupted politics, and undertook to destroy the precepts of sound morality. The errors of the one were only errors of speculation, those of the other concerned practice.”

Commenting on this work, Rousseau is very critical towards the king of Prussia: “I cannot estimate nor love a man without principles, who tramples on any right of the people, who does not believe in virtue, but regards it as a decoy with which one amuses the fools and who began his Machiavellianism by refuting Machiavelli”. On the other hand, he “deeply admires the genius of Machiavelli, he recognizes the force of his thought, his perspicacity in the knowledge of men, the safety of his judgment on the events”. Rousseau thus justifies his reading of a republican Machiavelli:

“Machiavelli was an honest man and a good citizen, but attached to the House of Medici, he was forced, in the oppression of his homeland, to disguise his love for freedom. The choice of his execrable hero alone shows enough of his secret intention, and the opposition of the maxims of his book of the Prince to those of his Discourses on Titus Livius and of his History of Florence shows that this profound politician has so far had only superficial or corrupt readers.”

This interpretation is still found in Diderot”s article on Machiavellianism as well as in Alfieri”s. For contemporary scholars, however, it is not likely to assume a double meaning and a satirical intention behind the most revolting passages of the Prince.

In any case, Machiavelli certainly inspired Robespierre, for whom “the plans for the French Revolution were written for the most part in the books… of Machiavelli”. Similarly, when Robespierre justified the Terror – “the despotism of liberty against tyranny” – he sometimes seemed to repeat word for word the famous passage in which Machiavelli advocated the need for violence to found a new political order or to reform corrupt ones. Both believed that the central problem of political action is to establish a foundation capable of establishing the public sphere and that, to do so, violence could be justified. For Hannah Arendt, Machiavelli is thus “the ancestor of modern revolutions”: like all true revolutionaries, he desired nothing more passionately than to establish a new order of things.

Influence on the Founding Fathers of the American Republic

Machiavelli”s emphasis on republicanism leads one to see him as a major source, both directly and indirectly, of the political thought of the Founding Fathers of the United States. It was Machiavelli”s republican thinking that animated Benjamin Franklin, James Madison and Thomas Jefferson when they opposed Alexander Hamilton, fearing that he aimed to form a new aristocracy through the Federalist Party. Hamilton learned from Machiavelli the important influence of foreign policy on domestic policy. However, whereas Machiavelli emphasized the idea of conflict of ideas within a republic, Hamilton emphasized the notion of order. Among the founding fathers, only George Washington escaped the influence of Machiavelli.

John Adams was the most studied and appreciated of the Founding Fathers, commenting extensively on Machiavelli in his book A Defence of the Constitutions of Government of the United States of America. In this work, he ranks Machiavelli with Algernon Sydney and Montesquieu among the advocates of mixed government. For Adams, Machiavelli also had the merit of restoring the hold of empirical reason in politics. Adams also agrees with the Florentine that human nature is immobile and driven by the passions and agrees with Machiavelli that all societies are subject to cyclical periods of growth and decline. For Adams, however, Machiavelli had one flaw: he lacked a clear understanding of the institutions necessary for good government.

Machiavelli”s influence in the 19th century

In the early nineteenth century, the interpretation of Machiavelli was marked by that of the French Revolution and dominated by the question of the link between morality and politics. Associating the French Revolution with Machiavelli, the English Prime Minister William Pitt the Younger accused the revolutionaries of Machiavellianism and immorality. This leads Kant to point out that the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, and the republican constitution, are not immoral and show, on the contrary, that there can be no true politics without a tribute to morality. Hegel in his book on the philosophy of law (1821) shares the same opinion.

In the nineteenth century, when the respective reunification of Italy and Germany was being discussed, the idea of statehood and the patriotism that lay behind Machiavelli”s thought left its mark on some of the most famous readers. For example, Hegel, in his Germanic Constitution written in 1800 and published in 1893, suggests a parallel between Machiavelli”s disunited Italy and the Germany of his time. In general, in Germany in the 19th century, authors preferred to emphasize Machiavelli”s patriotism and avoid more sensitive subjects. This is how Max Weber proceeds in his Politics as a Vocation (1919). This German sociologist and philosopher is also careful not to associate Machiavelli”s thinking about the state with that of Heinrich von Treitschke, who reduces the state to pure force, violence and power. Weber quotes Machiavelli only a few times and notes that the violence of Kautilya”s Arthashâstra allows him to relativize the supposed violence of the Prince.

Marx makes “brief references to Machiavelli. He read the Discourses, but it was the Florentine Histories and their study of the evolution of the Italian military system that most caught his attention. According to him, this book allows to understand “the connection between productive forces and social relations”. Benedetto Croce, for his part, believed in 1897 that Karl Marx was the worthy successor of Machiavelli and was surprised that he had never been called “the Machiavelli of the workers” movement.

Friedrich Nietzsche, in a writing from 1888 published in 1901 under the title The Will to Power, remarks: “No philosopher will undoubtedly attain this type of perfection which is Machiavellianism. For Machiavellianism, pure, unmixed, raw, fresh, with all its force, with all its bite, is super human, divine, transcendental, it cannot be reached by a man, only approached.

The first thorough study of Machiavelli and his work is by Alexis-François Artaud de Montor: Machiavelli. His genius and his errors (1833).

Maurice Joly published in 1865 his Dialogue aux enfers entre Machiavel et Montesquieu.

Perceptions of Machiavelli in the twentieth and early twenty-first centuries

The thesis of Machiavelli”s responsibility for the two great world conflicts was put forward by the German historian Friedrich Meinecke in The Idea of the Reason of State in the History of Modern Times (1924) and Die deutsche Katastrophe (1946). The first of these works challenges not only Machiavellianism and Hegelianism but more generally the abstract ideas of the French Revolution. According to this author, the starting point of all these evils is to be found in Machiavelli, who allowed the unleashing of power politics. In the second book, Meinecke, according to Barthas, takes up the same thesis and adapts it, arguing that by revealing methods reserved for an aristocracy, Machiavelli led to a mass Machiavellianism that made the Third Reich possible. Meinecke”s books influenced the way Michel Foucault interpreted Marx in his work on the concept of “governmentality” in 1978.

In the 1920s and 1930s, the question of the link between totalitarianism and Machiavelli”s thought was raised, especially since Benito Mussolini had published a Preludio al Machiavelli in 1924, which was translated into French in 1927, in which the Duce praised Machiavelli. If this text was quickly contested in Italy by the liberal philosopher Piero Gobetti, who emphasized Machiavelli”s republicanism and “his defense of the fruitfulness of conflict,” in France, the text was rather favorably received. In the interwar period, Charles Benoist”s Le Machiavélisme avant, pendant et après Machiavelli is one of the reference works on Machiavelli and “refers in a laudatory way to Mussolini”s text. Nevertheless, this work has the merit of distinguishing “four types of Machiavellianism: that of Machiavelli, that of some of his disciples (the Machiavellians), that of the anti-Machiavellians, and finally that of people who have never read him. It will constitute one of the sources of Raymond Aron”s and Jacques Maritain”s reflections on Machiavellianism. Benoist”s work is marked by the idea that Machiavellianism is the fruit of a moment in history and by the revival of Nietzschean themes. The reading of Machiavelli in the interwar period is marked by the problem of the elites and Aron will underline the affinities between Machiavelli”s thought on this theme and that of the sociologist Vilfredo Pareto.

Placing himself exclusively on the side of the history of thought, the neo-Thomist Jacques Maritain maintains “that the totalitarian regimes are the heirs of Machiavelli. According to him, Machiavelli”s great fault is to have removed the guilt of statesmen and women by making “emerge in the sphere of consciousness those morals of his time and the common practice of the power politicians of all times”. Aron and Élie Halévy, in contrast to Maritain, include more in their analysis of totalitarianism the changes brought about by the establishment of the war economy during the First World War. In any case, in a reflection begun at the end of the 1930s, Aron sees the essence of totalitarianism “in the conjunction of Machiavellianism and messianism, of cynicism and fanaticism, in the joint perversion of science and religion. In a rather similar analysis, Ernst Cassirer, in his book The Myth of the State (1946), associates, like Meinecke, Machiavelli with Nazism.

An alternative to the approach proposed by Leo Strauss is developing, especially in English-speaking universities. Hans Baron, Isaiah Berlin and John Greville Agard Pocock proposed an interpretation that would reintroduce the Florentine”s thought into contemporary political debates. In his 1971 essay, The Originality of Machiavelli, Isaiah Berlin, seeking to resolve the conflict between morality and politics characteristic of Machiavelli”s thought according to Benedetto Croce, finds in the Florentine a pluralism of values that accords well with his political liberalism. At about the same time, Philip Pettit, John Greville Agard Pocock and Quentin Skinner revived Machiavelli”s republican entanglement. In this, they follow the path opened by Rousseau, who wrote: “By pretending to give lessons to kings, he gave great lessons to the people. The Prince is the book of the republicans”. The republican reading of Machiavelli leads one to value the Discourse more than The Prince. John Greville Agard Pocock contrasts a republican tradition derived from Machiavelli with the liberal tradition. In doing so, according to Barthas, he adopts a Marxian type of analysis where the social and the economic have an impact on the perception of the social and the values in vogue. John Rawls, the great exponent of late 20th century political liberalism, ignores Machiavelli, as does Jürgen Habermas, another great contemporary political philosopher.

In 2010, somewhat ironically, John Greville Agard Pocock wondered whether the only Machiavellian prince in European history was Napoleon Bonaparte, “condottiere and legislator, hero of a republic and Caesarist traitor. The idea is not new: in 1816, an anonymous work suggests that in Napoleon”s carriage, after the battle of Waterloo, was found a bound manuscript containing the translation of various works of Machiavelli, among which a new translation of the Prince and another of the Discourses, with marginal notes in the hand of the emperor. The story is pure invention, although it is true that Napoleon planned to take the Discourses with him in his travel library.

In Le Travail de l”œuvre Machiavelli (1972), Claude Lefort lists eight major interpretations of Machiavelli, of which he particularly highlights those of Cassirer and especially Leo Strauss: the latter”s analysis is “of all those we have examined, the only one that links the question of the meaning of Machiavellian discourse to that of its reading”. He also proposes in this work a systematic reading of the two main works of the Florentine: The Prince and the Discourses. He places at the heart of Machiavelli”s thought the notions of conflict and social division, as well as the economy of desire. According to this analysis, “Machiavelli”s work causes a scandal by stating the morganatic link between evil and politics”: “Machiavellianism is the name of evil. It is the name given to the politics as it is the evil”.

With Machiavelli, politics acquires a completely new status, freed from the moral criteria of good and evil, and focused solely on the success of the Prince in taking or keeping power. And the exercise of the power “obeys a quasi autonomous logic”. Partisan of a policy of expansion, Machiavelli recommends to follow the way of Rome, open city – rather than that of Sparta which was folded up on itself -, and to face the difficult exercise which is the maintenance of a balance between opposite forces:

“I think that it is necessary to imitate the Roman constitution and not that of the other republics, because I do not believe that it is possible to choose an intermediate term between these two modes of government, and that it is necessary to tolerate the enmities which can rise between the people and the senate, considering them as a necessary evil to achieve the Roman greatness”

– Machiavelli, Discourse, I, 6.

In an essay entitled Machiavelli in Democracy (2006), Édouard Balladur, former French Prime Minister, begins by acknowledging, after many others, that “Machiavelli”s merit is to have put an end to the hypocrisy of good feelings. He was the first to describe the methods of power: the struggle for its conquest is the confrontation of selfish ambitions, nothing else. Balladur, who had been called to the government by François Mitterrand – nicknamed “the Florentine” -, in turn set out to identify the methods of power in contemporary society, whatever the political regime:

“Democracy or dictatorship, the end remains the same: the conquest and possession of power by all means, as long as possible. In the use of lies, there is hardly any difference between one and the other, except that lies are even more effective in a democracy because they allow the votes of the greatest number to be captured; whereas it is enough for a dictatorship to impose itself by force, to dominate rather than to convince.”

The book analyzes the relationship with journalists, the importance of image, the effect of polls, the necessary virtues and defects – to make people dream, honesty, indifference to criticism, lucidity, cynicism, etc. -, the support to preserve, the choice between being loved or feared. -Nourished by his long experience, the author supports his presentation with references to political actors, while being careful not to “quote the princes of his time. Not a word of his former friend of thirty years, but his shadow is guessed behind each spade”. The publication of such a work, which would once have been unthinkable from a politician, seems to confirm that the new relationship to politics introduced by Machiavelli is now a widely shared fact.

Renewed interest in Machiavelli”s comedies

In the 20th century, there has been a revival of interest in Machiavelli”s comedy.

External links


  1. Nicolas Machiavel
  2. Niccolò Machiavelli
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