“From this we learn that a wise prince sees to it that never, in order to attack someone, does he become the ally of a prince more powerful than himself, except when necessity forces him, as I said above. If you win, you are the powerful king’s prisoner, and wise princes avoid as much as they can being in other men’s power.” Niccolò Machiavelli

Niccolò Machiavelli’s name gives us the commonly used word “Machiavellian”, which indicates a dangerous sort of unscrupulous cunning. Thus, a Machiavellian person – the kind of person who devises and carries out Machiavellian plans – is clever and scheming in deeply unethical ways.

Machiavelli was a diplomat, public official, and theorist of political power who rose to prominence in the Italian city-state of Florence at the turn of the 16th century. After his death in 1527, his name became a byword for evil. He was depicted or mentioned in many literary works, perhaps most prominently in his incarnation as the sinister Machiavel, whose self-congratulatory speech introduces Christopher Marlowe’s The Jew of Malta (first performed in 1592). Here, Machiavel boasts of his own ruthlessness and amorality; he gloats that even those who hate him follow his advice in their respective quests for power.

During Machiavelli’s lifetime, the Italian peninsula was divided into small, mutually distrustful, frequently warring states, the most powerful being Florence, Milan, Naples, Venice, and the Papal States (since the popes of the time ruled substantial territories and deployed their own armies). These were manipulated, when not outright invaded, by the major European powers of the time: France, Spain, and the Holy Roman Empire.

Machiavelli is best known for his short book The Prince (in Italian, Il Principe), which he composed in 1513, though it was not formally published until 1532, several years after his death. The Prince falls within a literary genre established during the Middle Ages, with precursors in ancient times, called “mirrors for princes”. These took the form of advice manuals for new rulers. The Prince followed this tradition in instructing political rulers how best to pursue security for the state and glory for themselves. However, it was innovative in three ways.

First, Machiavelli aimed his book particularly at princes who obtain political power through usurpation or conquest, rather than at hereditary rulers who would, in his view, face fewer problems.

Second, unlike his medieval and Renaissance predecessors, Machiavelli did not portray the state or its ruler as subject to religious oversight or moral restraints. He made no attempt to show what a pious and morally ideal prince would be like.

Third, and most notoriously, The Prince shocked European society because of the methods that it recommended, including, where expedient, betrayals, purges, and assassinations.

More generally, Machiavelli urged a prince to cultivate and display what he called virtù, but by this he did not mean moral virtue as we ordinarily understand it. He was not thinking of virtues of character such as fairness and honesty, but of an amoral political virtuosity. A prince must, as and when needed, be as strong and forceful as a lion or as cunning as a fox. Above all, the virtù of a successful prince should include a masterful flexibility of action.

Thus, The Prince did not contribute to anything that could meaningfully be called the ethics of power. Its clear implication was that a strong prince should not be inhibited by ordinary moral standards when making political decisions. Instead, he should identify, and carry out, whatever actions might be needed to prevail in changing circumstances.

Although Machiavelli is sometimes viewed as a political philosopher, that is not how he understood himself. He offered what he considered to be practical advice, based on his personal experience as a diplomat and his extensive study of history. Nonetheless, his writings presented a philosophical challenge, as much because of what they did not say as for their positive content. In The Prince, in particular, he ignored previous theories of political power and its rightful limits. In medieval and Renaissance Europe, these were based on Christian conceptions of moral goodness. Rather than arguing against older ideas, he treated them as irrelevant.

By the time Machiavelli wrote The Prince, Christian interpretations of politics were already losing credibility. In that sense, Machiavelli’s advice to princes took an existing trend to its logical conclusion. But if older ways of thinking about power no longer seemed plausible, the problem for political philosophy in the following centuries was to identify what, if anything, could take their place. Was there no alternative to the blatant and brutal power politics in which even the papacy was immersed?

Machiavelli evidently believed that a strong leader’s virtù and pursuit of personal glory could ultimately benefit the state and its citizens, by ensuring stability and perhaps by bringing freedom from foreign oppressors. He did not, however, offer this as a justification for the actions of princes or for the existence and activities of the state itself. By contrast, later political thinkers in Europe developed theories that explained the state as a system for mutual benefit. They identified political principles, and proposed new institutions of governance, aimed at helping the entire community, not just the privileged, the cunning, the ruthless, and the strong.

Modern liberal democracies affirm principles such as freedom of conscience and equality before the law, and rely upon institutions such as democratic elections and an independent judiciary. By historical standards, 21st century industrialised societies are comfortable and peaceful, and they provide a wide scope for individual liberty. It would be overly cynical to think we’ve made no progress since the cut-throat political culture of late-Renaissance Italy.

At the same time, our laws and social conventions have been disproportionately moulded by people with influence and power. The law protects holdings of wealth that arose, in considerable part, from past acts of exploitation, oppression, and injustice. Many citizens lose out in the lottery of capitalist competition, and they are often blamed for situations beyond their control.

Cynicism is unhelpful, but it would be naive to assume that all is well, that further progress is inevitable, or that regression to 16th century Machiavellian thinking is impossible. We’ll need vigilance, careful thought, and a willingness to work and endure frustrations, if we’re committed to building fairer political systems and kinder societies.

From the Power edition of New Philosopher magazine, which can be purchased here.  Artwork by Alvaro Hidalgo.