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NICCOLÒ MACHIAVELLI THE PRINCE. ‘Under the pretext of teaching kings, he has taught important lessons to the peoples. Machiavelli’s The Prince is the book of republicans.’ Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Book III, Chapter VI in The Social Contract

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niccol machiavelli the prince


‘Under the pretext of teaching kings, he has taught important lessons to the peoples. Machiavelli’s The Prince is the book of republicans.’

Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Book III, Chapter VI in The Social Contract

‘The employment of cunning or duplicity in statecraft or general conduct.’

From the description of ‘Machiavellianism’ in the Oxford English Dictionary.

niccol di bernardo dei machiavelli 3 may 1469 21 june 1527
  • Originally distributed in a small amount of copies 1513, Machiavelli’s The Prince was to become one of the most significant texts of the Renaissance. However, it was not until 1532 (five years after Machiavelli died) that The Prince was officially published. Its influence is still felt today everywhere from politics to pop music and business to philosophy. Its most famous cultural meme (Machiavellianism) is perhaps also what turns so many people against it and against Machiavelli in general. From a Renaissance humanist perspective, however, The Prince might also be defined as an educational political text and perhaps more specifically as an education in a theory of governance.
the end justifies the means realism not idealism
  • If an underlying principle is to be determined from Machiavelli’s ostensibly ‘realist’ and practical text, it might be that the end can justify the means. That is to say, it’s OK to do bad things if it’s for a good reason. The problem here is that there is a very particular person who is to be the one to decide what the good reason is: the prince.
  • It is no surprise that on the surface The Prince seems simply to explain to leaders already in power how to maintain that power. However, there is much more to this little book than meets the eye.
the end justifies the means realism not idealism1
  • Isaiah Berlin examines the genius involved in focusing on ‘what is’ rather than ‘what should be’ in his essay on the originality of Machiavelli:

If to ask what are the ends of life is to ask a real question, it must be capable of being correctly answered. To claim rationality in matters of conduct was to claim that correct and final solutions to such questions can in principle be found. (Berlin, 68)

Berlin’s point, which he also sees as Machiavelli’s, is that there is no determinate or objective ‘end of life’, only the subjectively determined ‘ends’ of individuals. An individual in power is in a relatively unique position to be able to realise their ‘ends’.

the end justifies the means realism not idealism2
  • This practical and rational (rather than idealistic) method of dealing with politics is communicated through the short text in aphoristic statements such as:

‘Men have imagined republics and principalities that never really existed at all. Yet the way men live is so far removed from the way they ought to live that anyone who abandons what is for what should be pursues his downfall rather than his preservation; for a man who strives after goodness in all his acts is sure to come to ruin, since there are so many men who are not good.’ (Machiavelli, XV)

  • (cont.)
the end justifies the means realism not idealism3

‘The answer is that one would like to be both the one and the other [feared and loved]; but because it is difficult to combine them, it is far safer to be feared than loved if you cannot be both.’ (Machiavelli, XVII)

‘Therefore it is unnecessary for a prince to have all the good qualities I have enumerated, but it is very necessary to appear to have them. And I shall dare to say this also, that to have them and always to observe them is injurious, and that to appear to have them is useful; to appear merciful, faithful, humane, religious, upright, and to be so, but with a mind so framed that should you require not to be so, you may be able and know how to change to the opposite. ’(Machiavelli, XVIII)

the end justifies the means realism not idealism4
  • Machiavelli’s logic is that being cruel, frightening or deceitful when necessary is better than being merciful, loved and honest because people will be more likely to obey you, therefore allowing you to maintain power and achieve the ends you feel to be most significant. However, despite this, a Prince must appear to be honest and good or else his people will not support him. This is again a matter of using the means of diplomacy with one’s people so as to be able to do what one wishes ‘behind the scenes’.
the common reading machiavellianism
The Common reading: Machiavellianism
  • Isaiah Berlin provides a useful interpretation of the most common reading of Machiavelli, Machiavellianism and The Prince::

the commonest view of him, at least as a political thinker, is still that of most Elizabethans, dramatists and scholars alike, for whom he is a man inspired by the Devil to lead good men to their doom, the great subverter, the teacher of evil, le docteur de la scheleratesse, the inspirer of St Bartholomew's Eve, the original of Iago. This is the ‘ murderous Machiavel' of the famous four-hundred-odd references in Elizabethan literature. His name adds a new ingredient to the more ancient figure of Old Nick. For the Jesuits he is 'the devil's partner in crime', 'a dishonourable writer and an unbeliever', and The Prince is, in Bertrand Russell's words, 'a handbook for gangsters' (compare with this Mussolini's description of it as a 'vade mecum for statesmen', a view tacitly shared, perhaps, by other heads of state). (Berlin, 35)

the common reading machiavellianism1
The Common reading: Machiavellianism
  • It is this reading of The Prince which has provided our culture with the term, ‘Machiavellian’, which is the self-serving manipulation of one’s socius for one’s own benefit. This reading is associated with fascist dictators, ruthless businessmen, bankers, gangsters, etc. One of the Elizabethan dramatists to which Berlin refers, William Shakespeare, provides an example of the Machiavellian in his character of the Duke of Gloucester:
the common reading machiavellianism2
The Common reading: Machiavellianism

Why, I can smile, and murder whiles I smile;And cry content to that which grieves my heart;And wet my cheeks with artificial tears,And frame my face to all occasions.I'll drown more sailors than the mermaid shall;I'll slay more gazers than the basilisk;I'll play the orator as well as Nestor;Deceive more slily than Ulysses could;And, like a Sinon, take another Troy:I can add colours to the cameleon;Change shapes with Proteus for advantages;And set the murderous Machiavel to school.Can I do this, and cannot get a crown?Tut, were it further off, I'll pluck it down!

Henry VI (Part III, Act III, Scene ii, 182-95)

However this ‘Machiavellian’ reading of The Prince is only one of the legacies of Machiavelli’s short but potent text.

alternate reading gramsci
  • A perhaps surprising supporter of Machiavelli’s The Prince was the communist philosopher Antonio Gramsci, imprisoned by the fascist dictator Mussolini, who was himself much more influenced by the reading of the text we have just explored. His reading, like Rousseau’s that we touched on earlier, sees The Prince as a text written for the people and not the princes. It is precisely because the text is so clear about the power manipulations involved in principalities that is becomes such a useful guide to those without power.
alternate readings gramsci
  • Attillio Monasta writes that:

[Machiavelli’s] name and the adjective ‘machiavellic’ still recall the brutal and perverse aspects of political power, because he ‘described’ what politics really was (and perhaps always will be), rather than suggesting what politics could be.

Gramsci and Machiavelli leave us with an important question: what is the ‘educational’ function of a precise description of the mechanisms of political power, and, in the case of Gramsci, of the mechanisms of ideology? That of educating people toward a realistic approach and therefore towards the political struggle opposing one power with another, or that of revealing to the people the hidden side of politics, to make them diffident and independent from political power in living their lives and choosing their opinions?...Gramsci poses to himself and to all of us these questions: ‘whom’ was Machiavelli addressing when writing The Prince? and what was his aim and his ‘policy’? It seems to be evident that he did not wish, and he did not need, to teach rulers how to achieve power and how to maintain power, but rather he wanted to explain and make known the real mechanism of politics. The ‘policy’ of Machiavelli is not ‘politics’ according to Machiavelli, because the educational effect of a critical understanding of politics made new classes more aware and therefore more powerful against the old aristocratic ruling class. (Monasta, 8)

alternate readings
  • To approach The Prince as an educational text for the people about the machinations of their government allows us to think about our own government and the powers which dictate what happens on a national and global level. We become able to see certain moves of government as having motives different to those that the government itself suggests. It can therefore provide us with a healthy (although sometimes mortally unhealthy) cynicism towards the professed ethical intentions of certain policy. Examples of this kind of critique being levelled at government in recent years includes accusations that the ‘Big Society’ social policy is simply an excuse for privatisation of state services and that declaration of war on Iraq was done with the knowledge that they almost certainly had no nuclear weapons, even though that was the main reasoning provided for engaging in the war. Critiques such as these sometimes become generally acknowledged by the majority and sometimes even result in admittances by governments of their deceit or else they are confined to the dustbin of ‘conspiracy theory.’
the prince as an education
  • No matter which reading of The Prince that you follow (you could even believe both main versions are necessarily correct), it is primarily, and in almost every sense, an educational text. Whether it is to educate a prince in how to govern or a people in how to understand the means by which they are governed, Machiavelli’s short text of political theory still acts as a template for considerations of everything from personal to global politics. It is extremely didactic in the sense of outlining what a prince should know and how a prince should behave. It is polemical in seeing ethics as a political tool for manipulation rather than as a end in itself – but it thereby also provides the means for encompassing a whole gamut of well meaning political intentions. It is therefore very difficult simply to read The Prince as an ‘evil’ text, as many have. So far it has taught important lessons to all kinds of people and for all kinds of ends for almost 500 years. Could it perhaps survive another 500 years?
  • What do you understand by the expression, ‘the end justifies the means’?
  • Can you think of any examples in your life, in society or in politics where this would be the case?
  • Do you think anyone has ever treated you as a means to their own end? (or ‘used’ you?)
  • Do you think schools and universities might do this in some ways? If so, how?
  • Have you ever behaved in what might be considered a Machiavellian way to suit your own ends?
  • Do you think it is useful for people to understand that they are frequently manipulated by their government and the people around them or would this cause problems by creative a paranoid society who did not trust its government?
  • Could it ever be considered a good thing to not trust one’s government? (think about the fees protests and strikes over pensions as examples of not trusting a government to look after the ‘ends’ of certain portions of society in favour of others)
  • If we are to assume that a government’s intentions are good, might The Prince help us to be a bit more cynical about who they are good for?
  • How can we read The Prince as a humanist text?
  • Is it good for citizens to understand a theory of governance?
reading the prince
  • Having looked at these different readings we can turn to Chapter XV the text itself to begin our own readings:


Anglo, S. (2005) Machiavelli: the first century studies in enthusiasm, hostility, and irrelevance, Oxford: Oxford University Press

Berlin, I. "The Originality of Machiavelli." ([1953] 1972). In Studies on Machiavelli, edited by Myron P. Gilmore. Florence: Sansoni.

Chabod, F. (1958) Machiavelli and the Renaissance,London: Bowes & Bowes

Derrida, J. (2009) The Beast and Sovereign: Volume One, London: University of Chicago Press

Gramsci, A. (1991) Prison Notebooks Oxford: Columbia University Press

Jones, J. (2010) The Lost Battles Leonardo, Michelangelo and the artistic duel that defined the Renaissance London: Simon & Schuster

Machiavelli, N. The Prince

Available here:

Marlowe, C. (1997) The Jew of Malta,Manchester: Manchester University Press

Monasta, A. (1993) Prospects: the quarterly review of comparative education(Paris, UNESCO: International Bureau of Education), vol. XXIII, no. 3/4, pp. 597-612

Available here:

Shakespeare, W. (2005) Othello,Cambridge: Cambridge University Press