My book on the history of moral thought is written. In the process, I had to reduced the ms by some 30,000 words. Much of that is better off left on the cutting room floor. But there are also some portions coherent enough to be worth reading. So, I am running an occasional series publishing some of the more cogent sections that are no longer in the book. This first of the ‘missing pages’ is on Machiavelli.


‘A prince never lacks legitimate reasons to break his promise.’ The cynicism of Nicolo Machiavelli’s voice is unmistakable.  However, as Bertrand Russell once put it, ‘It is the custom to be shocked by him, and he is certainly sometimes shocking. But many other men would be equally so if they were equally free from humbug.’

Machiavelli (1467-1527) was a Florentine who lived through some of the city’s most turbulent years. In 1494 the ruling Medicis were overthrown by Charles V of France and the Dominican friar Girolama Savonarola emerged as the new leader of the city. He set about morally cleansing Florence, organizing the infamous Bonfire of the Vanities during which any item deemed moral corrupting, including mirrors, cosmetics, pagan books, chess pieces, musical instruments, and women’s hats, were burnt in a large pile in the Piazza della Signoria. In 1497 Savonarola was excommunicated by Pope Alexander VI. The following year he was arrested, tortured and executed. Fifteen years later, the Medicis were restored to power.

After Savonarola’s execution, Machiavelli obtained a minor post in the Florentine government. But when the Medicis returned to the city, he was arrested, and forced to leave the city and live in retirement in a country house near Florence, where he stayed till his death a decade and a half later.  Here, in 1513, he wrote his most famous work, The Prince, dedicated to the Medici Lorenzo II, hoping in vain to win his favour. Here, too, he wrote his less famous but perhaps more important works, in particular the Discourses on Livy, an attempt to understand republican rule, just as The Prince was an attempt to understand monarchical rule.

The conventional view of Machiavelli is as an unscrupulous amoralist,  for whom, as Alasdair MacIntyre argues, the only ends of social and political life ‘are the attainment and holding down of power’. Moral rules are merely ‘technical rules about the means to these ends’. Because Machiavelli viewed all humans as inherently corrupt, so ‘we may break a promise or violate an agreement at any time if it is in our own interests to do so, for the presumption is that, since all men are wicked, those with whom you have contracted may at any time break their promises if it is in their interest.’

This was not, however, how many of his contemporaries viewed him. Alberico Gentili, an Italian Protestant exile who became professor of jurisprudence at Oxford, compared Machiavelli’s aims with those of Socrates, Plato and Cicero, someone who believed that ‘moral philosophy was a necessary foundation of both statesmanship and citizenship’. The English republican Henry Neville hailed him as the most profound moral thinker since ancient times who, like the ‘divine Plato’, was a philosophical ‘physician’ seeking to treat humanity’s moral and political disorders. Francis Bacon suggested that Machiavelli’s work helped establish higher moral standards and ‘the best fortifications for honesty and virtue’.  Spinoza, one of the great radicals of the seventeenth century, an unbending defender of freedom of speech and of equal citizenship before the law, built upon arguments in the Discourses and The Prince. Jean-Jacques Rousseau, another great defender of political equality, declared The Prince to be a ‘book of republicans’.

Some modern philosophers, too, take a revisionist view. Machiavelli’s ideas, the philosopher and historian Erica Benner insists, ‘are closer to those of other humanist republicans than to amoral political realism.’ His is an ‘ethics of self-legislation’, fundamental to which is ‘the ethical value of free agency’. Machiavelli sought ‘to renovate ancient ethical traditions that identify free will and virtue as distinctive human causalities which allow humans to establish some degree of autonomy from both divine and natural determination’. He stresses ‘human self-responsibility for making and maintaining human moral and political orders’. Human order and dignity ‘are not seen as gifts from nature or God, but fragile easily reversible achievements that must be won through human beings’ own continuous efforts’.


Whichever view of Machiavelli we accept, what is undeniable is that his was a new philosophy of power, a philosophy of power that only made sense in the newly secularising world.  Political legitimacy came, for Machiavelli, not from God, nor from nature, but from the actions of the ruler and from the willingness of the ruled to obey.  He saw himself as an anatomist of the laws of power, laying bare the means by which rulers ruled, and by which their subjects acquiesced to their rule. Machiavelli treats human behaviour as governed by laws, of which the agents themselves are unconscious. One could read him cynically, as many do now, as writing a manual for princes and despots on how they should fool the masses. Or one could read him as many of his contemporaries did as revealing to the masses the secrets by which princes and autocrats maintained their grip on power.

Machiavelli possessed a deeply pessimistic view of human nature. ‘It is necessary’, he warned, ‘to whoever disposes a republic and orders laws in it to presuppose that all men are bad and that they always have to use the malignity of their spirit whenever they have a free opportunity for it.’ It was a vision more akin to that of Luther than of Pico, a secularised version of the Christian idea of Fallen humanity. This pessimism only made him appear more cynical.

What truly made Machiavelli so different from most previous moral thinkers, however, was his recognition of the importance not simply of doing the right thing but also of persuading people that it was the right thing to do. In one sense it was an idea that harked back to the Greek Sophists and the stress they had placed upon rhetoric. In another sense it was an idea that looked forward to modern democracy in which persuasion and negotiation form a central part of the moral order. Persuasion and negotiation played, of course, their part in the premodern world. But such persuasion and negotiation had a very different texture because in the both the Ancient and the medieval worlds the moral order was a given. Rights and duties flowed inevitably out of the social structure and moral legitimacy arose from the structure of nature or from God’s will. The new individualism that flowed through the sixteenth century revealed how such old forms of legitimacy had eroded.  The social structures of moral persuasion had, however, yet to be constructed. Such structures would only emerge with the development of capitalism and of liberal democracies.


  1. jswagner

    That last point was really helpful, as I’ve always held persuasion regarding morality quite separate conceptually from morality itself. It’s helpful to frame the modern moral order(s) as a twinned function of ideas and persuasion methods. Makes it all a bit more empirically-driven, less at the cloud level. It also helps with evaluating the part that the means to an end plays in the process. The means is about persuasion, whether through force, rhetoric, or more clever suasion.

    I suppose one could trust the evil side of the ledger to make this connection between the moral order and persuasion early and explicit, since the details of their moral orders are contingent, secondary to the goal of a specific individual achieving and maintaining their place in it. Certainly Machiavelli’s focus on means was refined rather nicely by Hitler, who codified usefully with such as “The art of leadership … consists in consolidating the attention of the people against a single adversary and taking care that nothing will split up that attention”, or “The leader of genius must have the ability to make different opponents appear as if they belonged to one category.” What I prefer about Hitler is that one can more often get through the whole quote, feel like it’s helpful, and then, when one sees it was Hitler, reframe the idea into a horrible one. That jogging distance between our initial and final interpretation is a bit of a hint about the largely unconscious elision between noble and ignoble goals (generally long- vs. short-term) that we all engage in as we employ what means we see fit to our ends. Of course, the ends and the means should be integrally related in a more complete, modern sense of moral order. You’ve provided me a little clarity on the idea of a rigid connection (non-justifying, if you will) between the two, that’s based on the moral order itself- that the persuasion element should reflect and grow out of a robust moral order.

    It all sounds very nice, and terrifically inefficient. And were that it was always so neat. Dickens’ means to the end of priceless art was to be an asshole, and it only seemed to help him. But I ain’t Dickens; I’m not even my musician friend, for whom contrasts and weightings of this ilk need arise once a week to justify his existence. No- I’ve had to admit my place, and thanks to you, to punch holes in my to-do list. It now looks like a half-played Jenga game, with gaps and teetering where I’d had such a solid careening to primacy mapped forth. This book of yours won’t be published for a year, and you’ve already ruined almost a third of my self-help books for me. The bonfire fueled by them burns uncertainly in my front yard; the neighbors seem as concerned as I am.

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