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Dictionary of the History of Ideas

Studies of Selected Pivotal Ideas

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Machiavellism has historically come to mean that
effectiveness alone counts in politics; political actions
should not be restricted by considerations of morality,
of good or evil.

In this sense Machiavellism existed before Machia-
velli, and is as old as politics itself. The view that the
struggle for political power should be excepted from
the usual norms of ethical behavior was widely recog-
nized in the ancient world. It was stated in the dialogue
between the Athenians and the Melians in the fifth
book of Thucydides' History of the Peloponnesian War
and was given a simple poetic formulation in Euripides'
Phoenician Maidens (lines 524-25): “If wrong may e'er
be right, for a throne's sake were wrong most right:—
Be God in all else feared.” In these quotations the drive
for power appears as almost instinctive, something that
cannot be kept in check. Roman writers were more
conscious of the problems involved in the transgression
of moral laws. Cicero (De officiis, Book III, Ch. II),
and Tacitus (Annals, Book XIV, Ch. XLIV), said that
they believed violation of moral law was permissible
only if the Utilitas rei publicae (“public welfare”) re-
quired it. With this they introduced an idea that would
become of great importance in the history of Machia-

Despite recognition of the problem in the ancient
world there are good reasons why discussions on the
general validity of moral norms in politics are con-
nected with the name of Niccolò Machiavelli. The
ancient world and the Renaissance were separated by
the Christian Middle Ages in which justice and peace
were regarded as the only legitimate purposes of gov-
ernment. Admittedly, even in the Middle Ages rulers
had not always acted according to the prescriptions
of the Christian religion. Canonists and legalists, aware
of this fact, had tried to determine the situations and
conditions under which the ratio publicae utilitatis or
the ratio status (“reason of state”)—to use some of their
terms—allowed violations of the common law or the
moral code. It has been argued therefore that the
doctrine of “reason of state” which exerted great in-
fluence in the political thought and life of the sixteenth
and seventeenth centuries was actually a medieval
doctrine. Such a thesis disregards the medieval legal
doctrine that violation of law and ethical rules was
permitted only in order to protect the community
instituted by God and the law of nature as necessary
for achieving the social and political ends of man on
earth. A lower law could be disregarded for a higher,
divine law. In contrast to the doctrine of “reason of
state” which was developed in the centuries after
Machiavelli, in medieval legal doctrine the government
or the ruler remained subordinated to a higher—divine
or natural—law.

With the Renaissance the gap between underlying
assumptions and the practical conduct of politics
widened. Doubts about the general validity of the
accepted moral code became a powerful ferment in
modern political thought and in this development
Machiavelli's writings have been crucial.

However, many of the notions which are connected
with the term Machiavellism were not explicitly stated
by Machiavelli but only implied in his political writ-
ings. Of these Machiavelli's Istorie Fiorentine was sig-
nificant because it contained an attack against the
worldly power of the Papacy which weakened the hold
of the preachings of the Church. However, the doc-
trines of Machiavellism were chiefly developed from
Il Principe and the Discorsi. Machiavelli's treatment
of virtues and vices in Chs. XV-XIX of the Principe
was meant to shock and it had this effect. One can
see this from the frequency and passion with which
its theses were discussed and rejected. There are many
vehement refutations of Machiavelli's suggestion that
a prince ought not to scorn murder if this serves his
purposes, or that in order to be popular and secure
in power a prince need not be virtuous, only appear
so. It is evident from the frequency with which writers
debated the issue that they were puzzled and bothered
by Machiavelli's view that princes could be expected
to keep promises, commitments, and alliances only as
long as these agreements corresponded to their inter-

Of course, the most novel and startling feature in
the Principe and the Discorsi was the open recognition
of the role of force in politics. “You must know, then,
that there are two methods of fighting, the one by law,
the other by force: the first method is that of men;
the second of beasts; but as the first method is often
insufficient one must have recourse to the second” (Il
Ch. XVIII). The Discorsi possessed other fea-
tures of a startling and upsetting character; they pre-


sented a defense of freedom and republicanism. Since
republican government was a rarity in these centuries
of the rise of monarchical absolutism, Machiavelli's
defense of republicanism reinforced the impression that
he advocated doctrines which undermined the funda-
mental tenets of the existing political, social, and moral

In 1559 Machiavelli's writings were placed on the
Index. Insofar as this measure had any meaning it was
limited to Italy and Spain. Manuscripts of Machiavelli's
writings, particularly of the Principe, circulated widely
in France and England, and Machiavelli's works con-
tinued to be printed and translated. However, Catholic
writers shied away from open acknowledgment of their
acquaintance with Machiavelli. Allusions to his theories
and writings were made in a somewhat cryptic manner.
This secretiveness had its bearing upon the image of
Machiavelli and Machiavellism. It was easy to assign
to him views and ideas which were only loosely con-
nected with the theories of the great Florentine.


From the middle of the sixteenth century until the
French Revolution Machiavellism represented a pow-
erful current in intellectual life. In the 1580's Machia-
vellism was so much acknowledged as a recognizable,
distinct attitude that the term Machiavellist appeared
in print (1581 in France in Nicolas Froumenteau's Fi-
1589 in England in a treatise by Thomas Nash).

Although Machiavelli's exclusive concern had been
politics, the mystery which the condemnation of his
writings wrapped around him fostered the belief that
his teachings were applicable to any kind of human
activity. The common denominator of all Machiavellist
attitudes was doubt that successful action was compat-
ible with living according to a strictly moral code.
Despite agreement on this basic assumption, and de-
spite the fact that the development of Machiavellian
attitudes toward life and of a Machiavellian outlook
on politics went hand in hand, a historical presentation
of the unfolding of Machiavellism might most conve-
niently separate the story of (1) Machiavelli as teacher
of human behavior from that of Machiavelli as political
counselor, and in the area of Machiavellian politics it
might be advisable to make a distinction between (2)
Machiavelli's views on the management of the internal
affairs of a society and (3) Machiavelli's notions about
the conduct of foreign policy.

(1) The view which in the sixteenth century was
formed about Machiavelli's prescriptions for human
behavior can be summarized in the simple formula that
he was considered to be a teacher of evil. His message
was that being evil was more useful and efficient than
being good. One might deceive, lie, commit crimes,
even murder, if this helped to achieve success. As an
advocate of such evil doctrines Machiavelli moved
close to the Devil.

An identification of Machiavelli with Satan was
made early in the sixteenth century by Reginald Pole
in his Apologia Reginaldi Poli ad Carolum V (1539),
and the acceptance of this view is reflected in the
widespread belief that “Old Nick,” the name given to
the Devil, was an abbreviation of Machiavelli's first
name (actually the name “Old Nick” for the Devil is
older than the sixteenth century). The French held the
same view about those who regarded Machiavelli as
their Évangile (“Gospel”):

Pour mieux trahir faire la chattemite,
Mentire, piper, deguiser verité,
Couvrir le loup de fainte saincteté,
Sembler devot et n'estre qu'hypocrite.
(“To better betray affect an air of benevolence,/ Lie, beguile, disguise the truth,/ Cover the wolf with a pretence of holiness,/ Seem devout and be nothing but a hypocrite.”)

Machiavellian doctrines were the instruments by
means of which the Devil exerted his influence in the
world. Huguenots saw the Satanic character of
Machiavelli's advice in the actions of their enemies;
they considered the Guises as faithful pupils of
Machiavelli. The first systematic attack against
Machiavelli—Innocent Gentillet's Discours sur les
moyens de bien gouverner... contre Nicolas Machiavel
(1576)—was composed by a Huguenot and
dedicated to the Duc d'Alençon who was in sharp
opposition to his mother, Catherine de'Medici. She was
said to have Machiavelli's works at her bedside, and
the massacre of Saint Bartholomew was viewed as a
plot inspired by a study of Machiavelli.

There were particular reasons for the rise of an
ardent anti-Machiavellism among Protestants and in
Northern Europe. Machiavelli was an Italian, and as
such, his ideas were assumed to guide the behavior of
two kinds of people who were regarded with distrust
and hatred north of the Alps: Italians and Jesuits. The
activities and resources of Italian merchants and bank-
ers had given them influence and power at the courts
and among the ruling groups of most European coun-
tries. Their reputation as leaders in art and scholarship
made them much sought after for prominent positions
in chancelleries and universities. Papal legates played
a determining role in the ecclesiastical affairs of Cath-
olic countries; they were mostly Italians and often
brought Italians with them in their suites, and among
them, Jesuits. The dominant position of these Italian
foreigners naturally aroused the enmity of the natives.
Italians were held responsible for misgovernment and


corruption, for diverting the rulers from their tradi-
tional honest ways of government. It was this anti-
Italianism which also fed anti-Machiavellism.

In France, from 1559 to 1574, during fifteen politi-
cally crucial years, the Queen Mother, Catherine of
Medici, exerted decisive political influence. She showed
a great preference for Italians and things Italian, and
opposition to her policy was reinforced by strong
anti-Italian feelings. Catherine's policy was wavering
and tortuous and although this might have been due
to weakness rather than to calculation, the impression
which she gave was that of deceitfulness and unrelia-
bility. Her policy confirmed the equation of Machia-
vellism and Italianism. François Hotman, the most
powerful voice among French anti-Catholic polemi-
cists, identified in a quite crude way Italy, Catherine
de'Medici, canon law, and Machiavelli. In England the
religious content of the political struggles made the
Papacy, and the Jesuits as the Papacy's most effective
defenders, the chief target of attack, and Machiavellism
and Jesuitism were frequently seen as identical. Even
English Catholics regarded the Jesuits as ambitious
Italian foreigners who wanted to rule the Church
and—to quote from an English Catholic pamphlet of
1601—whose “holy exercise” was “but a meere
Machivilean device of pollicie.”

Because Machiavelli's doctrines were seen as em-
bodied in personalities with particular characteristics,
the author of these doctrines also acquired personal
features and became a recognizable individual. As such
Machiavelli entered literature and became the proto-
type of a character which in different forms has ap-
peared in drama and in novels. The imaginative crea-
tion of a Machiavelli figure has significance in the
history of literature, but the existence of such a con-
crete image of Machiavelli has also reinforced interest
in political Machiavellism and its impact.

Machiavelli's entry on the literary scene took place
in the Tudor and Stuart period. In Christopher Mar-
lowe's Jew of Malta (ca. 1589) Machiavelli himself
comes on the stage as Prologue. His words enunciate
in a simplified manner basic features of Machiavelli's
political ideas: “Might first made kings, and laws were
then most sure,/when like the Dracos they were writ
in blood.” These notions, however, were only appli-
cations of a more general philosophy; Marlowe's
Machiavelli is a man who disregards moral bonds in
every sphere of life: “I count religion but a childish
toy/and hold there is no sin but ignorance.” Marlowe's
contemporaries and successors quickly recognized the
dramatic possibilities inherent in the Machiavellian
figure. The literature on this topic is extended and it
might be enough here to indicate Shakespeare's use
of the Machiavellian prototype. The figure in Shake
speare's oeuvre that is clearly conceived as a personifi-
cation of Machiavellian doctrines is Richard III.
Shakespeare acknowledged the Machiavellian aspects
of his concept of this king openly in the words which
in Henry VI (Part III, Act III, Scene ii, lines 182-95)
he put into the mouth of the young Duke of Glou-

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!
Richard III is an amoral human being rather than a
purposeful politician. Nevertheless, his Machiavellian
activities have politics as their center. Shakespeare has
created another Machiavellian figure, however, whose
evilness is purely personal and has nothing to do with
politics: Iago in Othello. Iago lies, deceives, intrigues,
conspires to reach his own personal ends. By his devil-
ish acts he forces others who stand morally far above
him into his nets and destroys them. In Othello's words
Iago is a “demi-devil” who has “ensnar'd my soul and

Iago demonstrates that the name of Machiavellism
could be affixed to any kind of evilness as long as it
was evilness on a grand scale. The Machiavellian
looked only after his own interests and desires and was
willing to lie and to deceive, to use crooked means,
in order to obtain them. He concealed his true inten-
tions and masked them behind words of piety or good-
will. He liked to work in the dark and without others
knowing it he maneuvered them into doing his bidding.

Because in its broadest sense Machiavellism is as-
sumed to be synonymous with amorality and evilness
in general, every class and profession can have
Machiavellians. Since Machiavelli made his appearance
on the Elizabethan stage literature has been full of
figures who are Machiavellists or have some Machia-
vellian flavor. Certainly figures from the ruling
group—court favorites, diplomats, ministers—are most
easily presented as Machiavellists. Marinelli in G. E.
Lessing's Emilia Galotti (1772) is probably the best-
known figure of a Machiavellian courtier in dramatic
literature. But persons with Machiavellian behavior are
to be found also in novels or plays that describe the


life of the middle classes or of the bourgeoisie. A
favorite figure in eighteenth-century literature is the
intriguing evil kin who tries to ruin the naive honest
hero. There is in Henry Fielding's Tom Jones (1749)
Master Blifil “whose affections are solily placed on one
single person [himself] whose interest and indulgence
alone they consider on every occasion.” There is Joseph
Surface in Sheridan's School for Scandal (1777) who
has the “policy” not to deviate “from the direct road
of wrong.” Admittedly all these figures are variations
on the theme of hypocrisy.

But the eighteenth-century notion of Machiavellism
patterned the qualities and actions which writers as-
signed to the hypocrites of their creation. The eight-
eenth century was a moralist century, however, and
usually the honest hero triumphed over his sly antago-
nist; in this respect the Machiavellism of eighteenth-
century writers is somewhat defective. There is one
thoroughly Machiavellian eighteenth-century novel,
however—Choderlos de Laclos' Liaisons dangereuses
(1782)—which depicts a world in which goodness and
morality unavoidably succumb to the powers of vice,
deceit, and egoism. The struggle for domination be-
tween men and women which forms the content of
this novel is conducted with strategies, ruses, moves,
and countermoves like the conflicts of politics and war.
It should be added that Julien Sorel in Stendhal's Le
Rouge et le Noir
(1831) is in this tradition. Stendhal
actually mentions the Machiavellism of his hero and
uses quotations from Machiavelli for chapter headings.
Nevertheless, Julien Sorel is an exception in the nine-
teenth century; pronouncedly Machiavellian characters
are becoming rare.

Heroes in the novels by George Meredith (The
1879) or Henryk Sienkiewicz (Without Dogma,
1891) are egoists out of weakness, out of fear of life,
not out of strength. In the nineteenth century the belief
which gave to Machiavellism its attraction and fasci-
nation—namely, that behind evil there was a demonic
strength which made evil an equal rival to good—
disappeared. The maintenance of evil was not in the
plan of providence but right measures would progres-
sively remove it. Goethe's Faust (pub. 1808) might be
taken as a sign of the change which took place with
the nineteenth century. For actually in Goethe's Faust
God is the Machiavellian. He robs the Devil of Faust's
soul by a trick; as a force die stets das Böse will und
stets das Gute schafft
(“which wills evil and yet does
good”; I, line 1335) the Devil is an instrument of the
divine will. In Hegelian terms nothing is entirely nega-
tive because even what might appear so is only a List
der Vernunft
(“the cunning of reason”). Such a unifying
and reconciling conception of the process of world
history is incompatible with Machiavellism which, at
least as a doctrine bearing on all aspects of human
behavior, draws its power from the belief in the inerad-
icability of evil.

(2) Machiavelli's ideas could form a point of depar-
ture for all those who transformed Machiavelli into
a devil incarnate recommending evil-doing in all
spheres of life. But actually the connection between
Machiavelli's views and such recommendations for a
general code of human behavior is tenuous. Machia-
velli's writings aimed at political action; therefore, only
interpretations of his thought concerned with questions
of political conduct should be closely linked to his views.
In political Machiavellism we find the outgrowth of
Machiavelli's own ideas although he might not always
have liked the conclusions which were drawn, or
approved of the extreme simplifications into which his
views were condensed.

Machiavelli's Principe was addressed to a man who
wanted to found a new state in divided Italy. The slow
rise of absolutism in the sixteenth and seventeenth
centuries made this advice appropriate and timely for
the handling of internal affairs all over Europe. The
absolute monarch tried to cut off all outside inter-
ference in the affairs of the territory which he was
ruling and to make his power independent of the
approval of those he was ruling; this involved subordi-
nation of the Church, reduction of the power of the
estates, disregard of old rights, and infringement of
privileges. Because Machiavelli had allowed and
recommended violations of legal commitments in the
interest of self-preservation and aggrandizement, it was
easy to see his spirit behind the actions of the absolute
rulers or their ministers.

In France and England the cry “Machiavellist” was
raised against all those who tried to enlarge royal
power. In France the writers of the Fronde claimed
that Mazarin, in his attempt to destroy the old French
liberties, followed Maximes Italiennes et Machiavélistes
which he had brought into France from the other side
of the Alps (Claude Joly, 1652). In England the opposi-
tion to the financial and religious policy of Charles I
saw in this Stuart king a disciple of Machiavelli “who
counseled his Prince to keepe his subjects low, by taxes
and impositions and to foment divisions among them,
that he might awe them at his pleasures” (from a
pamphlet of 1648).

One issue in particular drew Machiavelli's name into
the political discussions of this period, that of religion
and the Church. Machiavelli was believed to have been
an atheist to whom religion was primarily a useful
instrument in the hands of the rulers. When in France
a group of politicians suggested the possibility of end-
ing the civil war by tolerating two churches in one
state these men (politiques) were immediately called


Machiavellists, that is, men who subordinated religion
to worldly political interests. When in England dissen-
sion developed among the various religious groups
about the part of religion and of the Church in the
ordering of society each group accused the other of
Machiavellism; in particular the Presbyterians were
accused of “Jesuitical and Machiavellian policy.” The
same criticism—that of pursuing politics under the
name of religion—was used against Cromwell after he
had become Lord Protector; to his opponents Crom-
well was also a Machiavellian.

The tone changed somewhat when in the eighteenth
century the struggle about the extension of royal power
had ended and at least on the continent monarchical
absolutism had won out. The critics of the existing
regimes—the philosophes—were no opponents of
monarchy or even absolutism; what they demanded
was that the ruler follow the rules of reason and moral-
ity, that he carry out his functions in the interest of
all. Their fight was directed against despotic arbitrari-
ness which imprisoned people in order to gratify per-
sonal wishes and desires, which burdened the subjects
with taxes in order to waste money on luxurious build-
ings, which sacrificed the lives of peoples in wars for
prestige and fame, and which maintained the irrational
rule of the Church in order to keep people quiet and
obedient. Machiavelli was a chief target of the philoso-
because he preached an amoralistic selfishness
which promoted despotic arbitrariness.

Voltaire characterized as the great principles of
Machiavellism ruinez qui pourrait un jour vous ruiner;
assassinez votre voisin qui pourrait devenir assez fort
pour vous tuer
(“ruin anyone who might someday ruin
you; assassinate your neighbor who might become
strong enough to kill you”). And Diderot defined
Machiavellism briefly as l'art de tyranniser. This
moralistic view colored also the views which eight-
eenth-century statesmen held about Machiavelli. Al-
though Bolingbroke, well acquainted with the political
literature of the past, had great respect for Machia-
velli's understanding of political techniques, his Patriot
King (Idea of a Patriot King, 1749), faced like Machia-
velli's prince by the task of restoring political life in
a corrupted society, contained a sharp rejection of
Machiavelli because, according to Bolingbroke, he
lacked true patriotism which was concerned with the
well-being of everyone. The most famous eighteenth-
century condemnation of Machiavelli, of course, is the
Anti-Machiavel (1740) of Frederick the Great in which
every one of Machiavelli's maxims is refuted.

Since, in Catholic countries during the sixteenth and
seventeenth centuries, Machiavelli was an author
whom one was not supposed to know and therefore
not to quote exactly, the qualities which in the eyes
of the people of these centuries distinguished a man
as a Machiavellist, must be deduced primarily from
the image which anti-Machiavellists had formed.
However, because the defenders of the old rights and
privileges saw in Machiavelli an inspirer of the new
absolutist policy, their opponents, the advocates of
royal power, became anxious to know whether these
bitter attacks against Machiavelli meant that the Flor-
entine offered a reasonable justification of absolutist
policy, and they took a careful look at his writings.
Therefore in the seventeenth century there were not
only anti-Machiavellists but also men who defended
Machiavelli as a political thinker of insight and under-

In Venice, where the long struggle with the Papacy
over the boundaries between political and ecclesiastical
jurisdiction reached its critical highpoint in the first
years of the seventeenth century, Machiavelli was said
to enjoy great popularity, and in the writings defending
the position of the Venetian government, particularly
in those of Paolo Sarpi, echoes of Machiavelli's theories
can be found. The first openly positive evaluations of
Machiavelli's theories, however, were composed in
France and came from the surroundings of the great
royal ministers who led the fight against the restricting
and inhibiting influence of the French nobility: Riche-
lieu and Mazarin. Gabriel Naudé in his Considérations
politiques sur les coups d'état
(1639) started with the
traditional thesis that the bonum commune justified
actions neglecting legal forms. But he then argued that
such justification of violence ought to be extended to
sudden Coups d'état like the assassination of the Duc
de Guise; politicians condemned Machiavelli in theory
but acted according to him in practice. In Louis
Machon's Apologie pour Machiavelle (1641) a vehement
anti-clericalism was combined with an exaltation of
monarchical absolutism resulting in an appreciation of
Machiavelli's theories. The climate of the decade in
which the German emperor found it necessary to order
the murder of his General Wallenstein was certainly
conducive to a better understanding of Machiavelli.

The tendency to recognize Machiavelli as an impor-
tant political thinker received impetus and confirma-
tion from a group of writers whose views on Machia-
velli were diametrically opposed to the interpretation
given by the anti-Machiavellists. These political writers
did not regard Machiavelli as an advocate of despotism
or power politics; if Machiavellism is understood as
an intellectual attitude which permits amoral actions
for political ends, it is questionable whether the views
of these admirers of Machiavelli form part of the his-
tory of Machiavellism. The thinkers of this group saw
in Machiavelli primarily an advocate of republican
freedom. The Principe was meant as a warning. The


book showed what would happen if people became
negligent in protecting their liberty. The idea that the
Principe was meant to put people on guard against the
rise of tyrants had been suggested already in the six-
teenth century; it can be found, for instance, in
Alberico Gentili's De legationibus (1585) and it has had
adherents ever since, even in the twentieth century,
although all the documents bearing on the composition
of the Principe show that there is no substance behind
it. For the history of Machiavelli's reputation, however,
the suggestion was important because it directed at-
tention away from the Principe to the Discorsi as con-
taining Machiavelli's authentic message. Thus Machia-
velli began to take on a Janus face. The inspirer of
despotism was also the defender of freedom.

The discovery of the republican Machiavelli in the
seventeenth century was chiefly the work of a group
of English political writers. In England alone a rela-
tively free discussion of political ideas was possible and
a radical trend of ideas, generated in the period of the
Commonwealth, lived on under the Restoration. The
chief representatives of this opposition have been
called “classical republicans.” They were steeped in
the admiration of classical political wisdom and wanted
to reorganize English political life according to classi-
cal principles. They were attracted by Machiavelli's
writings because he was one of the few if not the only
republican political theorist in modern times. More-
over, they considered him to be the most important
transmitter of classical teachings to the modern world.
There were also some more particular reasons for their
interest in Machiavelli. His insistence on the necessity
of going back to the beginnings, “the principles,” was
compatible with their plan for rebuilding society on
new foundations. And Machiavelli had given some
praise to the notion of mixed government which they
believed would secure England from another civil war
between extremes. Thus James Harrington, the author
of the Commonwealth of Oceana (1656), called Machia-
velli the “prince of polititians” and for Henry Neville,
the author of the Plato Redivivus, Machiavelli was the
“divine Machiavel.”

Although the particular emphasis which these
writers placed on Machiavelli's ideas was conditioned
by the political situation in England, their views indi-
cate that below the surface of criticism and condem-
nation there were students of politics who recognized
that one could learn from Machiavelli because his
views were based on acute and realistic observations
of political life. This attitude can be traced back to
Bacon who in his De augmentis scientiarum (Advance-
ment of Learning
[1623], Book VII, Ch. 2) confessed
that “We are much beholden to Machiavelli and other
writers of that class who openly and unfeignedly de
clare or describe what men do, and not what they
ought to do.”

This aspect of Machiavelli's writings could not fail
to impress the great political thinkers of the eighteenth
century. To Hume Machiavelli was a “great genius”;
Montesquieu frequently referred approvingly to
Machiavelli's views. These eighteenth-century thinkers
were repulsed by his amoralism but they suggested that
the stress on the political effectiveness of amoral ac-
tions was the work of later writers. They separated
Machiavelli from Machiavellism and emphasized that
Machiavelli himself had loved liberty. Diderot, who
in the Encyclopédie characterized Machiavellism as an
espèce de politique détestable, qu'on peut rendre en
deux mots par l'art de tyranniser
(“odious kind of poli-
tics, which can be described briefly as the art of tyr-
anny”), also said in his article on Machiavelli that the
purpose of the Principe was to depict the terrors of
despotism: Voilà la bête féroce, à laquelle vous vous
(“See here the ferocious beast, to whom
you abandon yourself”). It was the fault of the reader
that he took un satyre pour un éloge (“a satire for
a eulogy”).

By the end of the eighteenth century, therefore, the
image of Machiavelli had become rather complex and
even contradictory. The contrast between the devilish
Machiavelli whom Marlowe had brought on the stage
and the sagacious Machiavelli who appears in Goethe's
Egmont (1788) is instructive. Goethe's Machiavelli
knew that people need to lie and to deceive in politics,
but he knew also that such measures have little effect
if they do not take into account the real feelings of
the people. You cannot force religious convictions on
them or treat them arrogantly from above. Goethe's
Machiavelli implies that Machiavellism is necessary
and appropriate only because—and as long as—rulers
give no rights to their people. A new time in which
the people will have power will make Machiavellian
policy superfluous; Egmont was written in 1787, two
years before the French Revolution.

(3) When Frederick II of Prussia became involved
in the struggle for Prussian aggrandizement Rousseau
said that it was appropriate for a disciple of Machia-
velli to begin his political career with a refutation of
Machiavelli. Frederick's Anti-Machiavel has frequently
been characterized as hypocritical, but this accusation
is not quite fair. In his Anti-Machiavel Frederick had
pointed out that Machiavelli's political experience
came from a scene in which princes ne sont proprement
que des Hermafrodites de Souverains, et des Particu-
liers; ils ne jouent le rôle de grands Seigneurs qu'avec
leur domestiques
(“are only in fact hermaphrodites of
rulers and individuals; they play the part of great lords
only with their servants”). Frederick denied that this


Italian world of small princely states could serve as
a model for the conduct of politics. He thought it
necessary to distinguish between petty intriguing,
characteristic of small states, and the justifiable aims
of a great power to expand.

In Frederick's times it had become a widely recog-
nized theory that powerful states had a right to expand
and to pursue their interests by all possible means.
Machiavelli was certainly the most important influence
in the development of these ideas. However, because
of the evil repute in which his name was held in the
sixteenth and seventeenth centuries it was regarded as
inopportune to mention his name, and consequently
the name of Machiavelli remained rather detached
from that development of thought with which his ideas
are most closely linked—the attitudes toward foreign

A point of departure for the development of new
ideas on the nature of foreign policy was Machiavelli's
thesis that the decisive factor in politics was power,
not justice; and that the attainment of political ends
permitted the use of force, violence, even crime. The
ensuing discussion centered on the problem of whether
there were limits to the application of force in the
struggles among states, and if so, what they were. The
crucial concept in this development was the notion
of ragione di stato (“reason of state”), which implied
that the relationship among states had its own rules,
different from those determining human behavior in
other spheres of life. Although some statements made
by Italians of Machiavelli's time suggest that they
recognized that in affairs of state actions might be
necessary that are not permissible in other fields of
human activities, the term ragione di stato neither
occurs in Machiavelli's writings, nor was it used in the
early sixteenth century. It came into use in the middle
of that century and then soon became immensely pop-
ular. It was heard in the marketplace but also in the
council room; for instance, as early as 1584, James VI
of Scotland declared to his Privy Council “that he
married for reasons of state, chiefly to provide his
kingdom with an heir.”

Originally the meaning of ragione di stato was not
very different from that of the medieval notion of ratio
or ratio publicae utilitatis which permitted the
ruler to violate positive law if the promotion of the
higher spiritual aims of the social order made such
action necessary. But the idea of reason of state became
strikingly transformed in the modern period. The reli-
gious struggles of the sixteenth and seventeenth cen-
turies—or, more precisely, weariness produced by
these struggles—gave rise to the view that one state
could embrace adherents of different churches and that
politics had its own principles independent of those
of religion. Politics had its own law, that of the interest
of the state. Furthermore, the rise of absolutism re-
sulted in an identification of prince and state. The
interest of the ruler became the reason of state. Never-
theless, a line was drawn between those political aims
in which the interest of the prince coincided with the
interests of the entire political body and those ambi-
tions which arose from personal desires or arbitrary
whims. The latter had to be repudiated as signs of

From these assumptions there developed an exten-
sive literature on the interests of the state and of the
princes. The writers of this school tried to establish
criteria for distinguishing between true and false inter-
ests and to determine those factors which constituted
the true interests of the state. Because the presupposi-
tion of these thinkers was that politics was an autono-
mous field, speculations about the interests of the state
were calculations in terms of power politics. They were
concerned with those factors which constituted the
strength of a state and would make aggrandizement
possible: population, geographical position, financial
resources, military posture, relation to neighbors. In
the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries the writings
on reason of state and interests of state amounted to
a considerable part of the existing political literature.

The crucial influence of Machiavelli on the develop-
ment of these ideas is obvious. He had proclaimed that
politics ought to be conducted for purely political ends,
for increasing the strength of the political body. He
was instrumental, therefore, in introducing into the
theory of reason of state that element which separated
it from the older medieval concept in which the ratio
remained subordinated to nonpolitical or supra-
political values. The emphasis on competition for
power as the central factor in political life was thor-
oughly Machiavellian, although in Machiavelli's writ-
ings the word stato in the modern sense of embracing
territory, ruler and ruled, rarely occurs. Machiavelli's
principe had only to be interpreted as synonymous with
the state in order to find in Machiavelli's writings a
serious discussion of the problem of ragione di stato.

Although the writers on the interests of state did
not acknowledge their debt to Machiavelli, and even
concealed it by attacking him, their writings reflect
their careful reading of the Florentine's works. Gio-
vanni Botero, whose Della Ragione di Stato (1589) is
one of the most influential early statements of the
problem, accepted Machiavelli's thesis that no reliance
could be placed on alliances or treaties. Traiano
Boccalini (1556-1613) commented in his Bilancia
on many of Machiavelli's theses and made the
very Machiavellian statement that self-interest è il vero
Tiranno dell'Anime de'Tiranni, ed anche de'Principi


non Tiranni (“is the true tyrant of the souls of tyrants
as well as of princes who are not tyrants”). Although
Paolo Paruta (1540-1598) declared in his Discorsi
that Machiavelli was “buried in perpetual
oblivion” he agreed with him on many issues and
acknowledged that the operations of a prince should
be measured by quite different rules from those of a

Two centuries later, in the eighteenth century, dis-
cussions of the European political situation, historical
works, invented political testaments ascribed to famous
rulers and statesmen, and pamphlets—all made use of
reason of state and interests of princes in their argu-
ments; at that time Machiavelli's name was no longer
to be passed over in silence. However, the connection
of his name with the ideas of this school of political
thought did not help Machiavelli's reputation among
the philosophes and the reformers. They were pro-
foundly critical of the manner in which foreign policy
was conducted in this period. They saw no sense in
wars of aggrandizement and regarded the money spent
on the maintenance of a large army as an obstacle to
the economic well-being of the masses. These were
features of the ancien régime that ought to be elimi-
nated. As a master in the arts of ragione di stato
Machiavelli became associated with the ancien régime.

The most characteristic representatives of the
abhorred policies of the ancien régime were the diplo-
mats—the “ministers” as they were called at this time.
They became the particular target of the reform-
minded writers of the eighteenth century who, in their
descriptions of the activities of the diplomatic profes-
sion, endowed ministers with Machiavellian features.
Such ministers, according to G. F. Le Trosne, cultivated
art obscure qui s'enveloppe dans les plis et les replis
de la dissimulation
(“a dark art wrapping itself up in
the folds and cloak of dissimulation”); because they
lack frankness they become compétiteurs en grimaces
(Mirabeau). Machiavellists, as we mentioned before,
can be found in all groups and professions. If one
profession is particularly identified with this attitude
it is the diplomatic profession, and in the popular view
it has remained so since the eighteenth century.

In the last year of the eighteenth century a French
translation of the works of Machiavelli was published
with an introduction by T. Guiraudet who had first
served the ancien régime, then the Revolution, and was
finally a high official in the Foreign Office under the
Directorate. With its emphasis on Machiavelli's anti-
clericalism and his nationalism Guiraudet alludes to
aspects of Machiavelli's thought, one of which had
agitated his readers in the past, and the other was to
occupy students of Machiavelli in the future, although
the prominent place given to these two ideas echoed
the ideas of the French Revolution. But the most strik-
ing and interesting feature is the attempt of Guiraudet
to reconcile those contradictory features of Machiavelli
which in the course of the eighteenth century had
emerged in sharp contrast:

Machiavel, qui aimait la liberté d'une manière éclairée,
savait que les hommes, qui se sont réunis en société, se sont
associés éminemment pour être heureux, et non uniquement
pour être libres.... Ils ont vu que la liberté était un moyen,
mais qu'elle n'était pas un but... le premier des biens,
c'est le salut de l'État, le bonheur et la prospérité de ses
membres, auxquels peut nuire momentanément une liberté
illimitée; or y laisser instantanément mettre quelque bornes,
ce n'est pas être ou un esclave ou un lâche, c'est prouver
seulement qu'on n'est pas toujours aussi libre qu'un fou.

(“Machiavelli, with his enlightened love of freedom,
knew that men, who have united in society, came
together primarily to be happy and not simply to be
free.... They have seen that freedom was a means
and not the end... that the primary good is the
welfare of the State, the happiness and prosperity of
its members, who can be hurt for a while by unlimited
freedom; now to allow momentarily certain limits to
be imposed on their freedom does not mean being a
slave or a coward, but only proves that we are not
always as free as a madman.”)


It is most doubtful that Machiavellism survived the
fall of the ancien régime. This statement does not imply
that interest in Machiavelli diminished or died; on the
contrary, in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries an
extended literature concerned with Machiavelli and
Machiavelli's thought was produced, but the nature of
interest in Machiavelli has changed.

In previous centuries Machiavelli's ideas had been
regarded as the nucleus of a system which was of
practical significance for every kind of political action
and human behavior. With the political and social
transformation brought about by the French Revolu-
tion Machiavellism lost the environment in which its
notions would strike sparks.

A secularized outlook on the world, frequently
coupled with an optimistic belief in progress, could
regard evil actions as a result of strange, abnormal
circumstances or psychology. But that awe for the
demonic power of evil that had made Machiavelli's
recommendations not only abhorrent but also tempting
was lost.

Likewise, after the French Revolution, tyranny and
despotism seemed to belong to a discarded past. Even
if the march to full democratic rule of the people was
slow, even if a written constitution limiting the extent


and the forms of government interference and a deter-
mination of the rights of man had become accepted
features of a civilized political society, much of the
advice which Machiavelli had given to his prince and
on which Machiavellist writers like Naudé or Machon
had enlarged became irrelevant.

Finally, the rise of nationalism stripped the Machia-
vellist theories on the unlimited use of force in foreign
affairs of much of their explosive character. If the
nation and the national state embodied the supreme
ethical value and the individual could accomplish his
own ethical ends only within a strong nation, then
application of force to secure the life of the nation
was easily justifiable and Machiavelli's views sounded
much less extravagant than when they seemed to pro-
claim the unlimited right of the stronger over the
weaker. In this changed political atmosphere people
were inclined to minimize the consequences of Machia-
velli's thought rather than to face them in their ruthless
radicalism. Because of the appeal to liberate Italy from
the barbarians in the last chapter of the Principe,
Machiavelli was transformed into a prophet of the age
of nationalism, and the amorality of his doctrines was
explained as a result of the hopelessness of the Italian
political situation: it was so desperate that Machiavelli
was forced to prescribe poison, to use the words of
the German historian Leopold von Ranke.

In the changed climate of the nineteenth century,
with the development of a new and differentiated
outlook on internal politics and foreign affairs, Machia-
vellism lost the appearance of providing a coherent
system. This is reflected in the manner in which the
words “Machiavellian” and “Machiavellist” are used
in language and literature of the nineteenth and twen-
tieth centuries. Whoever takes mental note of the
occurrences of the term “Machiavellist” in modern
times will be amused and fascinated by the widely
varied and even contradictory applications of the word.

It is logical—and in accordance with the history of
Machiavellism—that those features in modern political
society which still bear the traces of the ancien régime
frequently receive the label “Machiavellian.” Diplo-
mats are regularly suspected to be Machiavellians and
Americans in the times of Woodrow Wilson were
inclined to regard the entire European system of for-
eign policy, based on the assumption of sovereignty,
as containing a Machiavellist element. Likewise states-
men proceeding in an authoritarian manner are usually
considered as disciples of Machiavelli; in the nine-
teenth century both Metternich and Bismarck were
called Machiavellian.

It is a small step from here to a use of the word
that regards every clever political maneuver as
Machiavellian. And the reading of political biogra
phies, for instance, the biography of Huey P. Long
(1967) by T. Harry Williams, or of issues of the Ameri-
can Historical Review,
will provide many examples of

Cleverness, of course, arouses distrust because a
clever man is suspected of keeping something back,
and of not being entirely frank and open. Briefly, he
behaves very much as a Machiavellian would be ex-
pected to behave. And indeed, “Machiavellian” and
slyly “clever” are often used synonymously. The con-
cept “Machiavellian” has become so vague and am-
biguous that every human activity which tries to
achieve its ends through exclusion of all extrane-
ous—human or moral—considerations is called
“Machiavellian”; a businessman, therefore, might have
a Machiavellian strategy. The application of technical
devices, because they reduce human or moral qualities
to calculable factors, is frequently considered Machia-
vellian. In the 1960's the labels of Machiavellian or
Machiavellistic could be affixed to anything that was
considered to be wrong or inhuman.

If the idea of Machiavellism lost in coherence and
significance in the nineteenth century, the development
of scholarship, and particularly of historical scholar-
ship, maintained and perhaps intensified interest in
Machiavelli; however these scholarly concerns sepa-
rated Machiavelli from Machiavellism and placed
Machiavelli in a very new light.

The historical literature on Machiavelli pursued two
lines of research. The one was to determine his place
in the development of political thought. The other was
to see him as a figure of his time, of the Italian Renais-
sance. In the field of political thought the relation of
his thought to classical or medieval political theorists
became clarified, and detailed investigations estab-
lished the influence of his thought on later political
thinkers like Montesquieu, or even more recent ones
like Gaetano Mosca or Antonio Gramsci. The study
of Machiavelli as a figure of the Renaissance resulted
in a better understanding of the institutional and social
milieu in which he lived and to which his writings were
aimed; the difference between his real aims and those
ascribed to him by later generations emerged sharply.
Because these scholarly efforts described Machiavelli
as an Italian of the Renaissance or as a link in the
development of political thought, because they “his-
toricized” Machiavelli, they contributed to the decline
of Machiavellism as a system of permanent validity
and applicability.

On the other hand, the scholarly approach placed
Machiavelli at the beginning of a development which
has extended into modern times. Machiavelli was
shown to have touched upon many questions of politi-
cal techniques—control of the masses by psychology,


the role of an elite—which are recognized as essential
factors in every political society and, as such, have
become objects of intense study in the development
of political science. Moreover, because the Renaissance
was believed to have begun the modern period of
history, the characterization of Machiavelli as a typical
representative of this period made him a forerunner
of modern man. Actually it was not so much Machia-
velli as his picture of Cesare Borgia which was re-
garded as characteristically modern—a personality
which emancipated itself from the bonds of conven-
tional morality and lived a free life according to its
natural instincts. This was Nietzsche's view of Cesare
Borgia which he had taken from Machiavelli's Principe.
Thus, even in the efforts of modern scholarship,
Machiavelli has remained—although remotely and
tenuously—tied to the concerns of the present day.

This is important because it has its bearing on what
might be called the latest, most recent chapter in the
history of Machiavellism, the relation of Machiavellism
to twentieth-century totalitarianism. Fascist dictators
liked to refer to Machiavelli as a master who had
understood the true nature of politics; Mussolini pro-
fessed that he wanted to write a dissertation on
Machiavelli. But there is no sign that Hitler or Musso-
lini had any concrete knowledge of Machiavelli's writ-
ings or ideas. They were influenced by social Darwinist
ideas of the necessary triumph of the stronger over
the weaker. And in the popular mind this was a theory
which Machiavelli had already advanced. They pre-
tended to be adherents of Nietzschean philosophy, and
thought of Machiavelli's Cesare Borgia as a model of
the superman. In the organization of their party and
their government system the concept of elite was cru-
cial, and Machiavelli would be mentioned as one of
the first political scientists raising this issue.

These were probably the contexts in which they
became aware of Machiavelli. They ascribed to him
basic ideas of intellectual movements of their own time
which had molded their minds, and they found this
convenient because they liked to place their policies
and systems under the protection of the name of the
great Florentine. To maintain the existence of a serious
connection between Machiavelli and the ideas and
policies of the modern totalitarian dictators is a mis-
understanding. It must be added, however, that the
history of Machiavellism is quite as much a history of
misunderstandings as a history of the impact of Machia-
velli's true ideas.


Machiavelli's principal works—the Principe, the Discorsi,
and the Istorie Fiorentine—were first printed in Rome in
1531, but before they were printed, they circulated in
manuscript copies, and throughout the sixteenth century,
handwritten copies remained as important for the spread
of Machiavelli's ideas as printed editions; on this, see Adolf
Gerber, Niccolò Machiavelli. Die Handschriften, Ausgaben
und Übersetzungen Seiner Werke im 16. und 17. Jahrhundert

(1913; reprint Turin, 1962), although since the appearance
of Gerber's book in 1913, additional handwritten copies of
the Principe and the Discorsi have been discovered.

The classical work on the history of Machiavellism is
Friedrich Meinecke, Die Idee der Staatsräson (1924; Mu-
nich, 1960), trans. D. Scott as Machiavellism (New Haven,
1957). The older work of Charles Benoist, Le Machia-
3 vols. (Paris, 1907-36), has now become obsolete
although its references to source materials remain valuable.
Of a somewhat different character is the book by Giuliano
Procacci, Studi sulla Fortuna del Machiavelli, Istituto
Storico Italiano per l'Età Moderna e Contemporanea
(Rome, 1965), which investigates the developments of
Machiavelli scholarship rather than the history of the influ-
ence of Machiavelli's ideas.

On the intellectual developments in the Middle Ages
foreshadowing Machiavellism and the doctrine of reason of
state, see Gaines Post, Studies in Medieval Legal Thought
(Princeton, 1964).

For the developments from the later Middle Ages to the
seventeenth century, see Rodolfo de Mattei, Dal pre-
machiavellismo all'antimachiavellismo,
Biblioteca Storica
Sansoni, Nuova serie XLVI (Florence, 1969), and the peri-
odical Il Pensiero Politico, 1, No. 3 (Florence, 1969); this
issue is devoted to Machiavellism and anti-Machiavellism
in the sixteenth century.

For the attitude of the eighteenth century to Machiavelli
and Machiavellism, see Peter Gay, The Enlightenment: An
(New York, 1966), and Felix Gilbert, “The
'New Diplomacy' of the Eighteenth Century,” World Poli-
1 (1951), 1-38.

For reason of state and for the change in the views on
Machiavelli in the nineteenth century see the article by
Albert Elkan, “Die Entdeckung Machiavellis in Deutsch-
land zu Beginn des 19. Jahrhunderts,” Historische Zeit-
119 (Munich and Berlin, 1919), 429-58; for more
recent examples of the application of reason of state, see
Alfred Vagts, “Intelligentsia Versus Reason of State,” Politi-
cal Science Quarterly,
84 (1969), 80-105.

There are a number of studies on the influence of
Machiavelli and on Machiavellism in individual states: for
Venice, see William J. Bouwsma, Venice and the Defense
of Republican Liberty
(Berkeley and London, 1968); for
France, see the survey by Albert Cherel, La pensée de
Machiavel en France
(Paris, 1935); and for the crucial second
half of the sixteenth century, see Vittorio De Caprariis,
Propaganda e pensiero politico in Francia durante le guerre
di religione,
Vol. I, 1559-1572 (Naples, 1959), and Donald
R. Kelley, Foundations of Modern Historical Scholarship;
Language, Law, and History in the French Renaissance
York, 1970); for England, see Felix Raab, The English Face
of Machiavelli
(London and Toronto, 1964); and for detailed
investigations of Machiavelli's influence on individual
writers, see George L. Mosse, The Holy Pretence (Oxford,


1957); H. Butterfield, The Statecraft of Machiavelli (London,
1940); and the article by J. G. A. Pocock, “Machiavelli,
Harrington, and the English Political Ideologies in the
Eighteenth Century,” William and Mary Quarterly, 3rd
series, 22 (1965), 549-83.

For a recent bibliography, see the article by Richard C.
Clark, “Machiavelli: Bibliographical Spectrum,” Review of
National Literatures,
I (1970), 93-135.

Also of interest is S. E. Hyman, Iago; Some Approaches
to the Illusion of His Motivation
(New York, 1970).


[See also Balance of Power; Constitutionalism; Nation;
Renaissance Humanism; State.