The Machiavellian Ethics

Niccolò Machiavelli’s Il Principe, or The Prince, is one of the most misunderstood texts of the last thousand years. When people think of The Prince, they think of a manual for tyrannical sociopaths. Certainly, its many notable fans, such as Benito Mussolini, Josef Stalin, and John Gotti add to its reputation. Its most famous fans may have been sociopaths, but were they following what Machiavelli actually advised? The two notions that fuel the popular narrative about The Prince are that a Machiavellian ruler would be oppressive, and that Machiavelli outright recommends that it is better for the ruler to be feared than loved. These misconceptions cause most people to miss the overall mission of The Prince.

Niccolò di Bernardo dei Machiavelli
Niccolò di Bernardo dei Machiavelli — Image Source

Older works on statesmanship choose the righteous ruler as their end-goal, and then describe the process of being one. However, in 16th century Italy, where city-states are constantly at war, foreign powers use the peninsula for their war-games, and the people are saddled with timid rulers, Machiavelli yearns for an effective ruler, not necessarily a righteous one. A good ruler is useless if he is unable or unwilling to do what it takes to keep power. Machiavelli reverses the old formula and frames the end-goal as simply gaining and maintaining power. Then, he attempts to convince the reader that the simplest process for achieving that goal is being an effective ruler, and allowing your people to prosper. Machiavelli’s sleight of hand is to create a good ruler by enticing him with the prospect of power.

The populares and the optimates

Let’s tackle the misconception that a Machiavellian princeps would be a terror to his people. Throughout The Prince, Machiavelli makes the argument that as a ruler, you should tie your own fortunes to the people. Far from oppressing the people, Machiavelli advises the prospective princeps to arm them, so that his people might be able to form a proper citizen militia. Hardly the mark of a tyrant. Italy had been plagued by lazy mercenary armies that flee at the first sign of trouble. An armed citizen militia would be a far more effective than any mercenary force, given that they have skin in the game.

Going even further, one might expect that a Machiavellian would only be concerned with simply keeping power. Therefore, he would logically ingratiate himself with others who have power. In 16th century Italy, those with power were the nobles and members of the ruling families. However, Machiavelli advocates just the opposite. The princeps ought to align himself with the people if he wants to keep power. One of his key observations was that in every state there are two major forces, the common people who are eager not to be ordered around and oppressed and the nobles who are eager to oppress the common people and order them around (38). Managing these two impulses is the chief duty of the princeps. Ultimately however, the princeps must decide whether to align himself with the people or the nobles. Machiavelli asserts that power is simply a numbers game, and a king can never be safe if the common people are hostile to him, so naturally a wise ruler aligns himself with the people (39). Rather than oppressing his people, which the nobles are far better at anyway, Machiavelli asserts that the princeps is best served by tying his owns fortunes to the fortunes of the people.

Ugh, going to give this guy one star on Uber. This is taking forever!
Ugh, going to give this guy one star on Uber. This is taking forever! — Image Source

They love me, they love me not

Now, let’s look at the other major misconception, which centers around his assertion that it is better to be feared than loved. Let’s first look at the exact quote:

since people decide for themselves whether to love a ruler or not, while it’s the ruler who decides whether they’re going to fear him, a sensible man will base his power on what he controls (68)

At first glance, it seems conclusive that Machiavelli advocates for an iron-fisted ruler. But, this conclusion misses some important context. Machiavelli warns that such a man must take care, as I said, that people don’t come to hate him (68). This point, of course, naturally flows from his previous assertion that a king whose people hate him cannot survive. In other words, being a despot is not a formula for winning the consent of the people. He further admonishes the authoritarian mindset in his study of Agathocles, the former tyrant of Syracuse. While Agathocles put on a masterclass on the art of building power by force, Machiavelli opines that we can hardly describe killing fellow citizens, betraying friends, and living without loyalty, mercy or creed as signs of talent (34). You may gain power, for a time, through cruel means, but you certainly will not keep it. And, your reputation certainly will not stand the test of time.

It must also be noted that when Machiavelli refers to fear, his notion of a feared ruler is much more nuanced than an image of Stalin or Pol Pot. In fact, he addresses this point directly saying:

Actually, being feared is perfectly compatible with not being hated. And a ruler won’t be hated if he keeps his hands off his subjects’ property and their women (66).

I think we could restate his position more clearly by saying, too many rulers insist on being well liked rather than well respected. An effective ruler will always be well respected. Even if the people might think they want a ruler whom they can love, they often need one whom they can respect, because he will prove more compassionate than the leader whose excessive compassion leads to public disorder, muggings, and murder (65). The effectiveness of his rule will bring the princeps the love of his people, not his oppression, and not his compassion.

Socially distanced compassion.
Socially distanced compassion. —Image Source

We could have it so good right now

If Machiavelli has in fact created a manual for effective statesmanship, then how would he pass judgment on our current regime? First, let’s analyze how he would even define our current regime. Machiavelli asserts that the balance of power between the nobles and the common people will lead to one of three different situations: a monarchy, a republic, or anarchy (38). Obviously, anarchy is the situation in which the common people have overpowered the nobles. And, given that he charges the princeps with the duty of keeping the balance between the common people and the nobles, we can infer that a monarchy is the situation where the nobles and common people are equal. That means that Machiavelli views a republic as a situation where the nobles overpower the people.

Just by observation, we can see that today’s United States republic is run by our nobles. The representatives elected by us are hardly ever a simple prole. If they were, they never stayed that way for long. We may not have any peerage or landed gentry, but we do have a different sort of aristocracy. Titles are conferred by elite institutions, such as Harvard, Yale, West Point, and The New York Times. Our nobles of course do not make the mistake of calling themselves as such. They are merely experts, or congressmen.

Mr. Smith gets astroturfed.
Mr. Smith gets astroturfed. —Image Source

America’s founding fathers were likely not unaware of this problem. In theory, this is why the President exists. He serves an electable princeps. However in practice, the Presidency is heavily nerfed by Congress. Almost all the President’s important powers require the approval of Congress, including declaration of war, appointment of cabinet members, signing treaties, etc. One also wonders why the President has term limits, and yet our senators and representatives do not. Food for thought. Far from being equal branches of government, the Legislative branch overpowers the Executive branch in terms of power. In reality, Machiavelli would say our aristocratic class reigns supreme. So, how would he pass judgment upon on them?

Let’s first look at whom our ruling class fears the most. Do they fear foreign enemies, or do they fear the people? Regarding rulers who fear their own people more than foreign enemies, Machiavelli says that they must build fortresses … [but your] best fortress is to not be hated by the people, because even if you have fortresses, they won’t save you if the people hate you (85). This image ought to be instructive:

Totally normal, totally cool.
Totally normal, totally cool. —Image Source

Next, let’s look at their use of factionalism. Consider the divisiveness of partisan politics in America. The mass psychosis of politics is so deeply ingrained, my sixth grade social studies class once became embroiled in a debate about John Kerry and George W. Bush. In reality, were either of these men that different from each other? John Kerry is a legacy Yale graduate. His father was an influential diplomat, and his grandfather was a wealthy businessman. George W. Bush is a legacy Yale graduate. His father was the President of the United States, and his grandfather was a wealthy businessman. After the 2004 presidential election, George W. Bush was certainly announced as the winner. But, did the American people win anything? The aristocratic class that holds the reins of power did not shift one iota following that election, but the pageantry of choice provided to the people with enough to keep them sedated. That is factionalism, and Machiavelli states that factionalism indicates weakness on a ruler’s part; in a healthy, confident state such differences would never be allowed (83).

The Presidential election is the one political event nearly every American cares about, because it is a chance to collectively invest our power in a princeps, who can bring the nobles to heel. This may not be the motive of the people consciously, but they certainly do feel that urge subconsciously. That is why every presidential candidate swears they will fix Washington. However, the people never get the princeps they desire for two reasons. The usual reason is that the President is from the nobility himself. On the off-chance that he happens to be a prole or a prole sympathizer, we have to ask whether Congress will let him rule? The answer is, why would they?

Let’s suppose we could wave our Machiavellian wand, and endow the Presidency with all the power required for a princeps. What does a proper princeps in the Oval Office even look like, and how do we get there? Maybe I will take a swing at those questions in a future post. But, one thing is certain: we have a leadership vacuum. When there is no official method of enforcing continuity of power, then it will be enforced for you unofficially. Today, we no longer have the Medici family pulling the strings of power, but we certainly have our beloved Ivy League universities, media conglomerates, and for the more conspiracy-minded among you, the Rothschilds and the Freemasons. Is there anyone ambitious and talented enough to snatch the reins of power on behalf of the people? We shall see.


The Prince is one of the most talked about books of the last thousand years. Its sober and practical outlook on statesmanship is a breath of fresh air. It was even banned by the Catholic Church in 1559. Any book worth banning must be worth reading just to see why! At just over 100 pages in length, it’s also a quick read. So, I give it five out of five florins.


Machiavelli Niccolò. The Prince. Penguin, 2011.