MACHIAVELLISM is the name given to a doctrine which might be summed up as follows: The supreme law of politics is success. Politics, therefore, cannot recognize any moral law as binding. What is bad in the conduct of individuals can be the most imperative of duties for a statesman if the good of the state so demands. This doctrine is named after its creator, Niccolò Machiavelli, statesman, historian and philosopher, who was born in Florence in 1469 and died in the same city in 1527. The nineteenth century saw in Machiavelli one of the creators of modern thought because he freed politics from slavery to theology. Until his time politics had been either empirical or a branch of theology. With Machiavelli it became a free science depending only on reason.

In all this there is only one inconvenient factor, namely, that one looks in vain for a complete Machiavellian system in the works of Machiavelli. He set forth his political doctrine in two works, "Discorsi sopra la prima deca di Tito Livio" and "Il Principe" ("The Prince"). The first is a treatise on republics, the second a treatise on monarchies. I have read the "Discorsi" many times without ever finding any trace of the doctrine called "Machiavellism." They contain ideas and advice on how to organize a republican government. The ideas and the advice are always ingenious, though sometimes a little too theoretical; but nowhere is consideration given to the connection between morals and politics. Machiavelli maintained neither the doctrine that morals take precedence over politics nor the contrary theory; the question is simply outside the framework of his interests.

One cannot say the same of "The Prince." All the pretended doctrine of Machiavellism originates in this little book. This, however, is not to say that it can be found there. To understand this paradox -- that a doctrine originates in a book which does not contain it -- we must read the book without preconceptions. What does one then find there? A short treatise on monarchy, full of good advice and bad advice for sovereigns of all epochs. The good advice is more abundant, but it has the fault common to all good advice of being more easy to give than to follow. The bad advice is more practical, but fortunately less abundant -- a fact which enables us to examine it in detail. It falls into three parts.


In the third chapter of "The Prince," Machiavelli advises a usurper always to exterminate the dynasty he has dispossessed, otherwise he will never be sure of his crown. This counsel is atrocious; but does it not prove that Machiavelli was not sufficiently Machiavellian? A Machiavellian writer would have been too cautious to stir up all the theologians of the Western World by advising anything so compromising and would have limited himself to stating that no throne won by force is safe so long as a member of the preceding dynasty remains alive. Usurpers in every age would easily have understood from this quite harmless text the evil advice which the author intended to convey.

The seventh chapter of "The Prince" certainly apologizes for treason and assassination in discussing Cæsar Borgia. A most shameful chapter! But one has only to turn the page to find a passionate refutation. Agathocles, tyrant of Syracuse, was a successful Borgia; yet despite his success, he is flayed for his crimes in the eighth chapter, which concludes on the note that genius alone cannot make a great man out of a villain. Why, then, does the seventh chapter exalt what the eighth condemns?

But the great scandal of Machiavellism is the doctrine of perjury set forth in the eighteenth chapter. We read there these celebrated words: "Therefore, a prudent ruler ought not to keep faith when by so doing it would be against his interest, and when the reasons which made him bind himself no longer exist. If men were all good, this precept would not be a good one; but as they are bad, and would not observe their faith with you, so you are not bound to keep faith with them. Nor have legitimate grounds ever failed a prince who wished to show colorable excuse for the non-fulfilment of his promise."

Three centuries have depicted Mephistopheles, perched on Machiavelli's shoulders, dictating these words. Yet when we scrutinize this text, what do we find? The theory rebus sic stantibus is familiar to the jurists. In a few brutally direct lines, Machiavelli says what generations of jurists have repeated in involved legal terminology -- that a state need not observe a treaty when altered circumstances make observance too difficult or dangerous.


That is all. The pretended doctrine of Machiavellism is thus reduced to a few passages in "The Prince," not connected with each other nor with the rest of the argument, which could be either suppressed entirely without mutilating the work or rendered quite inoffensive by disguising their thought in less frank terminology. Anyone acquainted with the life and character of Machiavelli knows that these fragments of his thought, on which a whole theory of conduct has been erected, are nothing but bad-tempered explosions. This leads us to ask: What sort of a person was this man whose ill-humored remarks have troubled mankind for four centuries?

He was a prophet, chained to an inferior post in a tiny republic. Yet he was born a poet of rare gifts, as his play, "La Mandragola," well testifies. Although a low farce, the sharpness and depth of its characters make this play one of the most bitter and powerful dramas in all literature. One can only speculate on the dramatic miracles Machiavelli might have wrought had he chosen greater themes. But in the early sixteenth century the Italian theatre offered at best occasional distraction or coarse amusement; there was no demand for the profound. "La Mandragola" was, and is still, a masterpiece. The cultured Italian of that day read Petrarchian lyrics and chivalric poems -- too mild a medium for so burning a spirit as Machiavelli. Having no outlet for his talents in literature, this poet in search of a poem turned to the past -- to history, politics and philosophy. But he was far too gifted to become a mere erudite chronicler or fashionable moralist. His plunge into the past and his reflections on the present set his imagination aflame. He divined the future, and became the prophet of the Renaissance.


The Renaissance was a new orientation of the Occidental mind, a sweeping revolt in intellectual and political life. In my opinion, art declined during this period. The search for old forgotten patterns deprived sculpture, painting and architecture of the vigor, freshness and power that characterized them in the Middle Ages. The revolution brought about by the renewed study of antiquity is rather to be found elsewhere: in the states, the armies and the Papacy's rôle in European affairs.

In the Middle Ages the Pope was not only the spiritual shepherd of Christian Europe, but the head of a veritable empire, with governors, provinces and tributes at his command. He had no need of soldiers to enforce his rule or to amass large sums of gold and silver. Bulls and benedictions -- paper, ink and words -- sufficed. This unarmed Second Roman Empire, perhaps the most extraordinary empire in history, was for centuries upheld solely by the written and spoken word. And what a wonderful civilization flowered in its bosom!

The Middle Ages gave birth to Saint Anselm, Saint Francis of Assisi, Saint Dominic, Saint Thomas, Saint Louis, Dante, Petrarch, the architects of the Gothic cathedrals, Giotto and the Siena primitives, the Beato Angelico, Joan of Arc, and scholasticism. Mediæval civilization strove for centuries to raise a ladder from the earth to the sky on which mankind could climb to Paradise. In building this ladder humanity lost nearly all its scientific knowledge. It was content with a rudimentary organization of political power; it allowed the art of warfare to be forgotten; it could neither build armies nor fight; and its only conflicts were between small amorphous hordes armed with two weapons in their primitive form -- fire and steel.

The Renaissance, by organizing society and arming the states, destroyed this mystic anarchy and this spiritual ascent to Heaven. For this a series of extraordinary events was responsible: the geographical explorations of the fifteenth century, the worldwide expansion of Europe, the unveiling of the heavens by scientific astronomy, and the invention of the printing press and firearms.

The discovery of traces of an imposing political and military civilization in the ruins of Greece and Rome precipitated the revolt. The human spirit, arrived at the gates of Heaven, abruptly returned to earth, determined to explore it, to seize its treasures, to learn anew the science of war and of politics, to solve the enigma of life and of history. As states and armies sprang up, as human thought penetrated the mysteries of nature and of man, the sacred word lost its potency; domination by supernatural power grew feeble; the unarmed Roman Empire declined.


Machiavelli was the first to sense this upheaval and to foresee certain of its consequences. Therein lay his originality. Was he an historian? A philosopher? A politician? He was all of these and more, for he possessed some indefinable quality which cannot be described or analyzed, yet is essential; and that undefinable something was his glory. He was, for example, the only man of his time who knew that Italy was in danger, and why. Modern European history is unintelligible until we understand that for other nations -- for France and England -- the Renaissance meant rebirth, but for Italy, suicide. Italy, as the seat of mediæval theocracy, had for centuries possessed special privileges, not the least of which was the endless inflow of precious metal from her tributaries. Nowhere had the anarchy and demilitarization of the Middle Ages been more impressive, more splendid, more irremediable.

Italy was an agglomeration of minute states, the greatest and strongest of which was Venice. The others tried in vain to crystallize, without legitimacy, without tradition, without leaders and without stable laws. There were no real military forces, save for an occasional band of mercenaries. Pleasures, riches, luxuries and artistic splendors were the immediate concern of high and low. On all sides wars and revolutions raged, doing little damage in their savage efforts to snatch from Rome the treasures pouring in from her all-embracing domain. The heaven of beautiful arts and light domestic literature, the hell of free thought and independent spirit -- such was the Italy of the Middle Ages, soon to be destroyed. As long as the Papacy protected her and lavished gifts upon her, this splendid anarchy could continue without exhausting its substance. But what would become of her when Europe rebelled against Papal theocracy?


Machiavelli saw that Italy would be dragged down by the collapse of theocracy if she did not free herself in time. He wished her to escape: his one thought was to rescue her at any price. Machiavelli did not hesitate to denounce the Papacy as a great national danger, as the primary cause of Italy's political and military weakness. With an audacity unheard of in his day he attacked Christianity as the religion of slaves, as a drain on the people's strength. Italy had dominated Europe until then without arms; Machiavelli informed her that she must now arm to defend herself. He, a civilian, wrote the first great book on modern warfare. But an army is only the sword of a state; it serves only that government which can wield it. Machiavelli wished to put an end to the congeries of small Italian states, capable only of revolts, of building palaces, of encouraging artists and giving feasts. He did not, as has often been claimed, demand the unity of Italy. What he asked was the creation of one powerful state in Italy, founded on wise and just laws and capable of defending itself. Whether it were republic or monarchy made no difference. He wished to reform republics, and so wrote his "Decades on Titus Livius." He wished to restore monarchies, and wrote "The Prince." To one and the other he offered his wisdom.

At the beginning of the sixteenth century Machiavelli was already seeking the formula for the perfect state -- a search which by the end of the eighteenth became the obsession of the Occidental world. And therein lay his glory. He achieved at one bound an almost perfect conception of the modern state, a state in which man's passion and reason will be united to attain two ends -- power and justice -- ends which clash at every moment but whose union would be perfection long dreamed of. All of Machiavelli's contradictions grow out of this dualism of power and justice, which was at once the essence of his doctrine and the soul of the modern state, and which in the nineteenth century was to lead scholars into a zealous, though often uncomprehending, study of his works. Nor was he content to seek in Latin sources a formula for reconciling power and justice. He travelled across Europe and studied peoples whom contemporary Italy regarded merely as barbarians to tax.


He was a seer, then, a great seer. But he was naïve. He saw so far into the future that he could no longer see the present. He was right: Italy would be engulfed in the ruin of mediæval theocracy if she did not free herself. But he was naïve to think that Italy could free herself in a few years merely with the pen of a great writer and the sword of a great prince. Centuries alone can destroy what centuries have created. A gifted prophet who lavishes upon his contemporaries advice that is absurd and impossible because it is too profoundly true is a pathetic person.

But the case of Machiavelli is still more complicated. He had to earn his daily bread. He came from a middle-class family which owned property but could not live on the income from it and had to eke out a living in business and the liberal professions. There were many such families in Florence. In 1498, at the age of 29, "Messer Niccolò," as he was then called, was appointed second chancellor. A few weeks later he became secretary of the Dieci di libertà e pace, a minor office though one requiring a certain amount of culture and intelligence. Picture this modest official, with his sweeping vision of the future, toiling in a small office at the Palazzo della Signoria! He saw Italy foundering and wished to save her. He thought he knew how; but he had to serve a tiny republic and the inferior people who governed it. He dared not offer even the humblest advice; he merely carried out orders from above. This disproportion between his talents and his duties kept him in a permanent state of fury.

He was even more unhappy in 1513 when he wrote "The Prince." The Medicis, having overthrown the Republic with Spain's assistance, had returned to Florence. Machiavelli had been discharged, imprisoned, and finally relegated under the surveillance of the police to his small property, known as Albergaccio, near San Casciano in Val di Pesa. There he dwelt during 1513, subjected to the petty persecutions of usurpers whose cruelty was heightened by fear and stupidity. And he had four children whom he could not nourish on the meagre income from Albergaccio. "The Prince" was written solely to obtain from the new masters a position which would pay him a few hundred florins.


"The Prince" was the supreme humiliation of a chained Titan, a mendicant prophet. We feel throughout its tormented pages the anguish of a frightful mortification. There is a time in the life of every man when, in his struggle with his fellow beings, he becomes impatient and cries out that all men are beasts and must be treated as beasts. But most men confine themselves to thought or speech. Machiavelli relieved his feelings in a book.

Why, then, has Machiavelli come to be known as the originator of a complete doctrine merely because of a few detached phrases which were only desperate cries of misery? Why was he at first despised as a diabolical writer and then worshipped as one of the guiding spirits of mankind -- all because of a "doctrine" which was never his? Why, down through the eighteenth century, did theologians and moralists not dare to pronounce his name, merely referring to him vaguely as ille qui dixit? And why in the nineteenth century was he hailed as the shining light of humanity and buried at Santa Croce with the inscription on his tomb, tanto nomini nullum par elogium?

In Catholic countries, and above all in Italy, Machiavelli was from the sixteenth to the eighteenth centuries a victim of the Church's hatred. The Church forgave him neither his views on Christianity, which he called the religion of slaves, nor his criticism of the Papacy, which he had accused of being the primary cause of Italy's political and military weakness. His books were put on the Index and his memory was persecuted. And in order to malign him more thoroughly his critics exaggerated the importance of those fragments of his thoughts whereby he had sought to lighten his misery. Theologians and moralists twisted these outbursts into a diabolical dogma invented by a perverse spirit to corrupt mankind. During the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries the zeal of these detractors was fired by an obsession common to both the Reformation and Counter-Reformation, to both Protestant and Catholic theologians: the moralization of politics by the fixing of moral limits which must be observed by the powers-that-be, whether they be emperors, kings, princes or aristocratic republics.

This moralization of politics was one of the most noble and fruitful preoccupations of western thought during the two centuries preceding the French Revolution. In this respect Catholic and Protestant theologians deserve well of humanity. But Machiavelli was the victim of their zeal. His books were read because they were the work of a superior mind; yet his three capricious remarks directed against morality in politics were too easy a target for the moralists and theologians to resist. Hence Machiavelli became the champion of political immorality.

This drawback was turned to advantage in the nineteenth century, following the great spiritual upheaval of the French Revolution. That century was characterized, in Europe as in America, by a general and rapid secularization of politics, administration, intellectual and social life, and morals. As the nineteenth century advanced, the influence on thought and customs exercised by the established churches and by religion in general waned more and more; as a result, all the writers, thinkers and artists whom the churches had endeavored to discredit came to be admired, glorified and proclaimed as champions of humanity. Machiavelli benefited by this sudden change.

Because Machiavelli was a great spirit and did not deserve ignominy, the nineteenth century performed an act of justice in rehabilitating him. But it went too far. Instead of demonstrating that he was not the creator of the Machiavellism which the moralists and theologians had denounced, instead of praising him for his work as a whole -- which had no relation to the false Machiavellism wished on him by his slanderers -- the men of the nineteenth century continued to attribute that doctrine to him. But instead of cursing it as evil, they hailed it as a beacon light for mankind. Instead of destroying the legend, they revived it.

Machiavelli was a great spirit, but he was wrong when, exasperated by his humiliations, he advised new dynasties to destroy their predecessors, when he vindicated Cæsar Borgia, an assassin, and when he brutally declared that a prince need not respect a treaty if it does not suit his interests. In these fleeting moments of darkness he forgot one of life's great truths -- that nothing is more disastrous than to proclaim that a moral law is useless because it is easily violated. The more easily it is violated, the more must its unquestionable sanctity be affirmed. In every era there are husbands and wives who are unfaithful. That is no reason to proclaim by law that each member of a family is free to do as he pleases. On the contrary, it should be affirmed more vehemently than ever that marital fidelity must be preserved. In each epoch treaties are violated, but that is no reason for openly admitting that treaties are scraps of paper. The world will become a frightful chaos when it officially admits that treaties can be broken at will.

The Catholic and Protestant theologians of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries went beyond the bounds of human possibilities in their desire to moralize everything -- art, literature, politics, social life. In their zeal, they advised the employment of means which we can no longer condone. But their doctrine was basically sound. Morality is neither art nor politics nor everyday life. Morality is a body of principles and rules which must be applied in every realm of human activity: in family life as in business, in art as in politics. Moral laws determine the exact limits which the private citizen and the public official, the artist and the merchant, cannot exceed if he wishes his deeds to benefit both himself and others; if he wishes to contribute to the order of the world rather than its destruction.

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