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Machiavellianism: Do the Ends Justify the Means?

Have you ever accused politicians and past rulers of being ruthlessly unscrupulous? Did you detest their manipulative, scheming, puppeteering methods of acquiring power and security? Why would they behave in this specific way? One theory that justifies their actions is Machiavellianism.

Niccolo Machiavelli proposed this political school of thought in the 16th century. Machiavellianism was mainly introduced through his notarial works: "The Prince" and "The Discourse."

What made him believe in Machiavellianism?

Niccolo Machiavelli was born in Florence, a magnificent city-state in Italy that patronised Renaissance art and culture across Europe, ruled foreign markets, and consisted of various powerful families vying for dominance and control. He went through a series of career ups and downs, working as an important diplomat who defended his city’s elected republican government against several would-be monarchs and serving as a semi-successful general who created an efficacious militia However, this dynamic changed when the Medici family took control of state affairs. Machiavelli was tortured, banished, and lost his position due to the popular suspicion that he was plotting against the Medici family. Thus, he perfectly embodied his tumultuous era, where fortunes would rise and fall as per the fickle, mercurial whims of fate. This dangerous environment clearly inspired his political philosophies.

What did ‘The Prince’ include?

This brief political essay is regarded as advice for current and future monarchs, focusing on a critical issue in politics rather than an ideal government model. He believed that it was nearly impossible to be both a competent ruler or politician and a decent person who embodied classic Christian virtues. Machiavelli referenced Girolamo Savonorola, an ardent christian who ruled Florence for a brief period of time and preached against the tyranny of the Medici government, managing to rule Florence as a democratic and honest state. But his success was short-lived as the corrupt Pope Alexander took advantage of his benevolence and he was burnt before the eyes of the vengeful citizenry.

According to Machiavelli, the primary task of a good prince is to protect the state from foreign and internal dangers, and to maintain the reputation of the state. This contains an element of nationalism and patriotism, as the prince goes to any extent to safeguard the interests of the nation. He said that a prince should always be obeyed and loved, but also provoke galvanising terror. Here, he referred to 2 cases. Ferdinand of Aragon unified Spain, adopting a centralising domestic strategy and a foreign policy centred around conquest and the containment of competing powers. He also supported the invasion of the New World with his wife, Isabella I of Castile. Ferdinand's skill and ability to preserve an "excellent" reputation is lauded by Machiavelli. The second case was the renowned general Hannibal. During the Second Punic War, Hannibal invaded the Roman Republic. Despite his failure to take Rome, Machiavelli praises Hannibal for the "virtue" of "cruelty," which he utilised to maintain control of his army.

Machiavelli stated that a leader would be wise to employ what he called virtu (virtue). For politicians, Machiavelli's idea of virtue included insight, strategy, strength, bravery, and, when required, ruthlessness. He utilised the wonderfully contradictory phrase "Criminal Virtue" to explain the contradictory requirements of leaders: they needed to be ruthlessly pragmatic for the benefit of their state, but also ensure that they inspire their followers. Machiavelli used his infamous contemporary, Cesare Borgia, the primary inspiration of “the Prince”, as an example of someone who knew how to be severe but not needlessly so. When Cesare seized Cesena, he ordered one of his mercenaries to restore discipline to the province, which he accomplished in rapid and harsh fashion. Later, he killed the mercenary to reinforce his authority. Cesare lowered taxes, imported cheap grain, constructed a glamorous theatre, and staged a series of magnificent events to distract people from any unpleasant memories.

Machiavellianism as a Political Philosophy

“The Prince” ends with an appeal to Lorenzo de’ Medici, the recently installed ruler of Florence, urging him to unite the fragmented city-states of Italy under his rule. Thus, many believe that Machiavelli was primarily motivated by pragmatic realism and a desire for peace in his fractured, war-torn and decadent country. According to this view, Machiavelli was the first one to comprehend a difficult, necessary truth: the greater good obtained by political stability is worth whatever unsavoury tactics are needed to achieve it.

Machiavelli may have authored a guidebook for ruthless, dictatorial rulers, but he also showed the cards to those who would be dominated by sharing it. In doing so, he revolutionised political philosophy, setting the groundwork for Hobbes and several succeeding philosophers to investigate human affairs in terms of concrete reality rather than abstract, preconceived notions.

Machiavellianism in Everyday Life

Shakespeare employed the term "Machiavel" to refer to an immoral opportunist, which led to the widespread use of "Machiavellian" as a synonym for manipulative villainy beyond its application in politics. In the field of business, Machiavellianism is used to describe employees who engage in a wide range of unethical actions such as lying, deceit, theft, sabotage and cheating that endanger their intended target, the larger workplace, and the company as a whole. However, effective management, in the form of organised monitoring, well designed reward systems, and rigorous selection procedures can counteract these undesired effects. In psychology, Machiavellianism It is part of the 'Dark Triad', a trio of negative personality traits that include narcissism and psychopathy, and refers to people who are singularly manipulative and immoral in pursuit of their own interests. This characteristic was named after Niccolo Machiavelli as it was inspired by his words and works, and is measured by the Mach IV test, a likert-scale personality survey.

As seen above, Machiavellianism is viewed and utilised in the negative light as it promotes unethical behaviours. So the catch here is to make sure that the principles of Machiavellianism can be adopted with prudence and scrutiny so that they do not not completely break all the essential rules and morals.


The Catholic Church banned Machiavelli's works for 200 years because he argued that being a good Christian and being a good leader were incompatible. He believed that we cannot be universally virtuous because of our limited ability, and resources, and conflicting moral codes. Some of the fields we choose may require what we evasively called 'difficult decisions'. We may have to give up neo-Christian visions of kindness for the sake of practical effectiveness, but that is the cost of dealing with the world as it is, not as we believe it should be. The world has continued to love and hate Machiavelli in equal measure for insisting that we focus our attention on the uncomfortable tension between two equally necessary aspects of life that will always be in conflict: effectiveness and kindness.

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