Niccolo Machiavelli

Niccolò Machiavelli, the Renaissance thinker whose profound insights into politics and power continue to captivate and intrigue generations of scholars and leaders.

Niccolo Machiavelli (1469 – 1527) 



Born in Florence, Italy in 1469, Machiavelli is a Renaissance thinker who elicits both fervent admiration and sharp criticism. As an advocate of civic republicanism, he has left a lasting impact on subsequent thinkers from various perspectives. Gramsci applauds him for his separation of Politics from Ethics, emphasizing his practical approach to politics over philosophical ideals. He ushered in an era of new ideas that are emblematic of the modern age. Machiavelli was regarded as the “First Modern Political Thinker” by Maxey.

Influences on Machiavelli 

“Machiavelli was the child of his times” – Dunning 

“The whole of Renaissance is in Machiavelli.” – Laski 

“Machiavelli was narrowly dated and narrowly located.” – Sabine 

Let’s discuss some key developments influenced his thought


The Renaissance, known as the rebirth of logic and civilizational values, revitalized the spirit of inquiry and humanism, which found expression in Machiavelli’s ideas. At its core was the emergence of a new individual driven by self-interest, seeking glory and fame. This modern individual became the focus of Machiavelli’s philosophy. Concurrently, the notion of a modern state, powerful and pervasive, developed, shaping Machiavelli’s understanding of statecraft.


The Reformation, marked by the separation of the public and private spheres in religion, led to the rise of secularism and the separation of church and state. These developments significantly influenced Machiavelli’s political thought, earning him the title of the Father of European Secularism.

Breakdown of Feudalism 

While the old feudal order crumbled, the emergence of the territorial nation-state as a sovereign entity was still in its infancy. Machiavelli’s preference for common people over nobility reflected the changing times.

Rise of Nation-State 

Machiavelli was deeply concerned with Italy’s need to become a strong nation-state, making Italian unification a primary objective. His dream was to see a united, regenerated, and glorious Italy, requiring the defense and preservation of the state and its people. Machiavelli’s emphasis on the spirit of his times is evident in his advocacy for a national army.

Rise of Capitalism 

Machiavelli’s portrayal of human nature as self-centered, materialistic, and possessive mirrors the psychology of the emerging bourgeois class.

Important Works of Machiavelli

  1. Art of war (1521) – It is a classic on theory of war and Military in the west. It explains the relation between war and politics in Machiavelli’s political thought. 
  2. History of Florence (1525) – It talks about Machiavelli’s work in the city of Florence and the forces which shaped its history. 
  3. The Discourses (1531) – Here Machiavelli has described Republicanism. His criticism of feudal order and nobility is reflected in his book. 
  4. The Prince (1532) – Machiavelli’s book ‘Prince’ is one of the best books written on statecraft (Art of Politics). He is compared to Chanakya in this regard. Machiavelli in Prince gives advice to the Prince (ruler) about ruling the states in a realist manner.

Methodology of Machiavelli 

Machiavelli, often hailed as the Father of Political Realism, embraced a materialistic approach to political thought. Contrary to the emphasis on philosophy, he believed that psychology and history were superior guides to understanding politics. He adopted a cyclical view of history, wherein patterns repeat themselves. In his works, “The Prince” highlights the paramount importance of state security and unity, while “The Discourses” delves into themes of liberty and republicanism.

Political Ideas of Machiavelli

On Human Nature 

Machiavelli recognized that rulers, like Prince, must possess a deep understanding of human nature since they govern people. He asserted that psychology, rather than philosophy, was the key to this understanding. According to Machiavelli, human nature remains consistent throughout history. He depicted human nature in a rather pessimistic light, highlighting traits such as selfishness, ingratitude, fickleness, cowardice, and greed. He famously stated that a person could forget the loss of their father but not the loss of their property.

Machiavelli’s view on human nature led him to conclude that individuals prioritize their self-interest over the interests of their rulers refers to the concept of “Universal Egoism”. People support a prince as long as they perceive their own interests being served. Rulers must not take their subjects for granted, as people, being inherently ungrateful, tend to forget favors bestowed upon them.

On Morality

Machiavelli is renowned for his assertion that in politics, ends justify means. He firmly separated religion and politics, as well as ethics and politics, establishing the autonomy of politics from these moral frameworks. He argued that political actions should be evaluated based on political standards rather than religious or ethical ones. What may be considered ethnically or religiously wrong can be politically correct in Machiavelli’s view.

To illustrate this, Machiavelli introduced the concept of “Dual Morality”. According to this concept, the morality of a prince differs from that of a common person. While an ordinary individual may be willing to sacrifice their life for their principles, a prince cannot afford to sacrifice the nation-state for personal principles. Here Machiavelli gave the idea of “Flexible Disposition”, which states that Prince must act as per demand of fate and circumstances. The morality of a prince, as defined by Machiavelli, revolves around ensuring the security and preservation of the nation and its people.

“There is nothing like ethics for Prince. He is everything”. – The originality of Machiavelli written by Berlin.

On Religion 

Machiavelli did not hold a stance against religion itself but rather took issue with the institutionalized Church of his time. He saw the Church as a corrupt entity and attributed Italy’s lack of unification partly to its influence. Consequently, he advocated for a separation between the Church and the state, aiming to prevent the Church from guiding governmental affairs.

Machiavelli’s approach to religion was utilitarian in nature. He advised princes to utilize religion in the interest of the nation. He viewed religion as a disciplinary force that could assist rulers in governing their people effectively. Machiavelli even recommended that a prince should maintain a public appearance of religiosity, even if the prince personally lacked faith. He believed that people preferred their rulers to be religious.

On State and Its Preservation  

Machiavelli regarded the state as the highest authority to which subjects should wholeheartedly submit. He believed that the prosperity of the subjects was the yardstick for evaluating the success or failure of a state. In his view, a successful state was one ruled by a single leader, favoring monarchy over aristocracy. He emphasized the importance of a reliable army composed of native troops instead of relying on foreign soldiers.

While Machiavelli considered a republican state as the best form of government in theory, he acknowledged that the prevailing conditions of his time favored a monarchical government. He firmly asserted the secular nature of the state, subordinating the Church to the authority of the state.

Advice on the Amount of Power

Machiavelli famously declared, “It is better for the Prince to be feared than loved”. He advocated that a prince should skillfully employ both hard power and soft power. While he acknowledged the value of soft power in generating goodwill, he argued that goodwill alone was insufficient to ensure compliance, as human beings were inherently selfish and ungrateful. Machiavelli believed that people acted in their own self-interest, so a policy of love and goodwill was not adequate.

The prince, in Machiavelli’s view, should exploit the weaknesses of human nature. Force should not be the first resort but should be applied when absolutely necessary. When the prince decided to use force, it should be employed decisively to completely crush the opponent and leave no room for revenge. Machiavelli recognized the potency of the desire for revenge in humans and believed that it could override rational self-interest, driving individuals to take actions even against their own wellbeing.

Qualities of a Prince

Machiavelli offers clear guidance on the attributes a prince should possess. He famously advises that a prince must embody both the cunning of a fox and the bravery of a lion. To elucidate these qualities further:

  • Cleverness – Like a fox, a prince should be astute and discerning, able to recognize and navigate the various traps and pitfalls that may be set for him.
  • Courage – Similar to a lion, a prince should exhibit courage and strength, capable of defending himself against potential threats, often symbolized as wolves.

Machiavelli’s counsel regarding the qualities of a prince stems from his understanding of human nature and his observations of historical events.

On Fortune

Machiavelli expounds on the concept of fortune, which he characterizes as circumstances beyond an individual’s control. He primarily employs the term “fortune” in a negative sense, associating it with bad luck or unfavorable situations. He suggests that even if a prince possesses all the requisite qualities for success, they may still encounter adverse turns of fortune.

In response to the capriciousness of fortune, Machiavelli advises a prince to confront it with courage. He advocated his idea of fortune to a woman who may embrace or disfavor men unpredictably, implying that a prince should face the uncertainties of fortune with resolve and adaptability.

Significance of Machiavelli

Machiavelli marks the onset of a new era in political thought, earning him the title of the Father of Realism. The realist perspective on politics, as epitomized by Machiavelli, centers on the power dynamics inherent in politics.

Machiavelli’s influence extends to the introduction of the Western concept of secularism. He advocated for a rigorous separation between religion and politics, asserting that to comprehend politics fully, one must prioritize knowledge of history and psychology over ethics and religion.

He emphasized the role of the lawgiver as not only the architect of the state but also of society, underscoring the importance of this position.

Machiavelli stands out as a prominent patriot and nationalist among Western scholars. He championed the idea that neither religion nor ethics should obstruct the pursuit of national interest, establishing the supremacy of nationalism over religion.

In his view, the realm of politics and the state is not rooted in philosophy or religion but rather in the effective management of power. Machiavelli’s enduring legacy lies in his transformation of political thought by shifting the focus to power dynamics and practical governance. Later in book Discourses, He also regarded all governments as defective and even condemned monarchy and feudal Nobility.

Quotes by Machiavelli 

⮚ “The lion cannot protect himself from traps, and the fox cannot defend himself from wolves. One must therefore be a fox to recognize traps, and a lion to frighten wolves.” 

⮚ “Never attempt to win by force what can be won by deception.” 

⮚ “Law, Religion, and Citizen. Army makes for stronger state”

⮚ “Men are driven by two principal impulses, either by love or by fear.” 

⮚ “Since love and fear can hardly exist together, if we must choose between them, it is far safer to be feared than loved” 

⮚ “He who wishes to be obeyed must know how to command” 

⮚ “Therefore, it is necessary to be a fox to discover the snares and a lion to terrify the wolves” 

⮚ “There is no avoiding war, it can only be postponed to the advantage of your enemy.” 

⮚ “Men sooner forget the death of their father than the loss of their patrimony”

Comments on Machiavelli

Negative Comments –

Machiavelli was regarded as “teacher of evil” by Leo Strauss in his Book – Thoughts on Machiavelli

⮚  A Murderous Machiavelli, a damned Machiavelli – William Shakespeare

⮚  Machiavelli as “Father of Absolutism” – Holland Sabine

Positive Comments –

Machiavelli a lover of Liberty because of his book “Discourses” – Montesquieu

⮚ A republican, A satirist of a tyranny, a good citizen – Rousseau

⮚ Machiavelli as a Champion of Democracy – Geovanni

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