Machiavelli’s Morality 1

Machiavelli’s Morality
By Silver
Dartmouth College

As a political moralist, Niccolò Machiavelli does not fit in with his contemporaries’ opinions, yet one cannot argue that he is not consistent. His consistency in opinion is the solid foundation on which The Prince lies. This consistency is based on his assertion that almost any behavior is acceptable as long as it forwards your position; meaning that upon completing said unscrupulous act you must be in a better position of rule. Notice however that to justify a deed it must be productive. Following with the theme of consistency, Machiavelli holds that if a criminal act has no ulterior motive, it is deplorable. Additionally, the key to a justifiable act is, according to Machiavelli, efficiency, but that will be explored later. The belief in the “end game,” where the ends justify the means, is rational when you consider the conditions under which Machiavelli is writing. His determination to set aside the idealistic, realistically untouchable facsimiles of virtue that others at his time so praised is laudable for its boldness and practicality. Machiavelli’s contemporaries praised virtue and other impractical goals while ignoring the subtext of what went on in society. This subtext ranged from assassination games to political gambits and intrigue, with the winner gaining power and the loser often losing a great deal. As such The Prince is a far cry from idealistic literature, yet congruous to the objective reality of politics at time. One

Machiavelli’s Morality 2 might ask why, but the answer is right in front of them. The Prince is written unabashedly as a guide for rulers aiming to have successful reigns. It is a guide for a ruler, not a Good Samaritan. Returning to efficiency, this parallels the goal of forwarding ones position, and in fact augments it. Machiavelli condones unscrupulous acts as long as they are useful, but more than that, he recommends choosing the action that will cause the least turmoil down the line, regardless of how cruel it may be. This efficiency of action is understandable. Efficiency of this kind is not seen more eloquently than in the example of establishing settlements, and it is two-fold at that. When taking over establishing one’s rule in a new land, the best way to secure authority is to establish settlements “in one or two places,” which will “fetter the state to you.”1 In establishing these settlements, he follows that you must simply kick out the existing inhabitants of a few areas to house the incoming settlers. Where is the efficiency? It is in this action. By kicking out the existing inhabitants, the only ones in this new land who truly hate you are those who you kicked out, yet they are widely dispersed and powerless. Efficient? Certainly, because you gain settlements at little or no price at all, thus securing both your hold on the land, and a several bases of loyalty. This surely is a morally despicable act, yet it forwards the rulers progress. The efficiency is then two fold, when you consider the alternatives to this, as is then discussed. If you do not destroy a select few for settlements, you must station troops in these lands for the indefinite future. This action is far from efficient both in terms of money and progress with your newly won people. Standing troops are quite

Nicollò Machiavelli, trans. George Bull (London: Penguin Books, 1999), 10.

Machiavelli’s Morality 3 expensive, and as such “all the revenues have to be devoted to defense and the gain becomes a loss.” 2 Progress with the people is inhibited because the cost of maintaining forces becomes a burden on all of the people in the form of taxation and interference. This annoyance will stir and fester among the people, eventually leading to hate. In this way, efficiency is an integral part of the justification that goes into condoning otherwise immoral actions. Perhaps in fact, one could argue that they are for the greater good. This idea of saving yourself from future trouble first appears in Machiavelli’s discussion of dealing with foreign rulers and dynasties. When such a group that is used to absolutist rule is conquered, according to Machiavelli the best and most practical action is to wipe out the surviving members of the former ruling family, or else face future tumult.3 While yes this is morally deplorable, it is consistent with The Prince as a whole. If one does not wipe out the line of the former ruler, they will face future issues of succession and conflict when the survivors eventually challenge you for the right to rule. As Machiavelli says, you cannot prevent war; it is “merely postponed to one’s disadvantage.”4 Efficiency is again apparent in this advice. Save yourself future trouble and great expense by fighting the coming war now. If war cannot be prevented, then do not postpone it to a time when the odds of victory are lower than today, because they never will be. Few will remember this act of cruelty because those who it most greatly affected are dead. The rest of the people are

Machiavelli, The Prince, 11. Machiavelli, The Prince, 9. 4 Machiavelli, The Prince, 14.
2 3

Machiavelli’s Morality 4 already acclimatized to absolutist rule, so for the majority of them, as long as neither taxes or laws are changed, it is the same to them. This comes upon another pillar of Machiavelli’s morality, one that he holds onto strongly. The key to ruling in a way that can approach moral soundness is by committing cruel acts only once. The key to cruelty is to use it to cement one’s rule, not to maintain it. For example be morally objectionable by destroying a dynasty, yet then do no further harm. In this way the people will be cowed, even fearful, but they will neither rise up nor hate you. To do otherwise, to use cruelty as a crutch of rule, is not justifiable. There is a better way, and therefor it is, according to Machiavelli, deplorable. As a political moralist Machiavelli maintains his strong consistency. Regarding the taking over of a new land, there is a second scenario which reveals insight into Machiavelli, and which secures his consistency in regards to the morality of decisions. Previously the situation of taking over a previously absolutist state was discussed. When conquering a free state, the opposite strategy must be undertaken by necessity. The people must be destroyed utterly, for as he says, “there is no surer way of keeping possession than by devastation.”5 The reason for this is that if one does not devastate people, then they will destroy you in turn, fighting under the name of liberty. Such a people will call on their past independence to justify their rebellions, regardless of the benefits under a new ruler. This volatility is a dangerous risk to any leader, and as such the most secure path is to destroy those in question. When the ideals of freedom are erased from a

Machiavelli, The Prince, 18.

Machiavelli’s Morality 5 culture, they cannot be revived in the name of revenge.6 This may seem both drastic and morally foul, and that is because it is. But the point is that it is for the end game. It is the means to success for the ruler of the state. Because of this Machiavelli praises it as the correct course of action. When a ruler follows this course of action he will be successful in retaining possession of the state indefinitely. This is appealing to Machiavelli for several other reasons as well. Again you must not delay warfare to your own loss in advantage, but also, it returns to the concept of using cruelty to gain control, and not to keep it. At the same however, a ruler must consider honor. Honor seems to be important to Machiavelli in regards to maintaining a state, but on a secondary tier. It is below warfare and other conflict, which are the primary ways to hold a territory, and as such they are non-negotiable. Honor on the other hand to Machiavelli is also praiseworthy, but not necessary. Why is this distinction important? It is important because otherwise one could argue that Machiavelli’s consistency at praising unscrupulous acts falls short when he also lauds the benefits of being honorable. If he set honor and necessary violence on the same level of importance then it would also undermine the rational under which Machiavelli is writing. He claims to be writing from a new direction that specifically throws out idealistic principals, under which honor certainly falls. In this way Machiavelli is able to maintain the importance of honor, and he does so easily by including the caveat that one must not let honor get in the way of personal success.


Machiavelli, The Prince, 19.

Machiavelli’s Morality 6 Distilled, Machiavelli’s advice to the prince is if you can be honorable without self-harm then do so; never lead yourself to ruin over honor, because the first principle of rule is forwarding your position. If a prince wants to remain in power, he must be prepared to go without virtue, to the point of being dishonorable.7 Now then, if Machiavelli is supportive of all manner of sordid acts, then what sort of behavior earns his contempt? To say simply that Machiavelli is only disgusted by unscrupulous acts that do not accomplish something productive would be to suggest that he is sociopathic, and that is certainly not the case. It is true that he finds these things deplorable: for example it is repulsive if a ruler takes over a previously absolutist state and then proceeds to devastate it, however his displeasure also extends to unsavory behavior in the realm of cruelty and vice. To Machiavelli, cruelty becomes distasteful when, as I have said before, its use is repeated. In addition to incurring the loathing of Machiavelli, often repeated use of cruelty earns a ruler the hatred of those he rules. As a backdrop, a general for rulers is to please the most powerful class. When they are under your control, then the secondary group (this most often being divided into military and civilians) has limited ability to affect change. Additionally, in general the rapacity of the army can be satiated with cruelty, violence and other such vices, while the common people are more satisfied with honorable things. This being the case, one also must remember that the goal of a ruler is to avoid hatred at all cost. In this way you can


Machiavelli, The Prince, 50.

Machiavelli’s Morality 7 take the avoidance of hatred to be synonymous with the approval of Machiavelli, and acts that cause hatred to be most assuredly deplored. Connecting the two is Machiavelli’s example of Commodus, the successor of Marcus Aurelius. Marcus Aurelius left Commodus with a solidly intact state, and as we know from The Prince, all he had to do was avoid doing anything out of the status quo, and he would have been fine. But due to his insatiable appetite for cruelty and “other imperial things hardy worthy of the imperial majesty,” the soldiers, who were the most powerful class (and usually are) “came to despise him.”8 As a result of this he was the victim of a conspiracy that ended his life. In this way Machiavelli also distinguishes between ones prowess as a leader and the justification that can come from great prowess and coarse, novice violence. To exemplify brute force, Machiavelli discusses the ways in which Agathocles gained control of Syracuse, and in doing so he also explores the idea of glory (not to be confused with honor; glory is gained through actions, honor defines one’s actions). Agathocles’ penchant for violence caused him to rise through the ranks of the militia until he became praetor of Syracuse. Upon reaching this authority his decision to expand his authoritative power manifested itself in exploiting violence to cow his people into submission. His determination to take everything with this method lead to examples of violence like leading all the senators and influential citizens of Syracuse to a meeting where they were put to death. This type cruelty was unnecessary in the greatest degree, and even dangerous. Put succinctly, “it cannot be called prowess to kill fellow citizens, to betray friends, to be treacherous,

Machiavelli, The Prince, 65.

Machiavelli’s Morality 8 pitiless, irreligious. These ways can win a prince power but not glory.”9 In this way Machiavelli condemns Agathocles and his methods, despite their success. At first his admittance that Agathocles was successful seems like a break from his overarching consistency, but that is not the case. He goes on to give a contemporary example of this strategy, and its failings. In providing an example of failure due to the overzealous use of cruelty, he labels Agathocles an outlier. This failure comes in the man of Oliveretto of Fermo. Fermo sought to imitate Agathocles even so far as to murder an assembly of leaders, yet he met his end violently, as is – to Machiavelli- fitting.10 In this way Machiavelli maintains his consistency as a political moralist while exploring options a ruler can take, and as a good historian, acknowledging events that counter his own teachings. Machiavelli preaches a strong, unique opinion, and one that holds fast and consistent as it takes into consideration many political possibilities. Covering all of his bases, Machiavelli, through The Prince guides the Italian leadership of the time in ways most unorthodox, yet brutally honest in their effectiveness and efficiency. He does so for the sake of the state, his state. He is outspoken is his view that the means justifies the ends. From taking over a state and demolishing a people to maintaining a state through the implementation of settlements, unscrupulous acts are praised because they benefit the ruler. In this way, the opposite is also true. Acts that are inefficient and hence harmful to the ruler (because a better choice could be made, with greater gains) are denounced, while cruelty and vice that leads to hatred



Machiavelli, The Prince, 29. Machiavelli, The Prince, 31.

Machiavelli’s Morality 9 towards the ruler is also deplored, hatred leads to the destruction of any ruler. Progress is justified; taking steps backwards is, to Machiavelli, criminal.

Machiavelli, Nicollò. The Prince. Trans. George Bull. London: Penguin Books, 1999.