When you hear the name Niccolò Machiavelli, you probably think of a man who advocated for tyranny. You probably think he was a man who advocated for leaders to become tyrants with no morals. In fact, the term “Machiavellian” has become pseudonymous with a schemer who believes the ends justify the means. In literature, he’s the manipulative character who schemes against people for his own gain by any means necessary.
However, this is a misinterpretation of Machiavelli. True, in his most famous work The Prince, he gives advice to leaders on how to lead that is morally questionable. For example, Machiavelli says that it’s safer for a Prince to be feared by his people rather than loved. He seems to advocate for the abandonment of all virtue for rulers. He advises Princes to use any means necessary to gain and keep power.
At first glance, it may seem that Machiavelli was an advocate of outright tyranny. Many label The Prince as a handbook to suppressing the citizenry. People may think Machiavelli’s ideal is a tyrannical state. This is not the case.
Truth Behind Niccolò Machiavelli’s Prince
Machiavelli was not an apologist for tyrants. Rather, he was a realist. Machiavelli wanted people to see the world the way it is, not the way it ought to be. He noticed how the “evil” politician gained power while the virtuous were left behind. Machiavelli did not think we should become amoral tyrants, but rather that we could learn a thing or two from them. He did not believe in a brutal dictatorship, but rather he noted that these tyrants are more “successful” than the prototypical kind and caring politician.
Niccolò Machiavelli believed princes should put effectiveness over principles. The nice politician will be bullied by the wicked. Therefore, the nice should learn from the wicked. Being purely virtuous would be nice, but it’s unrealistic in Machiavelli’s eyes. The politician with good ends may need to learn from the means of the wicked to achieve these ends. This doesn’t mean he supported tyranny. It was quite the contrary, as we shall see later.
In fact, some people believe that Machiavelli did not believe in the words he wrote in The Prince. Rather, he was writing a warning to the people on how politicians gain power. It’s unclear whether or not this is true, but one thing is for sure: Machiavelli was no friend of tyranny.
Defender of Freedom
The most accurate term to describe Niccolò Machiavelli would be a realist or a pragmatist. He did not believe in sticking strictly to morals or ideologies, but to practicality and reason. This reason brought him to a similar conclusion of many other thinkers we praise today.
Most people know Machiavelli from The Prince, but he also wrote many other books, including Discourses on Livy. In this book, he advocates for a system of government similar to what our Founding Fathers created. Machiavelli was not a supporter of Monarchy. Rather, he was a republican. Machiavelli was a supporter of liberty and thought the people should be governed by themselves, not a monarch. A free people would naturally create a prosperous society, he noted. Freedom was not simply just desirable. It also worked.
In fact, John Adams even credited Machiavelli for “the revival of reason in matters of government.” Machiavelli understood human nature and reason and used it in his discourse.
Often called the Father of Modern Political Philosophy, Machiavelli was a genius who is misunderstood often.
What we can learn from Machiavelli is that the fighters of freedom can, ironically, learn from tyrannical princes. May we never forget his wise words:
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.
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