Machiavelli’s political life
Zachary Davis: I don’t remember exactly the first time I heard the phrase “Machiavellian”, but I’m pretty sure it was when I was watching some kind of show or movie about a political figure who was essentially willing to kill someone to get what he wanted. It was clear that “Machiavellian” basically meant that the ends justify the means.
Zachary Davis: The term “Machiavellian” comes from the ideas first presented in a book called The Prince written by Italian diplomat and philosopher Niccolò di Bernardo dei Machiavelli in 1513.He wrote the book as an advice guide for young rulers on how to be successful leaders. It was written for a private audience and wasn’t published publicly until after his death, yet it became his most famous and influential work.
James Hankins: It was his first work of political theory. Actually, it’s his first major work at all. He was 44 when he wrote it, and he had never written anything that caught anybody’s attention before that. He’d written some poetry and some reports and advice and so forth, but this is the first work of political theory. I’m James Hankins. I’m Professor of History at Harvard and a student of the Renaissance for the last 40 some years.
Zachary Davis: Someone who is “Machiavellian” typically does whatever it takes to get what they want, even if it means straying away from the moral path.
James Hankins: Machiavellism is accused of being amoral. But what it really is is a different construction of morality. It’s what we call today “utilitarianism,” or that is, a moral course of action is one that brings about the desired effect. It’s the effect, it’s the outcome that has to be moral. But how you get to the moral end is something that you will not achieve through moral means necessarily.
Zachary Davis: Welcome to Writ Large, a podcast about how books change the world. I’m Zachary Davis. In each episode, I talk with one of the world’s leading scholars about one book that changed the course of history. For this episode, I sat down with Professor James Hankins to discuss Niccolò Machiavelli’s The Prince.
Zachary Davis: Niccolò di Bernardo dei Machiavelli was born in Florence, Italy, in 1469. For three hundred years, Florence had been an independent republic, but soon before Machiavelli’s birth, the Medici family came to power. The Medici were bankers, as well as patrons of many famous artists, architects, and thinkers, including Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, Raphael, and Botticelli. This was a time of intellectual rebirth and artistic flourishing now known as the Italian Renaissance—in a large part thanks to the Medici’s patronage.
Zachary Davis: Machiavelli received a humanist education. This revival of studying classical antiquity was a defining characteristic of the Italian Renaissance. In addition to his humanist education, Machiavelli also studied mathematics and business. He spent some time in Rome as a banker, and returned to Florence in 1494.
Zachary Davis: Machiavelli returned to Florence during a turbulent time. France was invading Italy. King Charles VIII was leading an army to conquer Naples and had to pass through Florence on his way there. The ruler of Florence at the time was Piero di Lorenzo de’ Medici, now known as Piero the Unfortunate.
Zachary Davis: Without consulting the rest of the Florentine government, Piero met with King Charles VIII and accepted an unfavorable peace treaty. Upon returning to Florence, the public was outraged and kicked him and his family out of the city. The Medici remained in exile from Florence for the next 18 years.
Zachary Davis: In their absence, a Dominican preacher named Girolamo Savonarola stepped in, restored the republic, and took over the rulership of Florence. In 1497, Savonarola was excommunicated from Florence by the pope.After Savonarola, Italian statesman Piero Soderini stepped in as the new leader of the Republic of Florence. It was during this time that Machiavelli got involved in the Florentine government.
James Hankins: He was what’s called “the second chancellor of Florence”, which meant he was like the Assistant Secretary of State. But the Secretary of State, who was a man named Adriana, is a classical humanist, former professor in the university. He had gout, and he couldn’t move around too much. So, Machiavelli is always being sent off. So, he has tremendous experience as a diplomat. He goes to Germany, he goes to France. He’s all over, he’s in Milan, and he’s in Venice. So, he knows the players, and he’s seen a lot.
Zachary Davis:This was a particularly formative time for Machiavelli. One of the most influential things he saw was the actions of the cruel and vicious politician Cesare Borgia. Borgia was a politician in northern Italy. He was planning a conquest of Tuscany, and the Florentine government wanted to keep an eye on him.
James Hankins: So, they send out Machiavelli, you know, as part diplomat, part spy to see what’s going on with Cesare Borgia. At first, Machiavelli is absolutely revolted because he’s a typical Florentine early in his career. He says, “Borgia doesn’t think, he doesn’t talk. He just does.”
James Hankins: And he, Borgia, you know, does all these incredibly immoral things, and Machiavelli is still worrying about that sort of thing. But after a while, he starts to admire Cesare Borgia, and he says “This guy really gets results, right? It’s unorthodox. You know, if this were happening in Florence, we’d have, you know, a debate about what to do that went on for months, and then we couldn’t make up our mind. But this guy just makes up his mind in an instant, and he does it and it works.” So, he really admires action and instant decision.
Zachary Davis: Witnessing Borgia’s tactics first-hand was a turning point for Machiavelli. He began to formulate new theories on how one should rule over a society. Meanwhile, the Medici family had made their way back into Florence, regained power, and once again, ended the republic. While they were in exile, Machiavelli was working under the rulership of Piero Soderini who was for the republic of Florence. This didn’t sit well with the Medici family and after about a year they falsely accused Machiavelli of trying to restore the republic. They felt he was too close with Soderini and was a potential threat to the Medici dynasty.
James Hankins: Machiavelli was publicly denounced in the streets. There was a town crier who went around on horseback saying, “Machiavelli is,” you know, “Machiavelli is considered a treasonous man.” He was taken into custody. He was tortured, as people were in those days, and eventually let go and sent into exile. Or…not very far into exile, but into exile. He was not allowed to come back to the city. Let’s put it that way.
Zachary Davis: So, Machiavelli moved into his family’s estate just outside the city. He spent his days studying and writing political treatises, but he wanted more than anything to return to politics. To smooth over relations with the Medici, he decided to write a book for the rulers of Florence. The book was based on a type of book called “mirrors for princes”.
A mirror of prince
James Hankins: That’s the genre. It’s called “a mirror of prince”. And the mirror of prince basically tells the ruler how to acquire the virtues that will enable him to run a state well.
Zachary Davis: “Mirrors for princes” were a genre of political writing written from the early middle ages through the Renaissance. It was something of an instructional manual for new kings and rulers. Machiavelli’s The Prince takes this genre in a new direction.
James Hankins: Well, it’s an advice book—this is one way of putting it. Butthe advice book tells you how to win, how to be effective. So he, in a way, is inventing a genre. There’s a long, big literature about the relationship between Machiavelli’s Prince and other earlier mirrors of princes. But he’s doing something that’s very original.
Zachary Davis: One difference between Machiavelli’s work and earlier mirrors of princes was the language.
James Hankins: It’s written in Italian, which is an important point because most of these mirrors of princes that I talked about, these how-to-be-a-great-prince book that was written by the humanists, they’re all written in Latin. And it’s, the Medici princes could both read Latin. They were educated well, but nevertheless, he didn’t want them struggling over irregular verbs. Right? He, he wanted them to be able to read this.
James Hankins: And it’s a very powerful treatise. It’s not actually much classical stuff in it. You know, typically mirrors of princes would be constantly bringing up classical examples, Greeks and Romans and Scipio and Pompey and Caesar, and they would be drawing lessons from their behavior. But, but Machiavelli does not spend much time on that. Instead, he focuses on recent history. He’s writing in Italian, and it’s got a patina of classical knowledge, but it’s also constantly pulling out the rug from the classics.
Zachary Davis: The Renaissance was in part a return to the classics. The teachings of ancient Greek philosophers such as Plato and Aristotle were brought back into the education system and people were schooled in the humanist way of thinking. But Machiavelli, who also had this education, thought this made for bad leaders. So, what was the view before that Machiavelli seemed to be departing from?
James Hankins: Well, if you look at the ancient philosophers, Plato and Aristotle and the Stoics, and the chief schools, which were tremendously influential for the rest of Western civilization, still influential today, there was a belief that the laws of nature and the laws of morality were really the same thing.
Zachary Davis: For the ancient philosophers, the laws of nature didn’t mean gravity and thermodynamics. It meant the core virtues that they believed all humans should live by.
James Hankins: The idea is that the laws of nature and the laws of morality are aligned so that the virtues, the traditional virtues, are essentially nature’s directions for how to live a happy life. And if you don’t live the virtues, you’re going to make yourself miserable.
James Hankins: And that is what Machiavelli challenges. He’s not the first person to challenge it. In world history, there are other political thinkers in India and ancient China who do similar, make similar moves. But in the Western tradition, he’s really the first person to, to say that’s simply not the case, right? That if, any, any political leader who consistently follows the rules of morality will not be successful.
Zachary Davis: For Machiavelli, success means getting what you want.
James Hankins:In fact, Machiavelli goes further, and he says, “If you consistently apply the rules of morality, you will fail as a prince, right? That there is no way you can succeed.” The famous quotation, which is really the heart of his thinking and that which sounds most plausible to moderns, is in Chapter 15 of The Prince, where he says that the man who will take a vow of goodness in all things must necessarily come to grief among so many who are not good.
James Hankins: So, don’t be a sucker. That’s really, you could translate it that way very loosely. Don’t be a sucker. Nobody else is obeying the rules. If you obey the rules, you’ll end up under, trampled underfoot by all the people who are looking out for themselves. But this is a key point about Machiavelli, that he separates ethics and politics. He thinks that politics operates on different rules. And he says if you try to act according to moral rules, you will be a failure.
Zachary Davis: In The Prince, Machiavelli stresses the importance of being a ruler who is a strong military leader.
James Hankins:He’s living the period when Italy is being conquered by foreign countries. In 1494, this most famous event in Renaissance history was the French coming into Italy and conquering the whole place and about six months. So, he thinks, “We have to be tough now. Forget about all this literature stuff. Forget about, you know, being good Christians. Let’s be strong. Let’s be effective political leaders.Let’s have a citizen militia like the Romans did, citizen armies like the Romans did, and be able to defend ourselves.”
James Hankins: That’s his primary objective: to create an Italy—and especially in Florence—that’s strong and can stand up to invaders. So, he’s a great believer in military strength, and you really kind of can’t understand what Machiavelli is doing in The Prince unless you understand his objective is to have strong princes, right?
James Hankins: Mostly he’s talking about recent history and what has worked and what hasn’t worked in recent history. So, he talks a lot about his own experiences as a man of state. And that is what he’s offering the Medici. He says, “I have this experience. Not only do I have this experience. I’ve seen it with my own eyes, and I’ve thought about it. And I have a different understanding of what works.So you, you guys, Lorenzo and Giuliano, you’ve been taught by your teachers, your humanist teachers to be virtuous, and I’m going to tell you how it really works.”
James Hankins: That’s the message of The Prince. Right? And he has these marvelous examples, which are also terrifying examples of how princes have behaved in the past very badly, but been successful as a result.
To be loved or to be feared
Zachary Davis: Machiavelli is building theories of ruling based on what he has witnessed firsthand.
James Hankins: That’s what The Prince is about. It starts off in this very theoretical way. He talks about the forms of government and then he, but then he goes into a particular examples of things a prince should do and should not do.
James Hankins: He’s trying to be theoretical at the beginning. But he says really there are only two forms of government: there’s republics and there’s princes. There’s one man rule and there’s power sharing. He doesn’t even think about the possibility of democratic government because he knows that all government’s oligarchical, right? He has an understanding that it’s always some people ruling other people.
James Hankins: So, he starts off with that, and then he tries to work through all the possibilities. Machiavelli’s mode of analysis is what we call a decision tree today. And he is presenting his case to the Medici, and he says, “Well, how should you behave in a variety of situations? Suppose you conquer a state with your own arms, you can do one set of things. If there’s a revolution and you have restored an oligarchy, there’s another set of things you can do. If you have conquered a state with other men’s arms,” he says, “you’re the weakest of all.”
James Hankins: Now, the Medici had conquered the state with other men’s arms, right? They used the Spanish army to conquer Florence. So, then Machiavelli talks about what they should do given the fact that they’re essentially extremely weak. They don’t have their own armies, they have other people’s armies, and they depend on mercenary pay, and how you can win the hearts of the locals.
Zachary Davis:Machiavelli is writing this about a year after the Medici returned to Florence. They had no interest in continuing the republic of Florence. They want to turn it into a principality. But Machiavelli thinks this won’t be possible.
James Hankins:So, one possible understanding of The Prince is that Machiavelli is telling these two young Medici that they should go into the papal states and found a principality there in a place that does not have deep republican traditions. And he gives some examples showing why it’s hard for a city with republican traditions to become a monarchy. So, he’s a republican. He still has those loyalties, but he also wants to impress the Medici with his tremendous insight into how to run a state.
Zachary Davis: And what are some of the main pieces of advice that he gives to the Medici?
James Hankins: Well, he plays with this famous question in Cicero’s book On Duties, which is a book that everybody had read in the Renaissance, right? So, everybody knows this famous passage where Cicero asks, “Is it better to be loved than feared?” And Cicero is a stoic, and he’s taking the view that it’s better to be loved than feared because that rulers who are feared don’t attract loyalty the way rulers that are loved. So, how do you become a loved ruler?
James Hankins: Well, you don’t use coercion. You try to be virtuous. You try to set an example of justice. The more just and virtuous you are as a ruler, the less you have to be feared, the less you have to fear, and the more you are loved. So, the message of Cicero’s is to be a good ruler, be just, be merciful, be temperate. And you will be able to rule effortlessly without coercion. People will look up to you and say, “I’m so glad we have you as our ruler.” They will not want anybody else for their ruler.
James Hankins: So, Machiavelli’s view of this is—very typically Machiavellian—that sometimes you want to be feared, sometimes you want to be loved, you know. You can’t make hard and fast rules. This is not moral philosophy. This is not, this is not strategy. It’s tactics, that morality is tactical. It’s never strategic for Machiavelli.
James Hankins: Meaning that you can’t consistently be moral and expect to succeed. But what you really don’t want to be is hated, right? Hate is not what you want. And that’s the real mistake that tyrants make. Because the prince is not a tyrant, right? This is one of the important points to understand about Machiavelli’s Prince.
James Hankins: Many people think that the prince is just a synonym for tyrant. And that’s not what Machiavelli thinks. Machiavelli generally thinks a tyrant is someone who’s stupid, who just tries to satisfy themselves all the time, who uses their power for their personal gain and doesn’t have any careful thought about how you keep power. And tyrants usually don’t last very long, and they make themselves hated because they abuse their power to satisfy their own desires.
James Hankins: What you want is a prince, and the prince is someone who will most of the time be good. Okay? Because good works most of the time. And you certainly don’t want people thinking you’re evil because that will make you hated. But at certain times, you have to do evil, and then you do it very quickly, and you can either do it secretly, which is a form of fraud, or you can do extremely publicly.
James Hankins:But then what you have to do is snap back into the typical attitudes of the moral prince, right? So, you have to scare the hell out of people, basically, to make them realize you’re capable of. But then you go back to being moral and acting in your normal role. And then people are reassured, but they also have in the back of their mind what that guy can do if you get on the wrong side of him. Right? So, it’s a very strategic use of evil.
Influences of the book
Zachary Davis: What’s the immediate, um, reception to this work as it eventually gets published and spread among, I suppose, the parts of Italy and Europe? And what’s the story you would tell about its enduring influence on Western government life and Western politics, Western culture?
James Hankins: Other people in his immediate circle read the manuscript copy of The Prince, and that’s how eventually it made its way into print. One of his followers had it printed after his death. Once it was printed, it was extremely popular. All of his political works are very popular. I think he is up there with Aristotle as one of the two most popular political authors of the 16th century, and his influence continues into the 17th century, 18th century. He was read by Frederick the Great in the 18th century. His motto “toujours l’audace”, “always be audacious” is really a kind of Machiavellian slogan. And he’s read by the Founding Fathers. He’s read, of course, in modern times as a kind of self-help book for politicians.
James Hankins: So, he’s very popular. He was also considered an immoral writer right from the beginning. People had difficulty figuring out what he was up to because it’s a very difficult text to interpret in some ways. There were people like Cardinal Pole who thought that the work was a poison pill that Machiavelli hated the Medici. He wanted them to follow his advice so that they would fail. He was telling them things that wouldn’t work, because Reginald Pole being, Cardinal Pole being a very moral man, just couldn’t imagine that immorality would succeed.
James Hankins: But other people like, like Thomas Cromwell apparently did take the book very seriously and even may have used some of its prescriptions in his own career as Chancellor and Prime Minister of, of Henry the VIII. So, the book was eventually put on the list of prohibited books which didn’t really prevent its circulation very much. It was translated into many, many languages. It was translated into Latin. So, taking the road that Machiavelli himself didn’t go.
James Hankins: There’s also a tradition called the arcana imperii, the secrets of empire, where you whispered in the ear of your ruler that certain things had to be done. And they weren’t strictly moral things, but if you wanted to keep yourself in power, you wanted to keep your state from collapsing, you had to do those things. So, it was Machiavellian advice, but hidden, as it were, or whispered in quiet in the ear of the prince. It’s not something you want to trumpet anywhere.
James Hankins: So, Machiavelli becomes a major influence in Anglo-American political theory and also in European political theory—less in European political theory than Anglo-American. And he is read by the English Republicans of the 17th century and American Republicans in the 18th century. He’s read as someone who understands the way states work and he’s read as an advocate of a strong executive, especially by the American founders.
James Hankins: And Machiavelli is often cited, or sometimes alluded to rather than cited as an advocate of a strong executive that can cut through any kind of legislative red tape and act as the head of the military, for example, and conduct diplomatic relations without being constrained by a lot of consultation with the Senate.
Zachary Davis: Would it be fair to call Machiavelli the first political scientist, that he’s trying to develop a science of statecraft?
James Hankins:Yes, I think that’s fair. I mean, He’s someone who tries to reason out a course of action. And one of his beliefs is that, what makes him scientific is he believes that he can predict what’s going to happen if you do X, Y, or Z, that a lucid examination of the situation and the powers that you have, and the power that people have, and their interests, and your interests, you can tell what results your action will have in a particular field, and that can be reasoned. So, that’s a kind of scientific form of reasoning.
James Hankins: Machiavelli believes that, in effect, he can tell the future and that will, that at least in a given situation, restricted situation, you can tell what the future will bring. And that’s a strong enough prediction that you can alter your behavior from moral to immoral on that basis.
James Hankins: Because that’s, when you advocate immoral behavior, you always have to be sure that it’s going to be successful, right? So, where does that certainty come from? That doesn’t exist in pre-Machiavellian thought, the idea that we know that much about the future, that we can overrule our moral instincts in favor of some strategy that’s immoral. But Machiavelli thinks that you can be sure enough about the future, what will happen if you do X, that you must not do X or do Y instead, right, that you can make that kind of, you can construct the kind of decision tree and make a prediction of the future and therefore decide what you should do in those situations.
James Hankins: Machiavelli himself is a terrible predictor of the future. His predictions for the future of military tactics, for example, are totally wrong. He predicted that ecclesiastical principalities could never be destroyed, could never lose power because they had the power of religion behind them, but, you know, by the end of the 1530s, half of or a third of the ecclesiastical principalities of Europe have been overthrown by Protestants. Right?
James Hankins: And he makes all sorts of predictions that never come true. He tells the Medici that they can never turn Florence into a, into, into a principality because it has too deep republican traditions. But he’s wrong about that. The Medici founded the Duchy of Tuscany and later the Grand Duchy of Tuscany, which last down to the 19th century. So, you know, he, despite his claims of quasi-scientific certainty about the future, he wasn’t very good at predicting the future.
Zachary Davis: Could you summarize in one or two sentences, how did Machiavelli and The Prince change the world?
James Hankins: I think Machiavelli said what many people thought but felt that was immoral to say aloud. But the main thing that he does, I think, is that he teaches people that what is going to work and the rules of morality are different and that nature is different from the moral law. And that you cannot rely on nature to produce good results as a result of moral action. And that’s a very dangerous thought.