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Alfredo Lucero-Montaño

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Machiavelli [1]



1. Machiavelli stands outside the main tradition of European political thought. He thinks and speaks of society and government differently from the great mediaeval writers, and from the great writers of the 16th and 17th centuries. The mediaeval writers were mostly concerned with problems of definition, and with deriving men’s rights and obligations from these definitions. Mediaeval political theory was rooted in theology, and sought to explain the authority of Church and State and the limits of that authority by reference to the will of God, and the nature and present condition of man


The political theory of the 16th and 17th centuries was also rooted in theology. That theology was, of course, different form the theology of the Middle Ages. Though the conclusions reached by these political theorists might differ greatly, they continued to use much the same method as their predecessors: they offered definitions, and from these definitions, they derived conclusions about men’s rights and duties. These definitions were answers, not to questions about empirical facts, but to questions about the purposes and the essential nature of man. That is what makes them definitions in the Aristotelian sense: the political philosopher who defines the nature of man does not purport to tell us how man actually behaves but rather what his end or destiny is, what he is created for.


M breaks with tradition; he does not care for traditional arguments because he does not put traditional questions: What is man? And what are the rights and duties? He offers no definitions, and never seeks to explain why, and to what extent, subjects have a duty of obedience (the question of political obligation). He wants to know what makes government strong, what makes freedom possible, how power is most easily obtained and preserved. In trying to answer these questions, his appeal is always to history.


M has sometimes been called a political scientist. It is misleading to call him a political scientist only because he tries to support his conclusions by an appeal to the facts. His indifference, when he speaks of government, to the destiny of man or to God’s intentions for man, is not enough to make a political scientist of him. There is nothing specifically scientific about this attitude. It is scientific only if it uses suitable methods to establish what facts are, what men actually do want and what experience has shown to be the most effective way of getting it. M has no conception of scientific method, of the making and testing of hypotheses. He never makes a systematic study of any one political order. His generalizations about men and government (descriptions), as also his practical advice (prescriptions), are the fruits of experience much more than of systematic study. He uses history to support the conclusions reached by reflection on personal experience and observation.


From Machiavelli’s two most famous books, one, The Prince, discusses a limited problem: how to acquire enduring and absolute power with the least effort. The other, the Discourses, is a commentary on another book, on the first decade of Livy’s History of Rome. It is a series of reflections suggested by the reading of Livy, and is roughly divided into three main topics: how states are founded and governments organized; how states are enlarged by conquest and by other means; and how their inevitable decay can be prevented for as long as possible. Though these topics are discussed elaborately, they are not discussed systematically.


They are discussed for their own sake, and not in order to draw from them support for some kind of theory about the rights and duties of subjects and rulers. The discussion rests on assumptions not derived from theology and reaches conclusions, which are not moral rules; it is untheological and morally neutral. The questions that M puts are questions about matters of fact; the answers to them are empirical generalizations based on observations. But he was not methodical; he does not use methods and rules appropriate to testing the sort of conclusions he reaches. Though the questions he put were new, he never seriously addressed himself to the problem of what is the best way of answering them.


M takes a keen interest in history. Most of his arguments are supported by copious examples taken from the past and the present. But to support political principles with historical examples is not to use the historical method in the study of politics as it has been misinterpreted, but merely to drive points home by selecting vivid illustrations.


M is an innovator because he puts new questions, or rather he puts questions neglected for centuries. What makes the State endure and government strong? How can a state already on the way to dissolution be reformed? What kinds of morality and religion strengthen the State? And he putts these questions for their own sake. In putting these questions, and in trying to answer them, he make assumptions which are either new or were never made so boldly and unequivocally before him.


It may be that he never sees clearly how these assumptions are related to one another, nor even what they are. He does not make them explicit, nor he does use them to construct a systematic theory of government. Yet he makes them a new way of looking at man and society rather than a new theory about them. In this sense alone M has a philosophy, which is new in the intellectual history in Europe.


2. In the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, we have the beginnings of the modern conception of the State. Yet the feudal idea of temporal authority as a kind of private property still persisted; as, too, did the claims of the Church, and the old conception of civil government as primarily a remedy for sin. M’s conception of the State is already ours. He does not think of it as hierarchy of magistrates whose authority and relations to one another are defined by custom and not easily changed, but as a single structure, all-embracing and supreme authority; as a compact, articulated, centralized body. Only the family is prior to the State, and nothing is superior to it or not to be questioned by it. This conception of the State squares with the notion of sovereignty (Hobbes), but it squares also with the modern notion of federalism. The pillar of a federal state is its constitution, which divides a whole mass of power among bodies whose mutual relations are defined by law. There is nothing left out of account, nothing that lies outside the sphere of the State; all authority is exercised either by the State or with its permission.


Of course, we do not find in M the explicit notion of sovereignty; we find only the conception of the State which eventually gave birth to that notion. For the doctrine of sovereignty is a deliberate rejection of mediaeval ideas about the limited authority of government, ideas which M not so much repudiated as ignored. M took for granted that the well-constructed State is all-powerful within its frontiers, enjoying the undisputed loyalty of all its citizens. The modern, the Machiavellian, conception of the State—morally neutral—is an organized mass of power used by those who control it for the pursuit of whatever ends seem good to them. The State (political society) is a complex of institutions, which gives to that society its cohesion, its individuality, and its power.


3. In the Middle Ages it was taken for granted that institutions rest on custom, that time has made them what they are, and that they are not to be changed. The institutions of Church and State are adapted to man’ nature and his needs that are unchanging, so too the frame of his world, his institutions. Though it is admitted that government and property rest on custom and serve human needs, it is not allowed that men, having made them for their use, may change them as they please.


M does not denied the obvious that habits change slowly. He does not despise custom or deplore its hold on man. He even believes that that states and nations decay, and that the process, if it has gone far, cannot be stayed. He is very much aware of the many obstacles in the way of anyone who wants to make great political changes. The only purposes he takes account of are men’s own purposes for themselves; and all institutions are human contrivances for human ends. What man has established to suit himself, he can also change, provided he knows how.


M invites us to be enterprising and cautious. We are not, as citizens and social creatures, caught up in purposes larger and more sacred than our own; we are just men living among our own kind. We cannot attain our purposes unless we study ourselves and our social world, unless we know what is possible and what is not.


Men cannot do what they please with their institutions. What they can do is limited by the character of what they work with. But they can take thought and refashion what they have inherited from their ancestors; they are not bound to accept it unchanged. They must take large account of custom, and ought always to build upon it where it offers a secure foundation. M was too much a realist to suppose that men can remodel the State as they like to achieve whatever purpose they have in mind. Yet he believed that they could, if they choose the right moment and the right methods, achieve a great deal.


M exaggerated the extent to which men can change their institutions to suit their ambitions and ideals. The founders of states are, he said, to be counted among the greatest of men, if the states they found endure. He believed that history provides many examples of founders and restorers of states who set up new political societies or transformed old ones.


M’s ideas about how states are created and reformed may seem to us rather too simple. We may protest that the deliberate creation or reform of a political system is much more likely in an advanced than a primitive society, and that it is truer today than ever it was in early Greece and Rome that systems of government are human contrivances for human needs. We may also be readier to admit than he was that our ability to make exactly the changes we want is severely limited, that political reforms always have consequences not foreseen by their makers, that achievements always falls far short of intention. The social structure is more complicated than M imagined it to be, and the political structure is only a part of it; our understanding of it is imperfect, and when we act upon it, we can never rely on getting from it precisely the reactions we want. Nevertheless, we still share the faith to try to adapt our institutions to our purposes, which M was the first among modern political writers to take for granted.


M was interested only in political reforms. To explain the disorders to which states are liable he often pointed to rivalries between the rich and the poor. But he proposed no social reforms; he did not think it important to keep inequalities of wealth within limits. He accepted the social order as it was. He noticed that a prince, to increase or preserve his power, must treat different classes differently; their attitudes to government differ and so too must the attitudes of government to them. He was not unaware that forms of government and types of social order are closely connected.


He disliked the feudal nobles, not because they were rich or raised up high above other classes, but because they weakened the State; they were not a privileged class inside the State so much as a privilege class against the State. They have usurped some of the prerogatives of the State; they had rights of private jurisdiction and private war, and as long as they had them, there could not be a powerful State. M disliked the feudal nobles only because they had made private rights of what belonged, or should have belonged, to the State. He thought desirable that they should lose these rights, but he did not want to deprive them of anything more.


M does not believe in progress. He is primarily interested in strengthening the State or in putting off, for as long as possible, its inevitable decay. M also believed in cyclical change. He believed that there is a natural or normal course of growth and decay through which all states move unless some force external to them prevents their doing so.


4. M does not inquire, as Hobbes, into the psychology of natural man, into human nature as it might have been outside organized society. There is no argument from the psychological to the social and the political. He is not concerned to show, as Hobbes, that man, since he has by nature such characteristics, can get security only under a certain type of government, nor yet to prove, as Locke, that man, by reason of his nature, has rights which can be made good only if he is governed with his own consent. Nor does he hold, as Aristotle, that man has a nature which is fully realized only in the State, where be becomes actually what he is potentially. We never find M speaking as if man were somehow more true to his essential nature in society and the State than outside it.


M is interested, not in natural man, but in social man; man as citizen. He is interested in political psychology, in the passions and opinions which inspire political behavior. He is interested both in individual and in mass psychology. Given the questions which M was concerned to answer, it is easy to see why he should have been so much interested in political psychology. He wanted to know how states are established, how they grow strong, and what causes them to decay. To ask ‘How ought this State to be governed?’ was equivalent to asking ‘What sort of government should it have to make it enduring and strong?’ He knew that conditions are not everywhere and at all times the same; he knew that what makes some states strong weakens others. He saw connections between political institutions and political psychology. He took for granted that men are very much alike in all societies; though they differ considerably as individuals, much the same types are to be found everywhere. M did not trouble to consider how far what is common to all mankind is due to all societies being in many respects alike and how far it consists of inborn characteristics. He took this for granted, and yet at the same time believed that the passions and motives inspiring political behavior differ considerably from State to State.


We cannot blame M for his interest in man and society is limited, but because he seems not to understand how limited it is. For M, man is a creature concerned above all to impose his will on other men or to impress them; he is primarily a political animal, not political as being capable of realizing his potentialities only in a political community (Aristotle); he is political as being lover of power and reputation, as being self-assertive, as being a creature who strives to achieve his ends by controlling others, and whose dearest wish is to raise himself above them.


5. M had some new and also true ideas about the social functions of morality, that is, about society’s need of good morality. In the second chapter of the first book of the Discourses, M, discussing the origins of states, says that the sentiments of justice and honesty arose among men after they had chosen to live under chiefs for their common protection. It is fair to say that he believed that there is no morality prior to society. He believe that men, if subject to no discipline, would seek to satisfy their appetites by every means open to them, restrained only by fear. Before law and government have bridled them, men are creatures of passion and reason; but they are neither moral nor immoral.


It often happens, when men are observed to share one belief, that they are taken to share another, because the observer mistakenly supposes that the two beliefs are logically connected. It has been noticed that M look upon justice as an effect of law; and therefore, since he believed that men are always self-regarding, he believed that positive law is the only measure of the just and unjust. The assumption is gratuitous; the first belief does not entail the second, and there is no evidence that M held them both.


M tells us only that men are by nature immoderate, and that, without the discipline of law, they are neither just nor honest. To hold that morality is an effect of law and social discipline is not to be committed to hold that man, by necessity of his nature is always selfish, or that there is no difference between merely obeying the law and having a sense of justice. M did not equate justice with legality.


For M, the state of nature means nothing. All that can be fairly said of him is that he believes that honesty and justice, and their opposites, are qualities by men in society, and that he always speaks of these qualities as we all do when we have no theoretical axe to grind.


M makes the distinction between what he calls ‘virtu’ and ordinary goodness. By ‘virtu’ M means vitality, or energy and courage without regard to their objects, energy and courage both for good and evil; and by goodness he means the qualities that are necessary to the good citizen like honesty, justice, devotion to duty, loyalty, and patriotism. So the ‘virtu’ proper to the citizen is not energy and courage for good and evil indifferently, but for good alone; that is to say, displayed in honest and just causes for the public good.


M is greatly interested in the moral causes of political strength and weakness; he does not neglect the moral factor or suppose that private and public virtues are not closely related. The qualities admired by M are the qualities in men which make for strong political communities. But it would be a mistake to suppose that he admires these qualities only for their political effects.


6. Nothing separates M more sharply from his medieval predecessors than his attitude to religion. He was concerned with it only as an influence on political and social behavior, as a system of beliefs and ceremonies strengthening some motives and weakening others. His attitude to religion is entirely utilitarian. He valued religion only if it promoted the kind of morality he finds useful and makes the State strong. He approved religion provided it encouraged virtues useful to the republic and created ties to draw citizens closer together, producing supplementary loyalties to strengthen their patriotism.

[1] Summary from John Plamenatz, “Machiavelli,” in Man and Society, vol. 1 (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1963), 1-44.

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