Cutthroat Politics: Machiavelli, A Lust for Power and The Reality of Man

The theories proposed by Niccolo Machiavelli in his work The Prince has given rise to fervent controversy within the philosophical community over the matter of whether Machiavelli was indeed malicious in his strategy to assist rulers in maintaining their iron-fist rule over their respective cities of jurisdiction. This is a flagrant misconception of the true nature of Machiavelli’s work. From the outset, he identifies humanity as being primarily driven under the auspices of self-interest and evil. There is nothing inherently good about humanity according to Machiavellian thought. Under the auspices of realist thought, the only “good” and that could potentially transcend the innate characteristics of self-interest and foolishness that drive societal chaos is political stability via the strength of the ruler and his ability to maintain that stability by learning to adapt to the numerous circumstances that could potentially weaken them.

It is vital when reading Machiavelli that we understand the context in which he viewed the human nature, which then provides further contextual understanding for how he viewed how such a nature operates in the political sphere. For example, referencing the decision made by King Louis XI to abolish the French infantry and depend heavily on foreign Swiss forces, which compromised France’s ability to be self-reliant in chapter 13 of the The Prince, Machiavelli outlines his views of the human nature, “…men are foolish, they embark on something that is attractive in its outward appearance, without recognizing the evil consequences that will follow from it…” This generic view of human nature is how Machiavelli conceptualized reality in a world that is dominated by the foolishness of mankind to be allured only by the bodily appetites and not by true wisdom. However, Machiavelli takes his tragic view of mankind a step further. In chapter 18 of The Prince, Machiavelli provides a qualification for his assertion that rulers should only keep their promises when it suits them by stating that, “… if all men were good, this advice would be bad; but since men are wicked and will not keep faith with you, you need not keep faith with them.”

This completely negates critics who have tried to cast a shadow over Machiavelli as being a “teacher of evil”. Machiavellian thought posits that all men have wicked and unreliable tendencies, so the methods that a ruler uses to maintain his rule are justified in so long as such methods stabilize societies within his jurisdiction.

Machiavelli is thenceforth peeling away at the politically correct narratives that posit that a ruler must govern by some form of idealistic morality and should be thought of as “moral” and generally good and compassionate (e.g. generous). He does this by asserting that merely the “projection of goodness” in order that the people would maintain their loyalty would be enough for the prince to be seen as good in a society that is heavily governed by self-interest. When critics decry Machiavelli as advocating for deception, they neglect Machiavelli’s notion that all men are “…ungrateful, fickle, deceptive and deceiving…They promise you their blood, their possessions, their lives, and their children…so long as you seem to have no need of them.” Machiavelli is simply analyzing the state of humanity as it stood in reality, especially within the context of his time. Since all men are deemed untrustworthy, evil and looking to fulfill their own separate self-interests, Machiavelli in his work is giving a guideline for how any ruler should have to rule in order to survive in the hostile nature of the world. According to an analysis of the work published by the New York Times, “Machiavelli teaches that in a world where so many are not good, you must learn to be able to be not good.” Everything that is done, whether it is the use of force (stick) or the use of compassion and goodness (carrot) to gain the loyalty of the people and the submission of the nobility to the authority of the ruler, is done for the purposes of maintaining a political stability that ensures the ruler’s survival. Eliminating one’s rivals early on is one such example of necessary evils being committed for the greater good of political stability.

For example, chapter 8 of The Prince specifically addresses the matter of individuals who come to power through wicked actions and should have in effect satisfied (at least in part) the objections of Machiavelli’s critics who deem him an advocate of evil. Drawing from the historical case of Agathocles’ rise to power in Syracuse, which involved the conspiratorial slaughter of the entire senate of Syracuse via a bargain struck with hostile Carthaginians with whom he later waged war with,Machiavelli reasoned that in terms of virtue, rulers do not achieve this by slaughtering fellow citizens and betraying allies, even if they did attain some related aspects of it through bravery and fighting to survive. For example, although he recognized Agathocles’ actions as necessary to consolidate his power, Machiavelli doesn’t attribute virtue as the basis for his accomplishments and firmly recognized the immorality behind praising him as the finest of men for his inhuman cruelty, even if he could potentially be labeled amongst the finest of generals. Theoretically, Machiavelli would have used the same logic to critique any dictator who employed the same tactics that Agathocles did.

Using Machiavellian thought to critique modern-day political structures deemed to be tyrannical compels individuals to analyze the concept of power-politics from a tragic realist perspective of humanity. For example, one could speculate how Machiavelli would advise and analyze Joseph Stalin when he came to power in 1922 as General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. Analytically, Machiavelli would argue that like Agathocles, it would be considered necessary for Stalin to have eliminated political opposition that would have threatened his regime, especially within the communist “nobility”. However, Stalin’s purging of anything that could potentially set itself against his claim to power (e.g. former political opponents, clergy, wealthy citizens, as he saw it) early on in his regime, soon transcended in between 1936-1938 into a nationwide massacre of hundreds of thousands of individuals within the Communist leadership, the Red Army, the NKVD (The Soviet Union’s secret police) and the general citizenry he deemed ”enemies of the people” on baseless charges of espionage and terrorism.

Had Stalin showed restraint and undertook whatever actions he needed to take to solidify his rule early in his administration, Machiavelli would potentially have considered him justified as with Agathocles (though not virtuous). However, the goal of the leader is to be feared (in balance with being loved) rather than hated. Because of Stalin’s uncontrollable and continued paranoid obsession with eliminating his “enemies”, it wasn’t but three years after his death in 1953 that Nikita Khrushchev and leaders within Communist Politburo laid out a New Course initiative that essentially condemned Stalin and his actions as flagrant affronts to the philosophy of Marxist-Leninism. Machiavelli would see this result as being self-evident because of Stalin’s insecurity with his own power. As Machiavelli reasons about the ruler who manages to take control of a state, “…you should make a list of all the crimes you have to commit and do them all at once. That way you will not have to commit new atrocities every day…He who acts otherwise, either out of squeamishness or out of bad judgment, has to hold a bloody knife in his hand all the time. He can never rely on his subjects, for they can never trust him, for he is always making new attacks upon them.” Stalin always felt he needed to hold a “bloody knife” to consolidate his power and as a result committed needless and excessive atrocities that made him and communist leadership hated rather than feared ( a Machiavellian ideal) throughout the communist bloc in Europe of which he had maintained control and influence during his administration (e.g. The Hungarian Revolution, Khruschev’s 1956 speech, the 1956 Poznan Protests in Poland, etc.).

Wanton acts of cruelty were not what Machiavelli was advocating for as his critics could potentially argue from reading his praise of Agathocles as a fine general of ingenious strategy. In fact, he unwittingly answered the allegations of his critics by drawing distinctions between well used cruelty and ill-used cruelty. Cruelty used well only pertains to quick strokes of violence used to consolidate power but that are never repeated over time, which would then be considered abused cruelty as Stalin would engage in centuries later. The ultimate goal of the monarch is to fortify the devotion of the people, not to oppress them. This goal, however, only comes by means of the proper balance of the usage of force and generosity. Essentially, enough force must be used to make subjects fear the ruler, but good must immediately follow to capture the support of the people. Agathocles achieved this during his rule in Syracuse, which is why Machiavelli only goes so far as to indicate that he did what was necessary to remain in power, though those crimes were undoubtedly evil. He was explaining why Agathocles and others like him managed to remain in power and maintain perpetual stability through their administrations. Machiavelli wasn’t, however, attempting to justify evil purely for evil’s sake. Evil actions, on the contrary, should only serve as an early means to an end but not as ends in and of themselves.

The reputation that the ruler maintains as a result is bolstered by great deeds that projects an image of greatness, which doesn’t include oppression. In fact, Machiavelli posits in chapter 19 of his work that it is best to leave the goods of the people (e.g. freedom, honor, etc.) to the people. If these “goods” are left alone and the people don’t feel oppressed followed by hatred against the ruler, the political stability of the state would better be maintained and the ruler could avoid potential conspiracies and attacks that could threaten his administration, aside from his life. It is then in the prince’s self-interest that the ruler maintain a reputation that isn’t plagued by hatred or contempt from the populace. “…a ruler need not worry much about conspiracies as long as the people wish him well but if the people are hostile to him and hate him, then he should fear everything and anyone.

If this is the logic behind Machiavelli’s methodology, it would then seem egregious that critics would hasten to label his work as advocating for corrupt government. A typical classical realist argument, such as what is proposed by international political theorist Hans Morgenthau, is that hubris and self-interest are the driving factors behind human reasoning and nature, which makes it all the more essential for the state to consolidate its power against any opposing domestic or international force. Morgenthau asserts himself that “…power politics, rooted in the lust for power which is common to all men, is for this reason inseparable from social life itself.” Machiavelli’s The Prince stays interestingly true to the premises of the classical realist view of humanity. However, such a view is based on an objective view of the human nature, not a supportive stance of human nature itself. Morgenthau argues that the state should only practice what is in the interests of the state, while Machiavelli argues that the ruler should only practice what is in the interest of the ruler.

The perspectives are near synonymous, which makes it all the more interesting how critics could say that The Prince teaches evil as somewhat of a tyrant’s manifesto, but can treat Morgenthau’s perspective as a plausible theory in understanding the nature of international relations. If anything, Machiavelli teaches evil in so much as all men are considered evil, and analyzes how authorities maintain stability in a world filled with such selfishness (though he didn’t believe that this selfishness was hopelessly unalterable).

These kinds of criticisms are not valid and are unjustifiably dismissive of the aims which Machiavelli was hoping to achieve. By nature, Machiavelli argues, rulers are governing an ungrateful and insatiable populace, and in acquiring power (e.g. through conquest, as an inheritance or domestic revolution) the ruler will always be unable to keep the goodwill of those who put him in power and be unable to satisfy their unachievable aspirations. To this end, however, Machiavelli cautions against heavy-handed tactics, being that the ruler would find himself in an exceedingly precarious situation if he doesn’t maintain the support of the locals.

Because Machiavelli had a tragic view of an unguided humanity, the ruler’s primary ethic should only be political stability, which can only be achieved by placating the populace while at the same time maintaining their fear of him by his power. To conclude that Machiavelli was a “teacher of evil” is hasty and irresponsible and indicative of critics’ taking him completely out of context. In The Prince, he analyzes the nature of power politics and sees the world as being innately cutthroat. As such, it would only make sense for him to analyze how any ruler in a cutthroat society would need to likewise be cutthroat. Machiavelli was advocating for the study of statecraft as what would work in practice to maintain stability in society, but this is not at all an indicator that he was in fact an advocate for “evil” as his critics have decried.



Wooton, D. 2008.Modern Political Thought: Readings from Machiavelli to Nietzsche. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company

Scott, John, and Robert Zaretsky. 2013. “Why Machiavelli Still Matters.” The New York Times.December 9. Accessed September 9, 2018.

Hill, Laura. 2013. “The Great Purge of Stalinist Russia.” Guided History: History Research Guides By Boston University Students.Accessed January 28, 2018.

“Khrushchev’s Secret Speech, ‘On the Cult of Personality and Its Consequences,’ Delivered at the Twentieth Party Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union,” February 25, 1956, History and Public Policy Program Digital Archive, From the Congressional Record: Proceedings and Debates of the 84th Congress, 2nd Session (May 22, 1956-June 11, 1956), C11, Part 7 (June 4, 1956), pp. 9389-9403.

Morgenthau, Hans. 1947. Scientific Man vs. Power Politics.London: Latimer House.

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