Coordinated by Filip STANCIU

Machiavelli’s Role and Importance in the History of Political Thought.

Machiavelli – the Creator of a New Political Paradigm

Vasile BOARI

“Babeș-Bolyai” University of Cluj-Napoca

Abstract: Machiavelli’s work has constituted the object of research and analysis from two relatively opposite perspectives: the historical one and the moral one. The former sees Machiavelli as “truly a man of his time” (A. Gramsci), excessively preoccupied by the problem of unifying Italy. The latter harshly judges him on the grounds that he is amoral and that he promotes cynicism and cruelty. Between the two, there is another perspective, the scientific one. In its view, Machiavelli has in mind the creation of a positive political science. Machiavelli was read and interpreted in different ways. Some saw The Prince as a code for tyranny and cynicism. Others, on the contrary, saw in it a scientific work of incontestable worth, even an expression of humanism. These two views constitute the extremes of the numerous interpretations available. According to the ethical and political aspect, Machiavellian thought is a polarised one, as Croce and Gramsci have pointed out. We subscribe to the view that considers as too simplistic the attempt to analyse Machiavelli’s work according to the triad: moral, immoral, amoral, because understanding it necessitates the use of nuances and subtleties.

Keywords: Machiavelli, political thought, tyranny, cynicism.

If someone were determined to find a powerful metaphor or an accurate image to describe Niccolò Machiavelli’s work and influence in the world of political thought, he or she would most likely make use of words such as: turning point, crossroad point or turning table. Undoubtedly, he is considered as a prominent figure among political thinkers; many would go as far as to name him the founder and the father of modern political science, just as Aristotle had fulfilled that role for Ancient Greece. The Prince, published in 1532, became a constant reference and inspired different avenues in political research.

 Machiavelli’s contribution to this field was so important that thinkers who followed him approached politics much differently than those who had preceded him. His work and renown became an incessant reference for all authors, whether they agreed with his principles or disapproved them.

The Prince illustrates a new understanding of politics and political ethics, distancing itself from the views which had dominated the political scene up to that point: the Aristotelian and the Christian ones. Although radically different in many respects, including the origin of political power, these two paradigms shared one important aspect, namely the belief that any political endeavour or figure should prioritise the welfare of the citizens as the supreme goal of politics.

Thus, Aristotle claimed that it was incumbent upon the State and upon any political official to seek to achieve what was good for the community, for the polis; he went as far as to term this good “the greatest good in the realm of practical life”, or simply “the supreme good”. Undeniably, helping one citizen was desirable, but the Greek philosopher thought it much more preferable, infinitely more uplifting to do good for an entire nation or for a city.[1] The Apostle Paul, in his Epistle to Romans, chapter 13, talks about the “dignitary’s” role and political authority, calling him, in unequivocal terms: “God’s servant for your welfare”.

Machiavelli dissociated himself from these models, rejecting both the importance of the eternal values treasured by Aristotelians and that of God as source of authority – to which Christian tradition held firmly. The Prince depicts a state where the prosperity of common citizens is no longer a primary objective for political institutions and officials. What should prevail is the preservation and consolidation of the state, which has become an end in itself, a goal per se. Furthermore, state reason (as Louis XIV would later proclaim) became the most notorious exponent of political absolutism. It is no wonder then that the goal of politics was politics itself. As for the political dignitary, his purpose is redefined in terms of struggle for supremacy and responsibility to defend and strengthen the state at all costs.

The Machiavellian paradigm would govern the entire modern political thinking, overshadowing outbursts, such as Immanuel Kant’s, who could not imagine how someone would tailor political morality based on the ruler’s interest. And that is precisely what Machiavelli had done.




A brief introduction is necessary to acquaint us with a highly debated person of all political thinking. Francis Bacon, who created the inductive method, considered that we should “thank Machiavelli and the writers of his king for having openly signalled what people usually do, and not what they should do, and for having done that without dissimulation”. There were numerous authors, however, who saw in him the embodiment of everything that is evil in politics for he persuaded Cesare Borgia to enact the massacre at Sinigaglia, where many of Cesare’s enemies were slain. Some authors would go as far as to call him the post-mortem counsellor of so many tyrants such as Napoleon, Hitler or Mussolini, the latter having actually written a Prelude (a sort of preface) for The Prince. Lenin is said to have taken with him a copy of this book when he was exiled to Finland, due to his confrontation with the tsarist army; it was there that he wrote The State and the Revolution. Then who was this character who was seen in such different lights?

Niccolò Machiavelli was born in Florence in 1468 in a family that was traditionally seen as belonging to middle aristocracy. His father had been a public servant, a sort of lawyer in the Republic of Florence, and his mother was a housewife. His older brother allegedly disappointed his family because of his mediocrity, so all hopes turned towards young Niccolò: his mother would have wanted him to become a clergyman, while his father would have preferred him to be a lawyer as well.

Not many details are known about his childhood and adolescence. He seems to have followed the courses of an appreciated grammar school and he learned Latin; as a matter of fact, knowing Latin was essential for becoming a public servant in the Florentine Republic, for it was the cultural language, but also the official language of administration.

Machiavelli’s life became more relevant after the year 1498, when, although barely 29, he managed to secure an important job with the help of a friend who held a position of authority in the first chancellery of the Republic. Therefore, Niccolò successfully occupied the position of chief of the second chancellery, an office which he would keep for 14 years, until the advent of the de Medici family, which accused him of conspiring and had him removed from his office. This incident nearly cost Machiavelli his life, but fortunately, he was released and forced to withdraw to his small property Albergarccio, near San Casciano. It is there that he wrote The Prince, in just a few brief months, while taking a break from writing another book which critics view as his most notable one when it comes to political research: Discorsi sopra prima deca di Tito Livio (Discourses On the First Decade of Titus Livius or, most commonly known as Discourses on Livy). In this great book about the Roman historian, Machiavelli proves his worth as a historian and political scholar; “great reader of ancient works”, he was called by Charles Benoist, and he deserves this title.

It is relevant to mention that during his office years (1498-1512), Machiavelli had many diplomatic relations with other Italian cities, as well as with a number of European courts or chancelleries: France, Germany, Spain, etc. His reports during these diplomatic missions once again highlight his abilities as a careful observer of political figures, events and inside stories, as well as his extraordinary literary talent.

Machiavelli’s intellectual preoccupations reveal his Renaissance-like spirit, as that was the prevalent direction of the day; thus, Machiavelli was a political scholar, a public servant, a diplomat, a negotiator, a military strategist and a writer. His most famous work, which actually brought him renown, was De Principatibus, a short political treaty that would create such strong reactions, both positive and negative, both from political scholars and from people who have never actually read much politics at all.

In the Romanian culture, Mihai Eminescu and Ion Luca Caragiale were counted as his admirers. The former actually translated fragments of The Prince, while the latter admitted that Machiavelli had a powerful influence on his work.



When it comes to understanding Machiavelli’s intentions for writing De Principatibus, posterity found itself involved in yet another heated debate. According to some exegetes, Machiavelli must have elaborated this text with the sole purpose of gaining de Medici’s goodwill, and thus with the intent of winning back the job that he had lost once the infamous family seized the power.For fellow Italians of the 20th century, historians or simple patriots of no academic claim, Machiavelli’s purpose is explicitly stated in the title of the last chapter: An Exhortation to Liberate Italy from the Barbarians, which indicates that he had been animated by patriotic feelings and intentions. In this view, he was most likely seeking to compile a guide for the person that would possess the qualities and the capacity to unite Italy and to free it from the foreign conquerors – from the barbarians, as he calls them. Other scholars, such as Ernest Cassirer, shared the opinion that Machiavelli had had a much larger audience in mind: he was addressing himself to the world and the world took notice of him.

It seems difficult, if not impossible, to know beyond a shadow of a doubt which are an author’s true intentions, unless he cares to enlighten us himself. Fortunately, in Machiavelli’s case, we discover some revelatory passages in his political writings and in his personal correspondence.

We shall start by taking a close look at some fragments of correspondence between Machiavelli and his trusted friend, Francesco Vettori. A sharp contrast dominated their situation at the time when these letters were exchanged. Machiavelli had been removed from the headship of the second chancellery of the Florentine Republic and was living a secluded life in San Casciano; he was now facing poverty, exclusion, oblivion and virtual house arrest, while Vettori was holding the position of Ambassador of the Republic of Florence at Rome, and had ample dealings with the Pope himself. A particularly interesting letter, dated December 10, 1513 (thus, immediately after The Prince was finished) depicts Machiavelli’s daily activities, his expectations and inner struggles in very eloquent terms. Moreover, the fragment we are about to look at encapsulates a declaration of his intention and a portrayal of his method, which will be later explained in explicit terms in chapter XV of De Principatibus. His tone is overtly frank, propensity which Machiavelli displayed until the end of his life and which brought about many unjust accusations; yet one cannot but feel the weight and the sadness of such an honest confession:

“When evening comes, I return home and I step in my study; I leave my daily garments on the threshold, for they are stained with mud and clay, and I drape myself in kingly, courtly robes. Now that I’m adequately dressed for the occasion, I step in the ancient sanctuaries of people of old; being lovingly welcomed by them, I fill up on nourishment that was made for me solum and for which I was born. I am not ashamed to converse with them and ask them the causes of their deeds, and they, in their generosity, answer my questions; for four hours I feel no boredom, I forget all sorrow, I don’t fear poverty, and death isn’t frightening anymore […]. And, since Dante says that keeping what you have understood is not science, I wrote down what I had stored in my mind during these long conversations with them and I have put together a booklet, De Principatibus, in which, as much as can, I go to length in thinking about these things and I discuss about what a principality is, about the different types, about how to secure one and the reasons why they are lost. And if you ever enjoyed some of the trifles I wrote, this writing should not be disagreeable to you. To a prince, and especially to a new prince, it should be useful… […] I would wish that these Medici gentlemen started using me again, even if I had to carry rocks at first; if, later on, I didn’t manage to win their goodwill, I’d be terribly upset with myself; if this booklet of mine were read, it will be obvious that I have not wasted the fifteen years I spent learning the art of governing; and everyone should desire to make use of someone who has gained their experience at someone else’s expense. As for my honesty, no one should question it, for I have always kept my word, and it would not be the time to start breaking it now.”

Out of this long passage taken from the letter to Vettori, we can deduce relatively easily which were Machiavelli’s intentions and expectations when he decided to write The Prince, and, furthermore, which was, in fact, the method he used. We say intentions, for he had at least two in mind when he took a break from writing Discorsi, in order to dedicate himself to The Prince. The first one, the more immediate, was his craving to return to the former employment, or to any other political position, irrespective of the sacrifices that would be required of him. He saw himself as destined to such a position and his fourteen years of experience, coupled with his attested professionalism represented strong arguments for his cause. The second goal, although more remote, was by no means less important: “the liberation of Italy from the hands of the Barbarians” – he dedicates the last chapter to this objective. The Italy of Machiavelli’s time was divided into a multitude of small republics, states or principalities, which were constantly engaging each other in military combat; useless to say that this made them vulnerable, an easy prey for the great powers that dominated Europe at that time: the Kingdom of France, the Kingdom of Spain and the German Empire.

Machiavelli would have greatly desired for a ruler to emerge, one who would be bold and determined, one who would free Italy and unite the principalities under one banner. Some critics argue that this was, in fact, his greatest wish. For a period of time, it became apparent to Machiavelli that this prince was none other than Cesare Borgia, whom he knew personally, having met him during the time when Machiavelli was commissioned by the Counsel of the Ten, the most important political institution of the Florentine Republic. Cesare was the son of Pope Alexander Borgia, and had been appointed head of the pontiff’s army by his father.

What can be said of the third interpretation, namely that Machiavelli simply wanted to write for anybody interested in learning about politics? A strong argument for this view is found at the beginning of chapter XV, where he declares that he wants to write “useful things for those who understand them”. So, who was he thinking of? Obviously, we do not have an explicit answer; however, it would not be difficult to conjecture it. He could share his great love and passion for politics with those who dealt with this field: political figures and state leaders, for they had the background knowledge to understand his claims. His declared intention was to draft methods of acquiring and securing a state and to describe how it can be lost; therefore, he was addressing himself to political leaders.

Others believed that Machiavelli addressed himself to anyone interested in politics, even the proletariat, in which Antonio Gramsci, a socialist Italian scholar, identified the “modern prince”. After all, the fate of a text is often different from the author’s original intentions. As for Machiavelli, his letters and his correspondence reveal a man interested firstly in regaining his status as a public servant; secondly in the liberation of Italy from the hands of the barbarians; and thirdly in the formulation of a political lesson that was the product of his personal experience coupled with the extensive reading of ancient historians – the two major sources that have underpinned his reflection.

What Adam Smith’s book The Wealth of Nations was for political economy, we can confidently say that The Prince constitutes for political thought, namely a founding seminal work, a political paradigm, if we are to accept that this concept, consecrated by Tomas S. Kuhn in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, deserves to be extended to the sphere of humanities. The publication of this relatively short work, marked a radical change in the perception of politics, power, state, political figures and in the understanding of their purposes; furthermore, it imposed ipso facto a new method of political research and analysis. This new perception and interpretation of politics dominated with authority the modern era, making Machiavelli an unavoidable reference point in the history of political science and philosophy.

As for his Discourses, Machiavelli offers an explanation, in the introduction to the first book, after having drawn his readers’ attention to the importance of possessing historical knowledge, which would enable people to learn important lessons about practical and political life. Unfortunately, many ignore to do so, therefore, he states:

 “[…] willing to set straight this wrong judgement, I thought it would be good to write some things about those books belonging to Titus Livius, which escaped the rigour of time, things which I, being aware of both old and new times, believe to be important in order to understand them better; thus, so that those who read these lines be able to truly make the most of having studied history.”

Consequently, if the aim of The Prince was to offer a practical guide to those who dabbled in politics, writing about Titus Livy, a well known historian of ancient Rome, was meant as a warning sign about the importance of knowing history for life in general and political life in particular.


3. MACHIAVELLI’S PHILOSOPHY: Has Machiavelli Got a Philosophy?


This issue is under controversy, similarly to the very personality and work of the author of The Prince. Some critics will think that Machiavelli was a practical spirit, a man interested exclusively in the fate of his country, an analyst of the contemporary political scene in Italy, displaying a refractory attitude towards any philosophical speculation. Machiavelli himself seems to confirm such a viewpoint when, at the beginning of chapter XV of The Prince, he openly expresses his preference for the concrete truth of facts, to the detriment of “mere fancy” of any philosophical speculation. Therefore, considering a system of philosophical thought or a philosophy in the systematic conception is out of the question.

Nevertheless, a careful look on the entire Machiavellian work will unveil the existence of a vision about the universe, man and history, which, in a broad understanding, could be assimilated to philosophy. In fact, a careful study of philosophical thought would unveil the fact that any political system of thought has its premises either in a view about the world (cosmology) or in a view about history or mankind. With Machiavelli, we encounter all of these, to different degrees. Of course, Machiavelli never manifested the intention to elaborate a philosophical system or doctrine. His philosophy is rather implicit, disseminated in his work and more often than not dissimulated behind some affirmations which seem to discourage and disqualify any speculative attempts to philosophise. However, paradoxically, Machiavelli’s conception is built on a certain view about the universe, history and mankind.

Machiavelli has adopted the understanding according to which there is no real change in the universe. Or rather, as a well-known quote from the biblical book Ecclesiastes, by the wise king Solomon goes: “There is nothing new under the sun”.

Machiavelli deems that the universe remains the same and that there are no fundamental changes within. Furthermore, he extends this view on history and human understanding. History is a continual repetition of what has already happened and people remain basically unchanged, no matter what. It is true, however, that Machiavelli considers fate as responsible for half of the actions that happen in history, the other half being the product of human endeavour. One could therefore think that people – and especially political people, princes, state leaders – are free to fashion history. However, despite any amount of freedom a man could have, and especially the state leader, the one who possesses that overwhelming energy that Machiavelli calls virtu (according to the Roman understanding of the word), this man will never succeed in changing anything essential about history or the universe.

“People can help fate, but they cannot oppose it”, we read in the Discourses. In fact, Machiavelli states: “fate blinds people, when it does not want that they oppose its plans” (Discourses II, 29). In the world, the proportion between good and evil stays unchanged. History keeps repeating itself again and again, even though people are born and die, their nature does not change. “No matter how you choose them, people remain evil”. This is the view on which Machiavelli builds his understanding of politics. In other words, in order to master the evil that resides in the unchanging human nature, we need an even greater evil, embodied in the prince, the state leader. We could call this situation “the remedy of evil through evil”, using a metaphor that belongs to Jean Starobinski. This is the premise that underlies the Machiavellian doctrine about politics, state and power. As men are evil, people of goodwill would stand no chance as long as others are not men of goodwill as well. The famous ethics of power draws its roots from this pessimistic view on human nature.

Is this remark born of general observation, personal experience or simply prejudice? It would probably be a bit of everything. People that he came in contact with must have revealed to him the truth which was apparent to the Apostle Paul when he declared that “I want to do good, but evil is glued to me”. Contrary to Machiavelli though, Christianity affirms that man can be changed, restored; in truth, the Christian doctrine advocates bringing remedy to evil by doing good. Machiavelli delimits himself in this respect not only from Christian thought, but also from the liberal thinking to which some critics, such P. Manent, will try to affiliate him. In the liberal view, man is a mixture of good and evil. As Jean Baechler said, in the article dedicated to liberalism in the Encyclopaedia Universalis: “Man is an angel of light and a demon…” For Machiavelli, though, man will always remain evil, as his nature cannot be changed.

This is, in essence, the philosophy which has guided Machiavelli. Gramsci believes that any human has a philosophy, by the simple fact that he uses language which is in essence an abstract means of communication. But when it comes to Machiavelli, he is not a philosopher in only the general way that Gramsci proposed; nor is he a philosopher in the consecrated sense of the word. Rather, despite his claimed rejection of speculation, Machiavelli allows to be guided by life experience which is to say that he incorporates a certain vision on life and universe, history and mankind which plays a more important role in the development of his political theories than had previously been believed.




“Just as Galileo’s dynamics founded modern physics, Machiavelli laid the foundations of a new political science”[2], said Ernst Cassirer, the renown author of The Myth of the State. What would enable us to consider Machiavelli as the founder of a new political science? And what does it mean, in fact, to establish a new science? According to a classic paradigm – illustrated in the majority of traditional textbooks – to establish a discipline would primarily mean four things:

·         The clear delimitation of a distinct field/area of competence, research and investigation – thus, of the object of the new discipline; this presupposes establishing which phenomena belong to it;

·         The identification of the method through which that field, once circumscribed, can be investigated and analysed;

·         The identification (the discovery) of the inner working of these phenomena;

·         The process of establishing that particular discipline into a larger system of knowledge such as, in our case, humanities.

Did Machiavelli do all these things? It is obvious that a “yes or no” answer to such a question would be impossible. True enough, Machiavelli has never initiated formal proceedings to establish a political science; The Prince does not constitute an epistemological enterprise. Nevertheless, Machiavelli’s work can be considered as one of the founding blocks, just as Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations was seen as the groundwork of political economy, despite its lack of epistemological content.

Similarly to Adam Smith, Machiavelli was not a theoretician or a science philosopher; such endeavours were foreign to him. However, his approach led, in later centuries, to a certain epistemological and methodological understanding of what the very field of political science was and the type of method employed to investigate and analyse this field. But perhaps the most important step was made when he postulated the autonomy of politics in relation to other spheres of human manifestation, such as religion and morality, action which numerous experts later deemed as a capital action for the investigation and understanding of what was specific for political science. Furthermore, by presenting politics in close correlation with the necessity to understand human nature and psychology, Machiavelli opened a way for later generations to make connections between the proper political science and other disciplines such as anthropology, psychology, etc. In fact, it was agreed upon that one could not truly study politics without incorporating the study of disciplines dealing with human nature.

4.1.  The Object of Political Study


Until Machiavelli, the research regarding politics aimed to identify the best social and political order (thus, in Antiquity, Plato was looking for the perfect, ideal city, and Aristotle for the desired, preferable city; in the Middle Ages, thinkers were seeking the Christian Republic, Respublica Christiana, based on biblical principles). In his work The Republic, Plato’s concern was to discover and describe the ideal, perfect city, while Aristotle took another approach, distancing himself from his mentor. He performed a literal empirical research on political regimes existing in Ancient Greece, hoping to define the traits of the desirable city, ruled by middle aristocracy and capable of satisfying its needs fully, without outside connections or help.

 As for the theologians-philosophers of the Middle Ages, they were interested in identifying the Respublica Christiana, founded and based on biblical principles. Even Dante, who, according to some historians, made the transition from the Middle Ages to modern times, was still preoccupied in identifying that universal monarchy, that utopia, which would govern the entire world.

Machiavelli drastically alters these research avenues. As he explicitly and bluntly declares in the beginning of chapter XV of The Prince, he is not even remotely interested in those “republics and principalities which no one ever saw and no one ever knew they existed in the real world”.[3] It appears that the author of The Prince deems more appropriate to seek the truth of concrete facts than mere fancy. What interests Machiavelli in fact is the way in which political power can be seized and through it, the methods that should be used to preserve and strengthen the state. But be warned, both political power and the state are perceived as having a strong bond with the political ruler, his personality and his abilities.

Accordingly, one can easily infer what constitutes the object of political science. In fact, there are three capital aspects which define the object of this discipline: Power, State and Political Figure (the state ruler, especially). We shall expound on these three themes in order to understand what Machiavelli’s reflection about them consisted of.

1.                    Power – Machiavelli did not use the term power in a formal sense, therefore we will never find a definition of it. Nevertheless, he understood the nature and the intricate workings of power. He perceived it as a specific human phenomenon, as a living relationship, a psychological one. To analyse power meant to understand people as they are, and their way of relating, without idealising them. “In truth,” says Machiavelli, “there is such a major difference between how people live and the way they should live, that he who leaves aside what is for what it should be, sooner finds out how people perish than how they succeed”.[4]

2.                    State – Machiavelli is the first one to have made the state the favourite object of political research. According to Sartori, “Machiavelli was the first to have objectified the State as an impersonal entity and has used the modern political denotations of the term – even though in an incidental, isolated way. In Machiavelli’s time, political forms were still known under the generic name of regnum and civitas (if they were republics)”.

In a footnote for chapter 3, Sartori made new remarks about the idea of State as seen by Machiavelli. “Until Machiavelli, the term of ‘state’ generally meant status, social position. The term describes a political entity for the first time in the first line of The Prince: ‘All states and powers which have exercised or are exercising control over individuals are either republics, either principalities’. The new meaning appears again in this passage: ‘When the Roano Cardinal said that Italians do not understand war, I answered that the French do not understand the State.’[5] Nevertheless, both in the Discourses and in the Florentine Histories, Machiavelli used the term of ‘state’ in a medieval sense. He even made a distinction between two types of state: the principality (which was the most common form of government during his time) in The Prince, and the republic in Discourses on the First Decade of Titus Livy.

3.                        The Political Figure (the political ruler, the one who holds the power and exercises it): the author of The Prince has paid much attention to this character, to such an extent that he often gives the impression that power, in its true, living sense, is embodied by the ruler, especially in the case of the principality. As a matter of fact, the state seems to identify itself with the person who is in charge of it. As Sartori would remark: “Machiavelli observed a different state of things, in which the political endeavour seemed to coincide with the nature of its prince […] in those times, politics and the prince were synonymous”.[6]

Therefore, in Machiavelli’s view, what determined the destiny of a state, of a principality were two main things: Fortuna (Luck, Fate) and the prince’s abilities. Consequently, political Power, the State and the Political Figure are the three major aspects around which the field of political research is defined. Following in his footsteps, later researchers would equate the object of political science either with political power or with the state.

4.2. The Method of Political Science


If regarding the object of political science Machiavelli leaves us to discover the state of the things without making clear-cut remarks, he is much more straightforward about the method. In some passages, Machiavelli makes direct reference to the method used in political research. Firstly, in chapter XV of The Prince, where we see the “phenomenological” perspective of his political analysis, we notice his concern for empiric facts, that verita effetualle dela cosa, in direct opposition to any speculation of utopia. It could be argued that, from this point of view, Machiavelli applied the empirical or inductive method, which had been previously applied by Aristotle in Politics, and which would later on be formulated by Francis Bacon.

Other relevant texts about method are found in the Discourses, especially those passages that underline the importance of knowing the past in order to understand the present; in other words, he draws our attention to the vital necessity of historical knowledge for understanding the present. Such a text can be found, for example, in the Preamble of Book 1 of his discourses.

Knowing the past has relevance not only for theoretical awareness but also for practical applications. Furthermore, knowing the past helps one anticipate the future. Machiavelli does not hesitate to lament the fact that even political people and analysts ignore the past.

Machiavelli did not invent a new method, or, better said, he invented one starting from means and methods already in use. In fact, he blended the psychologist’s observation skills with the effort of knowing the past and with the talent of the writer who communicates with ease. And he did this better than philosophers could do. By analysing facts, events, circumstances and people of the past, and by making use of analogy, Machiavelli understood better than the majority of philosophers what exactly Politics, the State and the Political Figure were. Moreover, he expressed this understanding in a highly accessible and intelligible style. These qualities represented the strongest point but also his weakest, as many could approach his text and criticise it.

However, Machiavelli had only one thing in mind: to present the truth of the matter and to communicate useful things for the benefit of those capable of grasping them. Charles Benoist calls him “a great reader of ancient things and a great observer of modern things”. This quote catches Machiavelli’s method really well. In rigorous terms, this method is a combination – following a unique recipe – between observation (of facts, events, circumstances, people), analogy (past and present), psychological intuition, all of these enhanced by the capacity to express clearly and simply what others were trying to say in sophisticated, obscure, philosophical ways. That is why Machiavelli’s method and ideas could be easily grasped not only by political thinkers but also by political figures in general who did not hesitate to take on his ideas and advice and to attempt to put them into practice in new situations and circumstances.

4.3. The Autonomy of Politics


One of Machiavelli’s major contributions consists in what we could call the autonomy of politics. Machiavelli was the first author who understood politics as something distinct, a phenomenon set apart, with specific reasoning and interests, rules and laws. Until Machiavelli, no one has dared to make such a clear-cut distinction between religion and morality. He is the first also to consider that politics cannot be reduced to other activities. This step can be seen as immensely important for the establishment of modern political science.



There are two main ways in which politics can be (and, indeed, has been) approached. The first one is the philosophical approach, inaugurated by Plato, which tried to answer the question: “What should politics be like?” The other perspective, the phenomenological one, tries to understand and present politics as it really is. What is political phenomenology and why can Machiavelli be thought of as its founder?

Etymologically, the term “phenomenology” refers to the study of phenomena; therefore it means “the science of phenomena”. Mutatis mutandis, political phenomenology would study political phenomena. Machiavelli ignored this term, therefore he never used it; this is because was coined only in 1764 by the German mathematician and philosopher Johannes Lambert, in a work called Neus Organonum (4 volumes). The term then has grown to have a brilliant ‘career’ in modern and postmodern philosophy, being employed by renown philosophers such as Kant, Fichte, Hegel (modern times), Heidegger, Husserl, Sartre (during the 20th century). In the past century Husserl was the phenomenologist par excellence. His name is associated with the creation of phenomenological method and what is known as “transcendental phenomenology”.

It is self evident that Machiavelli has very little to do with the way the above mentioned authors understood phenomenology. However, there exists in Husserl’s writing, a principle which Machiavelli illustrated in The Prince: “It is not from philosophers, but from deeds and actual problems that the impulse for research should start”.[7]

Machiavelli illustrated this point of view, especially in The Prince, where he declares himself against all speculations and fancies in favour of the verita effetuale della cosa. Nevertheless, the distinction between his method and that of Husserl is immense. Machiavelli has observation of real life, events and people as his starting point, while Husserl demands that the real world be suspended, or practically annihilated. Machiavelli’s approach is closer to the etymological meaning of the term, that of phenomenology as the study of phenomena. The best way to express his approach remains verita effetuale della cosa.

Machiavelli had everything going for him that would enable him to be considered a political phenomenologist avant la lettre. Firstly, he was an excellent observer of facts, events, political circumstances and people in general (either in political power or not). Secondly, he was intimately connected with the historical past and endowed with an acute sense of history (which is exactly what Charles Benoist perceived when he called him “a great reader of old things and a great observer of modern things”). Thirdly, he was a very bright psychologist, capable of understanding and guessing what lay behind the political rulers’ behaviour and actions. Fourthly he was a gifted writer, having an ease for translating his observation in terms that were accessible. He had been equipped by the Creator with the capacity of observing, understanding and describing things which might have gone unnoticed by others. Both The Prince and the Discourses on the First Decade of Titus Livy represent an incontestable illustration of this extraordinary capacity.



The phenomenologist’s task does not end at observing and describing events, circumstances, people or the historical past. A true phenomenologist must try and be capable to grasp what lies behind all these. He also must be capable of deciphering, in the end, their essence, the essence of politics, or as Julien Freund says, the nature and the “laws” of power. This is something that Machiavelli managed to achieve, unlike any other scholar before him.

It is worth noticing that he was the first to understand power as an essential human phenomenon because it depends on the psychology, behaviour, interests and actions specific to people. Fate has its place in the equation of power, but daring people can force destiny’s hand to achieve their goals.

At the same time, if we follow Machiavelli’s thought closely, we shall surmise that power is a special phenomenon, an out of the ordinary relation, based on the fact that some give orders (dispositions) and others hear and execute them. “Obedience is the real school of politics”, said Aristotle, opinion which was later on adopted as well. Whoever understands the reason why people obey and submit themselves has a great understanding of the mystery of power.

Machiavelli, however, disagreed with this view and claimed that the real mystery of power is hidden in the capacity of the leader to impose himself before the crowd, by any necessary means. Power resides thus in manipulating people and playing games with their minds. Cesare Borgia, the Duke of Valentino, was the real man of power, and Machiavelli describes him as being “so quick to anger and, at the same time, so capable, and he knew how one can win people or how to destroy them”.[8]

Political Power was thus a psychological relation, and those who had it exerted, by any possible means, an influence on the minds and behaviour of others until the latter would do whatever the former wanted. The power relation was tense, however, for both sides were suspicious of each other and were ready to clash, despite the apparent calmness. “In any republic”, noticed Machiavelli, “there are two parties: the party of the strong and that of the people; all laws favouring freedom are born out of their opposition”.[9] Machiavelli placed a stronger accent on the selfish nature of Power, rather than on its social side.

Perhaps Machiavelli’s greatest discovery and contribution in political phenomenology consisted in the identification and description of the “laws” of Power (where “laws” stand for the relatively stable tendencies manifested in its behaviour and actions).

·         The first “law” is that of self-preservation. Power represents a living organism, a lively body which, once brought into being, acts as any living body would do. And as we know, the law of living organisms is self-preservation;

·         The second law is that of growth. Any power has the tendency to grow. This was a natural course in Machiavelli’s view; as such, he did not try to come up with ways to slow it down. At the opposite spectrum, liberal thinkers were exceptionally preoccupied with how to limit power and the practical ways to achieve this goal.

·         The third law is that of concealment or appearance. Machiavelli was particularly interested in how to keep up appearances. In chapter XVIII, entitled “How a Prince Should Respect His Word”, he dealt with this aspect of concealing truth. Power is shrewd; and a political man must conceal his shrewdness so that, under the impression of being honest, he must ready himself to be exactly that kind of person whom people expected him to be. Appearances are of major importance in politics. “But you must know how to hide your fox-like nature in different ways, to pretend and never expose yourself, because people are so naïve and they submit so easily to present needs so that the one who cheats will always find someone willing to be cheated.” In Machiavelli’s view, a prince must not necessarily have all the traits that people see in him or expect of him, but it is absolutely necessary to appear as though he were in possession of them. Therefore, a prince must “seem charitable, true to his word, kind, having integrity and being religious and actually be that”.

·         The fourth law of is that of corruption. Aristotle foresaw and debated it in Politics, raising the alarm on its effects. Later on, the English historian Lord Acton expressed it bluntly: “Power corrupts; absolute power corrupts absolutely”. Machiavelli sees corruption as a sort of fatality:  “There are no laws, no state organization to slow corruption down!”[10] And even if people are not corrupt, power will corrupt them inevitably. Therefore, “it is not sufficient that the people are not corrupt, for, in a short while, an absolute authority will corrupt them, making friends and allies”.[11] Political power holds the germ of corruption; consequently, sooner or later, the whole society will be contaminated by this malady, with all the consequences which this entails. A rich testimony of political history attests to the fact that power not only is corruptible, but it corrupts the people.

·         Finally, the fifth law, which Machiavelli sensed and illustrated (or legitimised), even though he did not explicitly name it, is the Law of the State Reason. Louis XIV would later consider it as the first law of politics, which suited his preference for absolutism.

About this concept (raggione di stato), introduced by Jean Bottero and discussed by one of Machiavelli’s contemporaries, the historian Guicciardini, it can be said that it places the state above the individuals and the selfishness of power above the interests of the few. The state is always right and its actions are always justified, irrespective of the consequences it has on individuals. The founding premise is that the state is everybody’s exponent, or at least, that of the majority; thus, its actions will always be more important than individual actions. The “laws” of power have motivations in the human nature and psychology, which are related to the fact that political power is not a concept, an abstract notion, but a living reality, a relation. When power is made abstract, it hides its true face and conceals the way to the identification of its laws. Of course, we must not perceive these laws of power as inexorable tendencies, some that cannot be controlled, tempered down, calmed. The laws of power are not the same as the laws of nature, but this does not mean that we can ignore their presence, action and consequences. In Machiavelli’s view strong people, especially those gifted with virtue, can control even Destiny, if they are determined enough to do it. Political power being a human phenomenon, the laws of power always act through people.



Although its name was inspired by the Italian scholar, Machiavellianism as a political attitude and phenomenon does not start and end with the one who lent his name to the concept. As a matter of fact, the Italian thinker inspired the word and promoted a type of Machiavellianism, but the phenomenon had long preceded him. Charles Benoist considered that it would continue to do so after Machiavelli’s death in a concept that is called “perpetual Machiavellianism”[12], for it is tightly connected to the nature of human life, society and history. The same author stated that “there are different types of Machiavellianism: true versus false, initiated by Machiavelli himself versus stemmed from his disciples or his enemies”.[13]

Machiavellianism isn’t present only in politics; it invades other spheres of human life too. Benoist, quoting various authors in the third volume of his work Le Machiavélisme, includes a pietistic Machiavellianism, a literary one, a theological one, a juridical one, etc. Tomassini considers that Ovid’s The Art of Loving could have represented an erotic Machiavellianism, while Balzac saw a marital one. D’Alembert evokes the spectre of a historical Machiavellianism, “which is a manner of practising the past”.[14] The essence of political Machiavellianism is aptly summarised in the maxim: “the ends justifies the means”, or as Benoist says: “Qui veut la fin veut les moyens”. Barthélemy-Saint-Hilaire, in the well-known Dictionary of Politics, under the coordination of Maurice Block, defines Machiavellianism as “the sacrificing of all principles in the name of interest; the violation of all moral laws to success”.[15]

Machiavellianism does not constitute a doctrine to be applied; rather, it is an ideological-spiritual reflex of a social-political society which deliberately ignores morality and for which only the end result is significant, irrespective of the means that were employed to reach that end. In fact, there exists also a theoretical Machiavellianism, present in different political or philosophical doctrines: (that of Nietzsche, Spengler, etc.)

J. Burham includes Dante, Machiavelli, Mosea, Sorel, Michels, and Pareto among the theorists of Machiavellianism; however, the list remains open. The American author, follower of the technocratic alternative, appreciates their open spirit and the sincerity with which they approach issues. “The Machiavellians are the only to have spoken the whole truth about power. Other authors have told us the truth only about groups other than those on behalf of whom they speak. They present us with all the facts: the primary practical purpose for all leaders consists of serving their own interest, of maintaining their own powers and privileges. No exception! No theory, no promise, no goodwill, no religion, not even morality will slow power down”.[16]

Far more grave and dangerous than theoretical Machiavellianism is the practical one, materialised in the actual discrepancy between the declared purpose of political activity and the means that are employed to reach it, which is revelatory of the politicians’ duplicity and (more or less acknowledged) immorality.

This practical Machiavellianism reached its pinnacle during fascist and totalitarian regimes – although its theoretical side was rejected, making this doctrine belong to “political realism”. Those who hold this view adopt theses of traditional Machiavellianism, such as the state as a purpose in itself, the pre-eminence of state reason, the separation between politics and morality (the political a-morality), morality’s inefficiency, the imperfection of human nature, etc. They do this without having critically examined the original Machiavellian precepts and they go even further by adding new theses, such as the need to understand politics as a struggle for power, and the appreciation of conflict in order to obtain supremacy.

In the view of political realists, the primary indicator in the sphere of international relations is the concept of interest, defined in relation to power. This idea is strongly connected to the very core of politics and it is not affected by circumstances, or at least not in a significant way. According to H. Morgenthau, the main theoretician of this orientation, morality and politics should be considered separately, as each has its own standard. Ethics judges action abstractly, according to the degree of conformity with the moral law, while politics looks at an action through its consequences. Therefore, the moralist asks: “Is politics in concordance with moral principles?” while political realists ask a question that is altogether different: “How can this politics affect the power of the nation? Or, according to different scenarios, the power of the government, congress, party, etc.?”[17]

It is not difficult to detect the similarities between political realism and “classical” Machiavellianism concerning both the way in which they address problems and their methodology. The latter is defined by Morgenthau as “the process of observing facts and conferring a meaning according to reason”[18], where, naturally, reason is equated with political realism.

The essential criterion of judging political actions consists in the measure of success. For “what is important to know,” explains the American author, “if we want to understand external politics, are not mainly the motives of a state man, but his ability to understand the essential elements of external policy, as well as his political capacity to transpose what he has learned into a successful political action”. The self-evident consequence is that “morality judges the moral quality of motivation, while political theory judges the political qualities of the intellect, reason and action. A policy that looks down on the role of force in the name of moral values and commandments is condemned, in the vision of political realists, to failure”.[19]

Postulating the autonomous nature of politics, attempting to separate this from other spheres of human activity, and seeking to liberate political action from moral censorship, all these are false theses. They ignore the holistic character, the integrated system of society and, as well, the need to see the human being as a unitary entity. From a practical and strategic point of view, there is room for using any means in order to achieve one end: efficiency. Or, under the circumstances in which nowadays political powers have the means to bring about the annihilation of the entire human civilisation, an attitude such as the one described above will bring about inacceptable risks.



Machiavelli’s work has constituted the object of research and analysis from two relatively opposite perspectives: the historical one and the moral one. The former sees Machiavelli as “truly a man of his time” (A. Gramsci), excessively preoccupied by the problem of unifying Italy. The latter harshly judges him on the grounds that he is amoral and that he promotes cynicism and cruelty. Between the two, there is another perspective, the scientific one. In its view, Machiavelli has in mind the creation of a positive political science. Andrei Otetea, a Romanian historian, remarked: “Niccolò Machiavelli built a system that summarises the experience and the political thinking of his time through sheer observation and practice, as well as through studying Titus Livy”.[20]

Historical research comes to confirm Antonio Gramsci’s view that Machiavelli had been a man of his time. He wrote: “We need to consider Machiavelli as a necessary expression of his time, tightly connected to the conditions and demands of his time, which resulted (1) from the internal struggles of Florence and from the special structure of the state, which could not rid itself of the archaic remains of a feudalism that had become a nuisance; (2) from the struggle between Italian states for a balance within the Italian territory, balance that was prevented by the Pope’s existence, by municipal organisation and not a territorial one; (3) from the struggles between Italian states for European balance; thus from the contradictions between the need for an internal, Italian balance and the demands of European states that were competing for hegemony”.[21]

“Through Machiavelli, as it was said, political science starts out on a new path, with thoroughly new perspectives”.[22] Despite his declarations about the interest in the verita effetuale della cosa, Machiavelli thought under the speciae aeternitatis. His conception had the universal as its goal and this made him a man belonging to the Renaissance, and he left beyond a new perspective on how to judge politics.

The Romanian historian Oţetea remarked: “The Renaissance brought an understanding about science, coupled with a new view on society and on the art of governing”.[23] He could be easily called a modern day Aristotle. “Machiavelli’s greatest merit”, notices Horkheimer, “is to have recognised,[24] very early, the possibility of a political science which, in his view, corresponded with the new physics and the new psychology, and that he expressed its fundamental traits in a simple, exact way”.

Of course, Machiavelli is not original through its topic as many before him had studied politics and had done it so brilliantly, coming up with original works. What is original about Machiavelli’s perspective is his method of approaching the political phenomenon: “Machiavelli invents a realistic theory of politics. He bases the very ethical principles on the principles of politics which, in turn, rely ontologically on the dialectic of purposes and means […] He is looking for cause and effect, believes in experience, in the lesson of history, in actions. He discovers the psychology of people and that which is permanent about it. He studies the universe of intent and action”.[25]

The author of The Prince can be seen as one of the most profound political psychologists for he grasped human nature’s negative side, its vices, dark passions and hidden effects, reaching a deep level of scepticism, on which he built his Machiavellianism. One thing is clear, though: “Machiavelli did not invent shrewdness, treason or political crime. But he deduced a theoretical principle out of the political practice, a universally valid norm and he conjured a decisive proof for the secularisation of thinking”.[26] Machiavellianism as a practical political attitude is a despicable and dangerous phenomenon. However, it is not Machiavelli who is responsible for it.

Machiavelli made an error when he tried to separate politics and morality, and to establish an ethics in conformity with the interests and maxims of power. He was wrong in justifying absolute power, state reason as reason per se, and as a supreme principle of governing. But, unveiling the intimate mechanism of power, the hidden face of politics, without deformation and excuses, without illusions and compromise, he forewarned people more than any creator of deforming utopias ever did. He shatters the view that politics would pursue general good, as well as the belief in the sacred, divine power. We could say that he humanises politics, placing it in a truer light and, through that, he helps us adopt a more realistic attitude, in conformity with truth and reality. Burnham said: “if people generally understood what Machiavelli had understood about the mechanism of power, they wouldn’t still be disappointed in accepting leadership and they would know the necessary steps to take in order to stand up to it”.[27]

The observation of real political facts is Machiavelli’s prime method; however, this has brought about the awareness that careful researching of historical truth represents an indispensable source of knowledge as that which is essential, general, repetitive in politics stands out as a gold nugget would. In fact, Machiavelli thought politics under a double aspect: science and art. Political man is similar to a sculptor who shapes a wonderful creation out of an amorphous material. Politics is creation, not just technique and craft; it requires exceptional qualities from its leading figures who would then model it according to their knowledge and virtues. It is no wonder then that one of the most famous Renaissance historians, Burckhardt, believed that “out of all political architects, Machiavelli is the greatest, without a doubt, without objection”.[28]

We have already established that Machiavelli was read and interpreted in different ways. Some saw The Prince as a code for tyranny and cynicism. Others, on the contrary, saw in it a scientific work of incontestable worth, even an expression of humanism. These two views constitute the extremes of the numerous interpretations available. According to the ethical and political aspect, Machiavellian thought is a polarised one, as Croce and Gramsci have pointed out. We subscribe to the view that considers as too simplistic the attempt to analyse Machiavelli’s work according to the triad: moral, immoral, amoral, because understanding it necessitates the use of nuances and subtleties.

Perhaps we are not exaggerating at all when we say that, of all political thinkers, Machiavelli has become the less redundant, as many of his intuitions, observations and judgements still remain true. He saw politics for what it was, vice and all, schemes and all. What we could reproach him is that he stayed within the realm of politics exclusively, leaving aside the intersection points, the opening gates to ethical and cultural aspects of life. That is the reason why his work seems somewhat incomplete, although necessary. Even if we prefer Kant and his case for humanity, Machiavelli is crucial for understanding that politics does not take into account subjective wishes and moral reasons, for it contains its own ends and reasons.

“Machiavelli brings about a radical change in the European political thought; new concepts emerge, new perspectives arise with the evolution of modern political reality”.[29] We must therefore admit that without his honest, blunt and realistic spirit, we might have remained in the false paradise of illusions and utopia, without ever knowing the true face of politics.



ADORNO, Theodor W., Max Horkheimer, Dialectic of Enlightenment, Allen Lane, London, 1973.

ARISTOTEL, Etica Nicomahicǎ, Editura Antet, Bucureşti, 1988.

BENOIST, Charles, Le Machiavélisme, tome III, Plon, Paris, 1936.

BURCKHARDT, Jakob, Civilizaţia renaşterii în Italia, vol. I, Editura pentru Literaturǎ, Bucureşti, 1969.

BURNHAM, James, The Machiavellians, Defenders of Truth, Gateway Editions, Washington, 1987.

CASSIRERC, Ernst, Mitul Statului, Institutul European, Iaşi, 2001.

GRAMSCI, Antonio, Note sul Machiavelli, Editura Politicǎ, Bucureşti, 1987.

HUSSERL, Edmund, Filozofia ca ştiinţǎ riguroasǎ, Paideia, Bucureşti, 1994.

MACHIAVELLI, Niccolò, Principele, (in vol. Mǎştile puterii), Institutul European, Iași, 1997.

MORGENTHAU, Hans, “Politics among Nations”, in Stanley HOFFMAN, Contemporary Theory in International Relations, St. Martin, New York, 1965.

OȚETEA, Andrei, Scrieri istorice alese, Dacia, Cluj, 1980.

SARTORI, Giovanni, Teoria democraţiei reinterpretatǎ, Editura Polirom, Iaşi, 1999.

USCĂTESCU, George, Proces umanismului, Editura Politicǎ, Bucureşti, 1987.

[1] ARISTOTEL, Etica Nicomahicǎ, Antet, Bucureşti, 1988, p. 8.

[2] Ernst CASSIRER, Mitul Statului, Institul European, Iaşi, 2001, p. 170.

[3] Niccolò MACHIAVELLI, Principele, (in vol. Mǎştile puterii, Editura Institutului European, 1997), p. 92.

[4] Ibidem, pp. 92-93.

[5] Giovanni SARTORI, Teoria democraţiei reinterpretatǎ, Polirom, Iaşi, 1999, p. 72.

[6] Ibidem, p. 60.

[7] Edmund HUSSERL, Filozofia ca ştiinţǎ riguroasǎ, Editura Paideia, Bucureşti, 1994, p. 73.

[8] See Mǎştile puterii, p. 67.

[9] Discorsi, I, 4.

[10] Discorsi, I, 18.

[11] Discorsi, I, 33.

[12] Charles BENOIST, Le Machiavélisme, tome III, Plon, Paris, 1936, p. 4.

[13] Ibidem (tome I, Plon, Paris, 1907, ed. III), p. 2.

[14] Ibidem, tome III, pp. 5-7.

[15] Ibidem, p. 3.

[16] James BURNHAM, The Machiavellians, Defenders of Truth, Gateway Editions, Washington, 1987, p. 246.

[17] Hans MORGENTHAU, Politics among Nations, in Hoffman, S., Contemporary Theory in International Relations, St. Martin, New York, 1965.

[18] Ibidem.

[19]Ibidem. In his book, The Theory of Democracy, Giovanni Sartori shows that, among the things that differentiate the realistic and the legalistic view on politics, it is the use of power that makes a capital difference: for the latter, force is kept as a last resort, whereas for the former, it is prima ratio (Giovanni Sartori, op. cit., p. 30).

[20] Andrei OŢETEA, Scrieri istorice alese, Dacia, Cluj, 1980, p. 19.

[21] Antonio GRAMSCI, Note sul Machiavelli, Editura Politicǎ, Bucureşti, 1987, p. 19.

[22] George USCǍTESCU, Proces umanismului, Editura Politicǎ, Bucureşti, 1987, p. 208.

[23] Andrei OŢETEA, Scrieri istorice…cit., p. 19.

[24] Theodor W. ADORNO, Max HORKHEIMER, Dialectic of Enlightenment, Allen Lane, London, 1973, p. 16.

[25] George USCǍTESCU, Proces umanismului…cit., pp. 209-210.

[26] Andrei OŢETEA Scrieri istorice…cit., p. 19.

[27] James BURNHAM, The Machiavellians…cit., p. 77.

[28] Jacob BURCKHARDT, Civilizaţia Renaşterii în Italia, vol. I, Editura pentru Literaturǎ, Bucureşti, 1969, p. 70.

[29] George USCǍTESCU, G., Proces umanismului…cit , pp. 220-221.