Coordinated by Aurelian GIUGĂL


Yet another Republican Moralist? Machiavelli on Prince, Glory and Good Constitution[i]





University of Belgrade – Faculty of Political Sciences, Belgrade, Serbia



Abstract: The paper offers a comparative account of Niccolo Machiavelli’s The Prince, his Discourses and the famous writings of his classical predecessors, particularly Cicero’s De Officiis and Polybius’s Histories. Through textual analysis and interpretation, both historical and philosophical, it is argued that, even in his book that became notorious for its abandonment of classical ethics and rebuttal of Christian morality, Machiavelli emulates the basic structure of classical (republican) argument. Like Cicero and the vast majority of ancient Greek and Roman political thinkers, Machiavelli offers an account of a good type of government. His argument, again like his classical predecessors’, builds upon the distinction between public and private good and, for Machiavelli, they are not in opposition, as they are both correlated to achieving glory. To this end the state and its preservation is instrumental - a political order is legitimised by its stability and longevity and those who contribute to it are awarded with glory.


Keywords: Machiavelli, Cicero, Polybius, glory, best constitution






            One could hardly overstate the fact that Niccolo Machiavelli’s (1469-1527) political thought has been a point of theoretical contestation and that it has inspired a great number of diverse interpretations. At the locus of different commentaries is his notorious textbook, The Prince (1513), famous for its abandonment of both Christian morals and the classical world-view that saw ethics and politics as interconnected. The infamy that Machiavelli’s work has achieved is perhaps best illustrated by the coining of the term “Machiavellianism” and the fact that this term, denoting devious and unscrupulous behaviour, is still in use, 500 years after The Prince was written. And if we consider that the very same author writes passionately about the Roman republic in Discourses on the Ten Books of Titus Livy (1518/1519) and praises republican institutions, virtue and liberty, we can understand why Machiavelli’s thought has raised significant academic interest. Scholars’ bewilderment at Machiavelli as the “teacher of evil”, contrasted to Machiavelli as a republican patriot, gave rise to numerous accounts of his theory and his intentions. Some, like Jean-Jacques Rousseau, argued that Machiavelli had always been a good republican and a “lover of liberty” and that The Prince was a satirical piece in which he exposed the villainy of princes to the people.[ii] Mary Dietz claims that Machiavelli’s aim was to give advice to Lorenzo de Medici that would cause him to lose his power over Florence.[iii] Others, like Quentin Skinner and J. G. A. Pocock, argue that the genuine purpose of The Prince was to gain favour of the Medici family.[iv] Finally, there are those who, like Leo Strauss, do not try to vindicate Machiavelli and simply argue that he actually was “a teacher of evil”.[v] The purpose of this article is much more modest. We will not try to resolve the major controversies surrounding Machiavelli’s political thought. Instead, this paper focuses on drawing parallels between Machiavelli’s two main political treatises (The Prince and Discourses) and the arguments offered by classical political thinkers. In this, our argument is perhaps most closely related to Isaiah Berlin’s famous essay, The Originality of Machiavelli. Berlin argues that Machiavelli, contra Christian thinkers, reintroduces the ancient, republican, morality: “anyone whose thought revolves round central concepts such as the good and the bad, the corrupt and the pure, has an ethical scale in mind in terms of which he gives moral praise and blame. Machiavelli’s values are not Christian, but they are moral values“.[vi]

The first part of the paper very roughly sums up what we call the classical argument in emphasising at least three points: [1] a good polity or a good constitution is instrumental to some (common) good and it is never its own purpose; [2] in order to fulfil its purpose, a constitution has to bring political stability; [3] to this end it is vital that one’s vision of his own (private) good should never be allowed to defeat the common good. The second part of the paper pairs Machiavelli’s with Polybius’s thought and compares the two authors’ historical and consequentialist pursuit of the most stable constitution. Here we emphasise their shared praise of mixed constitution and civil dissent as means of achieving political stability and greatness. In the third part of the paper we turn mainly to comparing Machiavelli’s ideas to those of Cicero. Here it is our aim to show that, in Cicero’s and Machiavelli’s views, attainment of glory is the goal that is shared by every country and every man, citizens and princes alike. For both authors the private good is identified with the public good and it is argued that the very meaning of the term “stato” underlines such an identity. Finally, in comparison to Machiavelli, we point at passages from Cicero’s De Officiis where the famous moralist discusses the actions that would be considered immoral, if they were not committed in the interest of preserving the republic.






One of the focal points of classical political philosophy is the search for the optimal political constitution. A good constitution is not sought for its own sake. Instead, a polity is thought to be instrumental to a good of its citizens. Plato and Aristotle, for example, argue that the purpose of a polity is happiness or “good life”.[vii] In order to achieve its goal, a good constitution needs to counteract the principal causes that lead to a state’s demise: internal disunity and strife, corruption of its institutions and its inability to defend itself from foreign invasion. And the search for the most stable political order is precisely what the classical philosophical pursuits for the best constitution have in common. Whichever other characteristics it may or may not posses and whatever aim it serves to achieve (virtue, happiness, freedom, equality, glory, self-sufficiency), a state needs to have political stability. In very basic terms, the solution to this problem depends on the government’s commitment to public good and it is most often supported by a mixed constitution. We will now very briefly sketch the basic contours of this argument.[viii]

The principal distinction pertinent to this issue is between public and private interest or, put in a broader and a less anachronistic way, the difference between a man acting with somebody else’s good in mind and somebody who acts only with regards to his own good. This distinction is one of the principal building blocks of ancient ethical and political thought. The importance of this distinction for the history of political thought cannot be overstated, as it reinforces the very distinction between good (desirable, justified, legitimate) and corrupted constitutions. In Republic Plato argues that:


“[n]o one in any position of authority, to the extent that he is in authority, thinks about or prescribes what is good for himself, but only what is good for the person or thing under his authority – for whose benefit he himself exercises his art or skill. Everything he says, and everything he does, is said or done with this person or thing in mind, with a view to what is good an appropriate for the person or thing under his authority.”[ix]


Similarly, building upon Plato’s Statesman, Aristotle in Politics offers a distinction between three correct and three corrupted forms of government, based on the same criterion: “It is evident, then, that those constitutions that look to the common benefit turn out, according to what is unqualifiedly just, to be correct, whereas those which look only to the benefit of the rulers are mistaken
and are deviations from the correct constitutions.”[x]

Polybius used the same typology in his Histories, arguing that the every “simple” type of constitution is destined to fail and transform itself into another, again “simple”, constitution. This historical process is circular and it encompasses all six forms of governments. The way to stop this unfortunate and never-ending train of revolutions is to institute a mixed constitution – a combination of all the three desirable forms of government (monarchy, aristocracy and democracy) that Polybius attributed to Rome. While Polybius did adopt the idea of a mixed constitution along with the typology of different forms of government from his predecessors, his insight into ancient Roman and Greek history led him to argue that:


“Lycurgus used calculation to predict how the nature of each of these systems of government would dictate its beginning and its outcome. […] But in the Romans’ case, even though the result was the same, […] this was not at all the outcome of reason, but of many struggles and trials. On every occasion, they drew on the knowledge they had gained from their setbacks to make the best choices, and this enabled them to achieve the same result as Lycurgus, and to make theirs the best system of government in the world today.”.[xi]


This comparison is very important, as it removes the stress from the Platonist insistence on harmony and emphasises internal conflict as a means of reaching the best constitution. Polybius talks about the three aspects of “simple” constitutions as forming a system based on mutually imposed limitations that lead to the longevity of the mixed form of government. Monarchic, aristocratic and democratic aspects of the Roman constitution, embodied in the institutions of the Roman republic, each strive to domination and whenever a single principle threatens to overcome the others, the other two unite in order to diminish its overinflated influence:


“For suppose one of the estates, thanks to an inflated impression of its own importance, pushes itself forward and tries to gain the upper hand over the others — well, clearly none of them does get inflated or presumptuous, because none of them is self-sufficient, as I have just been explaining, and the designs of each of them can be effectively counteracted and hampered by the others. Everything remains in its assigned place, then, either because its impetus is checked, or because right from the start it is afraid of being curbed by the others.”[xii]


Cicero is perhaps the author whose work is most important for understanding the classical framework of Machiavelli’s political thought. Polybius’s influence on Cicero is indisputable, but one important difference between the two authors is that Cicero, contra Polybius, argues against strife between estates and emphasises the role of aristocracy in maintaining the republican (mixed) constitution by countering democratic and monarchic political ambitions. As Neil Wood argues, “[t]he preservation of the state, [Cicero] maintains, should be the chief goal of statecraft”.[xiii] Harmony is the prerequisite for the preservation of the state and “a properly mixed constitution consists of a concordia of social orders, devised, however, to guarantee the political domination of the aristocratic landholding minority”.[xiv] Furthermore, in drafting his account of a good man and a good statesman, Cicero draws from Plato in arguing at least two things. First, there is no distinction between private and public good. It is false to think that any personal good can come out of an action that is aimed against public good, so what is good for the citizen is also good for the state. Cicero argues that “what is beneficial can never compete with what is honourable”[xv] and, more directly, that “all men should have this one object, that the benefit of each individual and the benefit of all together should be the same. If anyone arrogates it to himself, all human intercourse will be dissolved.” [xvi] Secondly, caring for others’ wellbeing and protecting public good distinguishes a legitimate ruler from a tyrant. Cicero’s view of tyranny and tyrants is Platonist in its nature, as he sees them as devoid of the very idea of state and man, respectively. Cicero argues that a tyrant’s nature is more akin to beast’s than to man’s:


“there can be no fellowship between us and tyrants - on the contrary there is a complete estrangement - and it is not contrary to nature to rob a man, if you are able, to whom it is honourable to kill. Indeed, the whole pestilential and irreverent class ought to be expelled from the community of mankind.”[xvii]


A tyrant, thus, needs to be killed like a savage beast: “[I]f the wildness and monstrousness of a beast appears in human form, it must be removed from the common humanity, so to speak, of the body. Of this sort are all those questions in which the issue is duty in particular circumstances.”[xviii]

Let us now sum up this rough sketch of some very basic aspects of Machiavelli’s predecessors’ thought. One of the central topics of ancient political theory is the pursuit of political stability and the most often sought solution is designing the optimal form of government. Its crucial component is the typology of constitutions, important part of which is the difference between desirable and corrupted constitutions. This distinction is, again, reinforced by the differentiation between acting to one’s own sole benefit and acting with the benefit of other(s) in mind. According to Plato and Cicero, this is a false dilemma, as no good consequences can come to an individual who ignores or violates the public good. Cicero believes that harmonious relationships between social orders and their partnership[xix] in maintaining res publica are the best way to protect the stability of the state. Polybius offers somewhat diverging insight into the causes of the stability of the state. Like Aristotle and Cicero, Polybius believes that the mixed constitution is the optimal form of government, but, unlike them, he argues that the tensions between the social orders contribute to the stability of the (Roman) republican order, rather than diminish it.

Machiavelli’s humanist education and the Florentine Renaissance milieu provided him with the insight into these reoccurring themes, particularly in connection to Cicero’s thought.[xx] There are a number of well-documented parallels between The Prince and Cicero’s De Officiis. For one, Machiavelli notoriously argues that, depending on circumstances, a prince should display his bestially nature: either cunningness of a fox, or ferociousness of a lion. He writes: “Since, then, a prince must know how to make use of the nature of the beast, he should choose from among the beasts the fox and the lion; for the lion cannot defend itself from traps, while the fox cannot protect itself from the wolves.”[xxi] This is a direct reference to the very opposite claim made by Cicero in book I, chapter 41 of De Officiis: “There are two ways in which injustice may be done, either through force or through deceit; and deceit seems to belong to a little fox, force to a lion. Both of them seem most alien to a human being; but deceit deserves a greater hatred.”[xxii]

Again, in contrast to the same tradition of political thought and contrary to its origins in Plato’s idealism, Machiavelli announces that his writing “depart[s] from the procedures of others”, that he “search[es] after the effectual truth of the matter rather than its imagined one”, while “[m]any writers have imagined republics and principalities that have never been seen nor known to exist in reality.”[xxiii] And, indeed, his insights are submerged in historical arguments and personal experience, rather than in intellectual abstractions. In this, Machiavelli’s approach is similar to Polybius’s. The two authors accounts have a similar starting point. They begin from a common place, the established fact of ancient Rome’s greatness, and trace the argument back to its historical causes. Machiavelli does not imagine a model republic that never “exist[ed] in reality”. Instead, like Polybius, he uses Rome, in all of its (historical) glory. Machiavelli was certainly well aware of Polybius’s work, including the political ideas laid out in the Book VI of Histories, which were “known in Florence for several years when, to all appearences in 1513, he started writing his Discorsi.”[xxiv]




Polybius seeks to uncover the workings behind “an unprecedented event” of incredibly fast Roman expansion. Similarly, Machiavelli comments on the history of Rome through the lenses of greatness it had achieved. Therefore, he comments on particular historical events and judges their value in the light of them leading to certain consequences. Historical particularities are not treated in isolation and judged on their own merit, but only as a part of a “bigger” and chronologically more recent picture. For example, although inexcusable in its own right, Romulus’s fratricide is permissible in the context of the consequential establishment of the great polity: “It is at any rate fitting that though the deed accuses him, the result should excuse him; and when it is good, like that of Romulus, it will always excuse him, because he who is violent to destroy, not he who is violent to restore, ought to be censured.”[xxv] The desirability of the consequence, thus, excuses the undesirable cause. This, however, does not mean that every end justifies the means. Instead Machiavelli, in the spirit of classical political thought, underlines the distinction between private and the public good and points out that “what [Romulus] did was done for the common good and not for his own ambition”[xxvi]. For Machiavelli, acting for the common good is intrinsically linked to being successful at establishing and expanding the state. In fact, the only way for Machiavelli to know if a ruler is acting for the common good is historical – he needs to know whether he is successful at leading his state to greatness. If Rome did not develop into a great and long-lived state, Machiavelli would probably judge Romulus’s fratricide very differently. Machiavelli’s criterion for distinguishing good from bad constitutions is thus consequentialist, historical and centred on the state’s stability and longevity. In other words, if a state achieved greatness, it must be that it has had a good constitution.

This is contrary to Cicero’s account. Cicero argues that “appearance of benefit drove [Romulus’s] spirit” and that “when it seemed more beneficial to him to rule alone than with someone else, he killed his brother”. [xxvii] “He did wrong”, Cicero concludes, as Romulus “abandoned both familial obligation and humanity”.[xxviii] Romulus, then, was driven by his private interest and this is where he did wrong. But Machiavelli, although he does not agree with Cicero on the wider benefits of Romulus’s fratricide, still sets the discussion up in the familiar, classical, manner. Therefore Machiavelli, following in the footsteps of classical authors, sets up a moral distinction between acting in one’s own interest and striving towards the common good. A similar point is raised by Cicero, when he discusses Brutus’s deposition of Collatinus, his trusted colleague and ally. He argues that, unlike Romulus, Brutus did right, as this action, “[t]he thing that was beneficial, namely to consider the interests of the country, was for that reason honourable”.[xxix] But neither Cicero’s condemnation of Romulus’s fratricide, nor his justification of Brutus’s act, does not stem from the (im)morality of the acts themselves.

Apart from the fact that the two authors present their republican political theory primarily in a form of a historical commentary, Machiavelli and Polybius both consider the Roman republic as a model for the best constitution. What made Rome great was its power and vast territory, brought upon by, as Polybius argues, its good constitution, a “kind of political system almost the entire known world was conquered and brought under a single empire, the empire of the Romans, in less than fifty three years — an unprecedented event”.[xxx] Similarly, Machiavelli praises the constitution that made ancient Rome stable and long-lived, arguing that: “the laws […] kept [Rome] full of vigor [virtu] as great as that by which any city or republic was ever distinguished.”[xxxi]

For both authors, the best constitution is the mixed (republican) constitution. In Discourses Machiavelli echoes the classical Aristotelian typology of constitutions, along with Polybius’s account of the everlasting cyclical transformations of “simple” constitutions. The conclusion is again very familiar – a mixed constitution brings stability to the state. Machiavelli writes, in a very Polybian tone:


“I say, then, that all the said types [of government] are pestiferous, by reason of the short life of the three good and the viciousness of the three bad. Hence, since those who have been prudent in establishing laws have recognized this defect, they have avoided each one of these kinds by itself alone and chosen one that partakes of them all, judging it more solid and more stable, because one keeps watch over the other, if in the same city there are princedom, aristocracy, and popular government.”[xxxii]


Furthermore, similarly to Polybius and unlike Cicero, Machiavelli believes that the discord was a very important component of the mixed constitution and the “first cause [that] kept Rome free”.[xxxiii] The tensions between the rich and the poor played a pivotal role in the establishment of good laws in ancient Rome, which, in turn, brought glory and longevity to the republic. Machiavelli writes:


“[I]n every republic there are two opposed factions, that of the people and that of the rich, and […] all the laws made in favor of liberty result from their discord. […] For anyone who will properly examine their outcome will not find that they produced any exile or violence damaging to the common good, but rather laws and institutions conducive to public liberty.”[xxxiv]


Therefore, as Machiavelli argues, “[t]hose enmities rising between the people and Senate must be borne, being taken as an evil necessary to the attainment of Roman greatness.”[xxxv] Such conflicts lead to good laws, good laws bring about good education and good education gives rise to honourable conduct. But although Machiavelli sees the hostility between the rich and the poor as conducive to a well-ordered and free polity, he remains suspicious of (other kinds of) factions. As Skinner points out,[xxxvi] Machiavelli writes in History of Florence that:


“[i]t is true that some divisions harm republics and some divisions benefit them. Those do harm that are accompanied with factions and partisans. Those do harm that are kept up without factions and without partisans. Since, then, the founder of a republic cannot provide that there will be no enmities within it, he needs at least to provide that there will be no factions.”[xxxvii]


Various groups working to their own advantage and without regard for the common good pose a real threat to every republic.[xxxviii] Republics in which group interests come first are corrupt and their citizens lack virtue (virtu), which makes them unable to endure the capricious nature of Fortune (fortuna), resist her assaults and take advantage of her blessings. In his account of Fortune, Machiavelli is “a typical representative of humanist attitudes” who distances himself from the Christian idea of fortune and reiterates the classical image of a capricious and powerful goddess.[xxxix] On a whim, she brings advantages to some and misery to others; she favours the bold the young and the virtuous. When we suffer from her bad temper, Fortune is like a “destructive river”, which “when [it] become[s] enraged, flood[s] the plains, ruin[s] the trees and buildings, raising the earth from one spot and dropping it onto another. Everyone flees before it; everyone yields to its impetus, unable to oppose it in any way.”[xl] However, malign Fortune that strikes a polity can be counteracted by good institutions, as “[s]he shows her power where there is no well-ordered virtue to resist her”.[xli] Virtue (virtu), enforced by good laws and education, is the answer to Fortune’s whims.

World governed by Fortune is unpredictable, unordered, irrational and far from harmonious.[xlii] Ideal polities crumble in a non-ideal world. This is why both states and citizens, if they want to survive in such a world, need to discard the old notions of virtue and embrace virtu, their much more flexible and effective counterpart. Machiavelli’s idea of virtu is defined by its relation to fortuna, in The Prince and in Discourses alike. Machiavelli’s virtuous man, a virtuoso, is not the virtuous man from Cicero’s writings. Contrary to Cicero’s account, Machiavellian virtue is not structured by the four “’cardinal’ virtues of wisdom, justice, courage and temperance” and steered by “honesty” – “a willingness to keep faith and deal honourably with all men at all times”.[xliii] Instead, virtu is defined in consequentialist terms, as one’s ability to cope with necessity and deal with Fortune’s caprices. For Machiavelli, a virtuous act is the one that brings glory to the agent. This is where his views converge with Cicero’s, for whom “glory is virtus rewarded”.[xliv] Machiavelli is keeping the structure of Cicero’s argument and turning it on its head. The Roman moralist argues that only virtuous acts lead to glory and, on the other hand, Machiavelli claims that any act that leads to glory is, ipso facto, virtuous. However, not all acts lead to glory, especially not the ones that ignore the common good. We will discuss this aspect of Machiavelli’s argument in the next subsection of this paper.




In Machiavelli’s Discourses, Rome is an exemplary state both because of longevity and greatness it had achieved. The latter, of course, depends on the former. But, even though a state cannot attain glory if it is short-lived, one could also imagine a stable and long-lived polity that is not glorious. Therefore, achieving both longevity and greatness might seem as a too ambitious of a task, at least from the perspective of The Prince. However, mantenere lo stato is [1] inseparable from the state’s longevity that exceeds a single generation of rulers and [2] preservation of the state is not the only goal that Machiavelli’s prince has. In Discourses Machiavelli further illustrates the first point: “It is not, then, the salvation of a republic or a kingdom to have a prince who will rule prudently while he lives, but to have one who will so organize it that even after he dies it can be maintained.”[xlv] If it is not followed by success at establishing good institutions, success at barely protecting his own authority does not make a good prince. Secondly, in his discussion of Agathocles’ ruthless, but successful, acts, Machiavelli notes that, even when such actions lead to ruling and maintaining the principality, “it cannot be called virtue to kill one’s fellow citizens, to betray allies, to be without faith, without pity, without religion; by these means one can acquire power, but not glory.”[xlvi] Machiavelli, therefore, clearly distinguishes between maintaining a state and making it glorious. Those who manage both, who “[found] a new principality, and [have it] adorned and furnished […] with good laws, good armies, and good actions” deserve “double glory”.[xlvii] On the other hand, if a prince rules by birth right and if his lack of prudence makes him lose his throne, he deserves “double shame”.[xlviii] From these passages we can see that Machiavelli, same as his classic predecessors, distinguishes a good polity from a bad one by employing two criteria: political stability (preservation of the state) and its greatness or, at the very least, the institutional potential for achieving it. Consequently, both in The Prince and in Discourses, a good ruler is a glorious ruler; the one who achieves both these ends. While the preservation of the state is the necessary condition for attaining worldly glory, it is not a sufficient one.

The emphasis Machiavelli puts on the attainment of glory as a principal life goal again echoes the thoughts of ancient Roman thinkers. In contrast to the Christian thinkers’ disdain of worldly greatness, Machiavelli aligns himself with Livy and Cicero in believing that “[t]he attainment of worldly honour and glory is […] the highest goal”.[xlix] Cicero, for one, devotes a large part of De Officiis to discussing ways in which “outstanding men” can acquire honour and glory.[l] Glory is a property of both a ruler and its state and a prince can never gain personal glory if he is ruling an undistinguished state. This points us to another important similarity between Machiavelli’s theory and the basic structure of a classical political argument. The achievement of glory, being a personal and a public goal at the same time, concerns both prince and his state and, thus, merges private with public interest. Machiavelli notes that “[h]e who considers present affairs and ancient ones readily understands that all cities and all peoples have the same desires and the same traits and that they always have had them.”[li] Therefore, if a prince hopes to achieve greatness and bring glory to himself, he must not separate his personal pursuit of glory from the attainment of glory for his country. Like Cicero’s magistrate, Machiavelli’s prince shares private with public good and, again, like Cicero’s citizens, citizens from Machiavelli’s Discourses cannot separate their personal glory from the glory of their republic. Therefore, both thinkers follow the classical idea by which one’s personal end can never be obtained if it opposes the aims of his community.

In comparison to bringing glory to your state and double glory to oneself, maintaining a long-lasting and stable political order is a somewhat less ambitious goal for a prince. However, mantenere lo stato is still a (praise)worthy goal which, again, inseparably links prince’s own good with the good of the community. The link is obvious, as we can hardly call a prince somebody who has lost his princedom. In Machiavelli’s terms, a prince who loses his authority deserves shame.[lii] But apart from this logical and somewhat trivial connection between public and private good, there is another way in which the two are intertwined. The term “stato” designates the regime of government and the office of a prince. In pointing at Machiavelli’s and his contemporaries’ use of the term, Skinner notes that Machiavelli does not employ the term “stato” to designate the state in the modern sense of the word, “as the name of an agent distinguishable at once from rulers and ruled”.[liii] Instead, for Machiavelli, “stato” means both a “system of government [or] general area or territory”[liv] and prince’s “il suo stato, [his] own state or condition of rulership”.[lv] Mantenere lo stato, the prince’s primary task, should be understood as a twofold directive: to maintain the constitution of his polity and to protect his own rule at the same time. Those are the two sides of a same coin: aiming to protect the government and maintaining its stability leads to assuring prince’s rule and vice versa. By setting the pursuit of glory and mantenere lo stato as the prince’s main goals, Machiavelli repeats the classical imperative by which private and public good should not and cannot be seen as separate. This normative view is very clearly phrased in Cicero’s De Officiis: “the benefit of each individual and the benefit of all together should be the same”.[lvi]

            The people, however, are by nature less inclined towards virtue than towards vice, insofar as they usually strive for personal gain. In The Prince Machiavelli famously writes that people are “ungrateful, fickle, simulators and deceivers, avoiders of danger, and greedy for gain.”[lvii] In Discourses he offers a similar formulation, advising lawgivers to “presuppose that all men are evil and that they are always going to act according to the wickedness of their spirits whenever they have free scope.”[lviii] Machiavelli is addressing a classical theme here. Well aware of the classical problem of corruptibility that concerns both polities and individual men, he is exploring the ways in which virtue could be reinforced to counteract the decay into anti-social behaviour. In this he is following Cicero and other classical authors. And although his account of virtu includes acts that could not be considered virtuous in the classical sense, it still relies on the classical notion of the common good. So how can so crooked men hope to live in stable state and ever hope to achieve greatness?

For Machiavelli, the laws of a well-ordered polity channel self-centred and anti-social acts and turn them into efforts that support the common good. Like characters from his play The Mandrake, self-interested and, in the classical sense, immoral citizens all get exactly what they desire[lix] when they act according to the plan set in motion by a virtuoso. The role of Ligurio is in many ways similar to the character of a good lawgiver: he knows what the individual (and often immoral) desires of his citizens are and he is not judgmental about them; he recognises necessity and opportunity and boldly takes action against the Fortune’s misgivings; his directions turn the tide into everybody’s advantage and bring about the common good. Both in Machiavelli’s comedy and in his political writings, the moral of the story remains the same: people are flawed by nature and nothing can be done about that, but they can reach greatness if they go about their personal goals within the framework set by a virtuoso.[lx] There are two great perils in their path, both very familiar to classical authors. The first danger rests in factions. Personal interests are in line with the common good, but factions distort them and Machiavelli is strongly against them, as we have shown previously. The second danger comes from the people’s misconceptions about their personal interests. People often wrongly believe that their personal interest is incompatible with the common good, while in fact the two are inseparable. Machiavelli, much like Cicero, in an entire section of Discourses dedicated to this issue argues that “the people, deceived by a false image of good, many times desire their own ruin. And if somebody in whom they have faith does not convince them that what they want is bad and explain what is good, countless dangers and losses come upon the republic.”[lxi] For Machiavelli and for Cicero, the good character is inseparable from the good constitution and such an identity is reinforced by the identity of the private and the common good. If a citizen does not recognize this identity, he will be compelled by law to act as if he did. Those who disregard the common good are in fact ignorant and act against their own interest. A good lawgiver knows that there will always be such men, so good laws correct this behavior and educate citizens for greatness.[lxii]

Machiavelli’s and his classical republican predecessors’ arguments employ the same basic structure. In their own ways, they all aim to uncover the foundations for a stable political order, while arguing in favour of the inseparability of private and public good. Also, none of them (including Machiavelli) believe that the stable constitution is its own goal. Aristotle argues that a polity exists for the sake of the good life,[lxiii] while Machiavelli, much like Cicero, puts the emphasis on attainment of glory as the primary goal in life. And while mantenere lo stato is not its own goal, maintaining a stable political order and leading one’s country into greatness is a route to personal glory. Again, just like his predecessors, Machiavelli preferred the mixed constituting to “simple” forms of government for its stability.[lxiv] This does not mean that kingdoms can never achieve stability, but that:  “kingdoms depending on the vigor [virtu] of one man alone are not very lasting because that vigor [virtu] departs with the life of the man.”[lxv] Now, one could argue that, apart from the already discussed similarities between Machiavelli’s and classical political thinkers’ accounts, the key difference still remains. After all, Machiavelli is notorious for advocating immoral deeds in The Prince, even if they are championed for a good cause. Indeed, Machiavelli is a consequentialist, in Discourses and The Prince alike:


“This idea deserves to be noted and acted upon by any citizen who has occasion to advise his country, because when it is absolutely a question of the safety of one's country, there must be no consideration of just or unjust, of merciful or cruel, of praiseworthy or disgraceful; instead, setting aside every scruple, one must follow to the utmost any plan that will save her life and keep her liberty.”[lxvi]


Also, Machiavelli does away with the classical virtue-ethics along with the basic set of virtues that Roman moralists such as Cicero and Seneca have propagated.[lxvii] Unlike the classical virtus, the Machiavellian virtu is a matter of expediency.

It may very well be true that this makes Machiavelli “a teacher of evil” as Leo Strauss argued, but it is worth noticing that even in this aspect of his thought Machiavelli, at least to some extent, follows the path set by his classical predecessors. Cicero, for one, allows for situations where deeds that are by themselves immoral become justified. Although in De Officiis he discusses cardinal virtues and devotes a large part of his work to proving that there can be no clash between morality and expediency, Cicero still supports killing of one’s friend or father if their ambitions put our republic in peril. A good citizen, “[i]n the last resort, if the affair would lead to the ruin of his homeland, […] will put its safety before that of his father.”[lxviii] Cicero notes that “often the occasion arises when something that is generally and customarily considered to be dishonourable is found not to be so”.[lxix] He then argues that a person who kills a tyrant who happens to be his close friend, commits no crime and, in facts, does “the fairest of all splendid deeds”.[lxx] Finally, Cicero offers his conclusion in a very Machiavellian tone: “Did the beneficial, therefore, overcome honourableness? No indeed; for honourableness followed upon what benefited.”[lxxi] Clearly, Cicero was inspired by the turbulent times that marked the bloody end of the Roman republic and his writing was affected by his own involvement in the political upheavals of the day. But could less be said about Machiavelli?






Regardless of the exact goal of his political writings, Machiavelli’s formulated his argument in a familiar, classical, form. Not unlike Cicero or Livy, Machiavelli saw glory as the highest of goals, for citizens, princes and political communities alike. Whatever his particular life goals may be, every man strives to attain the greatest possible honour and glory. Although such an angle on glory is in stark contrast with Christian teachings, it is perfectly in line with Cicero’s and Polybius’s accounts. In republics, public and private good is identical and that also applies to princedoms. Therefore, what is good for a prince is good for his country and vice versa, and there can be no glory and no glorious prince in an oppressed princedom. And, in order to have a chance at achieving greatness, every polity needs a good constitution that will make it stable and long-lived. This view carries normative potency, since a prince who acts like Agathocles is without virtu and can never attain glory, even if he had managed to secure his rule and his stato. Here we can draw at least two parallels between Machiavelli and his classical predecessors. First, mantenere lo stato is instrumental to achieving glory and maintaining the state and staying in power is not its own goal. Second, based on this criterion, Machiavelli distinguishes the good from the bad forms of government and praises the mixed constitution.

Machiavelli reiterates the point raised by Cicero and Plato: there can be no conflict between private and public good. If they are prudent, men who pursue glory know that they cannot achieve greatness by harming their compatriots or by weakening their polity. The conflict between public and private interest is only apparent. However, in contrast to Cicero and Plato, Machiavelli follows Polybius in judging acts from a historical perspective and by their (historical) consequences. Contrary to Cicero, who endeavoured to prove that a virtuous act always leads to a desirable consequence, Machiavelli argued that a desirable consequence proves an act virtuous. Virtue was replaced by expediency, virtus became virtu, but the end remained the same. 




ARISTOTLE, Politics, Hackett Publishing Company, Indianapolis and Cambridge, 1998.

ASMIS, Elizabeth, “The State as a Partnership: Cicero’s Definition of Res Publica in His Work On the State”, History of Political Thought, Vol. 25, No. 4, pp. 569-598.

BERLIN, Isaiah, Against the Current: Essays in the History of Ideas, The Viking Press, New York, 1980.

CICERO, Marcus Tullius, On Duties, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2003.

COLISH, Marcia L., “Cicero's De Officiis and Machiavelli's Prince”, The Sixteenth Century Journal, Vol. 9, No. 4, 1978, pp. 81-93.

DIETZ, Mary, “Trapping The Prince: Machiavelli and the Politics of Deception”, The American Political Science Review, Vol. 80, No. 3, 1986.

HAHM, David E., “The Mixed Constitution in Greek Thought” in Ryan K. BALOT (ed.), A Companion to Greek and Roman Political Thought, Blackwell Publishing, 2009.

MACHIAVELLI, Niccolo, “Discourses on the First Decade of Titus Livius” in Allan GILBERT (trans.), Machiavelli: the Chief Works and Others, Vol. 1, Duke University Press, Durham and London, 1989.

MACHIAVELLI, Niccolo, “The History of Florence” in Allan GILBERT (trans.), Machiavelli: the Chief Works and Others, Vol. 3, Duke University Press, Durham and London, 1989.

MACHIAVELLI, Niccolo, The Prince, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2005.

MOMIGLIANO, Arnaldo, Essays in Ancient and Modern Historiography, University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 2012.

PLATO, The Republic, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2003.

POLYBIUS, The Histories, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2010.

ROUSSEAU, Jean-Jacques, “The Social Contract”, in Susan DUNN (ed.), The Social Contract and The First and Second Discourses, Yale University Press, New Haven and London, 2002.

SKINNER, Quentin, Machiavelli: a Very Short Introduction, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2000.

SKINNER, Quentin, Visions of Politics: Renaissance Virtues, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2004.

STRAUSS, Leo, Thoughts on Machiavelli, The Free Press, Glencoe, 1958.

WOOD, Neal, Cicero’s Social and Political Thought, University of California Press, Berkeley, 1988.


[i] This paper was realised as part of the projects no. 179076 and no. 47012 financed by the Ministry of Education, Science and Technological Development of the Republic of Serbia and was presented at “The Exercise of Power 500 Years after The Prince Was Written” organized by Lumina: the University of South-East Europe and University of Bucharest in Bucharest and Sinaia (Romania), April 10th to 12th 2014.

[ii] Jean-Jacques ROUSSEAU, “The Social Contract”, in Susan DUNN (ed.), The Social Contract and The First and Second Discourses, Yale University Press, New Haven and London, 2002, p. 205.

[iii] Mary DIETZ, “Trapping The Prince: Machiavelli and the Politics of Deception”, The American Political Science Review, Vol. 80, No. 3, 1986, pp. 777-799.

[iv] Quentin SKINNER, Machiavelli: a Very Short Introduction, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2000.

[v] Leo STRAUSS, Thoughts on Machiavelli, The Free Press, Glencoe, 1958, pp. 10-11.

[vi] Isaiah BERLIN, Against the Current: Essays in the History of Ideas, The Viking Press, New York, 1980, p. 55.

[vii] ARISTOTLE, Politics, Hackett Publishing Company, Indianapolis and Cambridge, 1998, 1252b.

[viii] For a good overview of the notion of mixed constitution in Ancient Greece, see: David E. HAHM, “The Mixed Constitution in Greek Thought” in Ryan K. BALOT (ed.), A Companion to Greek and Roman Political Thought, Blackwell Publishing, 2009, pp. 178-198.

[ix] PLATO, The Republic, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2003, 342e.

[x] ARISTOTLE, Politics, 1279a15.

[xi] POLYBIUS, The Histories, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2010, p. 379.

[xii] Ibidem, p. 385.

[xiii] Neal WOOD, Cicero’s Social and Political Thought, University of California Press, Berkeley, 1988, p. 194.

[xiv] Ibidem.

[xv] Marcus Tullius CICERO, On Duties, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2003, p. 104.

[xvi] Ibidem, p. 109.

[xvii] Ibidem, p. 111.

[xviii] Ibidem.

[xix] Elizabeth ASMIS, “The State as a Partnership: Cicero’s Definition of Res Publica in His Work On the State”, History of Political Thought, Vol. 25, No. 4, pp. 569-598.

[xx] Marcia L. COLISH, “Cicero's De Officiis and Machiavelli's Prince”, The Sixteenth Century Journal, Vol. 9, No. 4, 1978, pp. 81-93.

[xxi] Niccolo MACHIAVELLI, The Prince, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2005, p. 60.

[xxii] CICERO, On Duties, p. 19.

[xxiii] Niccolo MACHIAVELLI, The Prince, p. 53.

[xxiv] Arnaldo MOMIGLIANO, Essays in Ancient and Modern Historiography, University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 2012, pp. 87-88.

[xxv] Niccolo MACHIAVELLI, “Discourses on the First Decade of Titus Livius” in Allan GILBERT (trans.), Machiavelli: the Chief Works and Others, Vol. 1, Duke University Press, Durham and London, 1989, p. 218.

[xxvi] Ibidem.

[xxvii] CICERO, On Duties, p. 115.

[xxviii] Ibidem.

[xxix] Ibidem.

[xxx] POLYBIUS, The Histories, p. 3.

[xxxi] Niccolo MACHIAVELLI, “Discourses…cit.”, p. 195.

[xxxii] Ibidem, p. 199.

[xxxiii] Ibidem, p. 202.

[xxxiv] Ibidem, p. 203.

[xxxv] Ibidem, p. 211.

[xxxvi] Quentin SKINNER, Machiavelli cit., pp. 94-95.

[xxxvii] Niccolo MACHIAVELLI, “The History of Florence” in Allan GILBERT (trans.), Machiavelli: the Chief Works and Others, Vol. 3, Duke University Press, Durham and London, 1989, p. 1336.

[xxxviii] Quentin SKINNER, Machiavelli cit., p. 64.

[xxxix] Ibidem, p. 31-32.

[xl] Niccolo MACHIAVELLI, The Prince, p. 84.

[xli] Ibidem.

[xlii] Isaiah BERLIN, Against the Current…cit., pp. 67-68.

[xliii] Quentin SKINNER, Machiavelli cit., p. 40.

[xliv] Ibidem, p. 38.

[xlv] Niccolo MACHIAVELLI, “Discourses…cit.”, p. 226.

[xlvi] Niccolo MACHIAVELLI, The Prince, p. 31.

[xlvii] Ibidem, p. 83.

[xlviii] Ibidem.

[xlix] Quentin SKINNER, Machiavelli cit., p. 34.

[l] CICERO, On Duties, pp. 74-82.

[li] Niccolo MACHIAVELLI, “Discourses…cit.”, p. 278.

[lii] Niccolo MACHIAVELLI, The Prince, p. 83.

[liii] Quentin SKINNER, Visions of Politics: Renaissance Virtues, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2004, p. 378.

[liv] Ibidem, p. 384.

[lv] Ibidem, p. 378.

[lvi] CICERO, On Duties, p. 109.

[lvii] Niccolo MACHIAVELLI, The Prince, p. 58.

[lviii] Niccolo MACHIAVELLI, “Discourses…cit.”, p. 201.

[lix] Isaiah BERLIN, Against the Current…cit., p. 72.

[lx] Quentin SKINNER, Visions of Politics... cit., pp. 178-180.

[lxi] Niccolo MACHIAVELLI, “Discourses…cit.”, p. 302; Quentin SKINNER, Visions of Politics... cit., p. 164.

[lxii] Quentin SKINNER, Visions of Politics... cit., pp. 178-180.

[lxiii] ARISTOTLE, Politics, 1252b.

[lxiv] Niccolo MACHIAVELLI, “Discourses…cit.”, p. 199.

[lxv] Ibidem, p. 226.

[lxvi] Ibidem, p. 519.

[lxvii] Quentin SKINNER, Machiavelli cit., p. 40.

[lxviii] CICERO, On Duties, p. 135.

[lxix] Ibidem, p. 107.

[lxx] Ibidem.

[lxxi] Ibidem.