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Machiavelli, Niccolò (1469–1527)

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-S080-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved March 18, 2018, from

Article Summary

Florentine diplomat, dramatist and political thinker, Machiavelli’s treatise, Il principe (The Prince) (1532a), has earned him notoriety as a political immoralist (or at least an amoralist) and a teacher of evil. In The Prince, Machiavelli posits a complex relationship between ethics and politics that associates princely virtù with the capacity to know and act within the political world as it ‘is’, and with the beastly abilities to dispense violence and practise deception. Behind this argument dwells the distinctly Machiavellian insight that politics is a realm of appearances where the practice of moral or Christian virtues often results in a prince’s ruin, while knowing ‘how not to be good’ may result in greater security and wellbeing for both prince and people. Machiavelli warns that the prince’s possibilities for success in this matter are always mediated by fortune; hence the prudent prince is one who is prepared to resist fortune by adapting his procedure to the times and his nature to ‘the necessity of the case’.

A less notorious but equally influential text is the Discorsi sopra la prima deca di Tito Livio (Discourses on the First Ten Books of Titus Livy) (1531), in which Machiavelli offers a defence of popular liberty and republican government that takes the ancient republic of Rome as its model and emphasizes the role of the people in the ‘public administration’ of the city. However, Machiavelli also argues that a republic is only as successful in self-governance as its citizens are infused with civic virtùand therefore not corrupted. Accordingly, he praises the work of political founders who craft republican laws and institutions, and religious founders who fuse God and patria as one in the people’s hearts. The apparent tension between Machiavelli’s republican sympathies in Discourses and his elitist proclivities in The Prince has helped to fuel a vast interpretive literature concerning his political attitudes, his theory of politics, and the nature and meaning of ‘machiavellianism’ in Western political thought.

Citing this article:
Dietz, Mary G.. Machiavelli, Niccolò (1469–1527), 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-S080-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2018 Routledge.

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