How does Machiavelli understand political morality and is it, indeed, so fundamentally alien to modern understanding of morality?
According to the Stanford Encyclopedia, morality can be essentially of two types: descriptive, which concerns the set of moral codes perpetrated by a group or religion, or normative, which concerns human rational actions in certain circumstances. In the first case, it continues, it should be specified which code is accepted by society. In the second case, it implies that every person act in such ways if they reach certain levels of rationality. This essay aims to demonstrate that Machiavelli had a strictly normative concept of moral, and therefore he deviated totally from the one of his time, of a descriptive type.
Although Machiavelli never provided us a conceptual definition of political morality when describing the actions of the ideal prince, terms such as right, wrong, just, and virtuous often occur. His considerations on religion are also useful to understand Machiavelli’s political morality. During the analysis, I will argue mainly these topics, who are those that most of all lead back to the world of morals and ethics. These concepts are widely treated in two of his works, in The Discourses on Livy and in The Prince, which are the ones I will use throughout the essay. I will employ two English editions of his works from which I shall draw the writer’s quotes to guide my considerations. In the first part, I will argue Machiavelli’s time moral codes and why he considers them incompatible with the role of the prince. The central part will argue the differences between the pagan and the Christian religion, and the function that religion had to assume in society for Machiavelli. In the last part, I shall explain why he considers irrelevant and even harmful for a prince to constantly follow moral principles. In the conclusion, I will group the statements I reached at the end of each paragraph to trace an overall view on Machiavellian morality and highlight the similarities with our conception on the moral matter.
Historically, the use of practical rationality in the political sphere occur with the advent of Enlightenment thought, therefore well after Machiavelli’s lifetime. It is appropriate to believe that the only moral codes widespread in Italy in those years were those perpetrated by the Roman Church through the centuries. Indeed, most of the people ignored the old pagan moral principles1, and a ruler would have had to deal with current principles if he wanted to ensure his stability. By the time Machiavelli devoted himself to his political writings, Medieval Europe had not yet been shaken by Martin Luther’s Protestant reform2, who would have defied the Catholic moral standards accepted by much of the known world, nor had the term undergone that Kantian and Hegelian philosophical interpretation of the 17th and 18th centuries. The concept of morality, and the distinction from good and evil in Machiavelli’s time was, we could argue, universally uniform in European Catholic peoples3. Machiavelli, in fact, seems to have no doubts in knowing how to distinguish what is right from what is wrong. In The Prince chapter XV, the Florentine writer lists with certainty what are considered the strengths and weaknesses of the human being, assuming that we all would like a ruler to have the positive characteristics mentioned4. Yet, the ideal prince ‘must be prepared to act immorally when this becomes necessary’, he writes in the same chapter. When does this become ‘necessary’? He states it is when the misdeeds are functional to the stability and duration of one’s power5. Machiavelli recognizes that a ruler is in a position that does not allow him to act consistently according to common morality. Choices should not be dictated directly by morals then, but by what is necessary to keep lo stato6 stable and safe. This is an essential point in Machiavelli’s narrative. Starting from this assumption, he avoids to morally justify every misdeed done by the ideal ruler, because he knows he simply cannot. This is extremely clear in Discourses III.41, for instance, where he states: ‘[…] when the safety of one’s country wholly depends on the decision to be taken, no attention should be paid either to justice or injustice, […]7’. Moreover, in some ways, Machiavelli believes that the role of prince and that of a morally just ruler is irreconcilable for his time. Even if a governor would act in morally fair conditions, current moral codes would not have helped the sustainability of the state8. Hence his thoughts on the Roman Church, guilty of having imposed values that did not foster heroic and ambitious deeds9. Here, Machiavelli seems to distinguish between two concepts of morality. The divine one, and the earthly one or, we could historically say, the present and the old one.
In Discourses, II.2, he claims that ‘our religion, having taught us the truth and the true way of life, leads us to ascribe less esteem to worldly honour. Hence, the gentiles (pagans) who […] look upon it as their highest good, displayed in their actions more ferocity than we do10’. Although Christianity taught the true way of life, he realizes that the current moral values transmitted are incompatible with ruling well. Consequently, the prince is forced to break those principles, because they are not functional to the highest good. I emphasized the concept of true religion not by chance. That is because he never describes Christianity principles as an obstacle to the functions of the ruler, but rather blames those who had interpreted the divine message in the following centuries, encouraging contemplation rather than action, and ozio rather than virtú11. Here, his criticism towards the Church is total. Machiavelli despises the poorness and the lack of ferocity in religious ceremonies. And while ‘the old religion did not beatify men unless they were replete with worldly glory’, ‘(Our) pattern of life […] appears to have made the world weak, and to have handed it over as a prey to the wicked12’. For this reason, the theorized prince could not act according to these moral codes, for they would lead to the weakening and eventually the fall of his power. Ancient religion, instead, favored the realization of the highest good through the search for earthly well-being, wordily glory. Despite these claims, he never contemplates the return of the old religion in Italy to make up for men’s lack of ambition13, rather he urges the prince to violate these codes when necessary. This reason could be found in the political pragmatism shown by Machiavelli in most of his writings14. Destroying a powerful institution like the Church, indeed, would have brought no political benefit. Indeed, the Florentine believes that religion, and therefore the morality that derived from it, should be functional to political power, and not vice versa. Thus, he excludes any metaphysical consideration of the truthfulness of religion. After telling about the first rulers of Rome, he concludes that ‘the religion introduced by Numa was among the primary causes of Rome’s success15’. In Discourses, I.11-15, religion is clearly seen as a tool that can be manipulated for political purposes, as Numa did. It was of little importance whether it was true or not since the people believed in it. Numa found himself governing a young state in which moral principles did not yet reside in an official institution. He was thus able to reform the new religion according to the needs of Roman society16. So, in the following years ‘religion helped in the control of armies, in encouraging the plebs, […].’, contributing to the safety of the state. Hence, Machiavelli implies that religion is not an absolutist unicum. It is established and modified by men according to circumstances. Therefore, the morality that derives from it can and should be favorable to good governance. This implies an even more specific consideration in the analysis of Machiavelli’s political morality: religion is obtained by men and not by God17. Hence, it can be wrong or misinterpreted, as the Church is guilty of doing. ‘[The Church] has neither been able to occupy the whole of Italy, nor has it allowed anyone else to occupy it’18. The issue was not to choose between Christian or pagan moral code, but that of unifying the country and provide to its security, and this could have been done either ways, if only ecclesiastical power had not become so corrupt19.
However, Machiavelli believes that breaking moral rules would hardly lead a prince to be remembered for long time, because some misdeeds are useful for power, not for glory20. In The Prince, Ch.VIII, in remembering the deeds of Agathocles to become tyrant of Syracuse, he admits that ‘his appallingly cruel and inhumane conduct, […] preclude his being numbered among the finest men21’. Yet, this does not prevent Machiavelli from placing him among the best generals for his ability to face and overcome problems. Another of which the Florentine praises the indomitable spirit, is the condottiero Cesare Borgia. In describing his ascent to power, made up of betrayals and subterfuges, he repeatedly admires his strength and ambition, so much so that Machiavelli considers him an ideal model to follow22. He argues that the only mistake in Borgia’s career was to not stop the election of Pope Julius. Not because morally incorrect, but because such a Pope could not be of political benefit23. This underlines that, according to Machiavelli, the moral condition of a ruler is irrelevant to good governance. A choice is considered ‘morally’ right if it benefits the state and those who makes it, and wrong if it disadvantages them. Indeed, it is conquering, maintaining and expanding one’s power that Machiavelli worries about in his writings, not that of being morally right. He does not seem concerned to assign to the ideal prince immortal memory, nor the love of his citizens. It is rather about the concrete ability to resolve both internal and external threats. This does not mean that the prince is authorized to commit any wrongdoing, but that it is much more important to act with skill and virtue than to pursue benevolent actions per se. In The Prince, Ch.XVII, he states that if one has to choose between being loved or being feared, the latter is certainly better because it is more sustainable. But at the same time the ruler must be careful not to be hated by its people. And this is possible through the rational knowledge of human needs and vices, as Machiavelli displays to have in the chapter. The ruler who possesses both the shrewdness of the fox and the strength of the lion24 will hardly be trapped by his political opponents, and he will be careful not to encourage men’s self-interest at the expense of the state. Being generous, even if considered morally fair, in the long run leads men to be rapacious, and the governor unable to bear these expenses. For this reason, it is better to be considered miserable, ‘for eventually (you) will come to be considered more generous25’, or do not keep made promises when ‘the reasons that made (you) promise are no longer relevant26’. This rational way of governing perfectly matches with the description of normative morality of the beginning of the essay. The absolute reasonableness in the actions of the prince, to the detriment of descriptive morality, is clearly visible27. For Machiavelli, the prince should act according to reasoning and cause-effect relationships.
His political pragmatism seems to anticipate the Enlightenment’s thinking on the use of reason by two centuries and approaches the principles of realpolitik to which we are accustomed today. The major states of our time have in fact abandoned Catholic morality to embrace a more rational and pragmatic one. Machiavelli seems to be inspired to a large extent by the Renaissance humanistic principles of the 1400s which called for a return of ancient pagan rituals and a European cultural awakening. Being Machiavelli’s time moral of Catholic inspiration, his ideas seem unsuitable for his period. And his political pragmatism, prevented him from declaring war on ecclesial principles, for it is not convenient. He knows he cannot morally justify all the deeds of the ideal prince and so he avoids doing it several times, remarking the irreconcilability between common morality and the role of ideal prince. Although he does not elaborate a philosophical conception of morality, it is evident that he was able to distinguish at least between two types of morals, which are essentially those we also recognize today. He despised the descriptive morality of the Roman Church and, unwittingly, elaborated the way for the application of reason in political choices, a concept now widespread throughout the world. In The Prince, Ch.X, he declares: ‘It seems to me better to concentrate on what really happens rather than on theories or speculations28’. That is exactly what he does in his works. Everything must be functional to political power for a ruler, even the human character aspects. Deeds of generosity and misery must be balanced and put into practice according to circumstances, and not according to the sovereign’s personal character. In his thought, the conflict between moral rules and “raison d’état” is solved, arguing that politics should be free from moral concept to pursue the highest good. He certainly believed religion as an important tool of cohesion and social strength, as it was for the Romans. But if misinterpreted, it could have caused the prince to weaken and eventually fall. So, being shrewd and strong was more important for a prince, than observing moral principles. For morality can always be changed by a man’s ability if he is able to recognize its public utility, as Numa did. But a man without virtue would have been unable to recognize or change circumstances in his favor.
Crick B., Niccolò Machiavelli, The Discourses (Penguin Classics, 1983)
Skinner Q., and Price R., ed. Macchiavelli, The Prince, (Cambridge University, 2014).
Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, https://plato.stanford.edu.
Treccani Encyclopedia, http://www.treccani.it/vocabolario/moralita/.
 ‘If one asks oneself (why) peoples of old were fonder of liberty than they are today, […] (this) is based on the difference between our religion and the religion of those days’. Crick B., ed. The Discourses (Penguin Classics, 1983).
 Machiavelli lived in Florence between 1469 and 1527, in time to witness the early stages of the reform, having broken out in 1517. However, De Principatibus (The Prince) and Discorsi sopra la prima deca di Tito Livio (The Discourses) are dated between 1513 and 1517.
 ‘morality: […] – 1. Quality, condition of what conforms to moral principles.’ European moral principles derived from the accepted dominant Catholic conception of good and evil, from what beatified or condemned the soul. Translated from Italian. Treccani Encyclopedia. Available at: http://www.treccani.it/vocabolario/moralita/
 Skinner Q., and Price R., ed. Macchiavelli, The Prince, (Cambridge University, 2014), p.55.
 ‘Cruel deeds […] may be called well committed when […] are necessary for establishing one’s power.’ The Prince, p.33.
 The term stato (state) is used ambiguously by Machiavelli. In the essay, I will generally refer as political entity, political body.
 Discourses, p.515
 This aspect will be expanded in the last part.
 Discourses, pp.277-8.
 Discourses, pp.278-9.
 Ozio: idleness; virtù: virtue. Discourses, p.278.
 Discourses, p.278.
 This can be discussed empirically. He repeatedly declares that pagan rituals were more useful than Christian ones, but I have not found specific statements in which he calls for a return to that religion.
 The Art of War, published in 1521, is another proof of his inexorable pragmatism. In the book, he tries to give the answers to the problems that gripped Italy during his lifetime, rather than philosophizing on the morality of the actions taken.
 Discourses, p.141.
 Discourses, pp.140-1.
 In his texts, the term God is used both in reference to the Christian god and to the pagan gods. Discourses, pp.139-152.
 Discourses, p.145.
 Discourses, pp.274-80.
 ‘Power may be gained by acting in such ways, but not glory.’ The Prince, p.31.
 The Prince, p. 31.
 The Prince, p.28
 The Prince, p.29
 ‘He should imitate both the fox and the lion’. The Prince, p.61.
 The Prince, p.56.
 The Prince, pp.61-2.
 The Prince, Ch.XV,XVI,XVII.
 The Prince, p.54.