The Devil's Morals

Ethics in Machiavelli's The Prince

by Souvik Mukherjee

Yet as I have said before, not to diverge from the good if he can avoid it, but to know how to set about it if compelled

Niccolo Machiavelli (1469-1527) was an Italian statesman and political philosopher. He was employed on diplomatic missions as defence secretary of the Florentine republic, and was tortured when the Medici returned to power in 1512. When he retired from public life he wrote his most famous work, The Prince (1532), which describes the means by which a leader may gain and maintain power.

The Prince has had a long and chequered history and the number of controversies that it has generated is indeed surprising. Almost every ideology has tried to appropriate it for itself - as a result everyone from Clement VII to Mussolini has laid claim to it. Yet there were times when it was terribly unpopular. Its author was seen to be in league with the devil and the connection between 'Old Nick' and Niccolo Machiavelli was not seen as merely nominal. The Elizabethans conjured up the image of the 'murdering Machiavel' [1] and both the Protestants and the later Catholics held his book responsible for evil things. Any appraisal of the book therefore involved some ethical queasiness. Modern scholarship may have removed the stigma of devilry from Machiavelli, but it still seems uneasy as to his ethical position.

Croce [2] and some of his admirers like Sheldon Wolin [3] and Federic Chabod [4] have pointed out the existence of an ethics-politics dichotomy in Machiavelli. Isaiah Berlin [5] postulates a system of morality outside the Christian ethical schema. Ernst Cassirer [6] calls him a cold technical mind implying that his attitude to politics would not necessarily involve ethics. And Macaulay [7] sees him as a man of his time going by the actual ethical positions of Quattrocento Italy.

In the face of so many varied opinions, it would be best to re-examine the texts and the environment in which they were written. Let us get a few fundamental facts clear. Nowhere in The Prince or The Discourses does Machiavelli explicitly make morality or ethics his concern. Nor does he openly eschew it. Only one specific ethical system, the Christian ethic has no place in Machiavelli. That is easily inferred because from the very first pages a system based more on the power of arms than on Christian love is spoken of. Murder is condoned when necessary. Virtue and vice are not seen so much as black and white as interchangeable shades of grey. This does not however exclude the possibility of a separate ethical paradigm which Machiavelli might have thought of for his state. This is in accordance with Berlin's suggestion of a 'pagan' paradigm [8]. Morality per se, comes in only when The Prince deems it compatible with Necessitas and Fortuna [9].The separate ethical paradigm must therefore be one founded on political necessities.

The Prince itself is avowedly political. Its object is the clear and concise statement of a foolproof political program for Italian princes. It begins by clearly classifying the types of principality, how one wins them and how to hold them. There is a very well-informed section on the war tactics prevalent in the peninsula together with Machiavelli's own theories for improving these. And there is the unscrupulous advice, which gained the book so much infamy. But The Prince is not unique among Machiavelli's books. The Discourses carry on the ideas found in The Prince. Much of it is also there in The Art of War. So we get an expression of a clearly thought-out political programme in all the books of Machiavelli. In each case, Machiavelli harks back to the ancients to comment on recent events and to use them as exemplars. The main aim, however, is never lost sight of: to explain and improve on the contemporary political scenario. That, more than ethics, is his concern.

As many scholars have commented, nowhere does Machiavelli try to form any new political model. He is quite content to work within the limits set by contemporary politics. In fact, much of what he says is subscribed to by other contemporaries. The controversial fluidity and interchangeability of vice and virtue, for example. J. R. Hale tells us that even Erasmus reminded his own ideal prince 'that the ways of some princes have slipped back to such a point that the two ideas of the 'good man' and 'prince' seem to be the very antithesis of each other. It is obviously considered ridiculous and foolish to mention a good man in speaking of a prince. [10] Guiccardini is even more cynical. Bishop Seyssel and Gulliame Budé both write of ideas similar to Machiavelli's in their books [11]. We must also remember that contemporary criticism of Machiavelli was directed not at his ideas but at the fact that he had dedicated the book to a Medici!

This fact draws attention to another point. Almost the same ideas with often the same examples are expressed separately in The Prince and in the Discorsi. The former being addressed to princes and the latter to a republican government. His long service under the republican polity in Florence would have explained the latter. And true to its spirit he claims a superiority for the republican government. In this light it becomes difficult to account for his sudden shift of praise to princely governments. What really matters to him is a stable polity in Italy: when he sees the republican system failing, he adjusts his ideas to fit The Princedoms.

The above points show two things. Firstly that if there is an ethics in The Prince at all it has not been specially moulded by Machiavelli. It is merely an expression of the practical ethics of his times. As Lord Macaulay puts it,

Machiavelli, a man whose public conduct was upright and honourable, whose views of morality, where they differed from those of the persons around him, seemed to have differed for the better, and whose only fault was, that, having adopted some of the maxims then generally received, he arranged them more luminously, and expressed them more forcibly, than any other writer.' [12]

If we are to believe Berlin, the 'pagan' ethics in The Prince would be something like the above.

Secondly, Machiavelli is not concerned overmuch about ethical nuances. Even though a republican, he does not mind dedicating his book to the conquering prince. And in both the Discorsi and The Prince, the Duke Valentino is as much his ideal ruler as the those from republican Rome.

The major concern of Machiavelli is how states should be run and not how morals are to be followed. The Prince must be a beast if necessary. In the notorious chapter XV111 of The Prince, he advocates that The Prince be a mixture of the lion and the fox. The quality that a prince must have is virtu. This virtu can as J. H. Whitfield correctly suggests, mean 'virtue'. But as he further states, 'basically, virtu is the exercise of his freedoms by the man of energetic and conscious will' [13]. This approximates to the rough translation, 'power'. Virtu may mean 'virtue' but does not necessarily do so.

Lastly, in considering Berlin's idea of the 'pagan' ethic in The Prince, one finds a few discrepancies. If we go by Aristotelian ethics, the idea of temperance occupies a primal position [14]. Temperance involves a mean position between absolute goodness and absolute badness. Machiavelli speaks differently. It is either being totally good or totally bad. The famous example of C. P. Baglioni and Julius II is a case in point. [15] And strictly speaking, there was no pagan code of morality which sanctioned vice in support of political power.

From our analysis we have seen that The Prince carries in it an ethics of political convenience. It does not preclude morality, virtue or Christian values entirely but allows them only when opportune. Otherwise it sanctions in cold blood, massacres, deception and betrayal given that the state benefits from this. This ethic is entirely moulded from political conveniences and is subservient to the political dimension in The Prince.


1. See the Prologue to Christopher Marlowe's The Jew of Malta for further illustration of this point.

2. Croce, Benedetto. Machiavelli e Vico.

3. Wolin, Sheldon. Politics of Vision. Boston: Little, Brown. 1960

4. Chabod, Federico. Machiavelli and the Renaissance, translated by David Moore, 1958. Harvard univ. press

5. Berlin, Isaiah. The Question of Machiavelli. New York Review, November 4, 1971.

6. Cassirer, Ernst. Implications of the New Theory of the State (from The Myth Of The State)

7. Macaulay, Thomas Babington. Machiavelli

8. Berlin, Isaiah. Ibid.

9. Machiavelli. Il Principe Ch XVIII 'Yet as I have said before, not to diverge from the good if he can avoid it, but to know how to set about it if compelled.' Trans. Marriott. The Project Gutenberg Internet Edition.

10. Erasmus. The Education of a Prince, quoted in J. R. Hale, Renaissance Europe 1480-1520 p. 309

11. Hale p. 308

12. Macaulay. Ibid.

13. Whitfield, J. H. Big Words, Exact Meanings.

14. Aristotle. Nichomachean Ethics. [trans. Sir David Ross]

15. Machiavelli. Discourses on Livy Ch XXVII, Project Gutenberg Internet Edition

© Souvik Mukherjee, July 2002