The beauty and the beast -Machiavelli’s The Prince

The beauty and the beast -Machiavelli’s The Prince

The Context

For eighteen years Niccolò Machiavelli served the Republic of Florence, which flourished from the expulsion of the Medici in 1494 until their return in 1512.

This public office in a free Italian city-state was the main experience of his diplomatic career and, altogether with the study of the life of ancient statemen and politicians, the source of the knowledge he brought to his literary work.

In 1512, Florence was returned to the command of the Medici, backed by Pope Julius II, and Machiavelli was deprived from office and banned from the city for the period of one year, after what he was still accused of conspiracy against the political order, imprisoned and tortured.

19 Febbraio, 1513 – l’arresto di Machiavelli

Hoping to reestablish a link with the new power dynamics of his city and return to public life he writes one of the most controversial political treaties of all times – The Prince.

The Prince

The Prince was dedicated to the newly imposed prince of Florence.

Il Principe – prima edizione – 1532.


“Desiring therefore to present myself to your Magnificence with some testimony of my devotion towards you, I have not found among my possessions anything which I hold more dear than, or value so much as, the knowledge of the actions of great men, acquired by long experience in contemporary affairs, and a continual study of antiquity; which, having reflected upon it with great and prolonged diligence, I now send, digested into a little volume, to your Magnificence.”

“Take then, your Magnificence, this little gift in the spirit in which I send it; wherein, if it be diligently read and considered by you, you will learn my extreme desire that you should attain that greatness which fortune and your other attributes promise. And if your Magnificence from the summit of your greatness will sometimes turn your eyes to these lower regions, you will see how unmeritedly I suffer a great and continued malignity of fortune.”

The Prince, a work involved in mystery and extrapolations, that has been mixed and confused with the nature and character of its own creator.

After all, why would a son of the Republic idolize the principality that crushed him? Why would a son of the Republic vindicate an usurper, an imposed, unchecked prince?

Victim or perpetrator? Who was Machiavelli?

David Levine’s Machiavelli – 1971

“Upon this, one has to remark that men ought either to be well treated or crushed, because they can avenge themselves of lighter injuries, of more serious ones they cannot; therefore the injury that is to be done to a man ought to be of such a kind that one does not stand in fear of revenge.”

What moved Machiavelli? Fear or ambition?

“I believe also that he will be successful who directs his actions according to the spirit of the times, and that he whose actions do not accord with the times will not be successful.”

It is truly remarkable how a thinker can embody extremes in the spectrum of human psychology. From defender of freedom and democracy, wise policymaker, father of modern political theory, power strategist, to warlords’ mentor, crafty machinator, unscrupulous manipulator, prince of evil.

From beauty to beast, influencing politicians, leaders, businessmen, housewives, and primary school children. I have not known any other thinker so disputed by human ideals, attributes, flaws, and sins as Machiavelli.

“You must know there are two ways of contesting, the one by the law, the other by force; the first method is proper to men, the second to beasts; but because the first is frequently not sufficient, it is necessary to have recourse to the second. Therefore, it is necessary for a prince to understand how to avail himself of the beast and the man.”

Is The Prince idolatry? Is The Prince irony? Is The Prince the illustrious portrait of the gold, power and pomp which hide our true rotten image, as in Oscar Wilde’s novel – The Picture of Dorian Gray?

Machiavelli has the taste of existential questioning: all those qualities we wish to see in our leaders, where do they come from?

Do our leaders dare to distance themselves from us or are they alike? Who are we, after all – the beauty or the beast?

The Beauty and the Beast by Gabriel Pacheco

The beauty and the beast

“But, it being my intention to write a thing which shall be useful to him who apprehends it, it appears to me more appropriate to follow up the real truth of the matter than the imagination of it; for many have pictured republics and principalities which in fact have never been known or seen, because how one lives is so far distant from how one ought to live, that he who neglects what is done for what ought to be done, sooner effects his ruin than his preservation; for a man who wishes to act entirely up to his professions of virtue soon meets with what destroys him among so much that is evil.”

Something is unequivocal in Machiavelli’s personality – he is not an idealist but a realist, and this gut-wrenching  pragmatism the striking feature of his entire literary work.

“Hence it is necessary for a prince wishing to hold his own to know how to do wrong, and to make use of it or not according to necessity. Therefore, putting on one side imaginary things concerning a prince, and discussing those which are real.”

I must confess that ‘The Prince’ has been my most painful and difficult review until now. I truly suffered to write it. I felt emotionally dragged and conflictual the whole way.

This ‘despot’s playbook’, as it may be called, highlights some significant ethical issues that we promptly classify as right or wrong – they seem solved and buried, at least to our moral system of judgment – but the analysis of Machiavelli doesn’t let them rest in peace, it digs them up disturbingly, throw them to the wind, and justifications for what was unacceptable are offered based on the objective fact that they are realistic, practical, deliver results – the best results – and that’s how others have done to succeed and will do to overthrow you.

“Everyone admits how praiseworthy it is in a prince to keep faith, and to live with integrity and not with craft. Nevertheless, our experience has been that those princes who have done great things have held good faith of little account, and have known how to circumvent the intellect of men by craft, and in the end, have overcome those who have relied on their word.”

Machiavelli cannot be considered amoral either. Those who have vehemently demonized him, have done based on reductionism and ignorance of the totality of his work.

Machiavelli knows the difference between political liberty and submission pretty well, between right and wrong, glorious and infamous, meritorious and opportunistic, merciful and cruel, and this weighing is present not only in ‘The Prince’ but in the writings that followed and are complementary to it.

I am talking specifically of ‘Discourses on the First Decade of Titus Livius’ or simply ‘Discourses on Livy’, which is one of the most important works on republicanism and that I would love to review somewhere in the future.

“And, believe me, that in one thing only I find satisfaction, namely, in knowing that while in many matters I may have made mistakes, at least I have not been mistaken in choosing you before all others as the persons to whom I dedicate these Discourses; both because I seem to myself, in doing so, to have shown a little gratitude for kindness received, and at the same time to have departed from the hackneyed custom which leads many authors to inscribe their works to some Prince, and blinded by hopes of favour or reward, to praise him as possessed of every virtue; whereas with more reason they might reproach him as contaminated with every shameful vice.

To avoid which error I have chosen, not those who are but those who from their infinite merits deserve to be Princes; not such persons as have it in their power to load me with honours, wealth, and preferment, but such as though they lack the power, have all the will to do so. For men, if they would judge justly, should esteem those who are, and not those whose means enable them to be generous; and in like manner those who know how to govern kingdoms, rather than those who possess the government without such knowledge.

Discourses on Livy’s dedication letter

The second edition of Discourses and The Prince in English

Machiavelli dedicated his book on principalities to an imposed prince and his book on republics to two estimated friends. The son of the Florentine Republic certainly knew the difference.

“All states, all powers, that have held and hold rule over men have been and are either republics or principalities.”

However, this fact did not redeem him from the perplexity of championing autocrats in being more authoritarian and libertarians more untamed. We are not able to convey this paradox.

“And he who becomes master of a city accustomed to freedom and does not destroy it, may expect to be destroyed by it, for in rebellion it has always the watchword of liberty and its ancient privileges as a rallying point, which neither time nor benefits will ever cause it to forget. And whatever you may do or provide against, they never forget that name.”

This dichotomy is the testimony of Machiavelli’s complexity. He obviously does not fall for Mani and his Manichaeism. We have both good and evil within us and it is our decision which one to follow.

“Yet it cannot be called talent to slay fellow-citizens, to deceive friends, to be without faith, without mercy, without religion; such methods may gain empire, but not glory.”

Living for the results

In the essence of ‘The Prince’ one paragraph announces the observed reality and two of the most important axioms of the book:

For this reason a prince ought to take care that he never lets anything slip from his lips that is not replete with the above-named five qualities, that he may appear to him who sees and hears him altogether merciful, faithful, humane, upright, and religious. There is nothing more necessary to appear to have than this last quality, inasmuch as men judge generally more by the eye than by the hand, because it belongs to everybody to see you, to few to come in touch with you. Every one sees what you appear to be, few really know what you are, and those few dare not oppose themselves to the opinion of the many, who have the majesty of the state to defend them; and in the actions of all men, and especially of princes, which it is not prudent to challenge, one judges by the result.

Men are judged by the eye not by the hand. Few can assess who you really are, so every attempt to appear, deceive, pretend is effective.

“But it is necessary to know well how to disguise this characteristic, and to be a great pretender and dissembler; and men are so simple, and so subject to present necessities, that he who seeks to deceive will always find someone who will allow himself to be deceived.”

Being popular and populist can conquer the eyes and the heart of the masses.

“Therefore, it is unnecessary for a prince to have all the good qualities I have enumerated, but it is very necessary to appear to have them. And I shall dare to say this also, that to have them and always to observe them is injurious, and that to appear to have them is useful; to appear merciful, faithful, humane, religious, upright, and to be so, but with a mind so framed that should you require not to be so, you may be able and know how to change to the opposite.”

The second axiom of ‘The Prince’: men are judged by the results of their actions, not by the intention, not by the means. The intention will never be truly known and the means will be always excused.

The ends justify the means.

“For that reason, let a prince have the credit of conquering and holding his state, the means will always be considered honest, and he will be praised by everybody; because the vulgar are always taken by what a thing seems to be and by what comes of it; and in the world, there are only the vulgar, for the few find a place there only when the many have no ground to rest on.”

To Machiavelli, the desired outcomes are more important than flaccid platitudes used to please the public, though. He is a practical man.

“Returning to the question of being feared or loved, I come to the conclusion that, men loving according to their own will and fearing according to that of the prince, a wise prince should establish himself on that which is in his own control and not in that of others; he must endeavour only to avoid hatred, as is noted.”

If Montesquieu’s thought and work are characterized by the search for balance of forces, Machiavelli’s thought and work are characterized by the minimization of harm and the maximization of results.

We could still blame him for being a scoundrel, but what an straightforward villain he is, the one that shows who he is, who they are, who we are.

Who are they? Who are we?

Do our leaders dare to distance from us or are they alike? Who are we, after all – the beauty or the beast?

Niccolò di Bernardo dei Machiavelli – Florence 1469 – 1527. A life size marble statue by Lorenzo Bartolini, placed in a niche in the colonnade of the Uffizi Gallery, Florence.


1- The Prince by Machiavelli, Niccolo, translated from the Italian original by Marriott, W. K. – Kindle Edition.

2- Discourses on the First Decade of Titus Livius by Machiavelli, Niccolo, translated from the Italian original by Ninian Hill Thomson. – Kindle Edition.

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