What Does “Machiavellian” Really Mean?: An Animated Lesson

The word Machi­avel­lian has come to invari­ably refer to an “unscrupu­lous schemer for whom the ends jus­ti­fy the means,” notes the ani­mat­ed TED-Ed video above, a descrip­tion of char­ac­ters “we love to hate” in fic­tion past and present. The adjec­tive has even become enshrined in psy­cho­log­i­cal lit­er­a­ture as one third of the “dark tri­ad” that also fea­tures nar­cis­sism and psy­chopa­thy, per­son­al­i­ties often mis­tak­en for the Machi­avel­lian type.

The ter­m’s “last­ing noto­ri­ety comes from a brief polit­i­cal essay known as The Prince,” writ­ten by Renais­sance Ital­ian writer and diplo­mat Nic­colò Machi­avel­li and “framed as advice to cur­rent and future mon­archs.” The Prince and its author have acquired such a fear­some rep­u­ta­tion that they seem to stand alone, like the work of the Mar­quis de Sade and Leopold von Sach­er-Masoch, who like­wise lent their names to the psy­chol­o­gy of pow­er. But Machi­avel­li’s book is part of “an entire tra­di­tion of works known as ‘mir­rors for princes’ going back to antiq­ui­ty.”

Machi­avel­li inno­vat­ed on the tra­di­tion by cast­ing fuzzy abstrac­tions like jus­tice and vir­tu­ous­ness aside to focus sole­ly on virtù, the clas­si­cal Ital­ian word derived from the Latin vir­tus (man­hood), which had lit­tle to do with ethics and every­thing to do with strength, brav­ery, and oth­er war­like traits. Though thinkers in the tra­di­tion of Aris­to­tle argued for cen­turies that civic and moral virtue may be syn­ony­mous, for Machi­avel­li they most cer­tain­ly were not, it seems. “Through­out [The Prince] Machi­avel­li appears entire­ly uncon­cerned with moral­i­ty except inso­far as it’s help­ful or harm­ful to main­tain­ing pow­er.”

The work became infa­mous after its author’s death. Catholics and Protes­tants both blamed Machi­avel­li for the oth­ers’ excess­es dur­ing the bloody Euro­pean reli­gious wars. Shake­speare coined Machi­av­el “to denote an amoral oppor­tunist.” The line to con­tem­po­rary usage is more or less direct. But is The Prince real­ly “a man­u­al for tyran­ny”? The book, after all, rec­om­mends com­mit­ting atroc­i­ties of all kinds, oppress­ing minori­ties, and gen­er­al­ly ter­ri­fy­ing the pop­u­lace as a means of quelling dis­sent. Keep­ing up the appear­ance of benev­o­lence might smooth things over, Machi­avel­li advis­es, unless it doesn’t. Then the ruler must do what­ev­er it takes. The guid­ing prin­ci­ple here is that “it is much safer to be feared than loved.”

Was Machi­avel­li an “unsen­ti­men­tal real­ist”? A Renais­sance Kissinger, so to speak, who saw the greater good in polit­i­cal hege­mo­ny no mat­ter what the cost? Or was he a neo-clas­si­cal philoso­pher hear­ken­ing back to antiq­ui­ty? He “nev­er seems to have con­sid­ered him­self a philoso­pher,” writes the Stan­ford Ency­clo­pe­dia of Phi­los­o­phy—“indeed, he often overt­ly reject­ed philo­soph­i­cal inquiry as beside the point.” Or at least he seemed to have reject­ed the Chris­t­ian-influ­enced human­ism of his day. Nonethe­less, “Machi­avel­li deserves a place at the table in any com­pre­hen­sive sur­vey of phi­los­o­phy,” not least because “philoso­phers of the first rank did (and do) feel com­pelled to engage with his ideas.”

Of the many who engaged with Machi­avel­li, Isa­iah Berlin saw him as reclaim­ing ancient Greek val­ues of the state over the indi­vid­ual. But there’s more to the sto­ry, and it includes Machiavelli’s polit­i­cal biog­ra­phy as a defend­er of repub­li­can gov­ern­ment and a polit­i­cal pris­on­er of those who over­threw it. On one read­ing, The Prince becomes a “scathing descrip­tion” of how pow­er actu­al­ly oper­ates behind its var­i­ous masks; a guide not for princes but for ordi­nary cit­i­zens to grasp the ruler’s actions for what they are tru­ly designed to do: main­tain pow­er, pure­ly for its own sake, by any means nec­es­sary.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Salman Rushdie: Machiavelli’s Bad Rap

How Machi­avel­li Real­ly Thought We Should Use Pow­er: Two Ani­mat­ed Videos Pro­vide an Intro­duc­tion

What “Orwellian” Real­ly Means: An Ani­mat­ed Les­son About the Use & Abuse of the Term

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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