An Introduction to the Work of Machiavelli

Although Niccolò Machiavelli was many things—counselor, poet, historian—he has been marked down in history for his short book Il principe, on principalities and princes. It is this work that most commonly greets undergraduates studying politics for the first time, and that still sits on the shelves of statesmen and businessmen. Il principe was not Machiavelli’s only or even his only major work on politics. He put “everything he knows” not only into Il principe but into a second work, the Discorsi sopra la prima deca di Tito Livio. In both works he presents his political science in all its aspects, although with different emphases that have led as well to conflicting interpretations.

The Prince

Machiavelli offers The Prince as an advice-book to Lorenzo de’ Medici, who ruled Florence from 1514 until 1519. In placing his political science in a book of advice, Machiavelli indicated his participation in the tradition of political reflection known as the mirror of princes. Many of the great Christian students of politics had done the same: Augustine in book 5 chapter 19 of his De civitate dei, Giles of Rome in his De regimine principum, and Thomas Aquinas in his De regno ad regem Cypri. As is true of Giles’s contribution—the most widely circulated item in the mirror of princes literature—Machiavelli’s private advice book took on a life of its own. That result seems to be something that Machiavelli had anticipated.

The twenty-six chapters of the work fall into three natural divisions. The first eleven chapters discuss principalities and princes; chapters 12–14 discuss the prince’s relationship to the military; and chapters 15–26 discuss the virtues proper to a prince, and the way that those virtues may assist those who read Machiavelli’s work.

The theme of the opening chapters of The Prince is the types of principalities and the modes of their acquisition. In contrast to major classical works of political science such as Aristotle’s Politics, Machiavelli emphasizes how principalities are acquired—a sort of knowledge more useful to an ambitious prince than to the mere custodian of old orders. Machiavelli sets aside what he calls the hereditary principality—a principality devoted to the preservation of inheritance—in chapter 2, as the first and least interesting kind of principality. It is the principalities that are acquired that are of most interest to him. He treats principalities that are acquired by addition, and principalities that have previously lived under their own laws. He treats new principalities that are acquired by others’ arms and fortune, and principalities acquired by one’s own arms and virtue. The subsequent chapters discuss acquisition through crime, through alliance with the people, in relation to military force, and in relation to God.

Machiavelli’s emphasis on how regimes are acquired involves a shift in perspective from what was common in the political analysis of Aristotle. According to Aristotle, political regimes were to be classified on two bases: the number of those ruling (one, few, many), and whether rule was for the sake of the common good or for the private good of the rulers. That classification emphasized what political regimes aimed at on the one hand, and each regime’s basis in justice and human partisanship (the rule of many, a few, or one) on the other. Machiavelli’s shift at the beginning of The Prince puts the emphasis on how regimes are acquired, rather than their aim. That shift presages a larger shift away from the common good and justice, which were the themes of classical philosophy.

By considering principalities from the standpoint of acquisition, Machiavelli brings up another theme that marks his shift away from classical and Christian thought—the theme of necessity. The hereditary prince is of little interest to Machiavelli. Thanks to the love his people have for him, he has “less cause and less necessity to offend.” The new prince cannot enjoy that security, so his situation causes greater difficulty—and along with its greater difficulty, a greater chance for distinction and glory. As Machiavelli examines the different types of new principality, he suggests that the most self-reliant princes have the greatest success. Though being new princes presents them with the “necessity to offend”—not a dilemma about whether to offend, but a need to do so—the new princes exemplify what can be done by relying on what Machiavelli calls one’s own arms. The new princes who relied upon their own arms had nothing from fortune “but the opportunity.” Machiavelli’s examples of such princes include Theseus, Cyrus, Romulus, and Moses. Machiavelli suggests the possibility of a new sort of virtue: not obedience to the commandments of God, but seizing opportunities from fortune.

Machiavelli’s new understanding of virtue emerges most clearly in chapter 15 of The Prince. In that chapter he addresses himself not only to princes but to all men. Past writers on republics and principalities, he says, have taught men what they should do rather than showing them how men act in fact. To pursue virtue in the traditional moral sense, Machiavelli says, leads a man to ruin “among so many who are not good.”

In Aristotle’s analysis of virtue in his Nicomachean Ethics, each virtue is a mean between two vices. The virtue of courage, for example, strikes a proper balance in matters of fear. Erring by excess is the vice of rashness, erring by defect the vice of cowardice. Machiavelli instead presents several pairs of qualities for which men are commonly praised or blamed, without indicating which are praiseworthy and which blameworthy. He suggests that virtue consists in the proper use of the qualities he mentions, while managing the praise and blame that goes with them.

In the subsequent four chapters (16–19) he examines several of these pairs of qualities in order to clarify what he means. Liberality and parsimony seem to be strongly opposed: liberality is praiseworthy and parsimony blameworthy. In Machiavelli’s new analysis, liberality taken to its end would deprive a prince of all his goods—leaving him nothing with which to be generous. He should instead manage his affairs such that he gains the material benefits of parsimony along with the reputation of liberality.

Although Machiavelli is, in one sense, authorizing princes to use qualities good and bad, he is not simply approving vice in the sense understood by the tradition. Aristotle taught that the virtues and vices were habits of action acquired by successive choices made over time. A repeated choice of what is bad would lead to the formation of an habitual vice. Machiavelli is far from allowing princes to give in to their desires—particularly not for the property or women of their subjects. Rather, a prudent prince must study what is necessary for the success of his rule. He must, as Machiavelli writes in chapter 15, “learn to be able not to be good, and to use this and not use it according to necessity.” The new prince thus rises above or falls below virtue in the classical sense. He must choose what is necessary according to the time in order to stave off the malign effects of fortune. The ability to do this successfully is the heart of Machiavelli’s new understanding of virtue.

In Machiavelli’s view the traditional virtues undermine themselves. Just as liberality could lead to the loss of all one’s goods, so mercy could allow cruel situations to fester, whereas an apparently cruel act might bring about the security necessary for men to flourish. Rather than advising his readers to follow the example of the saints or of God, Machiavelli invokes the examples of beasts—the fox and the lion—to describe the combination of shrewdness and power necessary to rule a principality well. The prince must avoid stirring up either hatred or contempt among those over whom he rules. He should be master of his actions and of how they appear, and he must be mindful of the qualities that others wish to see in those who rule them.

Machiavelli shows an ambitious prince how to situate himself with respect to the two humors that dominate political life—that of the great who wish to rule, and that of the people who do not wish to be ruled. Machiavelli’s science presents political life as the product of these competing humors. Armed with that science, no prince would do as the princes of Italy do in Machiavelli’s own day, and bemoan their malignity of fortune. The political world manifests the competing influence of fortune and human virtue, and if men do not array their virtue against the tendencies of fortune, they will fall. The belief in providence may succor men when they are afflicted, but it cannot provide any realistic underpinning for human politics.

Discourses on Livy

The ancient historian Livy took as his subject matter the rise of Rome, and Machiavelli’s interest in the government of the Roman republic formed the basis of his second great political work. The Discourses and The Prince have vexed readers by their strikingly different emphases. The author who in the Prince endorsed even cruelty when necessary for princely success does not appear with quite such force in the Discourses. In the Discourses the subject is republican rather than princely government, and Machiavelli is at home discussing that more popular manner of ruling.

The Discourses treats the public deliberations concerning Rome’s rise from an internal (book 1) and external perspective (book 2), before turning to a discussion of the private maneuverings that contributed to Rome’s rise (book 3).

What distinguishes Machiavelli’s treatment of Rome’s internal rise is his defense of party government. By contrast, Aristotle thought that faction begat strife, which in turn led to the continual destruction, or cycling, of regimes. Machiavelli suggests instead “that the disunion of the plebs and the Roman Senate made that republic free and powerful” (book 1, chapter 4, title). Within this framework, Machiavelli suggests that the traditional cycle of regimes could, in fact, be overcome. Rather than weakening a city, the conflict of humors provides a source of energy that can be directed outward, toward the conquest of other regimes. Before discussing Rome’s external deeds in book 2, Machiavelli treats the two humors, that of the people and that of the great, from which political life arises. Rather than seeking to establish a good regime based on orientation toward the common good, Machiavelli shows how management of the different humors could lead to a more secure and better outcome.

Modern republics are significantly different from their ancient forebears, however. The modern “education,” as Machiavelli calls it, depends on a different religion. Christianity directs the human virtues toward the eternal life of heaven rather than, as the Roman religion did, toward the acquisition of worldly glory. As Machiavelli considers the expansion of Rome in book 2, he also points to the differences between the Roman and the Christian religions. The Romans sought worldly glory, and were able to attain it through their continual expansion. That same expansion made possible a venting of the domestic humors that typically plagued political life. The republicanism that Machiavelli presents in the Discourses assumes, contrary to the hopes of the classical philosophers, that cities are not self-sufficient, and must turn outward to achieve their own common good. The new science of virtue that Machiavelli presents in The Prince is still necessary, then, in order to make the hopes of Machiavelli’s Discourses a reality.


Machiavelli’s thought is even more radical than it appears, because it suggests a new understanding of fundamental matters beyond those restricted to politics, issues such as nature, fortune, and history, as well as issues of morality and rule. Machiavelli’s work implies a transformation of the classical and Christian praise of virtue. He also suggests that the accidents men attribute to fortune can be rationally controlled, if men can control the most vexing part of nature—human nature. When human nature is resolved into its constituent parts, the princely and the popular humors, a new picture of political life emerges. The common good sought by classical political philosophy cannot be achieved through moral education. Necessity imposes upon human affairs a different set of requirements that does not respect the traditional virtues. By seeking the higher things, especially in the form of Christian renunciation and humility, men have instead allowed the human things to sink into disrepair. A new science of the political parties suggests that the indirect management of human affairs, through party government and a self-sufficient understanding of virtue, may bring human beings greater glory than Christianity offered.

Machiavelli’s new political science claims to demonstrate that men always depend on their own arms. Modern politics shows both the achievements and the difficulties caused by this claim and advice.

For further introductory reading, see:

Niccolò Machiavelli” in History of Political Philosophy, Eds. Leo Strauss and Joseph Cropsey, Chicago: 1987.

 Cambridge Companion to Machiavelli, Ed. John Najemy, Cambridge: 2010.