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Machiavellism, a word that goes back to the late sixteenth century, is a name for the theory and practice of amoral politics. In its ideal, simply abstract sense, it is not meant to coincide exactly with the views or practices of any historical individual, even Niccolò Machiavelli (14691527) himself. When Machiavelli praises the citizens of the ancient republic of Rome as noble and public-spirited, he is no Machiavellian. Consistent Machiavellism is unconstrained by custom, ideal, or conscience and aims only at the expedient means, lawful or not, to gain desired political ends. War is thought not only often expedient but necessary to maintain a people's vigor. The absence of moral restraint is reinforced by the fixed opinion that human beings are by nature weak, inconstant, selfish, and inclined to evil. Expositions of Machiavellism often take the form of advice for a ruler, who is regarded as indispensable to the state, and the welfare of ruler and state are considered to be identical. Aimed at practice rather than theory, the literature of Machiavellism is filled with amoral strategies to gain the ruler's ends.

Small-Scale Societies and Kingdoms

"Stateless" societies have no formal structure of government or any formal authorities. Anthropologists have made it clear that there are very few stateless societies in which violence is rare. Machiavellian deception makes its appearance wherever vengeance is taken and wars are fought. The best-known account of a violent, often deceptive people is Napoleon Chagnon's often controverted description of the Yanomamö, who live on the borderland between Brazil and Venezuela. In their chronic wars between villages, they make use of what is translated as "dastardly tricks." What was actually a raiding party once came to a village under the pretense of teaching the men of the village how to pray to a spirit that gives machetes and cooking pots. When the villagers knelt to pray to the spirit, the raiders killed them.

War, generally on Machiavellian principles, is frequent among the more organized societies called "chiefdoms." An anthropologist who studied warfare in the chiefdoms of both Oceania and North America found that it has been frequent and acute. Thus Fiji had many ruthless rulers and ruthless wars, while in North America, warfare in the form of small-scale raids seems to have been inseparable from tribal culture. In New Guinea, the surest route to leadership was by means of bold or sly killing. Some societies favored ambushing, some the destruction of property or kidnapping, and some the driving away or exterminating of the enemy. Stealthy, often treacherous raiding was usual.

In considering the Machiavellian traits of kingdoms or empires, one should at least mention those of South and Central America and Africa. The Incas justified their conquests by the claim that all other peoples had originated from them and therefore had to serve them, give them much of their wealth, and provide themwithout showing any signs of griefwith children for sacrifices. The Aztecs' belief that the sun and the powers of the earth would die unless fed with human blood created a need for sacrificial victims and the wars to provide them. That Machiavellism was involved is proved by the fact that most of the victims were from other tribes, whose towns the Aztecs wrecked, whose fields they burned, and whose people they raped and murdered.

Among the African kings, the one best known for ruthlessness was Shaka (c. 17871828). By the conquest of many nearby peoples, he created the Zulu empire. Purposely enigmatic and frightening, and informed by a network of spies, he was as ruthless within his own country as outside it. When he gave orders to exterminate all the members of a tribe, he explained that he did so because otherwise the children would grow into possible enemies. Any relative or important person he had any reason to suspect was killed. His justification for his cruelty was that only the fear of death made it possible to hold together the many unruly clans of what would one day be a nation.

Ancient China

In Chinese tradition, Machiavellian thought and practice is associated with Legalism. Insisting on laws that apply impartially to persons of every status, Legalism provides techniques for a ruler to keep control over both officials and subjects. The first famous Legalist, Lord Shang (d. 338 b.c.e.), preached the doctrine that society could be controlled by means of penalties. When he succeeded in becoming the chief administrator of the state of Qin, he divided the population into units of five or ten persons, each responsible for the actions of all the others. Anyone failing to report an offender was to be cut in two at the waist, while someone who did report offenders was to be rewarded as if he had decapitated an enemy. Those who devoted themselves successfully to the fundamental occupations, tilling or weaving, would have their taxes remitted, but those who made socially unhelpful profits, in trade and the crafts, or were poor out of laziness would be confiscated as slaves.

A country that is strong, Shang said, can remain so only by continuing to wage war, while a country administered, as Confucians preferred, with the help of history, music, filial piety, and brotherly love, sinks into poverty or falls to its enemies. Above all, he said, a government must promote order by means of rare but consistent rewards and frequent, consistent, severe punishments. Governed by the fear of punishment, people will obey the laws, be virtuous, and be kept happy by what they are allowed to enjoy.

The great Confucian Xunzi (c. 310c. 215 b.c.e.) influenced the thought of the Legalists by insisting that a nation's power depends on its wealth and therefore on its inhabitants' frugality and devotion to the wealth-producing occupations, especially agriculture. He also insisted, like the Legalists, on the need for law with fixed standards of punishment and on the view, contrary to that of his Confucian predecessor Mencius, that people are by nature evil. Their nature, he says, needs to be forced into shape, so that only correct education can make them good.

Xunzi's student Han Feizi (c. 280233 b.c.e.) argued that the ruler, out of love, should work against the natural disorderliness and self-indulgence of the people. Penalties bring order and rewards bring chaos, so penalties are the beginning of love. A state can function properly, he held, only if it has in-grained lines of command and obedience. The ruler must take many precautions to retain his rule because it is dangerous for him to trust anyone. The ruler's son, if trusted by the ruler to an incautious extreme, will be used by evil ministers to carry out their private schemes. To detect the more subtle kinds of subversion, the ruler must get the people to watch one another and be implicated in one another's crimes. To gain his own ends, the emperor should remain enigmatic and not reveal his intentions to his subordinates. Government can no longer be based on the Confucian virtues or on the model of familial relations. "The most enlightened method of governing a state is to trust measures and not men."

Li Si (c. 280208 b.c.e.), like Han Feizi, was a student of Xunzi. Li Si was the paradigmatic Legalist because it was he who taught the king of Qin how "to swallow up the world and to rule with the title of Emperor." Appalled by his attacks on Confucian tradition, Chinese historians describe the First Emperor as a cruel, suspicious megalomaniac who by the intelligent use of force, slavery, and the conscripted labor of citizens created the great empire of China out of the motley of its many small states. In collaboration with the indefatigable First Emperor, Li Si created a unified culture, including a standardized Chinese, and a political hierarchy fully subordinate to the emperor. But Li Si is one of the greatly hated figures of Chinese history because, in order to escape criticism based on traditional standards, he tried to destroy very nearly the whole of Chinese literature and so, in effect, to destroy the tradition's moral basis and cultural continuity. To this end, in 213 b.c.e. he ordered that all books, except those on practical subjects such as medicine, divination, and agriculture, be gathered and burned. A year later, there occurred the episodenot the direct doing of Li Sithat to traditional Chinese has been the most extreme example of malignant politics: the execution of 460 scholars, who, according to Chinese tradition, were buried alive in a common grave. In the course of the later history of China, legalistic doctrines and practices were often incorporated into the ruling Confucianism.

Ancient India

Violence and treachery make a frequent appearance in the great Indian epics, the Mahabharata and the Ramayana, in which the ideal is that of a righteous king with obedient people. In the most usual Indian view, the king is related to the gods and should be revered as such. A wise man in the Mahabharata asks what a state without the protection of a king would be like and imagines robbers at work, women abducted, and the strong roasting the weak like fishes on a spit. The self-evident moral of such a fear is that to have no king is worse than to have to have the worst king.

The Indian science that deals explicitly with politics is Arthashastra, literally "the science that deals with artha, the means of subsistence." This definition turns out to be equivalent to "the science of politics." The oldest, most developed of the books dealing with the subject is the Kautilya Arthashastra. Its author, whose name or pseudonym, Kautilya, means "craftiness," is usually identified with Chanakya, the crafty adviser of Candragupta, who about 321 b.c.e. defeated the Nandas and created the first great Indian empire.

The Kautilya Arthashastra is a dryly written manual of government from the standpoint of a king's adviser. It urges the king to care for the welfare and loyalty of the farmers and of the Brahmans and priests. Religions should be respected, Kautilya says, but used for political purposes. For a successful king, he thinks, warfare is the most natural activity. Running through every subject treated in the Arthashastra is a concern with the safety of the king. Everyone is under suspicion, from the queen and the crown prince to the king's ministers and citizens.

To translate a pervading suspiciousness into administrative terms, Kautilya recommends an extraordinarily detailed system of domestic and foreign spying and subversion. Each agent is given a cover story, carries out the required spying, including spying on high officials, and reports back to a special station, where the report is put into code. Only a report confirmed by three spies is accepted. Spies who make mistakes are done away with quietly.

Indian literature reflects the attitudes both of Arthashastra and, more often, of those who oppose it for moral reasons. The Arthashastra 's cynical wisdom was exported from India by the stories of the Panchatantra (The five books), probably compiled by about 500 c.e. and translated into some sixty languages. By means of the Panchatantra, Kautilya's point of view took on the imagination and humor of folktales and taught the world at large what it implicitly always knew.


The most famous European Machiavellian was, of course, Niccolò Machiavelli, and his most famous, most Machiavellian book was Il principe (1513; The prince). Like his other works, it was nourished by his personal experience, especially as a diplomat, and by the literature of ancient Greece and Rome. Machiavelli must have been familiar with Thucydides's ability to report on history in an objective, amoral spirit, as in the famous dialogue in which the representatives of Athens say to those of Melos that in human affairs the question of justice enters only where there is equal power to enforce it, and that the powerful exact what they can and the weak grant what they must. Machiavelli knew Cicero's De officiis (On duties), which discusses the same political problems that he does, though with usually milder, more moral conclusions. Like Machiavelli, Cicero asks whether it is better for a ruler to be feared or lovedloved, Cicero concludesand uses the image imitated by Machiavelli of the ruler as either a lion or a fox. Both Cicero and Machiavelli agree that a ruler must curb himself so as to escape hatred.

Machiavelli's Machiavellian views are that present-day human beings are incorrigibly changeable, ungrateful, and insincere; control of government therefore requires the use of force, so the ruler should be capable of leading his state in war and should be ready to abandon honesty and mercy when they interfere with effective rule. Put metaphorically, because humans act like wolves, the ruler must be the lion, and because humans do not keep their word, the ruler must also play the fox, though never openly. Knowing that humans are evil, the ruler should not be troubled by the cruelty that keeps his subjects united and loyal. But the wise ruler will keep a balance between reckless trust and the extreme distrust that unrestrained cruelty causes.

Franceso Guicciardini (14831540), a Florentine historian and politician and (at times) Machiavelli's friend, never became as famous as Machiavelli even though he was just as hard-headedly amoral as a political thinker, maybe even more canny, and rather more skeptical. His advice on public relations is always to deny what one does not want to be known and, regardless of even the most convincing contrary evidence, to sow doubt in people's minds by boldly stating what one wants to be believed. Mercy should be shown only when practically useful. No one who understands political life would ever show mercy when it endangers the fruit of a victory, but when it costs nothing to be merciful, mercy is politically advisable.

Guicciardini criticizes Machiavelli for reading contemporary events too often in the light of unrevealing Roman precedents. History is too mutable, he says, for us to learn much from it except not to expect any reward for good behavior or any success from the use of intelligence. The best we can do, according to him, is to maintain our dignity.

Machiavelli's Prince aroused interest, most of it indignant, everywhere, with the result that Machiavelli's name became a byword for evil. In Shakespeare's Henry VI (part 3), the future Richard III boasts that he can murder while he smiles, wet his cheeks with artificial tears, orate, deceive, conquer, change shapes, "and set the murtherous Machiavel to school." As king, in Richard III, this self-proposed tutor of Machiavelli is finally destroyed, like Machiavelli's hero, Cesare Borgia, by failing to control his lust for power.

A few almost contemporary philosophers praised Machiavelli's ideas. Michel de Montaigne (15331592) refers to him in his essay "On Presumption" and says that Machiavelli is one of those writers who prefers the good of the state to his fidelity and conscience. Almost always, says Montaigne, there is some gain in a breach of faith, as in all other wicked acts. The wretchedness of the human condition is such, Montaigne goes on, "that we are often driven to the necessity of using evil means to a good end." He sympathizes with a prince whose conscience does not allow him to do what is essential for his own preservation or the preservation of his people but doubts that such a prince will get the favor of God that he deserves ("On the Useful and the Honorable"). Though lying is to Montaigne an "accursed vice," he is ready to say that "to deprive wiliness of its rank would be to misunderstand the world," and that anyone whose morals are conspicuously higher than those of his time "must either distort and blunt his rules" or "have nothing to do with us."

Francis Bacon (15611626), who experienced both high office and political disgrace, said that he was indebted to Machiavelli as one of those "who openly and unfeignedly declare or describe what men do, and not what they ought to do." His own aphorisms often have the disabused flavor of Machiavellism. In his essay "Of Simulation and Dissimulation," he concludes that it is best "to have openness in fame and opinion; secrecy in habit, dissimulation in seasonable use, and a power to feign if there be no remedy." Like all Machiavellians, he insists that greatness does not come to any nation that does not "directly profess arms."

Of the other philosophers close in time to Machiavelli, those most like him in their negative estimate of ordinary humans are Thomas Hobbes and Benedict de Spinoza. Hobbes (15881679), who does not mention Machiavelli at all, makes similar negative estimates of human behavior. But unlike Machiavelli, in Leviathan he belittles the idea of learning from past experience and wants his theory to be a carefully structured, syllogistic science. Spinoza (16321677) praises Machiavelli in his Tractatus Politicus (Treatise on politics) as a wise man who, because he is wise, must have had a moral purpose. He explains Machiavelli's text as probably meant to show "the folly of attemptingas many doto remove a tyrant when the causes which make a prince a tyrant cannot be removed, but become rooted more firmly as the prince is given more reason to be afraid." Or, Spinoza says, perhaps Machiavelli wanted to show how careful a free people should be in entrusting its welfare completely to one man, who has to go in daily fear of plots and "is forced in self-defense to plot against his subjects rather than to further their interests." Rather like Machiavelli, Spinoza says that humans are by nature subject to great anger, envy, and the like and so are by nature enemies to one another. However, he adds, echoing Machiavelli's Discourses, it is not the inherent wickedness of the subjects of a commonwealth that leads to rebellions, wars, and contempt for the law but "the corrupt condition of the commonwealth" that has framed its laws ineptly; for "citizens are not born, but made." Spinoza also believes that a person can break his promise "by the right of nature," that is, the right of self-preservation.

Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (17701831) was an interestingly qualified admirer of Machiavelli. He thought that Germany, which, like Machiavelli's Italy, had difficulties in becoming a united nation, also needed Machiavelli's advice. Machiavelli, he said, had no special interest in advising a tyrant but in correcting an impossible political situation. For Machiavelli's "great and true conception produced by a genuinely political head" expresses his understanding that, under the circumstances, the "Prince" had no choice but to secure his own power as a tyrant by all the violent means that are usually considered to be crimes. The acts are justified by the vision of the sovereignty and independence of the people, the Volk, which depend on the destruction of the lesser local authorities. But when the tyrant's work is done, he automatically appears as a despot, and "then, it is the tyrant-slayers who are heroes."

Machiavellian Rule

The assessments of Machiavelli himself are still mixed. The more favorable ones may be exemplified by that of the twentieth-century philosopher Ernst Cassirer, who wrote that Machiavelli's accomplishment lay in not allowing his personal feelings and ideals to affect his political judgment, which was "that of a scientist and a technician of political life." But whatever the verdict on Machiavelli the person, the Machiavellism of which he wrote pales in the face of the massive attack on conventional morality by the twentieth century's great tyrants, Stalin, Hitler, and Mao.

Machiavellian behavior has been integral to the political and social life of every culture. One of the reasons why it is found everywhere is the universal need for a social system with an effective leader. When it is not clear what authority, if any, is to be obeyed, the result is uncertainty, social friction, wasted effort, dissatisfaction, and the willingness to follow any leader who promises to overcome the threat of chaos. In any case, morality proves to be easy to equate with conformity to the demands of leaders, however careless they may be of compassion and of truth. The individual conscience proves to be at its most elastic when leaders and followers assume that the cause they serve is of such surpassing importance that deception or cruelty in its behalf is in fact a moral virtue. Such a hope for a better society ordinarily requires that those who appear to be obstructing it should be identified and proclaimed to be its enemies.

See also Political Science ; Power ; State, The ; War .


Bodde, Dirk. China's First Unifier: A Study of the Ch'in Dynasty as Seen in the Life of Li Ssu. Leiden: Brill, 1938. Chagnon, Napoleon A. Yanomamö. 5th ed. Fort Worth, Tex.: Harcourt Brace, 1997.

Ghoshal, U. N. A History of Indian Political Ideas. London: Oxford University Press, 1959.

Gilbert, Felix. Machiavelli and Guicciardini. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1965.

Guicciardini, Francesco. Selected Writings. Edited by Cecil Grayson and translated by Margaret Grayson. London: Oxford University Press, 1965.

Haas, Jonathen, ed. The Anthropology of War. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990.

Kautilya. The Kautilya Arthashastra. Translated by R. P. Kangle. 2nd ed. 3 vols. Bombay: University of Bombay, 1969.

Lewis, Mark Edward. Sanctioned Violence in Early China. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1990.

Machiavelli, Niccolò. The Chief Works, and Others. Translated by Allan Gilbert. 3 vols. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1965.

. The Prince. Translated by Robert M. Adams. Rev. ed. New York: Norton, 1992.

Meinecke, Friedrich. Machiavellism. Translated by Douglass Scott. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1957.

Scharfstein, Ben-Ami. Amoral Politics: The Persistent Truth of Machiavellism. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1995.

Spinoza, Benedict de. The Political Works. Translated by A. G. Wernham. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1958.

Walter, E. V. Terror and Resistance. New York: Oxford University Press, 1969.

Ben-Ami Scharfstein

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Mach·i·a·vel·li·an / ˌmakēəˈvelēən; ˌmäk-/ • adj. 1. cunning, scheming, and unscrupulous, esp. in politics or in advancing one's career. 2. of or relating to Niccolò Machiavelli. • n. a person who schemes in such a way. DERIVATIVES: Mach·i·a·vel·li·an·ism / -ˌnizəm/ n.

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Machiavellian cunning, scheming, and unscrupulous, especially in politics or in advancing one's career. The word derives from Niccolò Machiavelli (1469–1527), Italian statesman and political philosopher, whose best-known work The Prince (1532) advises rulers that the acquisition and effective use of power may necessitate unethical methods.