Machiavelli: The most misunderstood philosopher


Machiavelli is often seen as supporting unchecked selfishness and ruthless dictatorship, a man who supports the idea that “might makes right”. But that is a rather misleading view of Machiavelli. Here, I will dismantle or explain several of his ideas, which have often been misunderstood:

  1. Type of government. The Prince is often seen as Machiavelli’s crowning work, but we must remember that it was as much (if not moreso) a job application as it was a writing on his own political philosophy. In fact, as we can see in Discourses on Livy, Machiavelli supported a Republic, albeit one where the state held a large portion of power. This Authoritarian Democracy, if you will, was a cornerstone of Machiavelli’s ideas. While he indeed saw the general public as fickle and untrustworthy, he also saw that if a ruler produced good results (the ends justify the means), then the people would keep him in power

  2. Selfishness. Unlike Ayn Rand, Machiavelli did not see the empowerment of the self as the ultimate goal for a politician, but rather merely a means to ensure the stability and long-term welfare of society. Machiavelli saw humans as tending to act in their own interests, and thus saw it necessary for a leader to appeal to that short-term self interest solely to gain power. Beyond gaining and maintaining power, however, appealing to the short-term interests of the people was not a goal for Machiavelli. Rather, the goal was the long-term security and welfare of the people and the state.

  3. Use of Machiavellian tactics. Machiavelli saw politics in the same vain as warfare, and thus saw the same tactics of misdirection, deceit, and ruthlessness as acceptable in both. However, this did not, in his mind, extend to things such as one’s personal life, where ethics and promises were indeed important. The distinction between the personal world, where promises were to be upheld and friends treated as such, and the worlds of warfare, business, and politics, where the means only mattered in so much as they led to proper ends, was a key part of his ideas which must be kept in mind.

  4. Might makes right. The Ends Justify the Means, tis better to be feared than loved if both are not possible; these are all very famous ideas of Machiavelli. But Machiavelli was not one for unnecessary cruelty or power for its own sake, something which separates him from philosophers like Ayn Rand. Machiavelli saw the ends as justifying the means only in so that the ends themselves were indeed proportionally beneficial. To him, slaughtering a group of innocents may be justified if it prevented a civil war, but unjust if it was done purely for its own sake. Might is a vector for positive change, not an ends unto itself

Now, let’s look at what I would consider to be a good example of a Machiavellian leader: Joseph Broz Tito. Tito was both feared and loved by his people. He was, on one hand, a brutal dictator who repressed political opponents, covered up wartime memories, and persecuted religious groups. However, he did these things since their existences would destabilize the state. Yet despite being such a brutal dictator, Tito still increased the quality of life of the average Yugoslav citizen immensely. Tito drew his support from the people because they knew that despite his cruelty, he indeed maintained their best interests. Unfortunately, he made the same mistake as so many Machiavellian leaders would (Otto von Bismarck, Cesare Borgia, etc.) in failing to set up a succession plan their legacies would not last. You need to have a solid plan of succession, and you need to set up someone who will not only carry on your legacy but be able to adapt should circumstances change. This is the second reason why Yugoslavia failed: It was too reliant on the cold war balance of powers. When the Cold War ended, the foreign aid dried up, and the Yugoslav economy fell apart. The same problem occurred with Venezuela and the Oil Market, but in their case they should have predicted it, since unlike the end of the Cold War, the instability of the oil market was inevitable.

Machiavelli is misunderstood because while he did indeed endorse actions of cruelty, deceit, and manipulation, he did so only in that these actions actually benefited the state and the people in the long term (hence why Objectivism is not Machiavellian). Machiavelli also rejected ideology, seeing it as petty and unrealistic (hence why Fascism is not Machiavellian either). The ends only justify the means if the means themselves are worthwhile.