How many Machiavellis? Rhetoric and dual-motivation in The Prince – Chris Rouse

Chris Rouse is a final year History and Politics student at the University of Birmingham, and starts an MA in Medieval Studies at York in September. He enjoys writing about the premodern history of politics, religion, ideas and globalism. 


Michael Gove has recently been dubbed ‘Machiavellian’ by many after announcing that he is running to be Conservative leader. Image credit: Flickr. 

How many Machiavellis? Rhetoric and dual-motivation in The Prince

‘Am I politic? Am I subtle? Am I a Machiavel?’ (Host, The Merry Wives of Windsor Act III, Scene I)[1]

The comparison between two seminal figures of the early modern period, Niccolò Machiavelli and William Shakespeare, is an apt one (and not just because this year’s Shakespeare bandwagon is too good to miss). Both men plied trades which were grounded in the evocative power of words and which were intimately tied to the complexities of human nature, politics and powers. And just as a myriad of different interpretations exist around Shakespeare’s canon, so too has Machiavelli sparked extensive and contentious debate since he wrote in the early 16th century.

One point of especially heated disagreement centres around the existence of two apparently very different pieces of work: The Prince, for which Machiavelli is perhaps best known, and the less famous Discourses on the First Decade of Titus Livy (hereafter, Discourses). In this article, I’d like to outline two broad approaches to reconciling these two texts before offering my own solution to the so-called ‘Machiavelli paradox’.[2] To best achieve this, it is first necessary to briefly outline Machiavelli’s personal and political contexts and to summarise his texts.

Machiavelli lived and worked in Florence during the 15th and 16th centuries, over 300 years before Italy became a unified nation-state. The geopolitics of the peninsular were characterised by a plurality of city states – some independent, some under the influence of foreign powers like Spain and France. Florence itself, having previously been governed as a republic, fell to the French in 1513 and shortly afterwards was taken over by the Medici family.[3] As the historian and political philosopher John Whitfield argued, ‘the theme of Machiavelli [that is, his philosophy] is inseparably bound to the history of his time’; the Florentine was a dedicated public servant, working for the republic as a diplomat and civil servant until he was imprisoned during the French conquest. The subjects of Machiavelli’s works– exercising power and principles in a political system where this may prove difficult – closely reflect the political circumstances of early Renaissance Italy.[4]

Aside from politics, Machiavelli was a playwright and great composer of letters. Like many of his educated contemporaries, academia was steeped in the intellectual and cultural legacy of the ancient Greeks and Romans; rhetoric and the study of the classics were integral to Machiavelli’s thoughts and writings.[5] The glory days of the Roman Republic especially influenced Machiavelli in two key ways: the Classical intertwining of rhetoric, statesmanship and power, and also which system of government and society was stablest, most free and most conducive to glory.

Such themes are given extensive treatment in Discourses, a long treatise on Livy’s history of the Roman Republic. In it, Machiavelli draws many lessons and principles from classical Italy, held up as an exemplar in statecraft. Chief among these is the tenet of republicanism, which I will divide (for reasons which will hopefully become clear) here into one institutional factor and three main normative factors. Regarding republican institutionalism, the concept’s etymology provides a large clue: the res publica, a government of and by the community.[6] This is not the same as democracy. The exact permutations of republican rule vary across time and space, and even Machiavelli does not provide a crystal clear conception of his republican institution, but the key principle is rule drawn from a cross-section of society, with the wealthy especially represented. Such an institution aims to avoid the tyrannies of both autocratic monarchy and the mob rule which may result from democracy.[7]

Somewhat ironically, the more concrete aspect of republicanism concerns abstract principles. Here, I identify three key strands of normative republicanism. Lawful, non-arbitrary leadership (what we may term the ‘rule of law’) was key to the prevention of tyranny; thus, in Discourses, Machiavelli roundly criticises tyranny and those who ‘subvert kingdoms and republics, make war on virtue, on letters, and on any art that brings advantage and honour to the human race’ and argues that emperors who acted in accordance with laws rather than against them are more deserving of praise.[8] This is similar to the second strand: ‘republican liberty’, proponents of which (like the 17th century Englishman James Harrington) assert the need for laws in maintaining liberty.[9] Where Isaiah Berlin posited ‘positive liberty’ (broadly, ‘freedom to’: self-realisation, active progression and emancipation) and ‘negative liberty’ (freedom from interference: the avoidance of obstacles in one’s life)[10], republican liberty lauds freedom from domination. Men and states are free if they are their own master.[11]

In Discourses, Machiavelli notes the importance of a strong political system to Rome’s liberty, and equally the importance of liberty to a strong state.[12] Finally, the third strand is the ‘common good’: the notion that the ultimate aim is that of the many and the state; individuals’ well-being may sometimes be subordinated to this goal. For instance, Discourses includes praise towards Rome’s crackdown on public ‘tumults’, as controlled violence prevented the outbreak of further disorder which would have threatened wider public security.[13] In this way, and others, republicanism often jars with modern liberal norms and ideas about the relationship between individuals, each other and the state. Nevertheless, the republican credo embodies values which are in many ways admirable: justice, non-arbitrary rule, pluralism and a kind of liberty.

Given the nature of Discourses, and Machiavelli’s extensive work for the Florentine republic, it perhaps comes as a surprise that ‘Machiavellian’ is synonymous with amoral, ruthless realpolitik: the cold exercising of power to advance one’s interests regardless of commonly received ethics. Such an interpretation comes from an isolated reading of The Prince. Black-and-white morality emerges in lines like ‘men are either to be kindly treated, or utterly crushed’.[14] A brutal domestic policy with little regard for personal loyalties is shown in the public execution by Cesare Borgia of his former lieutenant Remiro D’Orco.[15] Finally, the darker elements of rule are clear in Machiavelli’s assertion that it is ‘essential… to have learned how to be other than good’.[16] The shocking nature of these lessons and The Prince being a fraction of the size of Discourses (and hence more readable and memorable) led to the popular view across history of Machiavelli as the arch pragmatist. The republican concern for good rule and liberty seems sidelined in favour of the prince’s success. Here emerges the Machiavelli paradox: how can the existence of these two markedly different texts be explained?

One view sees the two works as diametrically opposed and unrelated in principle. There are two Machaivellis: the republican of Discourses and the schemer of The Prince. Whatever principles Machiavelli held in the former were well and truly absent in the latter. Taking The Prince by itself has resulted in citations of Machiavelli as, for instance, the original political scientist or as a ‘teacher of evil’.[17] It is certainly true that Machiavelli wrote to a friend in late 1513, expressing hope that his ‘little book [The Prince]’ would ingratiate himself with the new Medici regime, and hence also true that one may be able to glean in the author the same kind of politics as in the book.[18] However, it seems farfetched to imagine that a committed republican and public servant would have shed his ideals so rapidly. Bobbitt cites numerous themes which run consistently through Discourses and The Prince, including a strong state, non-arbitrary rule and constitutionalism.[19] Such consistency, combined with Machiavelli’s personal context, strongly rebut the notion that the two texts are utterly contradictory. The political context of a divided Italy helps explain the two works’ differing forms and audiences.

Just how these differences are explained is addressed by two further interpretations, both of which posit ‘one Machiavelli’. The first view, held by, for instance, Mary Dietz and Gerard Mattingly, argues that the ‘true’ Machiavelli is that of Discourses, an individual committed to republican liberty and society. The Prince, meanwhile, is deeply influenced by these same principles but, where Discourses is an instructive text to be taken seriously, the smaller treatise is fraudulent advice. Mattingly claimed The Prince was a piece of satire, designed to expose, exaggerate and deride the lessons and tenets of autocratic princely rule.[20]

While this attempt to link Discourses and The Prince rightly utilises Machiavelli’s historical and personal contexts in interpreting the works, Mattingly’s reasoning is flawed. Sections of The Prince seem anything but ridiculous tyranny, such as when Machiavelli denounces arbitrary executions and interference with private property.[21] Furthermore, Mattingly (again, accurately and rightly) notes Machiavelli’s background in literature; if such a text was meant as satire, and penned by a skilled writer, then why did so many mistake The Prince for something serious? Dietz claims The Prince was a ‘trap’, aimed at fooling the princely reader into making decisions which would hasten their own demise, such as keeping the populace armed and avoiding generosity.[22] Again, the existence of themes which echo Discourses calls this thesis into question; how is one meant to sift through The Prince and establish what is genuine and what is satirical or entrapment?[23]

My own argument – the third interpretation I discuss here – is that one shouldn’t do this at all. There is one Machiavelli who wrote two books with a consistent instructive purpose. Both texts are meant to guide the ruler towards Machiavelli’s ideal state. There is, though, one crucial difference: who is at the top. Discourses is aimed at a republican audience whereas The Prince targets the ruler rather suggested by the name. Here, political context begat political necessity; if Machiavelli wanted to move beyond armchair theorising and begin to influence Florentine statecraft, he needed to target the top – Prince Lorenzo De Medici, to whom The Prince is dedicated and aimed.

So we have, on the one side, monarchical politics and, on the other, republican philosophy. For proponents of the latter, how was best to advance their aims? Crucially, the republicans had among their ranks an excellent writer who could draw heavily on the classical tradition of rhetoric. What if the book that is so famous today for extolling manipulation and the value of ends over means was actually an exercise in manipulating its author, to achieve republican aims through princely means?

This, I’d argue, is how we should understand the nature of The Prince and its relationship with Discourses. Both treatises are republican and instructive, though The Prince advances its republicanism sotto voce. Machiavelli found a situation where his republican principles clashed with a princely locus of power, and in attempting to reconcile these facts, produced a book full of the rhetoric of both statecraft and persuasion. The Prince is a book which aimed not, as Dietz argued, to replace princely rule, but rather to reform it from within.

I contend that Machiavelli attempted to manipulate the powerful reader through what I term the ‘logic of dual-motivation’. Such an argument, I hope, draws together and harmonises Machiavelli’s personal context (his political, literary and academic background); Italy’s context (foreign powers and a plurality of city states; some, like Florence, ruled by a prince); and the form and nature of The Prince (its apparently amoral, autocratic principles and its royal audience).

The logic of dual-motivation is relatively simple. In the Prince, Machiavelli offers a series of lessons: prescriptions, proscriptions and general principles. Each of these is framed in a way which is ostensibly for the princely reader’s benefit. In many ways, The Prince is as straightforward as the slim volume appears:it is Machiavelli providing a ruler with serious advice on how best to rule. However, the complexity emerges in the issue of for whom this rule is best, and in how the apparent princely focus is subverted. Each one of the ‘lessons’, while framed as beneficial to the prince (and indeed, many may be, for reasons discussed later) in fact follows republican principles and advances the tenets and interests of republicanism.

The chief employment of rhetorical manipulation lies in all the instances where The Prince exhorts its reader to do things for (ostensibly) his own good: actions ‘following which his safety and well-being are secured’.[24] So far, so self-interested – so ‘Machiavellian’. However, a closer look at some of these lessons reveals the wider interest at heart: that of the common good and civic, republican liberty.

A recurring theme in The Prince is how the ruler should avoid ‘contempt and hatred’ from the people.[25] This seems obvious – a ruler is far more likely to be toppled by an angry populace, so it seems logical to keep them appeased: ‘a Prince can never secure himself against a disaffected people’.[26] However, here emerges the ‘dual motivation’. The princely reader’s motive is to preserve his position. Machiavelli’s republican motive is to ensure the preservation of the values of republicanism and the common good. Keeping the population appeased may well help the prince, but there is one clearer beneficiary: the populace itself.

A maxim of Machiavelli’s, that ‘men will sooner forget the death of their father than the loss of their patrimony’, is often taken as proof of his cynical view of human nature.[27] Maybe so, but here it functions as a rhetorical tool to prevent arbitrary infringement of property rights; the context in which it appears is an exhortation that ‘[the prince] must abstain from the property of others’. Similarly, Machiavelli advises that ‘if constrained to put any to death, [the prince] should do so only when there is manifest cause or reasonable justification’.[28] Again, while this non-arbitrary behaviour would make the ruler more secure, the populace is spared a tyrant. Elsewhere, Machiavelli advises against the disarming of the people; he again cites avoiding hatred as key, and also the security benefits in a harsh geopolitical context.[29] However, the republican principle of liberty and a non-dominating ruler is not especially deep beneath this lesson’s surface.

As Quentin Skinner, a leading Machiavelli scholar, argues, The Prince stressed ‘the imperative need to avoid popular hatred and contempt’.[30]This much is generally received wisdom. However, I believe the true message and purpose of The Prince lies deeper than a purely instructive text for how a leader should act to remain in power. The prince would undoubtedly benefit in one sense- a happy populace is less likely to result. He’s happy as he thinks he’s ruling in a way that immediately benefits him the most. However, the instructions laid out would not only serve his interests, but those of the people: republican tenets of non-arbitrary rule, the common good and liberty are coded within these lessons. Replacing the prince as a ruler may have been difficult, but Machiavelli sought not to replace but to reform, to guide a ruler towards republican ends. Just as the logic of dual-motivation offers a way to reconcile Discourses and The Prince as harmonious, so too did Machiavelli, a figure of republicanism in monarchical Florence, attempt to synthesise his republican ideals with the princely reality.



[1] Available at (Accessed 14/6/2016).

[2] Bobbitt, P. (2013), The Garments of Court and Palace: Machiavelli and the World That He Made (Padstow: TJ International Ltd), p. 1.

[3] Skinner, Q. (2000), Machiavelli: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford: Oxford University Press), pp. 20-23.

[4] Whitfield, J. H. (1947), Machiavelli (Oxford: Basil Blackwell), pp. 18, 35-38.

[5] See, for instance, Benner, E. (2013), Machiavelli’s Prince: A New Reading (Oxford: Oxford University Press); Kahn, V. (1994), Machiavellian Rhetoric From the Counter-Reformation to Milton (Princeton: Princeton University Press) and Skinner, Q. (1996), Reason and Rhetoric in the Philosophy of Hobbes (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press) for the role of rhetoric and classics in Machiavelli and in early modern education and thought.

[6] Skinner, Q. (1993), “The republican ideal of political liberty”, in Bock, G., Skinner, Q. and Viroli, M. (eds.) Machiavelli and Republicanism (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press), pp. 293-309, p. 302.

[7] For a fuller account, see McCormick, J. (2011), Machiavellian Democracy (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press).

[8] Machiavelli, N. (1998), trans. L. Walker, The Discourses (London: Penguin Books Ltd), pp. 135-136.

[9] Viroli, M. (1993), “Machiavelli and the republican idea of politics”, in Bock, G., Skinner, Q. and Viroli, M. (eds.) Machiavelli and Republicanism (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press), pp. 143-171, p. 144.

[10] See Berlin, I. (1969), Four Essays on Liberty (Oxford: Oxford University Press).

[11] For a more detailed discussion of the liberties, see here. A case study given is that of the slave left to his own free will by an absent master; he is free in the negative sense (no interference) but is still technically dominated by another- there is always the potential, even if this is not realised, for interference.

[12] Machiavelli, Discourses, p. 124.

[13] Ibid., p. 114.

[14] Machiavelli, N. (1992), trans. N. Thompson, The Prince (New York: Dover Publications, Inc.), p. 4.

[15] Machiavelli, The Prince, pp. 17-18

[16] Machiavelli, The Prince, p. 40.

[17] Crick, B. (1998), “Introduction”, in Machiavelli, N. (1998), trans. L. Walker, The Discourses (London: Penguin Books Ltd), pp. 13-69, p. 13-15.

[18] Villalon, L. (2003), “Machiavelli’s “Prince”, Political Science or Political Satire?: Garret Mattingly Revisited”, Mediterranean Studies 12, pp. 73-101, p. 87.

[19] Bobbit, Garments of Court and Palace, pp. 6-8

[20] Mattingly, G. (1958), “Machiavelli’s “Prince”: Political Science or Political Satire?”, The American Scholar 72(4), pp. 482-491.

[21] Machiavelli, The Prince, p. 44.

[22] Dietz, M. (1986), “Trapping The Prince: Machiavelli and the Politics of Deception”, The American Political Science Review 80(3), pp. 777-799.

[23] See Villalon,  “Machiavelli’s “Prince”, Political Science or Political Satire?: Garret Mattingly Revisited”; Langton, J. and Dietz, M. (1987), “Machiavelli’s Paradox: Trapping or Teaching the Prince”, The American Political Science Review 81(4), pp. 1277-1288.

[24] Machiavelli, The Prince, p. 40.

[25] Ibid., p. 47.

[26] Ibid., p. 25.

[27] Ibid., p. 44.

[28] Ibid.

[29] Ibid., p. 56.

[30] Skinner, Machiavelli: A Very Short Introduction, p. 46.

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