The PLEA: The Mind of Machiavelli

The PLEA: The Mind of Machiavelli

The Grounded Idealism of The Discourses

Machiavelli said that states are not natural creations: they are human constructions. How can we make these constructions work?

Machiavelli believed that states could only survive in the long run if they found a way to become politically stable. Each type of government common in his day had a destabilising flaw. Monarchies—the rule of kings and queens—would fail due to the overreach of royalty. Aristocracies—the rule of the “best”—would fail due to the insular nature of the elite. Democracies—the rule of the common people—would fail due to the excesses of the mob.

But what would happen if kings and queens, the best, and common people all got together at the table of government?

This is a key question tackled in Machiavelli’s Discourses on the First Ten Books of Titus Livy. The Discourses is a how-to guide for achieving political stability. Machiavelli said that the friction between royalty, the best, and the commoners—if all seated at the table of government—could be used to achieve political stability. To demonstrate his theory, he analysed Titus Livy’s History of Rome.

In Rome, power was shared by three groups: royal power in the consuls, aristocratic power in the senate, and popular power in the tribunes. This mixed form of government gave royalty, the best, and commoners a seat at the table, able to voice their concerns and exercise their will. As he put it, “each would keep watch over the other.” In fact, Machiavelli said that the quarrels between the upper classes and the commoners were “the primary cause of Rome’s retaining her freedom.”

Of the three groups—royalty, the best, and the commoners—the watchful eyes of commoners were key to preserving a free society. Upper classes have “a great desire to dominate,” but common people merely have “the desire not to be dominated.” To ensure that the commoners were not dominated, Machiavelli advocated for a wide-range of democratic powers. They included the ability to elect representatives, the right of individuals to propose laws, and the power of public indictment, where the masses could collectively pass judgment on an individual.

Machiavelli was confident that commoners could be trusted with these democratic powers. In his mind, “when two speakers of equal skill are heard advocating different alternatives, very rarely does one find the populace failing to adopt the better view or incapable of appreciating the truth of what it hears.” In other words, people are sensible enough to make good decisions.


The home in Sant’Andrea in Percussina where Machiavelli lived after his exile from Florence. It sits on the road from Florence to Sienna. Machiavelli would grill passers-by about news from places they had travelled.

That said, Machiavelli also worried that people can be “easily moved by Splendid Hopes and Rash Promises.” If a clever person tried to lead people in a bad direction, he pinned his hopes on a “grave man” emerging. This grave man would convincingly warn the people of looming danger.

In many ways, Machiavelli’s prescription for government—a mixed system that spreads power around—lives on in today’s western liberal democracies. For example, consider Canada: our head of state is the Queen or her representative (monarchy), our senate is supposedly made up of the best members of society (aristocracy), and citizens elect representatives to the House of Commons (democracy). If we look to lower levels of government, we find other democratic rights that Machiavelli advocated. For example, in Saskatchewan we have the power to propose municipal bylaws through referendums. And in British Columbia there is recall legislation, a sort of public indictment for the masses to pass judgment on elected representatives.

Machiavelli did not invent mixed government: he was merely contemplating how Ancient Rome was governed. The legacy of The Discourses is that it was the first modern political work to explicitly advocate for a mixed system of government as a way to preserve everyone’s freedom.

The Ends Justifies the Means

Machiavelli is sometimes credited with the saying “the ends justifies the means.” However, he never wrote those words. That said, passages in The Discourses as well as The Prince come close.

In The Discourses, Machiavelli said that states need a founder—what he called a “prudent organizer”—to establish the institutions that create long-term political stability. The organiser must be an expert in constitutional rights, lack self-interest, and be prepared to engage in extraordinary means to create the “perfect commonwealth.”

Machiavelli’s belief that the prudent organiser should be free to engage in extraordinary means to establish the state included the right to use “reprehensible actions.” Machiavelli thought that “when the effect is good... it always justifies the action. For it is the man who uses violence to spoil things, not the man who uses it to mend them, that is blameworthy.” His view on the use of violence is debatable, but in these words we see Machiavelli invoking the idea that the ends justifies the means.


  1. Machiavelli said that a state with diverse groups at the table of power would be more successful, because “it is better able to adapt itself to diverse circumstances owing to the diversity found among its citizens.” Do you agree? Do diverse groups make better decisions?
  2. Talking about mobs, Machiavelli said “there is nothing more formidable than the masses disorganized and without a head, in another sense there is nothing more weak.” In other words, an angry mob will simply dissolve without leadership. Is this true?
  3. Machiavelli was an advocate for free speech. He believed that “there can be no harm in defending an opinion by arguments so long as one has no intention of appealing either to authority or force.” Discuss the role of free speech in society.
  4. Machiavelli said that a state could only survive “so long as the citizens are good.” Discuss.