The PLEA: The Mind of Machiavelli

The PLEA: The Mind of Machiavelli

The Cynical Realism of The Prince

Machiavelli said that successful leaders had no choice but to be cunning, because people were “fickle, hypocritical, and greedy of gain.”

In Machiavelli’s time, most political thinkers busied themselves proposing utopias. Machiavelli, on the other hand, was not interested in dreaming up a perfect world. He was interested in making the real world work. To make it work, Machiavelli believed that leaders needed to “follow the real truth of things [rather] than an imaginary view of them.” Hence, Machiavelli wrote The Prince.

Quite possibly, The Prince was written as a job application. Despite being booted out of Florence following the Soderini government’s overthrow, Machiavelli held out hope that the Medicis would recognise his talents as a political observer and civil servant. The Prince, he told a friend, opened up the possibility that “these Medici princes will put me to work.” To that end, he dedicated the book to Lorenzo Di Piero De’ Medici. The dedication asked Lorenzo to consider the book’s wisdom and understand “how umeritedly I suffer a great and continued malignity of fortune.”


The desk where Machiavelli wrote The Prince and The Discourses, one of his few remaining personal belongings.

If The Prince was a job application, it failed. There is no evidence that Lorenzo read it. Machiavelli was not invited back into the halls of power, aside from the occasional government contract. Nevertheless, the book went on to become one of political science’s most influential works.

The Prince built on ideas in The Discourses: The Discourses spelled out the best possible form of government and The Prince advised leaders how to gain and keep power. Underlying Machiavelli’s advice was a low view of human nature and a belief that rulers were constantly under threat. With human nature less-than-ideal and power always fragile, leaders should sometimes use cunning and deceptive acts. In Machiavelli’s words, “it would serve [the Prince] to appear pious, faithful, humane, true, religious, and even to be so, but only if he is willing, should it become necessary, to act in the opposite manner.”

Machiavelli’s belief that leaders sometimes needed to do evil was influenced by the collapse of the Soderini government.

By suggesting that honesty is laudable but evil is sometimes necessary, The Prince undermined virtue. Such advice flew in the face of the era’s powerful religious doctrines. Churches were encouraging people to be good. This, alongside passages that cast doubt on the motivations of religious leaders, contributed to Pope Paul IV banning the book in 1559.

Machiavelli’s belief that leaders sometimes needed to do evil was influenced by the collapse of the Soderini government. Political theorist Maurizio Viroli pointed out that Machiavelli

directly witnessed the fall of the Florentine Republic, due, in part, to the fact that the good and honest [Piero] Soderini ... refused to take exceptional measures against the enemies of the Republic because he did not want to incur the reputation of being an ambitious and unjust man.

Had Soderini resorted to evil, perhaps the Medicis would have failed to take back Florence. In fact, passages in The Discourses grumble about Soderini’s reluctance to be ruthless.

It is important to understand that The Prince does not advocate evil for evil’s sake. Rather, it suggests ways to use the shortcomings of human nature to stay in power. Nevertheless, tyrants from Napoleon to Stalin to Hitler read The Prince. In fact, Italian fascist Benito Mussolini described it as “the statesman’s supreme guide.”

In the 400 years since Machiavelli wrote The Prince, many interpretations have been offered. Some people view it as a guide, others as a warning, and a few even see it as a satire. Regardless, even if a cynical power-grabber uses The Prince as a guide, the rest of us can use it as an antidote. The Prince tells opportunistic leaders what to do, but also tells the rest of us what to look out for.

How Machiavellian are You?

Social psychologists Richard Christie and Florence Geis are known for their work on how to identify a distinct personality trait: Machiavellianism. By studying Machiavelli’s writings—primarily The Prince and The Discourses—they were able to create a 20-question test that measures Machiavellian attitudes and beliefs.

The test asks people to agree or disagree with statements such as “Never tell anyone the real reason you did something unless it is useful to do so.” The higher you score, the more Machiavellian you are.

Since the test was developed, it has been administered on countless people by dozens of researchers. Some research has shown that men generally score higher than women. However, other research has suggested that human nature is universal, given the similar scores between people of different races, sexual orientations, and even political ideologies.

Take the test for yourself at


  1. The Prince is based on something called “consequentialist morality.” Put more simply, the ends justifies the means. Does the ends ever justify the means?
  2. The Prince said that it is better to be feared than loved. Do you agree?
  3. The Prince says nothing about the religious idea of a final judgment day. Why is this absence significant?
  4. Do you think that people are “fickle, hypocritical, and greedy of gain.” Or are we better than that?
  5. If you were forming a new state today, what lessons would you take from The Prince and The Discourses?

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