by Kevin Burt

Author, playwright, poet, diplomat, soldier, statesman, and gentleman farmer (he disdained philosopher) Niccolò Machiavelli (1469-1527) is oft times looked upon as the incarnation of evil.1 Some think the kindest verdict we might render him is amoral.

I will argue that quite the contrary, he was a most moral man.

If we are to discuss ethics and morality, I must to lay some philosophical foundation (feel free to skip this list):

  • You and I, over time, develop values -- beliefs and attitudes, which, unless we’re zombies, shape our perceptions and provide unsolicited direction through this vale of tears. They are infused in us by parents, other family, school, friends, media, and any number of sources2.

They become so ingrained in our constitution that they sometimes referred to as ‘gut-level’ values.

  • These values, in turn, are reflected in our morality, our fundamental appraisal of right and not right – or wrong.
  • Ethics are those behaviors (virtues) we utilize to achieve what is right, our morality.
  • Morality stems from within; Ethics are imposed from without.

Is it sound to judge a person by what she says, or what he does?

In stark contrast to many of his contemporaries (e.g. the Medici, the Borgias, the Sforza, the Strozzi, the Trastámara), there is no evidence of anything Machiavelli did that was immoral.

A Glass of Wine painting

A Glass of Wine with Caesar Borgia
John Collier (1850–1934)

He honored his father and mother as far as we know (Commandment V).

No jury would find could him guilty of murder, even were he accused (VI).

The genuinely republican government he served in Florence during the inter regnum of the Medici was not corrupt, and dealt harshly with those officials who were. There is no reason to believe he ever stole (VIII).

He may, alas, by way of anecdote, have been a serial adulterer (VII). Certainly not to excuse that, adultery was commonplace, if not “virtuous”, in Florence of the renaissance era. The city was notorious for its sexual mores.

He did, in fact, remain married to one woman, and had six children with whom he apparently had solid relationships. All indications are he genuinely loved his wife and children.

He says, however: “The great majority of mankind are satisfied with appearances, as though they are realities, and are often even more influenced by the things that seem than by those that are. - Niccoló Machiavelli, The Discourses on Livy. 1517.

He likewise appears to have been a practicing Roman Catholic in communion with the church (Commandments I through IV)3.

“Where the fear of God is wanting, there the country will come to ruin, unless it be sustained by the fear of the prince, which may temporarily supply the want of religion. But as in the lives of princes, the kingdom will of necessity perish as the prince fails in virtue.” - The Discourses...

That, it seems to me, is certainly an endorsement of religiosity. His writing consistently references God, the heavens, and fortune (divine will and plan). The writing of an immoral or amoral man?

Additionally, he finds religion plays a strong role in development of civic virtue, a value:

“If we were to reflect that our religion permits us to exalt and defend our country, we should see that according to it we ought also to love and honor our country, and prepare ourselves so as to be capable of defending her. - The Discourses.

On War5

Of course, Machiavelli has a great deal to say in a number of books about the conduct of war worthy of the Diplomacy player.

Regarding the opening turn – perhaps the most difficult of a Diplomacy game, Andrew Goff of DiplomacyOpenings says “It’s very tough trying a new opening in Diplomacy. If you’re recognized as a good player, then everyone assumes you have a dangerous plan and kills you; while if you’re not, then everyone assumes you are crazy and kills you. The opening is so important that making a new opening tends to result in getting killed a lot, but this is still better than making a bad one.

“There is nothing more difficult to take in hand, more perilous to conduct, or more uncertain in its success than to take the lead in the introduction of a new order of things.” - The Prince. 1537.

But on the subject of war, we need to understand that Machiavelli writes in an empirical, descriptive mode. He writes about what was or is and not what ought to be. His descriptive examples include some despicable characters. But he merely advises the prince should be aware of them -- their successes and failures are lessons.

“A prince should, therefore, have no other aim or thought, nor take up any other thing for his study, but war and its organization and discipline, for that is the only art that is necessary to one who commands.... And one sees, on the other hand, that when princes think more of luxury than of arms, they lose their state. The chief cause of the loss of states is the contempt of this art.” - The Prince.

Morality in the renaissance was profoundly influenced by the writing of Thomas Aquinas (1225 – 1274), later a saint.

Aquinas developed normative (what ought to be) criteria for just (or moral) war:

  • War must occur for a good and just purpose rather than the pursuit of wealth or power.
  • Just war must be waged by a properly instituted authority such as the state.
  • Peace must be a central motive even in the midst of violence. (Wikipedia).

If we consider the descriptive, empirical nature of the bulk of Machiavelli’s work, Aquinas’ moral criteria are inferred. Machiavelli says nothing contrary to Aquinas normative theses.


It is Chapter 18, where Machiavelli ran (further?) afoul of the Church and no doubt led The Prince to be condemned. The Catholic Encyclopedia notes “The Prince" … was published with papal license, though afterwards severely prohibited. It was added to the Index librorum prohibitorum. Members of the Church were forbidden to read it. It was banned in Protestant England also.

The chapter, ironically titled “Concerning The Way In Which Princes Should Keep Faith” includes such advice as:

“Everyone admits how praiseworthy it is in a prince to keep faith, and to live with integrity and not with craft. Nevertheless, our experience has been that those princes who have done great things have held good faith of little account, and have known how to circumvent the intellect of men by craft, and, in the end, have overcome those who have relied on their word.” – The Prince.

“Therefore, a wise lord cannot, nor ought he to, keep faith when such observance may be turned against him, and when the reasons that caused him to pledge it exist no longer.

“If men were entirely good, this precept would not hold, but because they are bad, and will not keep faith with you, you too are not bound to observe it with them.

Nor will there ever be wanting to a prince legitimate reasons to excuse this nonobservance.

“…as I have said above, not to diverge from the good if he can avoid doing so, but, if compelled, then to know how to set about it.” – The Prince.

Is Machiavelli counseling an ambassador departing for the court of the Holy Roman Emperor or a Diplomacy player? He writes: “It is undoubtedly necessary for the ambassador occasionally to mask his game, but it should be done so as not to awaken suspicion and he ought also to be prepared with an answer in case of discovery.”6

Beyond some mild criticism of past warrior-statesman popes, or their family members, it has been argued that the Church’s displeasure focused on his treatment of such deceptions (i.e. dissembling, revoking promises): (Commandment IX)

Cover of <em>The Prince</em>

The publication date is 1550, some 23 years
after Machiavelli’s death. He may have
wished to discuss the image selected for
the cover with his editor.
Perhaps Machiavelli haunted him.

In any event, this was just too much for Pope Paul IV. The glass house Paul lived in did not deter him6.

A Renaissance man

Machiavelli professes to be a man of reason, and that was not the conventional wisdom of the day. It could see one burned at the stake:

“I think, and ever shall think, that it cannot be wrong to defend one's opinions with arguments, founded upon reason, without employing force or authority.” - The Discourses.

The Republican

“If there is any superiority, it is with the people.” - The Discourses.

I think we can safely say that republicanism (“the supreme power rests in the body of citizens entitled to vote and exercised by representatives they elect directly or indirectly and by an elected or nominated president4 [in Florence a gonfalonier] is a value, and thereby a virtue. I qualify the concept as genuine republicanism. The Medici ruled “the republic” of Florence as a fiefdom or a principality as Machiavelli might use the term. Cosimo (1389 – 1464) reportedly annotated his name as king.

“Public affairs are easily managed in a city where the body of the people is not corrupt, and where equality exists [i.e. a republic].” - The Discourses.

There is no easier way to ruin a republic, where the people have power than to involve them in daring enterprises; for where the people have influence they will always be ready to engage in them, and no contrary opinion will prevent them. But if such enterprises cause the ruin of states, they still more frequently cause the ruin of the particular citizens who are placed at the head to conduct them. For when defeat comes, instead of the successes which the people expected, they charge it neither upon the ill fortune or incompetence of their leaders, but upon their wickedness and ignorance; and generally either kill, imprison or exile them. - The Discourses.

The Dilemma

Perhaps, the preservation of the republic or principality (however flawed) was the ultimate value, the greatest good. His advice to the prince is such. The state was his beloved Florence.

Florence faced existential threat. Machiavelli saw the dilemma of living in security and/or liberty (vivere sicuro and/or vivere libero). We confront the same dilemma today with the threat of terrorism. He valued liberty more, and a republican form of government was the only course to that. Lest we object - wanting our cake and to eat it, too - with what we call “benign dictators”, Machiavelli cautions us through the prince:

“Since love and fear can hardly exist together, if we must choose between them, it is far safer to be feared than loved.” and

“It is much safer to be feared than loved because... love is preserved by the link of obligation which, owing to the baseness of men, is broken at every opportunity for their advantage; but fear preserves you by a dread of punishment which never fails.” - The Prince.

The Utilitarian?

Machiavelli, then, may have been the first utilitarian, before utilitarianism was cool. Moral dilemmas could be reduced to questions of the greatest good to the greatest number.

Utilitarianism’s standard of measurement – acts are moral if, and only if, they produce as much net benefit (“happiness” or more aptly well-being) as any other available action.

Can we, therefore, legitimately say the end does, in fact, justify the means? (Machiavelli never explicitly said that.) But he did say:

“I have always felt for doing without any hesitation the things that I believe will bring benefit common to everybody…” The Discourses.

Is the preservation of the state (even by an autocrat) ensuring vivere libero (and even vivere sicuro) a possible and acceptable end? A moral outcome?

I’ve heard it said of Thomas Jefferson that he loved mankind, but loathed man. I think that applies to Machiavelli. While striving for republicanism, the superiority of the populace, he had jaundiced views on man himself:

“One can say this in general of men: they are ungrateful, disloyal, insincere and deceitful, timid of danger and avid of profit... men are a sorry lot…

“Hatred is gained as much by good works as by evil.” – The Prince.

This doesn’t make him immoral.


Christianity, across the board, recognizes virtue. The Divine virtues are Faith, Hope and Charity. I think we see citations for Faith (his belief in God and Christ), and Hope (the hope that Italy can coalesce). Charity does not refer to tithing or alms-giving, but rather to the everyday civil conduct of one’s life – treating one another lovingly, charitably.

The Cardinal virtues are:

  • Justice (not the so-called ‘legal system’, specifically, but rather receiving what is deserved): “One should never allow an evil to run on out of respect for the law...” The Discourses.
  • Temperance (nothing to do, again specifically, with alcohol, but moderation or self-restraint; self-control): A prince must care little for the reputation of being a miser, if he wishes to avoid robbing his subjects, if he wishes to be able to defend himself, to avoid becoming poor and contemptible, and not to be forced to become rapacious. - The Prince.

  • Perseverance continued steady belief or efforts, withstanding discouragement or difficulty; persistence:
    • “Whoever then desires that a city should make an obstinate resistance, or that an army should fight with determination in the field, should above all things endeavor to inspire them with the conviction of the necessity for their utmost efforts.” -- The Discourses.
    • And within Christianity, persistence equates to remaining in a state of grace until death: We can’t know, but minimally he received the healing sacraments of Last Rites, the last prayers and ministrations given to Roman Catholics and the Orthodox, shortly before death.
  • Fortitude: Only those defenses are good, certain and durable, which depend on yourself alone and your own ability. - The Prince.

“To all of us this barbarous dominion stinks!”

“An Exhortation To Liberate Italy From The Barbarians” is the title of the last chapter of The Prince. It might be read first. It is some of the best writing, of this very good writer. He dedicated the book to Lorenzo, the son of Piero (the Hapless; the Unfortunate), and the namesake grandson of “the Magnificent”. The Medici had returned to Florence and conducting a counter-coup, overthrown Machiavelli’s republic. He lost his several jobs and presented the book in hopes of being reinstated. Alas, it was not to be.

He still pleaded with Lorenzo to oust the barbarians (France, “Germany”, Spain, and the Swiss).

For all his previous staid advice, this chapter reveals the passion of the man. He wants to see Italy “united” against foreign invaders – barbarians.

He closes The Prince with a poem:

Virtu contro al Furore
Prendera l'arme, e fia il combatter corto:
Che l'antico valore
Negli italici cuor non e ancor morto.

Virtue against fury shall advance the fight,
And it i' th' combat soon shall put to flight;
For the old Roman, valor is not dead,
Nor in th' Italians' breasts extinguished.

On his deathbed, Machiavelli reportedly said:

"I desire to go to Hell and not to Heaven. In the former I shall enjoy the company of popes, kings, and princes while in the latter are only beggars, monks, and apostles."

So, we judge him a moral man - save his extramarital dalliances, and fibs to Signora Machiavelli, and bold lies to the enemies of Florence.

His tomb is in Santa Croce (Holy Cross) Basilica in Florence. There is some conjecture the masonry is Machiavelli’s empty cenotaph and not his tomb. His resting place is unknown. The utilitarian may have donated his cadaver to medical science. He may have gotten some perverse pleasure in denying the Church its prerogatives. While it can’t be sourced, I can imagine him writing “It is double pleasure to deceive the deceiver.”

  1. Before I put fingers to keyboard, I intended to include the Devil’s sobriquet “old Nick” and “in the nick” as “jail or prison” as proof positive of Machiavelli’s benighted reputation. Neither can be sourced. One derives from a folktale about Satan and the anatomy of half the population, and “the nick” earns shrugs all-around.
  2. This begs the question: From where did our parents et al. derive them? C.S. Lewis, in his apologetics classic, Mere Christianity, said this numinous sense of right and wrong is proof of God as the only explicable source.
  3. Roman Catholics venerate, and do not worship artwork or relics as idols. Perhaps there is an analogy to veneration of the national flag.
  4. The Free Dictionary: republicanism.
  5. Another of Maciavelli's books is The Art of War (published in 1521).
  6. The History of Florence and of the Affairs of Italy: From the Earliest Times to the Death of Lorenzo the Magnificent; Together with The Prince, and Various Historical Tracts, H.G. Bohn, Editor, p.505–06 (1854).
  7. Paul, in his five-year pontificate, appointed nephews to high church positions; imprisoned those who violated his regulations; declared non-Catholics heretics; intervened in civil property disputes between Catholics and members of other faiths; exacerbated tensions in Ireland; extended the Index librorum prohibitorum to cosmopolitan Venice banning and burning books; he is responsible for the painting-over, and adding sculpted fig leafs on Michelangelo’s Vatican works! Most damning, I think, was a Papal Bull establishing the Jewish ghetto in Rome. As the Nazis did in Warsaw, the quarter was walled off with only one gate. Residents were allowed out only in daylight. They were to wear yellow head coverings. The Jews were forced to pay for the construction and maintenance of the ghetto wall. It was not removed until 1888. By then most of Rome’s heretofore thriving community had left.

Kevin is retired and lives in Florida maintaining Machiavelli – the man, the game Facebook page. He is on the verge
of joining the
Society of Creative Anachronism to feed his fevered imagination. He assists in editing The Zine.

Kevin Burt

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