Machiavelli's Ethics

Machiavelli's Ethics

Machiavelli's Ethics

Machiavelli's Ethics


It is necessary that we add to the knowledge of history that branch of
philosophy which deals with morals and politics…. Nor in this connection
do I hesitate to speak of the most distinguished of his class, and to set up as a
model for imitation Machiavelli and his precious Observations on Livy. … I
do not defend his impiety or his lack of integrity, if he actually had such faults.
And yet … if I give a just estimate of his purpose in writing, and if I choose to
reinforce his words by a sounder interpretation, I do not see why I cannot free
from such charges the reputation of this man who has now passed away…. If
our plan is to interpret authors favorably, we shall palliate many faults in this
man also, or we shall at least tolerate in him those that we tolerate in Plato,
Aristotle, and others who have committed offenses not unlike his. (Alberico
Gentili, de Legationibus "1594", III.ix)

Since his death in 1527, Machiavelli's thought has been subject to widely differing interpretations. On the one hand, he is credited with the “Machiavellian” doctrine that prudent rulers should shed moral scruples, adopting whatever means are necessary to preserve their state. This doctrine has been evaluated both critically and positively. Machiavelli's early critics claimed that he defended the evil methods of tyrants. Since the nineteenth century, many sympathetic readers have argued that “Machiavellian realism,” as they see it, sets out the necessary foundations of stable government or national independence. On the other hand, many early readers argued that Machiavelli's main purpose was to offer advice on how to preserve popular freedoms in republics. More recently, scholars who identify Machiavelli with a wider “civic humanist” tradition have done much to explain these early republican readings. These scholars have not systematically explored Rousseau's assertion that the Prince is a “book of republicans.” Yet they have made it much harder to read any of Machiavelli's works as straightforward defenses of a politics indifferent to all ends except self-preservation.

Disagreements between “realist” and republican or “civic humanist” readings have dominated Machiavelli scholarship for decades. But remarks made by some

For examples of the critical view see Anglo 2005. For early examples of the sympathetic view see
Hegel 1999 (1800–1802), 553–58; and Fichte 1971 (1807), 400–453. Strauss (1958) regards Machiavelli as a
teacher of evil, yet offers a nuanced analysis of the reasons that brought him to these teachings.

Gentili 1924 (1594), III.ix; Spinoza 1958 (1677), V.7; Rousseau 1964 (1762), III.6.409.

Rousseau, 1964 (1762), III.6.409. “Realist” and republican interpretations are not, of course,
mutually exclusive. According to Fichte, Machiavelli sought to combine the two ideas: while his ulti
mate goals were strongly republican, he believed that it was sometimes necessary to use any available
methods to preserve republics and national freedoms from monarchist enemies and foreign threats.
See Fichte 1971 (1807); and Meinecke's (1998 "1925") influential exegesis.

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