Critical Essays Machiavelli the Devil


Few writers have inspired the kind of personal hatred that Machiavelli has throughout the centuries, and few works have been as vilified—or as popular—as The Prince. Machiavelli has been condemned as a defender of tyranny, a godless promoter of immorality, and a self-serving manipulator. Today, almost 500 years after The Prince was written, the dictionary still defines "Machiavellian" as "of, like, or characterized by the political principles and methods of expediency, craftiness, and duplicity set forth in Machiavelli's book, The Prince; crafty, deceitful, and so on." One popular, though untrue, story holds that "Old Nick," a slang term for the Devil, is derived from Machiavelli's first name, Niccolò.

Machiavelli's reputation as a diabolical figure began almost immediately after publication of The Prince. In 1559, not only The Prince but all of Machiavelli's works were placed on the Catholic church's "Index of Prohibited Books," presumably because of Machiavelli's perceived offenses against Christian ethics. Machiavelli has often been accused of being an atheist or even actively anti-Christian. His thinly veiled contempt for the papacy and the political ambitions of the Catholic church is evident in The Prince, and in the Discourses, he states that Christian piety robs its adherents of the energy necessary for the creation of a good society. Much of The Prince denies or even negates the moral basis of government that Christian thinkers insisted upon. The medieval Christian notion that good government is ordained by God for the promotion of virtue and the protection of the faithful against evil is distinctly absent from the world of The Prince. Perhaps more importantly, the quality that Machiavelli values most highly, virtù, is not a moral quality at all. Infamous criminals such as Agathocles or outrageously cruel rulers like Severus can still possess virtù. Debate continues as to whether Machiavelli can be called a Christian thinker or whether he adheres to some other standard of morality, such as those of the pagan Classical authors whose work he draws on. Some critics have proposed that Machiavelli simply substitutes an entirely new moral standard, one that is centered on the state, rather than on God or on pagan ethics.

While Machiavelli was officially banned in the Catholic world, he was also hated by the Protestants. In 1572, the Catholic leadership of France attempted to wipe out France's Protestant population, the Huguenots. In several weeks of massacres beginning on St. Bartholomew's Day, an estimated 50,000 Huguenots were killed. The power behind the throne of France was Catherine de Medici, an Italian and a Catholic, and a member of the family for whom Machiavelli had written The Prince. Long-dead Machiavelli took blame for the incident, as it was supposed that Catherine had looked to his philosophies in planning the massacres. In Protestant England, Machiavelli became a stock character of evil on the theatrical stage. For example, in Christopher Marlowe's play The Jew of Malta, the character of "Machiavel" presents the prologue introducing the play's villainous title character, who gleefully follows Machiavellian precepts. To be so universally hated, however, Machiavelli also had to be widely read, as Marlowe's Machiavel points out: "Admir'd I am of those who hate me most. Though some speak openly against my books, Yet will they read me. . . ."

Of the many books specifically refuting The Prince, two deserve special mention. The first, written in 1576, was the Discours sur les moyens de bien gouverner contre Nicolas Machiavel by Innocent Gentillet. Gentillet, a Huguenot author protesting the St. Bartholomew's Day massacres, did more to establish Machiavelli's devilish reputation than did The Prince itself. The most famous response to The Prince came from Frederick the Great, King of Prussia. In 1740 he wrote, with the help of the French philosopher Voltaire, the Anti-Machiavel, a vigorous condemnation of Machiavelli's principles. Frederick, like many other royalists, feared the implication in The Prince that anyone who was strong enough to seize power was entitled to keep it, seeing it as an invitation to regicide. Ironically, Frederick would prove to be a true Machiavellian—treacherous, ruthless, and enthusiastic in his pursuit of power.

Modern scholars have applied a variety of interpretations to Machiavelli's work. Some view The Prince as an anti-Christian work, a celebration of Classical pagan philosophy, while others have attempted to portray Machiavelli as a Christian moralist, pointing out the political evils of the world around him. Some see The Prince as a book of despair, an anguished chronicle of fallen human nature, while others find in Machiavelli a clear-eyed realist and an accurate observer of the political sphere of life. Some have explained The Prince's apparent immorality as amorality, a morally-neutral scientific analysis of the workings of politics, without approval or disapproval. More than one writer has proposed that The Prince is in fact a satire, a warning of what may happen if rulers are allowed to pursue power unchecked. In this view, Machiavelli is the passionate defender of republicanism, the champion of liberty, who describes the workings of tyranny so they can be resisted. Others find in The Prince a blueprint for totalitarianism, carried to its logical and horrible conclusion in regimes like Nazi Germany or Stalinist Russia. Bertrand Russell called The Prince "a handbook for gangsters," and Leo Strauss called Machiavelli "a teacher of evil."

In more recent times, popular interest in Machiavelli's philosophy has focused more on money than on politics or morality. In an age in which democratic governments predominate, the last arena in which princely power can be pursued with abandon is that of business. Modern business executives seeking advice on effective leadership have resurrected Machiavelli, along with a host of other military and political strategists. One can find any number of contemporary advice books purporting to offer Machiavelli's insights, including What Would Machiavelli Do? (a devilish subversion of the popular catch-phrase "What would Jesus do?"), which may or may not be a satire.