Machiavellianism (politics)

Machiavellianism as a trope, or "popular discourse",[1] in political history is a pejorative term for the supposed political philosophy of the Italian Renaissance diplomat Niccolò Machiavelli, "a negative caricature of Machiavellian ideology as godless, scheming and self-interested".[2] Though in discussions of Machiavelli's thought "Machiavellian" and "Machiavellianism" may be used in reasoned critiques, in general usage the terms more often occur in political polemic, suggesting an unprincipled lust for power, achieved through "subtle policie, cunning roguerie" (the earliest dictionary definition in English, from 1611), by the "Machiavel", an adherent of these principles.[3] In this trope, as described by Isaiah Berlin, Machiavelli was regarded as "a man inspired by the Devil to lead good men to their doom, the great subverter, the teacher of evil, le docteur de la scélératesse, the inspirer of St. Bartholomew’s Eve, the original of Iago".[4]

In particular, English theatre saw a "'pseudo-Machiavellian' burlesque stage tradition. Its relation to Machiavelli's political doctrine "does not go much beyond its borrowing of the Florentine's name."[5] The English stage Machiavel is "a kind of person, not primarily an exponent of particular political views",[6] "a character who promulgates a false facade of virtue covering over an interiority of malevolent power-seeking".[7]

According to one recent scholar, "the sixteenth-century stage image of Machiavelli as a proponent of political deception of and power-for-power's sake persists today, and for most readers the term 'Machiavellian' still carries negative connotations associated with this conception of him".[8] The word Machiavellian is widely used as a pejorative to characterize unscrupulous politicians of the sort Machiavelli advised most famously in The Prince.[9] Machiavelli proposed that immoral behavior, such as the use of deceit and the murder of innocents, was normal and effective in politics.[10] He also notably encouraged politicians to engage in evil when it would be necessary for political expediency.[11][12][13] The book gained notoriety due to claims that it teaches "evil recommendations to tyrants to help them maintain their power".[14]

In the 20th century the word "Machiavellianism" also became used in psychology as the name of a personality trait, one that is also included in the dark triad with narcissism and psychopathy.[15]

First appearancesEdit

The early appearances of the word all relate to its political meaning. It first appears in English (in fact Scottish) in the work of Robert Sempill (d. 1595). He uses "mache villion" and "Machivilian". As "Machiauilisme" it occurs in Thomas Nashe's Pierce Peniless (1592). A French to English dictionary of 1611 gives "subtle policie, cunning roguerie" as the meaning. The Italian machiavellista and machiavello also go back to the 16th century.[16]

The Oxford English Dictionary defines "Machiavellian" (as an adjective) as: "Of, pertaining to, or characteristic of Machiavelli, or his alleged principles; following the methods recommended by Machiavelli in preferring expediency to morality; practicing duplicity in statecraft or in general conduct; astute, cunning, intriguing".[17] A "Machiavel" is "One who acts on the principles of Machiavelli; an intriguer, an unscrupulous schemer".[18]

Reception of MachiavelliEdit

In so far as the Machiavellian trope has any relationship with Machiavelli's actual philosophy, it relates to his most famous work, Il Principe, or The Prince. The book would become infamous for its recommendation for absolute rulers to be ready to act in unscrupulous ways, such as resorting to fraud and treachery, elimination of political opponents, and the usage of fear as a means of controlling subjects.[19] Machiavelli's view that acquiring a state and maintaining it requires evil means has been noted as the chief theme of the treatise.[20][21]

In the late 1530s, immediately following the publication of The Prince, Machiavelli's philosophy was seen as an immoral ideology that corrupted European politics. Reginald Pole read the treatise while he was in Italy, and on which he commented: "I found this type of book to be written by an enemy of the human race. It explains every means whereby religion, justice and any inclination toward virtue could be destroyed".[22] Due to the treatise's controversial analysis on politics, in 1559, the Catholic Church banned The Prince, putting it on the Index Librorum Prohibitorum. Machiavelli's works were received similarly by other popular European authors, especially in Protestant Elizabethan England.

The Anti-Machiavel is an 18th-century essay by Frederick the Great, King of Prussia and patron of Voltaire, rebutting The Prince. It was first published in September 1740, a few months after Frederick became king.[23] Denis Diderot, the French philosopher, viewed Machiavellianism as "an abhorrent type of politics" and the "art of tyranny".[24]

Saint Bartholomew's Day massacreEdit

One morning at the gates of the Louvre, 19th-century painting by Édouard Debat-Ponsan, of the day after the Saint Bartholomew's Day massacre. Catherine de' Medici is in black.

The Saint Bartholomew's Day massacre of Huguenot Protestants in France in 1572 was a particular nexus of complaints about Machiavellianism, as the massacre came to be seen as a product of it. The massacre "spawned a pullulating mass of polemical literature, bubbling with theories, prejudices and phobias", in which Machiavellianism featured prominently.[25] This view was greatly influenced by the Huguenot lawyer Innocent Gentillet, who published his Discours contre Machievel in 1576, which was printed in ten editions in three languages over the next four years.[26] Gentillet held, quite wrongly according to Sydney Anglo, that Machiavelli's "books [were] held most dear and precious by our Italian and Italionized courtiers" (in the words of his first English translation, Anti-Machiavel: A Discourse Upon the Means of Well Governing), and so (in Anglo's paraphrase) "at the root of France's present degradation, which has culminated not only in the St Bartholomew massacre but the glee of its perverted admirers".[27][28] In fact there is little trace of Machiavelli in French writings before the massacre, and not very much after, until Gentillet's own book, but this concept was seized upon by many contemporaries, and played a crucial part in setting the long-lasting popular concept of Machiavellianism.[29] It also gave added impetus to the strong anti-Italian feelings already present in Huguenot polemic.

The Catholic Encyclopedia of 1913 endorsed a version of this view, describing the massacres as "an entirely political act committed in the name of the immoral principles of Machiavellianism" and blaming "the pagan theories of a certain raison d'état according to which the end justified the means".[30]

English dramaEdit

Christopher Marlowe was one of many Elizabethan English writers who were enthusiastic promoters of the concept, and although Machiavelli had not yet been published in English, he evidently expects his theatrical audience to understand the references. In The Jew of Malta (1589–90) "Machiavel" in person speaks the Prologue, claiming to not be dead, but to have possessed the soul of the Duke of Guise, considered the mastermind of the Saint Bartholomew's Day massacre, "And, now the Guise is dead, is come from France/ To view this land, and frolic with his friends" (Prologue, lines 3-4)[31] His last play, The Massacre at Paris (1593) takes the massacre, and the following years, as its subject, with Guise and Catherine de' Medici both depicted as Machiavellian plotters, bent on evil from the start.

The figure of the Machiavel in Elizabethan drama "combined elements of the Vice character (the comic villain from medieval morality drama) with a negative caricature of Machiavellian ideology as godless, scheming and self-interested." No English translation of The Prince was printed until 1640, but English manuscript translations were circulating by about 1585, as well as printed editions in other languages. Shakespeare may well have been aware of at least some of Machiavelli's ideas; he has the future Richard III boast in Henry VI, Part III, that he can "set the murderous Machiavel to school",[32] and the Host in the Merry Wives of Windsor asks rhetorically, "Am I politic? am I subtle? am I a Machiavel?"

Other examples are Lorenzo in Thomas Kyd's The Spanish Tragedy, Iago in Othello, the title character of Ben Jonson's Volpone, and Boscola in John Webster's Duchess of Malfi.[33]

The Machiavellian Earl of EssexEdit

The two levels of Machiavellianism both feature in the case of Robert Devereux, 2nd Earl of Essex, a favourite of Elizabeth I of England. There is good evidence that he and his circle, which included Francis Bacon and his brother Anthony,[34] were interested in a serious and informed way in the thought of Machiavelli.[35] The famous climax of Essex's career was Essex's Rebellion in 1601, when he attempted a coup d'etat in London, which was a complete failure, flopping in a single day. He was executed within three weeks, with some of his co-conspirators following later. The government issued instructions to the nation's preachers a week after the rebellion on how to present the earl's character, which resorted to the theatrical caricature, saying he "was, in a word, a theatrical machiavel". The Privy Council's briefing included: "he has carried himself after a very insolent and ambitious sort ... he has diligently trodden the steps of all arch-traitors, seeking by popular conversation to allure the hearts of the simple. In matters of religion, his dissimulation and hypocrisy are now disclosed...".[36] Francis Bacon rapidly changed sides after the rebellion, taking part in Essex's prosecution, and referred to Machiavelli during Essex's trial, in a way that showed his familiarity with his actual writings, demonstrated at many points in his own writings.[37]


  1. ^ Grady, 46, "discourse" in the sense used by Michel Foucault
  2. ^ "Machiavelli’s The Prince, British Library
  3. ^ Maus, 35-36, and the rest of Chapter 2
  4. ^ The Question of Machiavelli, 4 November 1971, The New York Review of Books (reprinted in Against the Current as "The originality of Machiavelli"), quoted in Gotthelf, Harold, "Word of the Day: Machiavel", 1 June 2012
  5. ^ Ribner, see also "Marlowe and Machiavelli: For your Consideration", and Maus, 35
  6. ^ Maus, 47
  7. ^ Grady, 46
  8. ^ Grady, 42
  9. ^ "Niccolo Machiavelli | Biography, Books, Philosophy, & Facts". Encyclopedia Britannica. Retrieved 8 August 2019.
  10. ^ Cassirer, Ernst (1946). The Myth of the State. Yale University Press. pp. 141–145. ISBN 9780300000368. ernst cassirer the myth of the state.
  11. ^ For example, The Prince chap. 15, and The Discourses Book I, chapter 9
  12. ^ Strauss, Leo; Cropsey, Joseph (15 June 2012). History of Political Philosophy. University of Chicago Press. p. 297. ISBN 9780226924717.
  13. ^ Mansfield, Harvey C. (25 February 1998). Machiavelli's Virtue. University of Chicago Press. p. 178. ISBN 9780226503721.
  14. ^ Giorgini, Giovanni (2013). "Five Hundred Years of Italian Scholarship on Machiavelli's Prince". Review of Politics. 75 (4): 625–40. doi:10.1017/S0034670513000624.
  15. ^ Paulhus, Delroy L; Williams, Kevin M (December 2002). "The Dark Triad of personality: Narcissism, Machiavellianism, and psychopathy". Journal of Research in Personality. 36 (6): 556–563. doi:10.1016/S0092-6566(02)00505-6.
  16. ^ Note 16, Five Hundred Years of Italian Scholarship on Machiavelli's Prince
  17. ^ OED, "Machiavellian". The similar Merriam-Webster definition talks of conduct "marked by cunning, duplicity, or bad faith". "Definition of MACHIAVELLIAN". Retrieved 2019-02-26.
  18. ^ OED, "Machiavel"
  19. ^ The Prince, especially chapters VIII, XVII, and XVIII
  20. ^ Strauss, Leo; Cropsey, Joseph (2012-06-15). History of Political Philosophy. University of Chicago Press. p. 301. ISBN 9780226924717.
  21. ^ "We shall not shock anyone, we shall merely expose ourselves to good-natured or at any rate harmless ridicule, if we profess ourselves inclined to the old fashioned and simple opinion according to which Machiavelli was a teacher of evil." -Leo Strauss, Thoughts on Machiavelli
  22. ^ Benner, Erica (2013-11-28). Machiavelli's Prince: A New Reading. OUP Oxford. ISBN 9780191003929.
  23. ^ "Anti-Machiavel | treatise by Frederick the Great". Encyclopedia Britannica. Retrieved 2019-04-16.
  24. ^ Diderot, Denis (ascribed by Jacques Proust). "Machiavellianism." The Encyclopedia of Diderot & d'Alembert Collaborative Translation Project. Translated by Timothy Cleary. Ann Arbor: Michigan Publishing, University of Michigan Library, 2004. Trans. of "Machiavelisme," Encyclopédie ou Dictionnaire raisonné des sciences, des arts et des métiers, vol. 9. Paris, 1765. Accessed 31 March 2015.
  25. ^ Anglo, 229; See also: Butterfield, H. "Acton and the Massacre of St Bartholomew," Cambridge Historical Journal, Vol. 11, No. 1 (1953), pp. 27-47 JSTOR /3021106 on the many shifts in emphasis of the historiography of the massacre over the next four centuries.
  26. ^ Anglo, p. 283, see also the whole chapter
  27. ^ Anglo, p. 286
  28. ^ Gentillet, Innocent (2018-10-17). Anti-Machiavel: A Discourse Upon the Means of Well Governing. Wipf and Stock Publishers. ISBN 9781532659720.
  29. ^ Anglo, Chapters 10 and 11; p. 328 etc.
  30. ^   Goyau, Pierre-Louis-Théophile-Georges (1912). "Saint Bartholomew's Day". In Herbermann, Charles (ed.). Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 14. New York: Robert Appleton Company.
  31. ^ Project Gutenberg Jew of Malta text.
  32. ^ "Machiavelli’s The Prince, British Library
  33. ^ Maus, listing others, and key texts.
  34. ^ Grady, 31
  35. ^ Grady, 27-28, 39-41
  36. ^ Grady, 30
  37. ^ Grady, 38-39


  • Anglo, Sydney (2005), Machiavelli – the First Century: Studies in Enthusiasm, Hostility, and Irrelevance, Oxford University Press, ISBN 0-19-926776-6, ISBN 978-0-19-926776-7 Google Books
  • Grady, Hugh, Shakespeare, Machiavelli, and Montaigne: Power and Subjectivity from Richard II to Hamlet, 2002, Oxford University Press, ISBN 0199257604, 9780199257607, Google books
  • Maus, Katharine Eisaman, Inwardness and Theater in the English Renaissance, 1995, University of Chicago Press, ISBN 0226511235, 9780226511238, Internet Archive
  • Ribner, Irving. "Marlowe and Machiavelli", Comparative Literature, vol. 6, no. 4, 1954, pp. 348–356, JSTOR

Further readingEdit

  • Watson, George. "Machiavel and Machiavelli", The Sewanee Review, vol. 84, no. 4, 1976, pp. 630–648, JSTOR

External linksEdit