Machiavelli's The Prince advocates immoral actions. Does it? The book's major premise is "...all political thinking is guided by a single fact: humanity is lost, bad and ever ready to display their vicious nature" (Discourses, Book I, Chapter 3).

Aristotle and Plato share the same view (which might indicate to what extent the classical philosophers were influenced by Hebrew revelation [a totally separate subject as yet unexplored by academia]). Machiavelli wrote in the first half of the sixteenth century. He was thinking out from the Judeo-Christian perspective of 'original sin'. He was not a scholastic, but he was thinking from the scholastic cultural norm. This, despite the fact that he seems to be an early relativist (like Rabellus) and probably a contributor to the yet, then, insignificant World-atheist movement later to be more fully developed by Voltaire, Rousseau, and Comte.

Adler and Hutchins write: "Machiavelli considered it perfectly proper for a political treatise to consider how a tyrant should act to maintain himself in power" (The Great Ideas Program, 1959, 2:93). Machiavelli asked of the prince: "seek the admiration of your subjects, but accomplish this without failing to understand that real power consists in fear. Your subjects must fear you."

What moral end is achieved in Machiavelli's remarks? Yet, today, there is not a single American high school student not familiar with Machiavelli's Prince. They reflect positively regarding Machiavelli. Leo Strauss, Thoughts on Machiavelli (1958; 1969), understood Machiavelli's book to be immoral, but he acknowledged that a few scholars were accepting the Italian as a patriot.

However, much progress has occurred since Adler, Hutchins, and Strauss. What philosophers or academic writers, today, view Machiavelli as the post-modern norm?

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    Define "moral".
    – Mark
    Feb 6, 2015 at 2:53
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    It is a book dedicated to teaching "the art of government"; of course it must be understood in the context of his time (Italy of 16th century) and his culture (Humanism etc.). As all product of human thought, it has some more or less "hidden" assumptions and preconception; of course we have to understand and critically discuss Machiavelli's own assumptions, included the ethical ones. But, IMO, today facts strongly support Machiavelli's idea that "humanity is lost, bad and ever ready to display their vicious nature". Feb 6, 2015 at 9:51
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    Thanks for the comment. Yet, "What philosophers or academic writers, today, view Machiavelli as the post-modern norm?" For instance, Simon Schamma? He's absolutely narcissistic. Feb 6, 2015 at 17:52
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    Post-modernism is generally thought of as an age after modernism (distinctly anti-Victorian or non-Christian); post-modernism is synonymous with the celebration of the lie. The lie is fun. Its purpose is whimsy set within a view of history that does away with history. "Postmodern man is alone out there, he no longer needs a supreme being." Christian atheism is distinctly post-modern. Post-modernism is relativistic and revisionist. The Introducing Series to Titles (a comic notebook) is helpful; one complete volume is dedicated to post-modernism: Introducing Postmodernism. Feb 14, 2015 at 22:11
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    I don't know if post-modernism necessarily says any of that. There's several volumes devoted to it, and I've read many of them, but the more I know the less I believe there's a common meaning to the scribbles and utterances of the word "post-modern"
    – virmaior
    Nov 19, 2015 at 13:07

5 Answers 5


It's a book written in haste after Machiavelli had been dismissed from the Florentine government and whilst he was trying to reinstate himself.

It's generally seen as describing early statecraft - in which the Prince maintains his estate - as realpolitik, ie a kind of political realism; power based on coercion the only right; (whereas for Hobbes this was only one of the powers of a Sovereign).

The word he uses to present though the ethic of the Prince, as characteristic of him is virtu which would normally be translated as moral goodness - but he's obviously using it here in a different way; in one sense he's describing the nature of virtue for a Prince, which would be very different from a commoner.

Still it presents a one-sided view, which he later corrected in a book written in leisure, his Discourses on Livy, and which according to the SEP

more honestly reflects his personal beliefs and commitments, and on particular his Republican sympathies

where he distinguishes between a minimal civil and political order where citizens can live securely (vivere securo) where both the aspirations of both the people and nobility are held in check by government and other institutions; but the full order expresses the freedom of the community (vivere libero).



If one adheres to deontological or rule-utilitarian views, it is probably completely immoral. Other views on morality may say that the means justify the ends. Taking The Prince seriously contentwise (not everybody does, see e.g. Garrett Mattingly, who thinks it is sophisticated satire), one has to conclude that Machiavelli himself thought that because of the political reality, immoral deeds are inevitable for achieving a morally acceptable society and political environment. One could say: You have to play by the (immoral) rules.

Long story

I will base my answer completely on the comparatively recent book:

Viroli, M. (2013). Redeeming "The Prince": The Meaning of Machiavelli's Masterpiece. Princeton University Press.

Viroli's main thesis throughout the book is that the twist of the last chapter showed that although there may be immoral action throughout the reign of the prince, the ultimate role is that of a redeemer, of instantiating utopian ideals as real in a time of political chaos:

What then is The Prince about, and what is its lasting value, if any? My answer is that Niccolò Machiavelli wrote The Prince to design and invoke a redeemer of Italy capable of creating, with God’s help, new and good political order, thereby attaining perennial glory. The theory, and the myth, of the redeemer is, in my opinion, the enduring value of Machiavelli’s little book. As I shall document in the last chapter of this essay, the interpretation of The Prince as a discourse on political redemption has a long and fascinating history. Yet contemporary scholarship, with a few exceptions, has instead disregarded or dismissed it. (p.3)

It is, therefore, both moral and immoral: While the political activity cannot be completely detached from morality (see e.g. pp. 1-3, 18, 114), the necessary political action of a prince (or, as Viroli speaks of "enduring value", probably any political actor) may and has to be justified by the achievement for a general betterment of society, i.e. an overall morally superiour status:

Only if we interpret Machiavelli’s prince as a founder and redeemer, Villari noted in the conclusion of his work, can we understand and justify his immoral counsels:

But when, completing his analysis, and cruel labour of vivisection, Machiavelli proceeds to draw his conclusions, then at last the practical side and real aim of his work are clearly seen. It is a question of achieving the unity of his Italian motherland and of delivering it from foreign rule. This was certainly the holiest of objects; but Machiavelli well knew that in the conditions in which Italy and Europe were then involved it would be impossible to achieve that object without recurring to the immoral means practiced by the statesmen of his time. Pursued by this idea, and dominated by this theme, Machiavelli did not pause to disentangle the scientific, general and permanent aim of his book from the practical aim and transitory means, apparently and, it may be, really essential to its achievement at that moment. It is needful, he said in the conclusion, to dare all things, and in view of the grandeur and sacredness of the end, to yield to no scruples. Solely by the formation of a united, powerful, and independent nation can Italy acquire liberty, virtue and true morality. This is an enterprise only to be undertaken by a Prince–reformer, and by means suggested and imposed by history and experience. The people must afterwards complete and consolidate it by liberty, by national arms, by public and private virtue. (pp. 176-7 note 38, citing Pasquale Villari, Niccolò Machiavelli e i suoi tempi; English translation by Madame Linda Villari, The Life and Times of Niccolò Machiavelli, London, T. Fisher Unwin, 1892, vol. I, p. 196)

One could, therefore, conclude that while applying the standards of deontological morals it is a completely immoral book, according to certain utilitarian views the means justify the end, just as Machiavelli himself may have seen it (which surely is Viroli's view).

All in all, every political actor has to be judged by moral standards and Macciavelli does argue this as well. In this sense, The Prince surely is not immoral. All Macciavelli does is opening the scope from individual actions to "the whole reign will be judged by history", which is actually, as Viroli argues, an enduring picture still influential in modern history, and probably the reason why the book is part of the curriculum of (at least most of the) ivy league colleges educating the soon-to-be powerful.


I would tend to characterize Machiavelli as 'amoral' rather than 'immoral'. One must be careful to specifically indicate whether one is assessing the ethical character of an historical person retroactively with modern ethical meanings or with the ethical meanings of time. My understanding of Machiavelli is that he advises a ruler to be utterly pragmatic, because the ruler cannot afford the luxury of ethical equivocation without putting at risk the very power that enables and supports the ruler in their position. Such a deliberate blindness to ethical limitations would be "amoral".


Like physics, political science is science. Science tells you truths about the world. Some truths are pleasant to know; some others are unpleasant but are nevertheless true. Morality has nothing to do with it.

Street gangs and savages would think Machiavelli's work childish and trite; it was written for civilized people whose world view was rosy and who had forgotten the good old ways of doing things. As a matter of fact, ignorance of the governing dynamics of political movements at least partially explains why in history barbarism had often triumphed over civilization: Chiang Kai-shek kept his words at the expense of his own demise; Chiang was consigned to oblivion. Mao broke his promise as soon as he made one; Mao emerged as a founder of a great nation and went down history as a great man. Marshal Zhang marvelled at the fine qualities of his enemies and thought it was waste to maim or slaughter these fine specimen of men; Zhang went down history as an imbecile. Lin biao drove a sea of people against a sea of people and left behind a sea of carcasses of his soldiers, his enemies and those who were caught in between; Lin emerged victorious and was remembered as a military genius.

When asked about his secret of success, Zeng Guoquan, replied:

挥金似土,杀人如麻 - dispensed gold as if it was dirt; killed people as countless as hemp threads.

Zeng was closely imitated by his disciples, among whom the most distinguished was Mao Zedong. Even today, Zeng's little wise words are eagerly sought after and are learned by heart by his countrymen. His wisdoms are used liberally both in politics and in daily business.

Knowledge like this gives you foresight. In the 1930s, when the Chinese Communist Force was on the rise, those who were able to foresee their own fate managed to escape; those who followed CPC through thick and thin ended up in misery. In terms of energy and intelligence, both Gong Chu and Zhang Guotao were on par with Chairman Mao; both managed to escape CPC in the 1930s; both lived happy healthy lives to great ages.


Morality can only be assigned to an item within the realm of applicability of a code of ethics.

In order to assign something's moral quality, one needs not just the item (hereinafter, "item") to be evaluated but also an agreed upon code of ethics (hereinafter, "code").

The item's morality or immorality is then ascertained by means of comparison with the well-defined code. When a well-defined code cannot be agreed upon for the sake of an argument, the morality or immorality of the item also cannot be agreed upon.

One of the few things that probably can be agreed upon in a philosophy forum, is that personal codes of ethics vary drastically. Each sentient observer may apply an evaluation to the items they experience based upon their personal code.

However, the evaluation of morality that it would seem the question seeks to apply to "The Prince" is of the absolute variety, implying an applicability across all codes. By the above, an evaluation of morality is only valid within the scope of the code and everybody has a different code.

Thus, this absolute flavor of morality doesn't exist for anything, including Machiavelli's "The Prince."

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