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Machiavelli, Hobbes, and Rousseau$

John Plamenatz, Mark Philp, and Zbigniew Pelczynski

Print publication date: 2012

Print ISBN-13: 9780199645060

Published to Oxford Scholarship Online: September 2012

DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780199645060.001.0001

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The Leader, the Legislator, the Prince, and the Patriot

The Leader, the Legislator, the Prince, and the Patriot

(p.66) 5 The Leader, the Legislator, the Prince, and the Patriot
Machiavelli, Hobbes, and Rousseau

Mark Philp

Z. A. Pelczynski

Oxford University Press

Abstract and Keywords

Machiavelli is concerned that the prince grounds his authority in the support of the people, rather than merely the rich, since their vices are fewer. Machiavelli gives more detailed attention to the psychology and methods of rulers than any of his predecessors, and places much more weight on the creative role of the political leader, and the chapter explores a range of claims made about Machiavelli’s emphasis on innovative political leadership.

Keywords:   authority, trust, rich, poor, leader, legislator, prince, religion, necessity, history, founder, restoration, patriotism


i We saw that when Machiavelli compared peoples with princes, on the whole he preferred the former. This preference was above all moral. Peoples, as compared with their rulers, are less ungrateful, more loyal, more inclined to justice, less cruel, less jealous. These moral qualities are politically important; or, at least, we must assume that Machiavelli thought so, for in making such comparisons, he was concerned to assess political competence rather than moral goodness.1

The surest foundation of authority, according to Machiavelli, is the trust of the people. He says this not only of republics, but of monarchies also. In The Prince (chapter 9), he says:

Princely rule is produced either by the people or by the rich, according as one or the other of these parties has a motive for it. When the rich see that they cannot resist the people, they give their support to one of themselves and make him prince so that, under his shadow, they can satisfy their desires. The people also, seeing that they cannot resist the rich, give their support to one man and make him prince, so that with his power he will protect them.2

He then continues:

He who comes to the princedom with the aid of the rich maintains himself with more difficulty than he who gets there with the people’s aid.

and among the reasons he gives for this is that:

a ruler cannot creditably and without injury to others satisfy the rich, but certainly he can satisfy the people, because the people’s object is more creditable than that of the rich: the latter wish to oppress and the former not to be oppressed.3

(p.67) Machiavelli therefore advises even the prince who has been brought to power by the rich to seek the people’s support, since that is a surer foundation on which to build authority. And then he says:

Let no-one oppose this belief of mine with the well-worn proverb ‘He who builds on the people builds on mud’; it is indeed true when a private citizen lays his foundation on the people and allows himself to suppose that they will free him when he is beset by his enemies or by public officials…But when he who builds on them is a prince who can command, is a stout-hearted man who does not waver in adverse times, does not lack other preparations, and through his courage and management keeps up the spirits of the masses, he never is deceived by them, but receives assurance that he has made his foundations strong.4

Machiavelli speaks here of the prince because it is the prince and his problems that are the subject of his book. But what he says applies to any ruler or leader who is legitimate, that is, who is not a rebel but speaks for the people in some official or approved capacity.

ii In my attempt to explain how Machiavelli conceives of authority and leadership in relation to the people, I have begun deliberately by quoting from The Prince, for that is the book in which, in a chapter much more often quoted, he also preaches the doctrine that it is better for a prince to be feared than loved. Is he not contradicting himself? I think not.

In the chapter from which I have quoted extensively, Machiavelli contrasts the people with the rich as foundations on which a prince can build his authority. He says nothing about their fearing the prince, and his argument as a whole suggests that the prince and the people have less cause to fear and mistrust one another than the prince and the rich have. It is certainly not the people’s greater proneness to fear that makes their support a more solid foundation of princely authority than the support of the rich, for they far outnumber the rich; it is rather their being so placed socially that they are less concerned to oppress others than to avoid being themselves oppressed. Or, in other words, they are collectively a more solid support because they are individually weaker and therefore less dangerous to their fellow-citizens and the prince.

In the chapter in which he argues that it is better for a prince to be feared than to be loved, Machiavelli is considering the prince in relation to his subjects generally and not in relation to one class of them rather than another. And if we look more closely at his argument, it is clear that by loved he means, not trusted, but rather an object of affection or gratitude. He asks, ‘Is it better to be loved than feared, or the reverse?’ and then says:

The answer is that it is desirable to be both, but because it is difficult to join them together, it is much safer for a prince to be feared than loved, if he is to fail in one of the two. Because we can say this about men in general: they are ungrateful, changeable, simulators and dissimulators, (p.68) runaways in danger, eager for gain…Men have less hesitation in injuring one who makes himself loved than one who makes himself feared…Nevertheless, the wise prince makes himself feared in such a way that, if he does not gain love, he escapes hatred; because to be feared and not to be hated can be well combined.5

Machiavelli does not everywhere pass such harsh judgements on men as he does in this seventeenth chapter of The Prince. But even if we take what he says here as his final verdict on mankind, it does not contradict what he says elsewhere about the people, when he contrasts them with the rich. It may in general be safer to rely on fear than on gratitude or affection, when you have to choose between the two. But this is quite compatible with the most solid foundation of the prince’s authority being the confidence of the people that he will protect them from oppression. Indeed, if he plays for popularity and neglects to be formidable, he is likely to lose this confidence; and he is the more likely to lose it if he curries favour with the rich by failing to restrain their natural propensity to oppress the poor. It is the rich rather than the poor who are dangerous to the prince, for it is mostly from their ranks that the challenger eager to supplant him comes. It is they, or the more ambitious of them, who will be quick to take advantage of his weakness: it is therefore above all among them that he must inspire fear.

iii As I suggested earlier, it is much more of the crowd than of the people that Machiavelli speaks contemptuously.6 To be sure, the crowd consists of the people, and even of the people as contrasted with the rich. It is mostly the poor who form mobs and to whom demagogues appeal. Nevertheless, it is nearly always of the people when they are leaderless, or at least when they are without leaders whom they have learned by experience to trust, that Machiavelli says that they are fickle or cowardly or cruel.7 He says nothing to suggest that the rich in the same circumstances would be any better than the poor; he merely does not consider them under these circumstances because in the Florence of his day the crowd acting for a political purpose was always a crowd of the poor, even though often excited by speakers who were rich or agents of the rich.

The people without leaders whom they can trust are dangerous to the state and to themselves. As Machiavelli puts it (Discourses I.53):

the people, deceived by a false image of good, many times desire their own ruin. And if somebody in whom they have faith does not convince them that what they want is bad and explain what is good, countless dangers and losses come upon the republic. And when chance causes the people to have faith in no one, as sometimes happens, since they have been deceived in the past…, [then] of necessity the republic is ruined. Dante says about this, in his discussion (p.69) On Monarchy, that the populace many times shouts: ‘Long live its own death’ and ‘Down with its own life.’8

That a mass of people excited by some political issue are fickle, ineffectual, and as dangerous to themselves as to others unless they have trusted leaders to harness their energies and define their aims is now a commonplace, as it was not in Machiavelli’s time.9 In our enormous states, whose citizens are counted by the million, it applies equally to all social classes, whereas in the cities of Renaissance Italy it applied more obviously to the poor than the rich.

iv As Machiavelli sees it, the superiority of the people is above all negative; certain vices that undermine freedom are less developed in them than in princes or in the rich. But Machiavelli does follow Aristotle in attributing good judgement to them.10 Except for the few among them who become leaders. they are necessarily followers and listeners, but they are good judges of men and even of measures. They are, on the whole, better judges than princes are of who is to be trusted to hold high office, and when the arguments for alternative courses are clearly put to them, they generally choose the better course.

These claims for ‘the people’, for the ordinary run of citizens, had quite often been repeated on the authority of Aristotle by writers who had nothing of their own to add. With Machiavelli it was otherwise. Before he took to writing about politics, he had been some fourteen years in the service of the republic. He was, if you like, a civil servant, and of civil servants today it is often said that they are remote from the people.11 But in Florence in Machiavelli’s time it was not so. During his years of public service, he had been active, a great mixer, and had been the prime mover in a scheme to form a citizen militia.12 Florence was a small place, and a man in his position, the trusted assistant and adviser of the highest magistrate in the republic, was able to follow the game of politics in all its aspects. He was not a scholar or a bookish man; but no doubt what he read in Aristotle seemed to him confirmed by his own experience.

(p.70) [B]

i Before Machiavelli, some political writers—Plato, for example—had enquired what qualities the ruler ought to have and how he should be educated.13 The Republic is, at least in part, a treatise on the proper education of a ruling class. Other writers had been more interested in the education of princes: what qualities should a prince have for his subjects’ good? And how should he be trained to acquire them?14

But nobody before Machiavelli had taken so deep and so varied an interest in the psychology and the methods of rulers and leaders. What qualities and methods make for success or failure? To what extent do they differ according to circumstances? The Prince is an essay on how to attain power under a variety of circumstances, and especially under the most difficult circumstances of all: when a would-be ruler is seeking to establish his power but has as yet no reserves of loyalty and trust to call on. A large part of the Discourses deals with the same theme: the getting and keeping of power, the winning of confidence and respect. About the education of rulers or their role in some ideal state, Machiavelli has nothing to say. He discusses only forms of government that have actually existed. Perhaps he believed that good and able rulers are born and not made; or rather that they are self-made as their natural gifts develop with the experience they gain in seeking to realize their ambitions.

ii Machiavelli emphasizes, as perhaps no one before him, the creative role of the leader. In the Discourses (I.9) he says:

This we must take as a general rule: seldom or never is any republic or kingdom organized well from the beginning, or totally made over, without respect for its old laws, except when organized by one man. Still more, it is necessary that one man alone give the method and that from his mind proceed all such organization. Therefore a prudent organizer of a republic and one whose intention is to advance not his own interests but the general good, not his own posterity but the common fatherland, ought to strive to have authority all to himself. Nor will a prudent intellect ever censure anyone for any unlawful action used in organizing a kingdom or setting up a republic…though the dead accuse him, the result should excuse him; and then it is good…it will always excuse him, because he who is violent to destroy, not he who is violent to restore, ought to be censured. He ought, moreover, to be so prudent and high-minded (virtuoso) that he will not leave to another as a heritage the authority he has seized, because, since men are more prone to evil than to good, his successor might use ambitiously what he had used nobly.15

The idea of the state as an artefact has seldom been put as strongly as this. It is the creation or re-creation, not of the people generally nor of some of them entrusted with this task by the rest, but of one man. No doubt, this one man could not achieve his (p.71) purpose unless he had the confidence of the people, or of a considerable part of them; nevertheless, it is he who is the master builder.

Notice that it is for him alone that Machiavelli claims overwhelming and uninhibited power. Even though what he creates is not a republic but a monarchy, whoever comes after him must not have the power he has. The idea of absolute monarchy, as it was to emerge in the great kingdoms to the north and the west of Italy in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, is not to be found in the pages of Machiavelli.16 The creator or restorer of a state acts in an emergency, or at least in exceptional circumstances; and Machiavelli thinks of him much as the Romans thought of the dictator, except that in Rome there were legal means of establishing a dictatorship for a limited period of time, whereas Machiavelli’s creator or restorer of the state is not legally appointed but gets power by whatever means he can, and keeps it for as long as he thinks fit or is able to keep it.17

Nevertheless, there is a vast difference between Machiavelli’s creator or restorer and Hobbes’s sovereign. Not merely because his situation is exceptional but because Machiavelli does not claim, even for him, sovereign authority, as Hobbes understood it. He does not say that nobody has the right to resist or disobey the founder or restorer of the state: he says only that, if he is to achieve his purpose, he should strive to get all authority, and that anything he does that is necessary to his purpose is to be excused. Machiavelli is not, when he describes what the creator or restorer should do, laying down principles as to how rights and obligations should be distributed between the ruler (or supreme ruler) and his subjects, which is precisely what Hobbes is doing in his account of sovereign authority.

Machiavelli visited France several times and observed that, in spite of the corruption of the people, it was a well-governed kingdom, because the royal power was limited. He took it for granted that, in a well-ordered state, whatever the form of government, authority always is limited; that there always are legal means of preventing holders of office, however high their office, from exercising their authority in harmful ways.18

iii Even more to be admired than founders and restorers of political order are founders and restorers of religion. They rank highest in Machiavelli’s order of merit as he gives it in the Discourses (I.10), though he has much less to say about them, on the whole, than about temporal rulers and leaders in politics and war.


Among all famous men those are most famous who have been heads and organizers of religions. Next after them are those who have founded either republics or kingdoms. After these, they are famous who, when set over armies, have enlarged their own dominion or that of their native lord. Next to these are put men of letters.19

So speaks the man who was happier occupying a subordinate but important public office than in his years of enforced leisure writing books about politics.

Machiavelli’s conception of the creative role of the leader may strike us as extravagant. After all, states are not created or restored by one man: they become what they are over long periods of time, and as a result of the endeavours of many law-makers. The state, as it is at any time, is not the product of any one man but, as we say, of ‘history’; or in other words, of the efforts of successive generations of men who could not foresee what was to result from all their activities. The same is true of religion: even where one man is accounted the founder, his teachings are considerably changed after he is dead, or even during his lifetime. The idea of the sole founder, especially when what he is supposed to have founded is something vast and complicated and which lasts a long time and changes continually, is a kind of fiction. It is often convenient to attribute the achievements of many men to one man or some few men among them, and to speak of what results from their varied efforts, uncoordinated and often widely separate in space and time, as if it had been planned.

This is all true enough, and Machiavelli did speak unrealistically of the great men he admired and their achievements. The social and political order, though it is an effect of rational human endeavour and also consists of the behaviour of rational beings, is not an artefact in the sense that a book or a work of art is one.20

Yet Machiavelli’s lack of realism may appear greater than in fact it was. He was not unaware that the great man, to whom he attributes this creative role, builds upon the past; that the human material he works on is deeply affected by social influences; that men have ideas, customs, and institutions to which they are strongly attached. He did not express this awareness quite as we do today but he did not lack it. What limits the capacity of the founder or restorer does not, for Machiavelli, consist merely in what might be called ‘human nature’, in qualities or dispositions that are inborn or universal: it consists also in what the sociologist today would call ‘culture’, in ways of thinking, feeling, and behaving that are forms of social intercourse and that men acquire in the process of becoming members of a particular society. Romulus did not make Romans out of what had been until then mere human beings: he organized a city of Romans. (p.73) Again, to take another of Machiavelli’s founder heroes, Moses did not turn mere men into Jewish men but brought the Jews out of Egypt and gave them laws.21

iv The founder or restorer of a state, as Machiavelli conceives of him, does not make what he wants of malleable stuff; rather, he saves or serves a people at a turning point or crisis in their history. He understands the situation better than they do, and knows better what to do for the best; and he persuades, cajoles, and even, if necessary, bullies and deceives them. He has greater insight, imagination, and strength of purpose than they have, but the situation consists as much of their needs, customs, and beliefs as it does of anything external to them. He solves their problems; that its to say, problems defined by the sort of people they are, the circumstances in which they find themselves, and what they can be induced to do and put up with, given their needs and customs. He may be selfish, as Borgia was, or he may be seriously concerned for the people’s good, but whatever his motives, the problems he has to solve if he aims at establishing some kind of enduring social and political order are essentially not personal but public. The options before him are limited.

When Machiavelli discusses the actions of some man of extraordinary virtue, he often speaks of him as if his superiority consisted, not so much in his ability to get others to do what he chooses that they should do, as in his ability to get them to do what he alone sees needs to be done. Or, to say the same thing in different words: he speaks of the great man as if his excellence consisted in his ability to impose on others solutions that his quicker and clearer intelligence imposes on him. Professor Whitfield points out that the word ‘necessity’, as ‘noun, participle or adjective’, is very often used in The Prince, and is tempted to call it the key-word of that short treatise.22 The prince—and the same is true of every great leader—does what he has to do, what he alone (or he more clearly than others) sees must be done. He has to do it, not in the sense that his actions are causally determined, nor in the sense that he is impelled to it by the need to express himself, as an artist might be. He has to do it because it is what the situation calls for, if order or freedom or something else that both he and the people care for or whose absence would be generally hurtful, is to be established, restored, or preserved.

This idea of necessity is, no doubt, obscure. The same situation may be differently assessed by different men, all of them intelligent and imaginative; and very often we cannot say that one assessment goes deeper and is more realistic than another. Men learn to accept the solutions that are imposed on them, and only then come to look upon them as necessary. Besides, even the most clear-headed and resolute leader changes his plans as he goes along, and we often cannot be sure whether it is his aims that have changed or only his ideas about how best to achieve them. But, difficult and (p.74) obscure though it is, it is worth noticing that this idea of necessity bulks large in Machiavelli’s thought for it is sometimes said of him that he looked upon the state as a work of art, and thought of great men as using lesser mortals as instruments of their will. No doubt he sometimes did use expressions which, if we take them literally, imply that this is what he thought, but he also said other things which show that he was aware that what even the most heroic and gifted of men can achieve depends greatly on circumstances. If corruption has gone far, Machiavelli tells us, then no one can restore freedom; and he says also that everyone all the time is up against fortune, the unforeseeable, and must be ready to adapt his aims and his methods in ways he could not have predicted.23

The founder and restorer, like everyone else whose endeavours cover a period of years, does not know what he has achieved until he has achieved it; he does not know beforehand just how order or freedom (or whatever else it is) is to be established or restored, just what laws have to be made, and what institutions set up. His superiority consists in his seeing the situation more clearly than others do and recognizing more quickly how it has changed, in adapting his aims to changing circumstances earlier and more realistically, in acting more resolutely, and in keeping the main end more firmly in view.

It is true, then, that Machiavelli insists, more perhaps than any other political thinker, on the creative role of the great man, but he also sees him as dealing with material that is largely intractable; he sees him narrowly limited in his options, up against the unpredictable and often failing in his purposes. He even sees him as the victim of his own achievements when he remains attached to methods that used to bring him success but no longer do so because conditions have changed.

v Machiavelli was a historian and a reader of histories. Yet there is one idea much favoured by historians, and especially by those of them who philosophize about history, of which there are few, if any, traces in his writings. This idea is more recent than the idea of progress and logically independent of it, though believers in progress, from Hegel onwards, have been much impressed by it.

It is the idea that ideas change. Just as men were aware that knowledge accumulates long before it seems to them that the ideas used to express that knowledge change, so too they were aware that government and other institutions develop and even improve before it occurs to them that social and political ideas, the ideas used to describe and explain social and political behaviour and to define the standards by which it is assessed, change.

Thus Machiavelli ordinarily speaks of freedom or virtue or order as if they meant the same to the ancient Romans as to the Florentines in the sixteenth century. Circum (p.75) stances change, laws and customs change, human behaviour changes (though not the basic needs and motives from which it springs), the facts change but not the ideas used to describe and assess them. Not that Machiavelli actually denied that these ideas change; rather he never considers the possibility that they might do so. He takes it for granted that they do not. This is the sense in which, for all his interest in history, and his use of it to support his political conclusions, he is ‘unhistorical’.

Speaking of the restorer and not the founder of a state or a religion, Machiavelli says that he brings it back to its origins or principles. He brings it back to what it was, though more in spirit than in fact. The Italian word principio, in Machiavelli’s time as today, means both beginning and fundamental rule or axiom. Thus, to bring a state or a religion back to its principle is to bring it closer to what it pretends to be and once was, to the standards it professes.24 The assumption is that these standards do not change, let alone grow in complexity and refinement as succeeding generations, enlightened by experience, work out their implications. Both the idea of changing standards and the idea (related to though not entailed by it) of improving standards are lacking in Machiavelli. The only sort of progress conceivable on the assumptions he makes about man and society is a movement towards a fuller attainment of values that do not change.

Yet he did not believe in progress even in this sense. He did not believe that there is, in fact, any steady and overall movement of this kind. He believed rather that there is always both progress and regress, progress in some places or in some respects and regress in other places and other respects. It is this belief that is a really important element in his thought rather than the idea of cyclical change which he took over from Polybius without making anything much of it.25

Nevertheless, the man of extraordinary virtue is—though in a sense different from the great man of Hegel—a benefactor: he is an improver, a maker or a repairer of the dykes that preserve mankind from the forces of destruction. Civilization or the vita civile, as Machiavelli calls it, is man’s foothold in a world otherwise unpropitious to him. It is the enclosed garden within whose walls men can live as it suits them to live. Therefore the few who build these walls or keep them in good repair are the great benefactors. In a world prone to disorder they create and maintain the order without which there is neither sense nor dignity to men’s lives.


i A Hegelian, assessing Machiavelli’s philosophy, might see a contradiction in it between the creative role assigned to the man of extraordinary virtue and the idea of him as subject to necessity and up against chance. But he might also see in it one of the (p.76) fruitful ‘contradictions’ in which he delights, an emphasizing of two aspects of life which, though they seem to exclude one another, cannot in fact be fully understood except in relation to one another. It is precisely because man is an intelligent being, active in conditions which he understands and can control to some extent, that both the need for order and self-assertion and the sense of the precarious and the unpredictable are so strong in him.

The founder or restorer of order that Machiavelli is above all (though not exclusively) concerned with in The Prince is the new prince, who does not inherit authority or get it by legal means in a well-ordered state but acquires it in other ways. He, more than any other seeker after authority, gets it by force and fraud. That is why Machiavelli takes for his hero in The Prince Cesare Borgia.26 He takes him, as several critics have observed, not quite as he was in real life, nor even quite as Machiavelli believed him to be, but as he needed to present him to drive home his lessons.27 Borgia is the unscrupulous leader who stops at nothing in the attempt to establish his rule, and whose crimes are excused on the ground that they were necessary to achieve his object—even though, in fact, he never achieved his object because Fortune turned against him. But he did all, or about all, that was humanly possible to achieve it; his case, appropriately touched up by Machiavelli, is exemplary.

Observe that Machiavelli nowhere imputes good motives to Borgia: he presents him not as a man who wished to confer great benefits on the people of Romagna, but as someone who wanted to rule them to become their prince. If he had achieved his object he would have conferred great benefits, but he was not, as Machiavelli presents him to his readers, an altruist. He was not ‘a prudent organizer of a republic’ of the sort that Machiavelli speaks of in the Discourses (I.9) ‘whose intention is to advance not his own interests but the general good, not his own posterity but the common fatherland (comune patria).’28

Now this chapter of the Discourses, in which Machiavelli says that a state is hardly ever well ordered unless one man alone has been responsible for setting it up, treats of both kingdoms and republics, and it is therefore worth noticing that Machiavelli, when he speaks of the organizer ‘whose intention is to advance not his own interests but the general good’, has in mind only the organizer of a republic. For the word ‘republic’, as he uses it, means not just any state but the kind of state in which the citizens take an effective part in government; or, in other words, in which there is freedom, as Machiavelli conceives of it.29 It is the founder and restorer of the order that brings freedom and (p.77) not of mere order, who cares for its own sake for the common good. But in Romagna in Borgia’s time there was, in Machiavelli’s opinion, no question of restoring freedom; nothing more than order was possible there, and only an unscrupulous adventurer, a foreigner to the region he wished to dominate, could bring order to it.

In another chapter of the Discourses, the eighteenth of the first book, Machiavelli argues that in a republic in which corruption has gone far it is virtually impossible to restore freedom, for to restore it gradually requires on the part of the restorer far-sightedness and the ability to persuade others to change their ways, qualities that are extraordinarily rare, while to restore it at a stroke requires resorting to methods that come easily only to the wicked. As he puts it:

To reorganize a city for living under good government assumes a good man, and to become prince of a state by violence assumes an evil man; therefore a good man will seldom attempt to become prince by evil methods, even though his purpose be good; on the other hand, a wicked man, when he has become prince, will seldom try to do what is right, for it never will come into his mind to use rightly the authority he has gained wickedly.30

‘Good government’ means in this particular context ‘free government’, for the passage I have quoted concludes an argument in which Machiavelli has raised the question of whether freedom can be restored in a corrupt state.

All this implies, not of course that the founder or restorer of freedom (as distinct from mere order) need never do what is wicked to achieve his purpose, but rather that where many and great crimes are needed to establish order, freedom is out of reach.

ii Machiavelli was a patriot who boasted of being one, saying that he loved his native city better than his soul.31 He was also an Italian patriot, as the last chapter of The Prince proves.32 Yet Chabod is right when he argues that Machiavelli’s making a hero of Borgia has nothing to do with his Italian patriotism.33 There was no chance at all in Machiavelli’s time of creating a united Italy, and there is no trace in his writings of a belief that Italy either could be united or ought to be. The last patriotic chapter of The Prince, though it expresses the wish that the barbarians be driven out of Italy and says that the time has come for an energetic prince to take the lead in getting rid of them, says nothing whatever about uniting Italy into one state. No doubt, a prince with the energy required to bring the Italian states into an alliance strong enough to drive foreign armies out of Italy would need some of the qualities Machiavelli attributed to Borgia, but the exhortation that closes The Prince is addressed, not to Borgia who died in 1507, but to the Medici. Besides, it expresses a pious wish and not a serious hope; for if we are to judge by letters written at the very (p.78) time that The Prince was composed, Machiavelli did not really believe that anyone would or could form an alliance of the Italian states against the foreign invaders.34

Nevertheless, Machiavelli was a patriotic Italian and not merely a patriotic Florentine; and in the Discourses (III.41) he gives utterance to a sentiment that many patriots (and nationalists) have shared: he says there that when the safety of one’s country is at stake, one must set aside every scruple and do whatever needs to be done to save it.35

I shall not comment on the morality of this sentiment but shall confine myself to making just one observation. By the safety of a country Machiavelli means, presumably, its independence; it is this that is to be preserved by all means, moral or immoral. But has he in mind only the preservation of independence where it already exists? Or also its recovery when it has been lost?

If he means only the first, then he puts forward a principle that is easy enough to apply, provided there is agreement about what constitutes independence. But why should the principle be confined in this way? The motives that move people to try to preserve their country’s independence may move them to try to recover it after it has been lost. If they try, they will appeal to the same reasons to justify their disrupting the country in which they are now included as they appealed to when they tried to preserve their old country. Or it may happen that the conquered people, after a time, become divided in their loyalties, some of them coming to accept the state or empire which has absorbed them, while others are resolved to restore the old country as soon as they can. How, then, does Machiavelli’s principle apply where there are divided loyalties?

Machiavelli, when he puts forward his ‘patriotic’ principle, assumes that everyone deemed to belong to a country accepts it as his own, or at least that the great majority do so; just as the modern nationalist assumes that everyone accepts, or ought to accept, his definition of the nation. But what if a considerable minority of the country or the nation do not accept it as their own? What if they refuse to be bound by the decisions and definitions of others?

Machiavelli’s love of freedom and the very high value he places on patriotism are, of course, closely connected. I do not wish to deny what so many scholars (especially the ones most inclined to admire him) have said. Freedom cannot be preserved except in a community whose members are strongly devoted to it and willing to make great sacrifices for it. That is true enough. But the undiscriminating patriotism that he preaches in the third book of the Discourses can be, and indeed often has been, destructive of freedom.36

(p.79) I do not say this from a desire to score a point against Machiavelli before taking leave of him. After all, why should we expect him to be aware of dangers that went unnoticed until the nineteenth century? I mention it because he puts so exceptionally high a value on patriotism, on devotion to the community without counting the cost. (p.80)


(1) Plamenatz means that he believes Machiavelli saw these qualities as moral qualities, but that his interest in them was not qua moral qualities but arose from their impact on political competence, and hence on political outcomes.

(2) The Prince IX: Gilbert, p. 39; Skinner, pp. 34–5.

(3) The Prince IX:Gilbert, p. 40; Skinner, p. 35.

(4) The Prince IX: Gilbert, p. 41; Skinner, p. 36.

(5) The Prince XVII: Gilbert, p. 62; Skinner, p. 59.

(6) He also uses several different terms—often popolo and plebe—although the latter is mainly used in a Roman context—but also moltitudine.

(7) For example, Discourses I, 57: Gilbert, pp. 312–13; Crick, pp. 250–1; and the following fn.

(8) Discourses I, 53: Gilbert, pp. 303–4; Crick, pp. 238–9). Gilbert notes that the quotation is in fact from Dante’s Convivio 1. 11. 54: ‘Per che incontra che molte volte gridano Viva la loro morte, e Muoia la loro vita, pur che alcuno cominci; e quest’è pericolosissimo difetto ne la loro cechitade.’

(9) Suspicion of the poor was certainly widespread. It was perhaps less common to feel more confident in them under trusted leaders. Dante, for example (in the passage cited in which he inveighs against those who disdain the vernacular, emphasizes the people’s blindness, but he is hardly confident about those who lead them.

(10) Aristotle, Politics III, 11, 1281a39–b15: ‘For the many, none of whom is a good man, may nevertheless be better than the few good men when they get together. Not that each by himself will be better but that as a whole they will be’; Discourses I, 58: Gilbert, pp. 313–18; Crick, pp. 252–7.

(11) See Nicolai Rubenstein, ‘Machievelli and Florentine Republican Experience’; Robert Black, ‘Machiavelli, Servant of the Florentine Republic’; John M. Najemy, ‘The Controversy Surrounding Machiavelli’s Service to the Republic’, in Gisela Bock, Quentin Skinner, and Maurizio Viroli, eds., Machiavelli and Republicanism (Cambridge, 1990), pp. 3–16, 71–99, 101–17; Robert Black, ‘Machiavelli in the Chancery’; and Roslyn Pesman, ‘Machiavelli, Piero Soderini, and the Republic of 1494–1512’, in John M. Najemy, ed., The Cambridge Companion to Machiavelli (Cambridge, 2010).

(12) See Mikael Hörnqvist, ‘Machiavelli’s Military Project and the Art of War’, in Najemy, Cambridge Companion to Machiavelli.

(13) The Republic is a treatise on the nature of, and conditions for, the well-ordered soul. The extent to which it in any sense advocates an education for a ruling class is much contested: see, for example, Julia Annas, Platonic Ethics: Old and New (Ithaca, NY, 1999), ch. 4.

(14) Quentin Skinner, Machiavelli (Oxford, 1981), ch. 2.

(15) Discourses I, 9: Gilbert, p. 218; Crick, p. 132.

(16) See Plamenatz’s own discussion in Man and Society, 2nd ed. (Harlow, Essex, 1992), Vol. 1, ch. 6; and J. P. Somerville, ‘Absolutism and Royalism’, in J. H. Burns and Mark Goldie, eds., The Cambridge History of Political Thought: 1450–1700 (Cambridge, 1991), pp. 347–73.

(17) Claude Nicolet, ‘Dictatorship in Rome’, in Peter Baehr and Melvin Richter, eds., Dictatorship in History and Theory (German Historical Institute, London and Cambridge, 2004), pp. 263–78.

(18) Elena Fasano Guarini, ‘Machiavelli and the Crisis of Italian Republics’, in Bock, Skinner, and Viroli, eds., Machiavelli and Republicanism, esp. pp. 27–8. Plamenatz’s comments derive partly from Discourses I, 16, in which the kingdom of France ‘lives safely for no other reason than that those kings are restrained by countless laws in which is included the security of the people’ (Gilbert, p. 237; Crick, pp. 156–7).

(19) Discourses I, 10: Gilbert, p. 220; Crick, p. 134.

(20) However, ‘rationality’ seems for Machiavelli to have been an outcome of order, rather than the basis for it, or a causal force in its establishment. And Discourses I, 9, emphasizes that ‘seldom or never is any republic or kingdom organised well from the beginning, or totally made over, without respect for its old laws, except when organised by one man. Still more, it is necessary that one man alone give the method and that from his mind proceed all such organisation’ (Gilbert, p. 218; Crick, p. 132). See Mark Philp, Political Conduct (Cambridge, Mass., 2007), ch. 2.

(21) Machiavelli talks of Romulus reforming the city, Discourses 1, 10: Gilbert, p. 223; Crick, p. 138, and of Moses leading the people of Israel, The Prince VI, Gilbert, p. 25; Skinner, p. 20.

(22) J. H. Whitfield, Machiavelli (New York, 1965), p. 67: ‘What is the key-word of The Prince? Is it not necessity, which, as a noun, participle, or adjective occurs seventy-six times in this short treatise of only twenty-six chapters?’ See The Prince (ed. Skinner and Price), pp. 107–8.

(23) For the claim about corruption, ‘there is no stronger example than that of Rome’ and Brutus: Discourses I, 17: Gilbert, p. 239; Crick, pp. 158–9. For that about fortune, see The Prince, ed. Skinner and Price, pp. 104–6), Machiavelli’s ‘Tercets on Fortune’: Gilbert, pp. 745–9; and The Prince XVIII: ‘he must have a mind ready to turn in any direction as fortune’s winds and the variability of human affairs require…/be prepared to vary his conduct as the winds of fortune and changing circumstances constrain him’: Gilbert, p. 66; Skinner, p. 62.

(24) e.g. Discourses III, 22: Gilbert, p. 481; Crick, p. 467.

(25) See Discourses I, 2, for his debt to Polybius account of cyclical change; and his ‘Tercets on Fortune’, where the cyclical motif reappears in the wheels of fortune’s palace.

(26) Especially The Prince VII: Gilbert, pp. 28–34: Skinner, pp. 23–9.

(27) See, for example, Pasquale Villari, Machiavelli and his Times (London, 1883), Vol. III, p. 395; and Whitfield, Machiavelli,pp. 62–3.

(28) Discourses I, 9: Gilbert, p. 218; Crick, p. 132: ‘Però, uno prudente ordinatore d’una republica, e che abbia questo animo, di volere giovare non a sé ma al bene comune, non alla sua propria successione ma alla comune patria, debbe ingegnarsi di avere l’autorità, solo; né mai uno ingegno savio riprenderà alcuno di alcuna azione straordinaria, che, per ordinare un regno o constituire una republica, usasse.’

(29) See Maurizio Viroli, ‘Machiavelli and the Republican Idea of Politics’, in Bock, Skinner, and Viroli, eds.,Machiavelli and Republicanism, pp. 143–71.

(30) Discourses I, 18: Gilbert, p. 243; Crick, pp. 163–4.

(31) In a letter to Vettori dated 16 April 1527, sent from Forlì to Vettori then at Florence. Machiavelli and his Friends: Their Personal Correspondence, eds. James B. Atkinson and David Sices (De Kalb, Ill., 1996), p. 416.

(32) The Prince, XXVI: ‘Exhortation to Liberate Italy from the Barbarian Yoke’: Gilbert, pp. 92–6; Skinner, pp. 87–91.

(33) Federico Chabod, Machiavelli and the Renaissance, trans. David Moore (London, 1958), pp. 71–8.

(34) See Machavelli to Vettori, 10 December 1513, Machiavelli…Correspondence, pp. 262–5; and The Prince, ed. Skinner and Price, pp. 93–5.

(35) Discourses III, 41 (Gilbert, p. 519; Crick, p. 515). Although Plamenatz treats nationalism and patriotism as if they are much the same, see Maurizio Viroli For the Love of Country (Oxford, 1995), for the argument that they should be sharply distinguished (with nationalism being a phenomenon of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries at the earliest).

(36) Note the links here with Plamenatz’s earlier discussion of the expansionist nature of the healthy republic—a theme taken up in Istvan Hont, Jealousy of Trade: International Trade and the Nation State in Historical Perspective (Cambridge, Mass., 2005), esp. pp. 8–11; and in Erica Benner, Machiavelli’s Ethics (Princeton, NJ, 2009), ch. 12.