In his slim book The Prince (published 1532, written in 1513), Niccolò Machiavelli made his now notorious assertion that the prince who hopes to succeed must learn ‘how not to be good’, to act with the guile of the fox and, if necessary, the strength of the lion. This is commonly interpreted as a justification for the concept of ‘reason of state’: that the state knows no law, and that all politics grows out of the blade of a sword. Whilst Machiavelli never wrote that the end justifies the means, this is taken to be his realistic view of politics (that ‘anyone who abandons what is done for what ought to be done achieves his downfall rather than his preservation’). The Oxford English Dictionary definition of ‘Machiavellian’ appears to support this interpretation:

Machiavellian (adjective) cunning, scheming, and unscrupulous, especially in politics.’

But is this what Machiavelli meant? How Machiavellian was Machiavelli? And what would he have made of the statement made in relation to the UK Internal Market Bill by Brandon Lewis, the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, in this exchange with Sir Robert Neill in the House of Commons on 8 September 2020:

Sir Robert Neill: The Secretary of State has said that he and the Government are committed to the rule of law. Does he recognise that adherence to the rule of law is not negotiable? Against that background, will he assure us that nothing that is proposed in this legislation does, or potentially might, breach international legal obligations or international legal arrangements that we have entered into? Will he specifically answer the other point: was any ministerial direction given?
Brandon Lewis: I would say to my honourable friend that yes, this does break international law in a very specific and limited way.’

Is this political audacity of a type Machiavelli would applaud?

Machiavelli, a contemporary of Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci, was born in Florence in 1469, then one of the few self-governing republics left in Italy. In 1498, after a four-year period of political turmoil during which Florence was governed by Savonarola, a Dominican Friar, communal government was restored and Machiavelli became, at the age of 29, the First Secretary of Florence’s Second Chancery. His duties were diplomatic: to preserve links with the city’s allies and maintain the balance of power between small city-states. In 1512, following a coup d’état engineered by the Medicis, the Florentine Republic was dissolved and Machiavelli was imprisoned and tortured with the rope as a suspected enemy of the new regime. He was unexpectedly freed in 1513 (in an amnesty which formed part of the general rejoicing when a Florentine cardinal was elected as Pope Leo X) and exiled to his small farm at Sant’Andrea, a short distance from the city. Here, dejected by Florence’s loss of liberty, he spent his days labouring and his evenings reading, writing and contemplating the rules of statecraft. In a famous letter to his friend Francesco Vettori, he described his routine of reading the claims of classical writers such as Cicero, Livy and Tacitus:

‘When evening comes I return home and go into my study, and at the door I take off my daytime dress covered in mud and dirt, and put on royal and curial robes; and then decently attired I enter the courts of the ancients, where affectionately greeted by them, I partake of that food which is mine alone and for which I was born; where I am not ashamed to talk with them and inquire the reasons of their actions; and they out of their human kindness answer me, and for four hours at a stretch I feel no worry of any kind; I forget all my troubles, I am not afraid of poverty or of death. I give myself up entirely to them.’

The Prince was dedicated to Lorenzo de Medici, although the gesture was wasted: Lorenzo ignored the book and preferred instead a gift of greyhounds from another source. Despite its immediate neglect, Machiavelli’s brief treatise, an argument against inept, pliable and enfeebled leadership, was soon recognised as a masterpiece, the invention of a new school of political science. In Wolf Hall, Mantel’s Cromwell has a copy: ‘it is a Latin edition, shoddily printed in Naples, which seems to have passed through many hands’. By 1559, The Prince featured on the Catholic Church’s index librorum prohibitorum, its list of forbidden books. But was Machiavelli really the teacher of evil, as he has been described?

The Prince is deceptive. Machiavelli never straightforwardly said that the end justified the means. And he was always disappointed by statesmen and politicians, as his letter made clear. In fact, The Prince alerts the people to the vital need to defend liberty against oppression. To Spinoza, Machiavelli was ‘an advocate of freedom, and also gave some very sound advice for preserving it’ (Tractatus Theologico-Politicus, 1670); to Rousseau, he was a ‘proper man and a good citizen’ (The Social Contract, 1762), whose true purpose was to write things pleasing to tyrants so as to bring about their swift downfall. This explains why the thirty-sixth and final chapter of The Prince (‘An exhortation to seize Italy and to free her from the barbarians’) is a call for freedom against would-be tyrants.

So what would Machiavelli make of the Government’s willingness to break the law? The clearest answer comes from his longest and less well-known book, the Discourses on the First Ten Book of Titus Livy (published in 1532, five years after his death). This is a celebration of freedom, good laws and the resistance of oppression; it praises Lycurgus and Solon because they ‘assumed authority that they might formulate laws to the common good’. In the Discourses, Machiavelli recognises the essential decency of people and writes with an urge to disillusion and awaken the consciences of the good: he saw republican Rome as the epitome of a successful free government, and explicitly agreed with Cicero that the populace ‘is capable of grasping the truth and readily yields when a man, worthy of confidence, lays the truth before it’.

Machiavelli’s view, in The Discourses at least, is plain: Rome had flourished because of its respect for the law; it is better to place trust in the structure of laws than in the goodwill of a fallible prince; and because unjust means tend to ruin good ends, the rule of law should always be upheld. A good government depends on good law and it is only respect for those laws that allows freedom to flourish.

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