Machiavelli (1469-1527), is considered to be the first modern political thinker. Even after 5 centuries his thoughts and teaching are still being read as the greatest political thoughts ever.

Machiavelli thoughts were quiet conflicting with the thoughts of other scholars of the time that mainly focused and thought of utopian ideals, but Machiavelli political thoughts were based upon the working of societies and not some utopian ideals. His ideas shunned the concept of morality and Christian ideals of the time, for him state national interest and political power was the prime targets for a state.1

Through centuries Machiavelli has been criticized for his works. He has even been called a devil and teacher of evil by some but was really Machiavelli works based upon the political theory of realism or were they simply teachings of a devil.

This paper tries to solve this mystery by examining the political theory of realism and Machiavelli’s realism and to tell whether Machiavelli works were really based on the realist point of view.


The main assumptions or ideals of realist theory are

  1. Human nature is responsible for conflicts.
  2. Nature of international relations is based upon conflicts rather than cooperation.
  3. International relation is all about states perusing national interest defined in terms of power.
  4. International relation is not governed by the principles of morality rather it is governed by the principles of A-morality..

According to realists the human nature is the main root cause of all the conflicts as human beings are always concerned with their own well being and their own self interest and human beings lust for power is never satisfied, and as societies and nations are based upon human feelings and emotions so they are also governed by the same principles and values. 2

According to Hans . Morgenthau

Political realism believes that politics, like society in general, is governed by objective laws that have their roots in human nature. In order to improve society it is first necessary to understand the laws by which society lives.” 3

So international politics like all other politics are based upon the power and self interest ideology as they are conducted by human beings.

Another assumption of realism is that at international stage there is condition of anarchy as there is absence of central decision making power and in such situation as nation go for their own self interests , power or security for state survival ,international stage becomes more a stage of conflicts rather then cooperation.

Realists believe that international arena is struggle among great nations for security and Power.

According to Hans . Morgenthau

“Politics is a struggle for power over men, and whatever the aim may be, power is its immediate goal”. 4

According to realists as all the states keep their nations self interest as primary duty to them so there are no moral values at international stage. There is no international obligation in sense of moral duty between independent states.

International arena is governed and run through the principles of A-morality where all states hold their own self interest dear to them. 5

According to Hans . Morgenthau

“Realism maintains that universal moral principles cannot be applied to the action of states in their abstract universal formulation, but they must be filtered through the concrete circumstances of time and place” 6

So when states persue their national interest defined in terms of power the only things that is moral is what is in the national interest of the state.

According to President Nixon

“We are not involved in this world because we have commitments; we have commitments because we are involved. Our interests must shape our commitments, rather then the other way around7

Thucydides, on of the most outstanding classical realist, he saw international relations as an arena of conflicts and competition between states. According to him the natural imbalance between strong and weak sates made the conflicts and wars inevitable between the unequal states. Aristotle said “man is a political animal”. Thucydides said in effect that political animals are highly unequal in their power and capabilities to dominate others and to defend themselves. According to him states must accept the natural imbalance of power, if they did that they will survive, other wise they will place themselves in jeopardy and may even be destroyed.8

So Thucydides understanding of internationals relations can be summed as

“Anarchy of separate states that have no real choice except to operate according to the principles and practices of power politics in which security and survival are the primary values and war is the final arbiter”.

So in this world where states are always persuing their national interests in a condition of international anarchy and unequal distribution of power among states wars and conflicts are always a probability. 9


Machiavelli was of one of the greatest classical realist. He is the author of ‘THE PRINCE’ which is considered to be one of the greatest books on international politics. In this books Machiavelli gives guidance to his prince how to rule a kingdom.10

In his book Machiavelli writes

“The fact is that a man who wants to act virtuously in every way necessarily comes to grief among so many who are not virtuous. Therefore if a prince wants to maintain his rule he must be prepared not to be virtuous and to make use of this or not according to need” 11

Machiavelli emphasizes that a prince must not rule with Christian values and virtues of the time rather take decisions that are in the national interest of his state and ensure his state’s security and survival. 12

Machiavelli writes that there are two kinds of qualities in this world. Good and bad. These are the qualities according to which princes are praised or condemned. Every prince would have to like the good qualities but in this world and its virtues one cannot simply live with only good qualities. Prince must be prepared to adopt the bad qualities as well because sometimes these qualities re also needed to ensure the survival of the state

“Taking every thing into account he will find that some of the things that appear to be virtuous values will if he practices them ruin him, and some of the things that appear to be vices will bring him security and prosperity” 13

Machiavelli in “The Prince” discuses that whether a prince should be generous or miser. As generosity is a good virtue every prince would like to have it, but according to Machiavelli if a prince is generous he will come to grief.

Machiavelli says that if prince is generous he will spend lavishly and to maintain this lavish life style he would have to spend heavily consequently squandering his resources, and to continue too live lavishly he would have to put taxes and burden on his subjects which will consequently result in his subjects hating him, and when he realizes this and tries not to be lavish he will labeled as miser.

Machiavelli writes

“Prince cannot practice the virtue of generosity in such a way that he is noted for it, except to his cost, he should if he is prudent not mind being called a miser”

Machiavelli says that if a prince is wise and does not spend lavishly, will in time be recognized as generous, because prince will not burden his people will heavy taxes and will have revenue to defend his state from attacks and to embark on campaigns without burdening his people.14

“A prince must try to avid above all else being despised and hated; and generosity results in your being both”

So miser ness is a virtue that will that will enable a prince to defend himself, that will keep his subjects loyal to him and most of all will enable him to sustain his rule. 15

“There is nothing so self defeating as generosity: in the act of practicing it you lose the ability to do so and you become either poor and despised or, seeking to escape poverty. Rapacious and hated” 16

In ‘The Prince’ Machiavelli discusses whether a prince should be cruel or compassionate.

“A prince must want to have a reputation of compassion rather than for cruelty; none the less he must be careful that he does not make bad use of compassion”

Machiavelli says that a prince however must know how to be cruel because he would not like to be too compassionate, resulting in disorders and lawlessness, rather he would like to maintain a fine balance among the two. Making example on one or two occasions will prove more compassionate.

“A prince must not worry if he incurs reproach for his cruelty so long as he keeps his subjects united and loyal.17

In Machiavelli’s realism it is better for a prince to be feared by his masses.

“It is far better to be feared than to be loved if not both”

Machiavelli portraits human beings as liar and deceivers, those who will run away and will not answer in the time of need. So to keep subjects like these loyal a prince must be feared as fear of punishment will hold men to their oath and duties even in the time of crises

“The prince must none the less make himself feared in such a way that if he is not loved, at least he escapes being hated”.

So as far as people do not hate the prince it is better for a prince to be feared.18

According to Machiavelli ruler should also be feared by his army, because this fear will keep his army loyal and faithful to him, even in the time of battle. 19

In “The Prince” Machiavelli describes how prince should honors their words and commitments.

” Princes who have achieved great things have been those who have given their word lightly, who have known how to trick men with their cunning and who in the end have overcome those abiding by honest principles.” 20

Machiavelli says that there are two ways of fighting; one is by law that the way natural to men. The other is the use of force; the one that is used by the beast .A prince must be able to know how to use both of these ways in order to survive his enemies.

“As prince is forced to know how to act like a beast, he must learn from the fox and the lion; because the lion is defenseless against the traps and fox is defense less against the wolves.”

So a prince must use both of these animals’ qualities to safeguard each other. Fox will protect lion from traps and lion will protect fox from wolves.

According to Machiavelli man are evil and wretched creatures who will not keep their word and promises so a prince should also try not to keep his word to them.

So a prince must no how to deceive and lie in order to protect his states own interest. 21

So a prince should try to have all the good qualities but should not restrain himself from using the bad ones where they are required, he must not restrain from being miser, cruel, liar, deceiver, infarct he must do so when his state’s national interest is at stake, but he should adopt these qualities in such way that masses still sees him as virtues man. If a prince obtains the required results which he intended no body will criticize him, on the contrary he will appear to be a virtues man to the masses.

“Common people are always impressed by appearances and results.”

As “End Justifies means”, so if the end is good no one will criticize how the end result was obtained.22


Machiavelli has been subject of a lot of criticism throughout the past 5 centuries. He has been criticized for his cruelty and immoral and inhuman teachings .He has been portrayed as an EVIL or a DEVIL. Machiavelli is seen as a misleading teacher who teaches a prince to practice cruelty over his subject make them fear him, be miser and cunning and a deceiver and to adopt the bad and immoral and unethical qualities in order to get objectives done.

The strongest criticism came from Elizabeth English who labeled him as a “truly evil man”. Fredrick of Prussia in his book Anti-Machiavelli describes Machiavelli as a “monster” who with “THE PRINCE” tries to destroy the humanity; he says that Machiavelli use of violence proves his intention to destroy humanity. 23

Machiavelli writings are sometimes described as ‘Manuals on how to thrive in a completely chaotic and immoral world.” 24

For critics he is a man inspired by the Devil to lead good men to their doom, the great deceiver, the teacher of evil and is labeled as “murderous Machiavelli”

For the Jesuits he is “the devil’s partner in crime,” “a dishonorable writer and an unbeliever,” and according to Bertrand Russell The Prince is “a handbook for gangsters“.

Machiavelli is seen as symbol of cunning and deceit. He has been seen as a devil who told princes and rulers to forget Christianity values, ethics, norms and teachings and adopt inhuman, unethical and immoral teachings which are the way of the DEVIL. He has been criticized for teaching miser ness and to practice values and ethics that are not according to the Christianity.

According to critics in killing, deceiving, betraying, Machiavelli is teaching evil things that are immoral and inhuman. 25


Critics have portrayed Machiavelli as an evil man, one who has no moral values, a cruel and immoral man who teaches the devil’s ways but Machiavelli’s writings are based on what humans are and what societies do and not what they ought to do.

Critics argue that Machiavelli teaches cruelty but in “THE PRINCE” Machiavelli justifies his argument by explaining the example of cruel Hannibal and lenient Scipio.

Hannibal was one of the greatest generals to live during the roman times but he achieved his great victories and feats only because his armies remained loyal to him and his armies were loyal to him only because Hannibal was cruel and his armies feared his punishment, and Scipio army rebelled against him in SPAIN only because of the leniency of Scipio. Scipio was called corrupter of roman legions only because of this leniency. 26

Critics say that Machiavelli taught miser ness but Machiavelli justified his argument by giving the comparison between the king of France and king of Spain The king of France, Charles VIII was only able to wage wars because of his parsimony and miser ness, and generous king of Spain could not have waged any war due to his generosity 27

Machiavelli is portrayed as a teacher of cunning and deceiving and teachings to prince not to honor their word. In’ The Prince’ Machiavelli gives example of Alexander VI, he says that Alexander VI did not do anything then to deceive others, and he always found victims for his deceptions but he was successful as he brought out the right results he intended through his deception and cunningness. 28

Critics often say that Machiavelli was not concerned with morals; rather he discovered that this morality simply did not hold in political affairs, and that any policy based on these, would end in disaster. Machiavelli indeed rejected Christian morals but he rejected them in face of reality and how societies and human Lived. Machiavelli loves his country more then his soul so to him his country security and survival was a priority, even if he had to teach against Christian values.

Machiavelli writes ‘The Prince” keeping in mind the materialistic world and the working of human nature and human societies, so his teachings tell a ruler how to operate in such circumstances. 29


Machiavelli’s work contradict with the work of other great scholar of his time, his work shun the Christian values and virtues, but one thing that Machiavelli has done is freeing political actions from the concept of morality, this doest not means that he is teaching immorality. Before him political thought was based upon ethical values and utopian ideals. Machiavelli just simply said that there is no place of ideals and ethics in political arena. For a ruler his state’s national interest, survival and security are the prime objectives and he must do every thing to defend them, and in doing so if he has to adopt ways that are immoral and unethical then he should not restrain himself from doing so.

They should not restrain from being a ‘fox’ and a ‘lion’ for there people and state depended upon them for their security and survival.

Just like political theory of realism, Machiavelli’s teachings are based upon what happens in this world. They are based upon the complex human nature and societies.

In his book “The Prince” Machiavelli showed to the world that how power politics works and what measures must be taken and deeds should be adopt to compete in this world of power politics. Rulers must learn how to make decisions, how to consider alternative courses of action and evaluate their consequences. If they are to defend and maintain their states, they need to know how to evaluate and understand human nature before taking any decision.

Machiavelli ideals of human nature, state’s self interest, and power politics are a clear indication of his realistic thought, so I believe that Machiavelli was truly one of the greatest realist thinkers ever to have lived, and that his works paved the foundation for modern political thinkers to come.


  1. Dr.Mary Walsh, Machiavelli Politics And Public Realm,(Australia, University Of Cabera,2003),p.2-5
  2. Robert Jackson & George Sorenson, Introduction to International Relations, (London, Oxford University Press, 2003), p.68
  3. Hans J, Morgenthau , Politics Among Nations: the Struggle For Power And Peace,(Lahore, Vanguard Books,1997),p.2
  4. Introduction to International Relations, p.68
  5. Ibid., p.69
  6. Politics Among Nations: the Struggle for Power and Peace, p.12
  7. Introduction to International Relations, p.78
  8. Ibid., p.71
  9. Ibid., p.71-72
  10. Dr.Mary Walsh, p.2
  11. Niccolo Machiavelli, The Prince, (USA, Penguin Classics, 2003),p.50
  12. Introduction to International Relations, p.73
  13. The Prince, p.50
  14. Ibid., p.51
  15. Ibid., p.52
  16. Ibid.
  17. Ibid., p.53
  18. Ibid., p.54
  19. Ibid., p.55
  20. Ibid, .p.57
  21. Ibid.
  22. Ibid., p.58
  23. Carolyn Kunkell,” A critical review of Machiavelli’s The Prince.”
  24. Introduction To International Relations ,p.73
  25. Isaiah Berlin,” A Special Supplement: The Question of Machiavelli.”
  26. The Prince, p.55
  27. Ibid., p.52
  28. Ibid., p.57
  29. Isaiah Berlin,” A Special Supplement: The Question of Machiavelli.”

Copyright © 2006 Abdul Azeem Khan . All Right Reserved

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