Niccolò Machiavelli was an Italian Renaissance philosopher, writer, and political theorist. He is best known as the author of The Prince, a 16th-century political treatise on statesmanship and government. Published in 1532, The Prince analyzes how politics actually work, rather than how they ideally should work. It draws on examples from Ancient Rome and Machiavelli’s observations of political rulers in Italy to provide advice on how a prince can obtain and maintain power. One of the most well-known aspects of The Prince is Machiavelli’s division of government into two main types: republics and monarchies. He contends that each form of government is suited to a particular group of citizens. This classification and its implications are the primary focus of this article.
Machiavelli’s Classification of Government
The Italian Renaissance political philosopher Niccolò Machiavelli put forth a classification of two main types of government in his famous work The Prince. Machiavelli divided forms of government into two broad categories:
– The ideal form – a republican government suited for virtuous people
– The practical form – a monarchical government suited for more vicious people
Machiavelli believed the ideal form of government was a republic, which he saw as a system where leaders are elected by the people and power is shared among different branches and institutions. He felt a republican form of government was best suited for a virtuous society with engaged citizens who want to participate in public affairs and elect qualified leaders. However, Machiavelli recognized that the ideal is rarely achievable in reality. So he proposed what he saw as a more practical form of government – a principality or monarchy, with power concentrated under a single sovereign ruler. Machiavelli felt that most people were vicious, self-interested, or ignorant, and thus only capable of being ruled by fear rather than virtue. So he argued monarchies were a more realistic form of government for imperfect societies, through the prince’s use of cunning, deceit, and force. With this bifurcation between an ideal vs. a practical form of government, Machiavelli laid a groundwork that has influenced political thought for centuries. His classification recognized the lofty goals of participatory republicanism, while pragmatically arguing that authoritarian rule was needed for most actual societies. This tension continues to shape debates about governance and human nature down to the present day.
The Ideal: Republican Government-
Machiavelli considered republican government to be the ideal form of government, suited for a virtuous society. In a republic, power is shared among citizens through voting and representation. Leaders are elected to serve the people rather than rule through inherited rights. According to Machiavelli, republican government promotes liberty and civic virtue. With power spread among the citizens, no single person can gain absolute control. The people are motivated to participate in public affairs and work for the common good. Shared power also prevents corruption, as leaders must answer to the citizens. In a republic, the people have a political voice and can shape society according to their values. The government reflects the character of its citizens. Therefore, Machiavelli argued a republic requires virtuous citizens who care about justice and the public interest over private gain. In his view, a republic nurtures civic virtue and in turn depends on it to function well. Overall, Machiavelli saw republican government as the ideal model for a society of engaged, ethical citizens. With public affairs guided equally by all, a republic represents the government of, by, and for the people.
Republican Government for Virtuous People
- In Machiavelli’s view, the ideal form of government is a republic, which he recommends for virtuous people. A republic is a representative democracy where citizens elect leaders to govern on their behalf. Machiavelli believed a republic was well-suited for virtuous people for several reasons:
- In a republic, citizens must actively participate in governing themselves. This requires civic virtue – sacrificing self-interest for the greater good of the state. Machiavelli felt virtuous citizens would rise to this challenge.
- – A republic harnesses the talents of the best citizens by allowing them to serve in government. Open elections enable the most virtuous and capable leaders to be chosen.
- – The separation of powers in a republic prevents any one person from seizing absolute control. This system of checks and balances relies on virtuous leaders who won’t abuse their authority.
- – Republics promote freedom and political equality. Citizens are free from the absolute rule of a monarch. And with civic participation, people have a political voice regardless of stature.
- – With civic duty at its core, a republic creates engaged citizens invested in their government and society. This communal spirit brings out the best in virtuous people.
- Overall, Machiavelli believed the republic’s focus on public virtue, participation, and service would allow virtuous citizens to contribute their talents while governing justly. This system depends on and also cultivates virtue in its leaders and populace.
The Practical: Monarchical Government
Machiavelli argued that while republican government was ideal for virtuous citizens, it was often impractical in reality. As an alternative, he recommended monarchical government as a more practical form for people who lacked virtue. Machiavelli believed most people were selfish, greedy, and vicious by nature. A republic relied on its citizens to actively participate and make decisions for the common good. However, since most citizens were immoral, Machiavelli thought a republic would usually descend into chaos, conflict, and corruption. Instead, Machiavelli advocated monarchies ruled by a strong prince for most societies. The prince would have absolute power to maintain order and stability. Though citizens lost political freedom, the prince could impose laws and restrictions to curb people’s vices. Machiavelli felt an autocratic monarch was the most realistic way to govern flawed human nature.
Machiavelli argued monarchies did not require virtuous citizens. The prince simply needed to be cunning enough to retain power, often through shrewd and unsavory means. Unlike ideal republics, Machiavelli admitted monarchies would frequently abuse citizens. But he considered this an inevitable price for practical governance over wicked subjects. In sum, Machiavelli promoted monarchies led by strong princes as the most effective political system for most actual societies, given the immoral nature of most people. Though citizens suffered under autocracy, Machiavelli believed firmly ruling wicked subjects was more realistic than relying on their non-existent virtue for republican government.
Monarchical Government for Vicious People
In The Prince, Machiavelli argues that for societies filled with citizens who are self-interested, greedy, and lack virtue, a monarchy is the most practical and effective form of government. Machiavelli believes the masses are “ungrateful, fickle, liars, and deceivers” and thus a monarchical ruler who wields absolute authority is required to maintain order and stability. Unlike a republic which relies on the virtue of the people, the masses cannot be trusted to govern themselves or elect leaders wisely. A monarch’s power to command and coerce allows for swift and decisive action that a republic lacks. The monarch can act ruthlessly and do whatever is required to achieve the state’s goals, without concern for morals or ethics. This includes using force, violence, manipulation, and fear to intimidate subjects into obedience. Machiavelli views the fundamental nature of most people as being vicious, unprincipled, and chaotic. Therefore, the masses need the strong controlling hand of a monarch to impose discipline and restraint. Without strict top-down authority, society would descend into lawlessness and disorder. In essence, Machiavelli advocates that immoral populations prone to vice are best governed by a similarly immoral ruler who wields absolute power to impose stability and further the state’s interests ruthlessly. The ends justify the means for Machiavelli in this case.
Criticisms of Machiavelli’s Classification of Government
Machiavelli’s classification of governments into ideal republics and practical monarchies has been criticized by many scholars over the centuries. Here are some of the main criticisms:
- – It’s an oversimplified dichotomy that doesn’t account for the complexity of real-world politics. There are many forms of government that don’t fit neatly into either category, such as constitutional monarchies.
- – The idea that republics are only suitable for virtuous people doesn’t match reality. Republics can and do exist even when citizens are not uniformly ethical. Checks and balances help prevent abuse of power.
- – Conversely, the claim that monarchies work better for immoral societies is questionable. Autocracy enables corruption and oppression regardless of the morality of the people. A benevolent dictatorship is unstable.
- – Machiavelli underestimates the power of institutions to shape human behavior. Well-designed republican institutions can cultivate civic virtue over time.
- – His amoral philosophy divorced politics too much from ethics. Allowing leaders to disregard morality can enable tyranny and human rights abuses.
- – The complexity of modern states makes such a simple classification obsolete. Factors like political culture, demographics, and economics all shape governance beyond this dualistic framework.
- – While useful for historical analysis of Renaissance politics, applying this typology today is anachronistic. Modern knowledge calls for a more nuanced political theory.
- In summary, Machiavelli makes an intellectually provocative but overly reductionist argument that does not align well with modern understandings of political science and good governance. His ideas remain influential, but the two-fold classification ignores too many variables relevant to real societies.
Machiavelli’s Lasting Influence
Machiavelli’s classification of governments and view of human nature has had a profound and lasting impact on Western political thought. His ruthless pragmatism and emphasis on realism over idealism became foundational for modern political science and realpolitik. Machiavelli is considered a seminal thinker who helped shape the philosophy of power politics. He analyzed how rulers gain, maintain, and exercise power, often through cunning, deception, and force. His most famous work, The Prince, provided pragmatic advice to rulers that stressed practical necessity over morality. Machiavelli’s ideas continue to resonate centuries later. While controversial in his era, his thinking took hold and influenced monarchies, republics, and political strategy. Concepts such as the ends justifying the means, divide and conquer, maintaining a balance of power, and the importance of military strength have origins in Machiavelli’s writings. His classification of governments persists today in the study of political systems. Scholars examine the structures, merits, and flaws of various forms of government through a realist lens that owes much to Machiavelli. His cynical view of human nature and focus on power relations established the foundation of modern political science. Even in democracies, his emphasis on the practical over the ethical remains influential. For better or worse, Machiavelli’s political calculus and metaphor of the lion and the fox endures as seminal thinking about governance and statecraft.
Machiavelli’s ideas continue to influence modern politics and governance. His pragmatic view of power politics recognizes the realities of self-interest, deception, and coercion underlying political action. While controversial, Machiavelli provides insight into the use and abuse of power that remains relevant today. Some examples of Machiavellian thinking in modern contexts include:
- – Realpolitik in international relations – Prioritizing national interests over ideology and making pragmatic short-term alliances. For example, the shifting U.S. relations with regimes in the Middle East.
- – Media manipulation and propaganda – Using media and rhetoric to shape public opinion. Modern campaigns apply marketing techniques to frame issues and control narratives.
- – Surveillance and intimidation of opponents – Gathering intelligence and coercive threats to control domestic rivals. Autocrats like Putin centralize power by clamping down on critics and activists.
- – exploiting divisions and fears – Populist leaders accomplish agendas by activating anger around controversial issues. Scapegoating unpopular groups helps consolidate support.
- – Ideology vs action – Saying one thing publicly while doing another privately. Policy hypocrisy allows leaders to appeal to values while acting on interests.
- While democracies reject Machiavellian tactics, leaders still face the pressures of power politics. Understanding Machiavelli’s realism helps explain the dark arts of statecraft persisting through history.
Machiavelli’s classification of governments into ideal republics for virtuous people and practical monarchies for vicious people provides an insightful framework for analyzing different forms of governance. Though his 16th-century view may seem cynical today, it was quite revolutionary for his time period. In many ways, Machiavelli was ahead of his contemporaries in recognizing the importance of checks and balances, separation of powers, and curtailing the potential abuses of rulers. However, his dismissive view of the general population as fundamentally self-interested and unvirtuous reflects the elitism of his era. Ultimately, Machiavelli’s ideas helped shape modern political thought by challenging idealistic notions and encouraging pragmatic, realistic approaches to statecraft. While some of his recommendations seem amoral or tyrannical now, his core impulse was to strengthen societies against corruption and instability.Machiavelli thus remains one of history’s most influential political philosophers. Even as we reject his bleaker assessments of human nature, we still wrestle with the difficult balancing act he identified between lofty ideals and workable solutions. By daring to question utopian visions of governance, Machiavelli opened the door to more nuanced, compromised – yet ultimately durable and successful – systems of democracy and liberty.