Demonizing Machiavelli

Criticism of Machiavelli by the church started almost as soon as The Prince was published. One of the earliest English attacks against Machiavelli came from Cardinal Reginald Pole, who wrote an “apology” to Charles V in 1539. He attacks The Prince and Machiavelli himself at length, saying the book had been written by “Satan’s finger.”

According to, there are “…approximately four hundred references to Niccolò Machiavelli in Elizabethan literature.” This is interesting because for a long time it was believed there was no English translation of The Prince until 1640 (Dacres). Yet there are three references to Machiavelli in Shakespeare’s plays (although no direct borrowing). Clearly Machiavelli was well known before 1640, at least by name and reputation.

An edition of The Prince and of The Discourses, in Italian, was published in England in 1584. The Art of War (1560) and the Florentine History (1595) both were published in English translations before The Prince. Bishop Stephen Gardiner wrote a 1555 treatise on politics that uses unattributed content from Machiavelli’s The Prince and The Discourses. See the bibliography.

There was a French translation of The Prince published in 1553 and another in 1571. Latin editions were published in in 1560, 1566, 1680, and 1599.

Discourse on the Means of Good Governance…  Against Nicholas Machiavel Florentine (aka Discours contre Machiavel), was a widely-circulated book in the late 16th century. It was written in French by Innocent Gentillet, a Huguenot writer. It was first published in Geneva in 1576 and in other countries shortly after, including England. A Latin edition was published in 1577 and an English translation in 1602.

Gentillet attacked Machiavelli’s ideas and attributed the St. Bartholomew’s Day massacre of French Protestants (fronted by Catherine de Medici, Florence-born wife of King Henry II of France) in 1572 as the result of Machiavelli’s political ideas being adopted by the Catholic nobility. An estimated 50,000 French Protestants died in the attacks. Gentillet’s widely-circulated work was likely a major influence on English popular perception of Machiavelli.

In 1930, an undated, previously unknown manuscript of an English translation of The Prince was auctioned. Based on the style and handwriting, experts estimated it to be a 16th century work. Other manuscript translations now are known to exist, some in the British Library, which date back to 1584, when Shakespeare would have been 20 years old. A similar manuscript, now at Harvard University, is tentatively dated ca. 1588.

 “Alencon! that notorious Machiavel!
It dies, an if it had a thousand lives.”
Shakespeare:  Henry VI, Part I

The Duke d’Alencon  (Duke of Guise) was a suitor for Queen Elizabeth I, implicated in the massacre of Huguenots in France, and unpopular with the English court or populace, but this reference is to a historic figure alleged to have been the lover of Joan of Arc, although the audience would have understood the reference to the contemporary duke.

In the prologue to Christopher Marlowe’s play, written in 1589 or 90, the Duke appears again:

“MACHIAVEL. Albeit the world think Machiavel is dead,
Yet was his soul but flown beyond the Alps;
And, now the Guise is dead, is come from France,
To view this land, and frolic with his friends.
To some perhaps my name is odious;
But such as love me, guard me from their tongues,
And let them know that I am Machiavel,
And weigh not men, and therefore not men’s words.”
Christopher Marlowe: Prologue to The Jew of Malta

In Henry VI, Machiavelli’s name appears a second time:

“I can add colours to the chameleon,
Change shapes with Proteus for advantages,
And set the murderous Machiavel to school.”
Shakespeare: Henry VI, Part III

Here the Machiavel being referenced is Richard, Duke of Gloucester, who would become Richard III. Another reference appears in The Merry Wives of Windsor:

“Am I politic? am I subtle? am I a Machiavel?”
Shakespeare: The Merry Wives of Windsor, Act III. Scene I.

Shakespeare uses the adjectives “subtle,” “notorious,” and “murderous” to describe Machiavelli. Some scholars have argued that Shakespeare was making an anti-Machiavelli argument through Coriolanus and the Henry plays.

Richard III, one of Shakespeare’s great characters, is not called a Machiavel in the play of that name, but is generally believed to voice Machiavellian sentiments in his acts and speeches. He is called by others in the play “minister of hell”, and a “cacodemon.” He is oft cited as the embodiment of Machiavellian morality and politics in Shakespeare. Iago, from Othello, is another character recognized as “Machiavellian.”

In 1740, Frederick the Great of Prussia published his own essay, called The Refutation of Machiavelli’s Prince. He wrote in the preface that he dared “take up the defense of humanity against this monster who wishes to destroy it.” He also called The Prince “one of the most dangerous works that have ever been foisted upon the world.”

As for being ‘Machiavellian,’ perhaps the most contentious maxim in The Prince is that rulers have to learn how not to be good (Ch. 15). He exhorted rulers to behave according to circumstances, not according to some fixed rules of morality. That went against the grain of contemporary Christian teachings.

Machiavelli did not believe in the divine nature of power. Politics bowed to no higher authority than itself. This challenged the churches’ temporal and spiritual authority.

His writing suggests he was more secular than most of his contemporaries, but by no means an atheist. He recognized a difference between faith and religion. He was not interested in theology, but rather in the role of the church and religion in politics.

Machiavelli was adamant about the need for a separation of church and state (an idea first floated by a fellow Italian, Marsilius of Padua, in his 1324 book Defensor Pacis). Machiavelli argued that church interference in mundane politics corrupted both the state and the church. He could never forgive the church for preventing Italy from being united:

“The Church, therefore, never being powerful enough herself to take possession of the entire country, while, at the same time, preventing any one else from doing so, has made it
impossible to bring Italy under one head; and has been the cause of her always living subject to many princes or rulers, by whom she has been brought to such division and weakness as to have become a prey, not to Barbarian kings only, but to any who have thought fit to attack her.”
The Discourses: I, 12

That did not sit well with the powerful, very political, and very militant popes of his day Hence the demonization of the term, ‘Machiavellian.’

Machiavelli noted in several documents that states needed religion, to provide the people with moral strength and unity. However, he believed the Catholic church of his day was corrupt and immoral, and encouraged servility, not liberty.

The Jesuits labeled Machiavelli, ‘the devil’s partner in crime.’ According to Samuel Butler, the English slang term for the devil, ‘Old Nick,’ is taken from Niccolò, Machiavelli’s first name.
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