Machiavelli today is commonly known by two things. One is the statement that, ‘the end justifies the means.’ The other is by the adjective ‘Machiavellian,’ meaning something evil, underhanded, treacherous, cunning or sneaky in politics. Neither is accurate.
Many people recognize that he wrote The Prince (Il Principe), but few modern municipal politicians can lay claim to actually having read it (let alone The Discourses or his other works). And from that stems several misconceptions about what he said and didn’t say.
Machiavelli did not write ‘the end justifies the means.’ It is a modern condensation – and somewhat of a simplification – of an idea expressed in The Prince. However memorable it is, he had a lot more to say about politics and the behaviour of rulers than that one line.
Machiavelli was just being a realist. He certainly was not a hedonist like Aleister Crowley who wrote,
“Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the law.”
Machiavelli believed strongly in law, as long as it served the greater good of the state.
Machiavelli constantly reminds readers that rulers need to make tough decisions to maintain order, and at times be cruel in the short term in order to achieve order or happiness and stability in the long term.
Here’s where ‘the end justifies the means’ comes in. Machiavelli wrote that the effect of a ruler’s actions mattered more than the deeds themselves, as long as the end was good for the state.
Instead of ‘the end justifies the means,’ a paraphrase for Machiavelli might better be taken from a line in Nick Lowe’s song: You gotta be cruel to be kind in the right measure, or this line from Hamlet’s speech:
“I must be cruel only to be kind.
Thus bad begins and worse remains behind.”
William Shakespeare: Hamlet Act 3, scene 4
Nor did Machiavelli write, ‘Never to attempt to win by force what can be won by deception,’ in The Prince. That is a mis-quote, likely paraphrased from The Discourses, Book III: 40, or Book II: 13. It might even derive from The Art of War by Sun-Tzu. While popular on the Internet, this unsourced quote is not one of his maxims.
He also did not write that other popular internet meme, ‘I’m not interested in preserving the status quo; I want to overthrow it.’ That was actually said by US Republican Newt Gringrich, and is taken from a 1991 interview printed in the LA Times:
Such jabs don’t faze Gingrich. “I’m not interested in preserving the status quo; I want to overthrow it,” he says. “Of course people are going to resent that.”
Other things Machiavelli did NOT say include these pseudo-quotes taken from various, mostly inaccurate and never verified, quotation sites online:
- “Politics have no relation to morals.”
- “It is double pleasure to deceive the deceiver.”
- “Entrepreneurs are simply those who understand that there is little difference between obstacle and opportunity and are able to turn both to their advantage.”
- “It is not titles that honor men, but men that honor titles.”
- “The wise man does at once what the fool does finally.”
- “Before all else, be armed.”
- “The more sand has escaped from the hourglass of our life, the clearer we should see through it.”
- “History is written by the victors.”
- “One should never fall in the belief that you can find someone to pick you up.”
- “God creates men, but they choose each other.”
- “Princes and governments are far more dangerous than other elements within society.”
- “A prince is also esteemed when he is a true friend and a true enemy.”
- “He who blinded by ambition, raises himself to a position whence he cannot mount higher, must thereafter fall with the greatest loss.”
- “War is just when it is necessary; arms are permissible when there is no hope except in arms.”
- “Keep your friends close, and your enemies closer.”
NONE of the above lines were written by Machiavelli, yet all appear on unverified, online so-called quotation database pages.See Wikiquote for some actual, sourced quotes, and some misquotes explained.
Previous Chapter – Next Chapter
- Machiavelli and Sejanus - October 14, 2022
- A Meeting of the Minds? - July 3, 2021
- Machiavelli’s Prince as satire - June 8, 2017
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