You’ve probably all heard the phrase, “The end justifies the means” in connection with Machiavelli, in fact it’s probably the one thing most people who have never studied Machiavelli associate with him, and even if he never said those exact words, it is true that the end result is of primary importance in The Prince. What Machiavelli does say is that “In the actions of all men, and especially of princes who are not subject to a court of appeal, we must always look to the end. Let a prince, therefore, win victories and uphold his state; his methods will always be considered worthy, and everyone will praise them, because the masses are always impressed by the superficial appearance of things, and by the outcome of an enterprise.”
It is also true that Machiavelli quite often speaks of the utility of an action as opposed to its morality, and the focus shifts from whether an action is good in itself to whether it is useful. If we look at Machiavelli’s choice of words, quite often the concept of “goodness” is linked to or even replaced by words such as “effective”, “necessary”, “successful”, “useful”, or even “safe”, whereas an action can be said to be bad if it is “useless” or “harmful”. These kinds of terms are much more common in Machiavelli than the absolute moral notions of good and evil. Machiavelli even admits that what is good can vary according to the situation, depending on what leads to success and what leads to failure, so there is no absolute value to what is good.
Machiavelli explains how a prince must change his behavior according to the times and circumstances. At one point he describes how two men may proceed in different ways and both be successful, or if they proceed in the same way maybe one will be successful and the other will not, according to whether the times and circumstances are favorable to their methods. He says, “This too explains the variation in what is good; for if a prince conducts himself with patience and caution, and the times and circumstances are favorable to those qualities, he will flourish; but if times and circumtances change, he will come to ruin unless he changes his method of proceeding.” So we see that what is good is not merely good in itself but depends on a lot of other factors.
Even the notions of virtue and vice take on a different meaning in Machiavelli. We have seen all the different meanings the word “virtù” can possess, which poses an extraordinary problem to the translator. The translator of this edition, as he explains in his note, has translated “virtù” as “strength,” “ability,” “courage,” “manliness,” “ingenuity,” “character,” “wisdom,” or even (last resort) “virtue.” He has also translated virtù as “skill”, “powers”, “energy”, “talents”, “vigor”, “astuteness”, “shrewdness”, “effort”, “craft”, “prowess”, “customs”, “value”, and many other ways that often have nothing to do with what we think of when we think of virtue. So we see how the word “virtù” takes on this multiplicity of meanings according to the context, in the same way that the notion of what is virtue and what is vice can vary immensely according to the context and circumstances. Machiavelli addresses this problem in a chapter I referred to earlier, Chapter XV, “On the reasons why men are praised or blamed--especially princes.” He lists qualities which seem to be virtues and vices, except he does not call them virtues and vices, he calls them qualities that bring men either praise or blame. And we see again how the focus shifts from what is virtue or vice in itself, to the result of this virtue or vice, that is, either praise or blame. He talks about qualities that are considered good, and concludes with a statement which seems to, if not reverse, at least call into question the traditional notions of vice and virtue. He says, “For if you look at matters carefully, you will see that something resembling virtue, if you follow it, may be your ruin, while something else resembling vice will lead, if you follow it, to your security and well-being.” In this way the value of an action usually refers to the value of its outcome, and thus a good course of action is one that leads to a good outcome, whereas a bad course of action leads to a bad outcome. And Machiavelli has seen that often an action which may be good in itself can lead to a bad outcome and vice versa, an action which may be considered morally wrong can lead to a good outcome. An example of this is cruelty: Machiavelli says that cruelty is evil in itself, but as we shall see if it is well used it can lead to a good outcome.
And experience has taught Machiavelli that often the most successful outcomes are a result of actions which may seem unscrupulous. He even says as much at the beginning of Chapter XVIII on “The way princes should keep their word;” he says, “How praiseworthy it is for a prince to keep his word and live with integrity rather than by craftiness, everyone understands; yet we see from recent experience that those princes have accomplished most who paid little heed to keeping their promises, but who knew how to manipulate the minds of men craftily. In the end, they won out over those who tried to act honestly.” So it’s really a lot more complex than just “the end justifies the means;” in my opinion that’s an oversimplification that, if put into practice, could lead to a lot of outcomes that Machiavelli never would have approved.
Because what is Machiavelli really talking about here, he’s talking about what a man must do to gain and maintain political power. He’s not talking about the private sphere, he’s not recommending that a man be deceitful or hypocritical for his own personal gain, he is describing the way a man must conduct himself and the steps he must take to be an effective leader, and it is always in relation to the state. And here it may be useful to speak of what later came to be called “ragion di stato” or “raison d’état”, reason of state, the idea that even immoral actions may be justified in extreme political situations for the preservation of the state. If you looked at some of the readings in this edition, you may have seen that not everyone agrees that this is what Machiavelli is talking about, but at any rate the actions and behavior Machiavelli recommends are always in relation to their effectiveness in gaining power and governing the state, which is the ultimate goal of the prince, although not the ultimate goal for Machiavelli because if you go on to read the Discourses you will see that he is really in favor of a republic, and the princely state is only intermediary.
But in this work he limits himself to discussing the goals of the prince in relation to the state. For example, in his discussion of virtue and vice Machiavelli says, “[...] a prince must be shrewd enough to avoid the public disgrace of those vices that would lose him his state. If he possibly can, he should also guard against vices that will not lose him his state; but if he cannot prevent them, he should not be too worried about indulging them. And furthermore, he should not be too worried about incurring blame for any vice without which he would find it hard to save his state.” In the last category he gives the example of miserliness: the prince should not mind if people consider him a miser, because, Machiavelli says, “this is simply one of the vices that enable him to reign.” Machiavelli is merely describing what a prince must do to keep his state, as when he says “a prince who wants to keep his state, is often bound to do what is not good.”
Machiavelli is not even bringing an explicit moral judgment to the prince’s actions. He is not saying that it is morally right or wrong for a prince to act this way, he is just saying that it is necessary. Because the moral code for a prince, in Machiavelli’s point of view, is necessarily different from that of a private citizen. He even says that the prince “should not depart from the good if he can hold on to it, but he should be ready to enter on evil if he has to.” It always goes back to preserving the state, “mantenere lo stato.” And the question is not so much what is good or bad, but what is necessary.
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