Machiavelli and the Politics of Fear

May 19, 2016

Only a few years before Martin Luther shook the world with his 95 Theses, Niccolo Machiavelli wrote a short book that would revolutionize political theory for the next 500 years. Since that time, Machiavelli’s thought has been applied not only to politics but also to education and business. As this month marks the anniversary of Machiavelli’s birth, it is an appropriate occasion to reflect on his legacy.

Born May 3, 1469, Machiavelli received a humanist education typical of the Renaissance. He was trained in grammar, logic, and rhetoric. As a product of the Renaissance, his studies were based largely on a recovered examination of classical authors from Ancient Greece and Rome. As the greatest minds of the Renaissance era set out to develop and apply comprehensive policies to various cultural and social entities, Machiavelli produced one of the definitive works on political theory and the exercise of political power – a book called The Prince

In the early 16th century, Machiavelli experienced some success in leading the Florentine militia. However, the Medici family, with military support from Pope Julius II, deposed the Florentine leader. Following the Medici victory, Machiavelli was forced to exit political life, and he shifted his focus to producing works reflecting on politics. In 1513 he wrote The Prince, which he dedicated to Lorenzo de Medici, with the intended purpose of instructing rulers how best to achieve and maintain political power.

Machiavelli, in a distinct break from historical political philosophy, is among the first to remove any concern of morality from the exercise of political power. The Prince reveals that Machiavelli rightly understood that human nature is deeply corrupt and selfish. Therefore, a prince must be vigilant in order to prevent rebellion and disorder if he is to maintain his kingdom or if he wishes to secure new territories.

What results from Machiavelli’s jettisoning of morality and his elevation of the security and maintenance of a kingdom to the highest good for a ruler is a horrifying political ethic. Machiavelli rightly understands that each kingdom and set of circumstances requires a different approach. If a state loves and respects its leader, there is little cause for unease in his heart. However, it is impossible for a prince to please all of his people all of the time. Therefore, in almost all circumstances, the best course of action for a ruler is to instill fear in the people. If fear overwhelms the hearts of the citizens, there is no chance of rebellion. Machiavelli writes, “It has to be noted that men must be either pampered or crushed because they can get revenge for small injuries but not for grievous ones” (10). The spirit of rebellion must be so severely punished that there is no chance of the dissenters ever recovering.

The most famous passage from The Prince is in an answer to the question “Is it better to be loved than feared?” Machiavelli’s answer to this question is quite familiar to modern day readers. He writes, “The answer is that one would like to be both one and the other; but because it is difficult to combine them, it is far better to be feared than loved if you cannot be both” (71). The underlying logic for this answer comes in Machiavelli’s next sentence regarding human nature: “One can make this generalization about men: they are ungrateful, fickle, liars, and deceivers, they shun danger and are greedy for profit” (71). The deep-seated wickedness within the heart of man forces the ruler to strike fear into his people, though, Machiavelli argues, not in such a way as to arouse hatred.

Machiavelli proposes that rulers can be either “armed prophets” or “unarmed prophets.” An “armed prophet” is a leader who rules by force, while an “unarmed prophet” is one who has no way of directly forcing his rule on his subjects. Machiavelli argues that a leader who cannot force his will upon the people can never be successful. An unarmed prophet is doomed to despair because, according to Machiavelli, charismatic leadership or non-violent leadership can never have enduring power. Eventually, a prince, no matter how greatly admired, will eventually fall out of popularity.

A prince will never be able to bring all those in his domain to love him; it is beyond his control. However, he is able to determine to what extent his subjects fear him. Therefore, he writes, “So, on this question of being loved or feared, I conclude that since some men love as they please but fear when the prince pleases, a wise prince should rely on what he controls, not on what he cannot control. He must only endeavor, as I said, to escape being hated.” Machiavelli’s principle: make them fear you because you cannot make them love you.

Machiavelli’s principles are so menacing because they lead a ruler to act in his best interest rather than in the best interest of those in his care. When this becomes the prime directive, the prince is no longer required to behave with any code of morality or integrity. A prince must act out of wisdom governed by pragmatism in order to secure his rule. Machiavelli instructs rulers that “as a prince is forced to know how to act like a beast, he must learn from the fox and the lion; because the lion is defenceless (sic) against traps and a fox is defenceless (sic) against wolves. Therefore one must be a fox in order to recognize traps and a lion to frighten off wolves” (74).

According to Machiavelli, a ruler must always behave in his best interest. A ruler need not keep his word, if it is to his advantage, but he should keep his word when it is beneficial to do so. Again, recognizing the inherent corruption of the human heart, Machiavelli argues, “If all men were good this precept would not be good, but because men are wretched creatures who would not keep their word to you, you need not keep your word to them” (71-72). Here, Machiavelli abandons all notions that a leader is or should be held to a higher moral standard than the average person. He adopts something like an inversion of the Golden Rule “do evil unto others as they would do evil unto you.” Men will not always love you, but “fear is strengthened by a dread of punishment which is always effective” (71). The fear of punishment and the fear of a ruler will never fade, while love for a ruler will.

The lasting legacy of Machiavelli’s authoritarian pragmatism is evident in the political philosophy that follows. While he rightly understands the problem of human sinfulness, he mistakenly proposes a solution that requires the use of fear and punishment rather than justice and righteousness. Machiavelli influenced men such as Thomas Hobbes who, in his 1651 work Leviathan, identified the need for a strong, authoritarian government to correct the natural state of man which is “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” Meanwhile, in the present, certain candidates for the United States presidency have signaled their willingness to abandon morality and justice in order to combat terrorism, even carrying the fight so far as to punish and kill the families of terrorists in order to prevent such acts from occurring in the future. This Machiavellian mentality can only lead to the oppression of the masses and to the sad destruction of liberty.

Christians must reject Machiavellian leadership and take a different view. While Machiavelli’s approach may prove effective at times, Scripture teaches that these methods must be rejected. Proverbs 3:31 says, “Do not envy a man of violence and do not choose his ways.”  When violence and cruelty are used by a leader so that he may retain power, justice is not being done. The Christian worldview embraces a ruler who leads not by cruelty, but through righteousness and peace. Philippians 2 teaches that Christ Jesus was willing to sacrifice his power to humble Himself, taking on flesh in order to save those who lived in rebellion. Rather than demonstrating cruelty and selfishness, Jesus selflessly laid down his own life for those who rejected and despised Him. Christ teaches us that leadership is not about power but about service and selflessness. If Christians are to speak to the culture regarding leadership, we must embrace the model of leadership demonstrated by Jesus rather than the one offered by Machiavelli.

Machiavelli, Niccolo. The Prince. New York: Penguin Books, 2005. Print.

Seth Woodley
Seth Woodley serves as the Upper School Humanities teacher at Oak Ridge Christian Academy in Conroe, Texas, and as the Director of Student Ministries at Oak Ridge Reformed Baptist Church.