Is Machiavellian thought compatible with Objectivism?

Marcus's picture
Submitted by Marcus on Fri, 2012-03-16 17:20

I know what you're thinking, "the ends justify the means" doesn't sound very Objectivist.

However I just read this passage in a book on Machiavelli (author of the Prince) and it gave me pause for thought.

"The political existence of the prince was ruled by two aspects: Virtue and Fortune. However, these had no place for Christian virtues or even passive endurance of ill fortune that Christianity preached. Virtue (virtu) was not to be mistaken for the moral view of this word, but should be understood in its original ancient meaning, which had connotations of the Latin word vir (man) and vis (strength). Virtue, as Machiavelli used it, indicated virility, strength, power, manliness. Fortune (fortuna), on the other hand, was essentially a feminine principle, and its capriciousness should be treated as such: 'It is better to be impetuous than cautious, for Fortune is a woman.' Fortune was Fate, in the ancient sense of this word, but was not to be viewed with any hint of ancient Stoicism: political expedience had no room for political correctness. 'Because Fortune is a woman, to make her submissive it is necessary to beat her and force her...Being a woman she favours younger men, because they are far less cautious, and more filled with ardour, and because they overcome her with greater audacity.'"

I don't know about you, but I can't imagine Rand disagreeing with this sentiment.

In fact, you could say that the concept of "the virility of virtue over feminine fate" completes her work in terms of the ethics of self-esteem.

Machiavelli, a true renaissance man who just got bad press from the Catholic Church? Or does he deserve his bad name?

Note: In 1557 the Roman Catholic Church issued its first Index of Banned Books: this included not only the Prince, but for good measure all of Machiavelli's works.

Note: Machiavelli's influence permeated political philosophy. A quote appears in an essay by Alexander Hamilton, one of the founding fathers of America. He wrote:

Political Writers have established it as a maxim, that, in contriving any system of government, and fixing the several checks and controls of the constitution, every man ought to be supposed a knave; and to have no other end in all his actions, but his private interest.

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Well this

Jules Troy's picture

Definately brings him into a whole different light than what is often represented of him.  I will re read his works in an entirely different light.  Thank you for an enlightening thread that has me checking my premises!

Apropos Linz...

Marcus's picture

...I just came across this book from 2010: The New Machiavelli by Jonathan Powell.

"Taking the lessons Machiavelli recorded in his political masterpiece The Prince, Jonathan Powell, Tony Blair's Chief of Staff, shows how they can still apply today. Illustrating each of Machiavelli's maxims with a description of events that occurred during Tony Blair's time as Prime Minister, Powell provides a gripping account of life inside Number 10 and draws lessons from those experiences for anyone today who has access to the levers of power."

Indeed Linz...

Marcus's picture

...I think you've put your finger on it and the author indicates as much.

He writes:

Did he really believe that this was the way to rule? In fact, during the ensuing years Machiavelli would write a much more serious, deeply considered and lengthy book entitled the Discourses, in which he advocated a more humane and democratic republican government. Indeed, in this work he even goes so far as to distance himself from 'those who generally dedicate their work to some prince', and instead advocates 'new principles and systems' such as would be put in place by 'the sagacious legislator of a republic...whose object is to promote the public good, and not his private interests.'

In the wikipedia entry on the Discourses it says:

Jean-Jacques Rousseau considered the Discourses (as well as the Florentine Histories) to be more representative of Machiavelli's true philosophy:

Machiavelli was a proper man and a good citizen; but, being attached to the court of the Medici, he could not help veiling his love of liberty in the midst of his country's oppression. The choice of his detestable hero, Cesare Borgia, clearly enough shows his hidden aim; and the contradiction between the teaching of the Prince and that of the Discourses on Livy and the History of Florence shows that this profound political thinker has so far been studied only by superficial or corrupt readers. The Court of Rome sternly prohibited his book. I can well believe it; for it is that Court it most clearly portrays.

—Rousseau, The Social Contract, Book III.


Lindsay Perigo's picture

It's commonly overlooked that in The Prince Machiavelli was outlining not what men should do but what they do do; he didn't necessarily approve of it, as has come to be supposed, any more than Rand approved the diabolical machinations of her villains. In modern parlance we might say Machiavelli "tells it like it is." "Like it is" is assuredly the antithesis of Rand's desired "life on the level," as Joe points out, but depicting it accurately is no sin. Not just in politics but whenever human beings get together they behave like conniving shits. The well-known phenomenon of office politics is a prosaic manifestation of this truism. Even organised Objectivism is replete with Machiavelli!


Jmaurone's picture

I think you're misreading her point with that example.

Well it does make for good movies..

Jules Troy's picture

The line were cia or other agencies quote "you cant make an omlette without breaking a few eggs".   Then they kill or attempt to kill the agent involved in the storyline.

Like the movie "Shooter" with Mark Walberg.

I know you were not talking about me Marcus, I am just enjoying the thread.


Marcus's picture

...I did not specifically mean you - I just meant to say that different men would draw the line at different degrees.

For example some would find it a step too far to work for the Government, others would say its OK as long as you know what you're doing.

Joe, wasn't Roark crossing the line into Machiavellian thinking when he destroyed Cortland Homes? It was not his property. He did not live in a world without justice. Surely taking the law into his own hands was unethical? Indeed a violent act that could have killed an innocent person. The broken contract was not even with the owner, but with the architect.

His ends were justified through unethical, even illegal and dangerous, means.

If one does

Jules Troy's picture

Well if one compromises one's principles he or she has to live with that decision and if it was not in his RATIONAL self interest then he will have to make restitution at a later date in order to stomach living with one's self and seek to redress that compromise.

Just to be clear I do not as a matter of course view doing everything one can to recoup taxes wrongfully coerced from me as immoral or pragmatic, it is my money I earned it and resent feeding 5 welfare losers that did not earn it or do anything to better themselves but simply vote for the politician most likely to continue robbing me "legally". They don't even have the initiative to actually break into my house and rob me blind thereby risking jail.  They just vote for that "prince" to do it for them all based on thier "needs" of course.


Btw how is my acting in my rational self interest in annnnnyway another man's cowardly compromise. 

The Moral is the Practical.

Jmaurone's picture

"The end does not justify the means. No one’s rights can be secured by the violation of the rights of others." Ayn Rand

Why ask me? It's not compatible with Objectivism. Take it up with Rand.

One man's rational self-interest...

Marcus's picture another man's cowardly compromise.

Indeed "pragmatism" which is so highly valued these days in politics, could be said to be the essence of Machiavallian thought with regards to The Prince.

I know what you are going to say, there is a heirachy of values involved. Most would consider deception to be sometimes necessary, but would consider theft, fraud or murder to be crossing the line. Even most socialists.

Everyone compromises principles at sometime, everyone.


Jules Troy's picture

You are working with your own rational self interest at heart, constrained within a flawed system.  In the case of taxation you are just getting back as much as possible what was stolen from you in the first place.  In my own case I was ravaged for over 70000 CAN last year and had to expend an additional 15k in RRSP's in order to get 10k back.  The 15k will be deferred to be raped and pillaged at a future date when I decide to use it for retirement.

  Perhaps the individual taking a job with the state will be able to take on a position at a private firm or perhaps if he supports the least worse of the bloodsuckers in future his division will become privatized!

How about expediency...

Marcus's picture

...for example, when you support the "least worst" candidate or the "least worst" party?

Or when you take a job with the state because there are no other avenues available to you?

Or when you pay your taxes and claim benefits (or subsidy) because you have to accept the system as it stands?


Jules Troy's picture

The ends never justifies means and incidentally usually have in the end achieved the opposite of what is intended.

Take for example the government's war on drugs.  The law was supposed to protect people from becoming drug addicts.  The result however is rampant crime due to escalating drug costs, increased profits of organized crime and addicts motivated to create even more addicts to feed thier own habits.

The end result being instead of a small minority of individuals engaging in self destructive behaviors we all suffer the collateral damage wrought.

That is just one not so small policy of the noble ends justifying the means gone very very wrong.

OK Joe...

Marcus's picture

...that just about sums it up.

But one last question: Do virtuous ends ever justify ignoble means?

Politicians say the darndest things...

Jmaurone's picture

Princes, too...

Marcus wrote

"...and you are spot on when it comes to politics and morality.

However what do you think of Machiavelli's ideas on virtue and fortune in relation to ethics, and how do you think they differ from Rand or even Nietzsche, for that matter?"

Machiavelli's ideas on virtue in relation to ethics? But Machiavelli divorced virtue from ethics.

Wynand is Machiavellian. Roark is Objectivism.

Thanks for that...

Marcus's picture

...and you are spot on when it comes to politics and morality.

However what do you think of Machiavelli's ideas on virtue and fortune in relation to ethics, and how do you think they differ from Rand or even Nietzsche, for that matter?

Surely his view of masculine virtue overcoming feminine fortune is Galt and Roark taken to the next level?

American Machiavelli

Jmaurone's picture

Marcus wrote:

"Note: Machiavelli's influence permeated political philosophy. A quote appears in an essay by Alexander Hamilton, one of the founding fathers of America. He wrote: 'Political Writers have established it as a maxim, that, in contriving any system of government, and fixing the several checks and controls of the constitution, every man ought to be supposed a knave; and to have no other end in all his actions, but his private interest.'"

My take on all that is at my blog, but here are some of the relevant passages:

To quote George Will, "If you seek Hamilton's monument, look around. You are living it. We honor Jefferson, but live in Hamilton's country, a mighty industrial nation with a strong central government."

Now, Ayn Rand was not shy about her admiration for the Founding Founders, but then, she never met nor mentioned (to my knowledge) Alexander Hamilton. If Jefferson was Rand's favorite Founding Father, then Hamilton, as Jefferson's nemesis, would have to be her nemesis; Hamilton was the antithesis of everything Rand regarded highly in the Founding Fathers, or in her philosophy in general. And while Peikoff does touch on some of the philosophically fatal ideas held by even the more admirable founders, it is Hamilton who stands out the most. (It's my suspicion that the judge in Atlas Shrugged, who is shown at the end editing the Constitution, is un-doing the damage done by Hamilton.) He was not an optimistic romantic, but a cautious realist: "I have thought it my duty to exhibit things as they are, not as they ought to be." It was Hamilton, the Machiavellian, who made a role model out of Julius Caesar: "He had no hope in the Articles of Confederation, but opted to put his hope in a central bank, a national debt, and a corrupt government rather than a corrupt man." It was Hamilton, the Federalist, who proposed the idea of a permanent president; in essence, a monarch. And where Rand argued against taxation as theft, it was Hamilton, the Federalist, who argued for the "General Welfare" clause.

And yet, some claim that Hamilton would be shocked to see just how centralized our government has become, and defend him against claims made against him out of context. But people can hold contradictory views, even with the best of intentions. But we have to acknowledge that Hamilton, being versed in Machiavelli, may have been just as "prepared to be not good." When Hamilton says that the Americans should look "to precedent and history rather than lofty political theory," I think of the second-handers of The Fountainhead who held to the Renaissance as the final epoch. Yes, Hamilton claimed that "It's not tyranny we desire; it's a just, limited, federal government." And it was Hamilton that argued for a loose interpretation of the Constitution.

But even if I were to give Hamilton the benefit of having good intentions, this next comment shows where that paved road led to. Sure, it was Hamilton that said “A power to appropriate money with this latitude which is granted too in express terms would not carry a power to do any other thing, not authorized in the constitution, either expressly or by fair implication.” But if Hamilton truly believed that, this next comment shows where that paved road led:

"Jefferson was not entirely wrong to fear Hamilton's vision for the country, for we have always been in a constant balancing act between self-interest and community, market and democracy, the concentration of wealth and power and the opening up of opportunity." - Barack Obama

There are those who will argue that Barack Obama has nothing but the noblest of intentions: "I believe that when you share the wealth, it's good for everybody." But Obama is also a Machiavellian, by way of Saul Alinsky and his Rules for Radicals:

“You do what you can with what you have and clothe it with moral garments.”


Jmaurone's picture

Is Machiavellian thought compatible with Objectivism?


“This may sound naive. But–is our life ever to have reality? Are we ever going to live on the level? Or is life always to be something else, something different from what it should be? A real life, simple and sincere, and even naive, is the only life where all the potential grandeur and beauty of human existence can really be found.” — Ayn Rand (Journals)

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