Podcast #375: The Misunderstood Machiavelli

The ends justify the means. It’s better to be feared than loved. Politics have no relation to morals. 

These are just a few of the maxims the Italian writer Niccolo Machiavelli is well known for. The cynical and duplicitous advice he offered in The Prince has made Machiavelli’s name synonymous with manipulative self-interest and deceitful plays for power.

But what if Machiavelli wrote The Prince not as sincere advice for would-be leaders, but as a work of irony and satire that’s meant to shine a light on the futility of manipulative deception and the need for leaders of virtue. 

That’s the argument my guest makes in her book Be Like the Fox: Machiavelli in His World. Her name is Erica Benner and she’s a professor of political philosophy. Today on the show, Erica and I discuss why Machiavelli is misunderstood and what he actually was trying to accomplish with his writing. Instead of being an advisor for tyrants, Erica argues that Machiavelli was an impassioned supporter of republicanism and spent his life trying to foster republican virtue in Florence. And she argues that if you look at Machiavelli’s life and all of his writing, you’ll find a man who didn’t think politics had no relation to morals, but rather firmly believed the only way for free republics to last for centuries was to develop citizens and leaders of virtue. 

You’re not going to read The Prince the same way after listening to this episode.

Show Highlights

  • Why Erica took it upon herself to redeem one of the most loathed characters in world history 
  • Where did Machiavelli’s poor reputation come from?
  • Is The Prince actually a work of satire and irony?
  • The world that Machiavelli was born into
  • Why it was hard for Machiavelli to get into politics
  • Machiavelli’s military and citizen militia views 
  • The ancient writers who most influenced Machiavelli’s ideas
  • What did Machiavelli mean by “fortune”? 
  • What makes Machiavelli so timeless?
  • How the newcomer should read The Prince and Machiavelli as a whole
  • Why virtue is more important in leadership than nearly any other trait 
  • How to be more like the fox 

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