What Was Machiavelli's View Of Human Nature

Describe Machiavelli's view of human nature. How do his views of government follow from it? 

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kipling2448 eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Niccolo Machiavelli’s views of human nature strongly influenced his recommendations for governing.  The Prince is a handbook for how one should rule.  It is, by nature, cynical regarding the nature of man, as the author’s perceptions were shaped by his observations of the Medici family and by his victimization at the hands of the powerful.  He wrote his handbook as an exercise in analyzing the attributes that defined a great ruler, which was one who prevailed by virtue of his ability to survive. Machiavelli held a decidedly negative view of human nature, one in which people existed to serve the interests of the powerful, who nevertheless had to manage through a carefully calibrated balance of violence and benevolence.  He viewed the masses as pliable, but difficult to control over time. In Chapter VI, he wrote, “the nature of the people is variable, and whilst it is easy to persuade them, it is difficult to fix them in that persuasion,” an indication of his belief in the necessity of managing one’s rule so as to be ready to adapt to changing circumstances.  As he wrote in Chapter X regarding the malleability of the people and of the need to anticipate and address their fears and desires:

“If the people have property outside the city, and see it burnt, they will not remain patient, and the long siege and self-interest will make them forget their prince; to this I answer that a powerful and courageous prince will overcome all such difficulties by giving at one time hope to his subjects that the evil will not be for long, at another time fear of the cruelty of the enemy, then preserving himself adroitly from those subjects who seem to him to be too bold.”

Further evidence of Machiavelli’s cynical attitude towards human nature is offered in Chapter XXIII, titled “How Flatterers Should be Avoided.”  As he does throughout his treatise, Machiavelli emphasizes the attributes that should characterize the effective ruler, or prince, and warns against the pitfalls associated with obsequious subordinates:

“It is that of flatterers, of whom courts are full, because men are so self-complacent in their own affairs, and in a way so deceived in them, that they are preserved with difficulty from this pest, and if they wish to defend themselves they run the danger of falling into contempt.”

The Prince is replete with examples of its author’s condescending and sometimes contemptuous view of the masses.  Machiavelli’s observations on the effective ruler are derived directly from his wary perspectives regarding the nature of man.  His admonitions against both distance and closeness, his warnings against trusting those nearest to him, and his very contempt for weakness all emanate from a fundamental distrust of the people over whom his revered dictators ruled. 

rrteacher eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Machiavelli takes a very cynical, jaded view of human nature that can be summed up by the following statement in Chapter 17, "Concerning Cruelty and Clemency, and Whether It is Better to Be Feared Than Loved." Machiavelli claims that it is better for a leader to be feared than loved because

this is to be asserted in general of men, that they are ungrateful, fickle, false, cowardly, covetous, and as long as you succeed they are yours entirely; they will offer you their blood, property, life and children, as is said above, when the need is far distant; but when it approaches they turn against you. And that prince who, relying entirely on their promises, has neglected other precautions, is ruined . . .

Essentially, he regards people as inherently craven, self-interested, and untrustworthy. So, while it is useful to be loved, and being hated can only lead to problems for a ruler, a prince should not rely on the love of his people, who will turn on him as soon as they perceive a benefit in doing so. Machiavelli's view of human nature directly influences his theory of proper governance, which is often summarized as "the end justifies the means." A leader should do whatever it takes to stay in power. If that means acting with cruelty, so be it. Likewise, if a leader chooses to be merciful, generous, or decent, it should be because he has calculated that these behaviors will best advance his rule, not because they are inherently right or just.

Machiavelli argues that previously, political theorists had written about ideal behavior for monarchs. He portrays himself as a sort of grim pragmatist who takes a more realistic view, and his musings about government in The Prince are based on this hard-nosed view of the world: 

It appears to me to be more appropriate to follow up the real truth of the matter rather than the imagination of it; for many have pictured republics and principalities which in fact have never been known or seen, because how one lives is so far distant from how one ought to live . . .