Why is Niccolo Machiavelli still considered important today?

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Machiavelli is still considered important because many commentators have regarded his thinking as a model for the negative principles that are still operating in the political world today. The Prince is a treatise that describes the conduct an authoritarian leader should follow in order to acquire and maintain power. Machiavelli...

Unlock
This Answer Now

Start your 48-hour free trial to unlock this answer and thousands more. Enjoy eNotes ad-free and cancel anytime.

Start your 48-Hour Free Trial

Machiavelli is still considered important because many commentators have regarded his thinking as a model for the negative principles that are still operating in the political world today. The Prince is a treatise that describes the conduct an authoritarian leader should follow in order to acquire and maintain power. Machiavelli based his conclusions on examples from both ancient and contemporary history, but even now—500 years later, and in a vastly changed social and political climate—we see political figures who behave similarly to those described in Machiavelli's slim but incisive volume. Therefore, he is still "relevant" as a political theorist.

Often, however, people today who refer to "Machiavellian" principles as a catch-all for politics based purely on a lust for power have either never actually read Machiavelli or have misunderstood the main themes of The Prince. Machiavelli was not so much endorsing, but rather describing, patterns of action that had enabled rulers to stay in power. He makes it clear that in The Prince, he's describing monarchical states rather than republics—the latter being his own preferred form of government, which he deals with in the Discourses. His observations in The Prince are made matter-of-factly, and he leaves the reader to draw moral inferences.

The most trenchant segment of The Prince contains the statement that successful rulers have tended to cultivate a vacillating, hypocritical personality in order to sway and control the masses. He mentions a "certain monarch of our time" (whom most commentators have identified as Ferdinand of Spain) who presents himself as the defender of peace and faith, but in reality "is the extreme enemy of both." All we have to do is think of how many political leaders of our own time (in the United States and elsewhere) have fit this exact mold to understand why Machiavelli is still considered relevant today.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Niccolo Machiavelli is still considered important today because many of his ideas helped form the foundation of modern international politics and governance. For instance, Machiavelli emphasized that rulers should use practical wisdom as they govern their domains. It is impossible, he said, to always be moral; thus, a ruler must learn that it is okay to do bad things to promote the greater good (but he must learn when to do them). As he said:

Any man who tries to be good all the time is bound to come to ruin among the great number who are not good. Hence a prince who wants to keep his authority must learn how not to be good, and use that knowledge, or refrain from using it, as necessity requires.

This idea greatly diverged from the medieval belief that a ruler should attempt to conform to a transcendent ideal of how a ruler should act.

This principle eventually developed into the philosophy of utilitarianism, which put simply is the idea that "the ends justify the means." Modern governments employ this idea quite often. For instance, the U.S. government has, at times, justified the use of torture by saying that it prevents terrorist attacks and thus saves lives.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team