Have you ever heard of the adjective “Machiavellian”? If you did, you probably also know that it has a negative connotation to it. In fact, in the academic field of psychology, Machiavellianism is an official personality defect, referred to as one of the dark triads: “Machiavellianism in psychology refers to a personality trait which sees a person so focused on their own interests they will manipulate, deceive, and exploit others to achieve their goals…


…Machiavellianism is one of the traits in what is called the ‘Dark Triad’, the other two being narcissism and psychopathy.” (Harley, 2015). As with all stereotypes, there is a fair amount of justification to them but they almost always fail to capture the complete picture. To be fair, we can see some justification as to why the political idea of Machiavellianism and a manipulative personality are conflated (you will naturally understand as you advance through this blog post). However, this conflation is borne out of stereotype and narrow-mindedness, with the formalizing of the term as a personality defect reinforcing the stereotype itself. Not to mention, putting Machiavellianism on the same level as psychopathy and narcissism only exacerbates this stereotype. Machiavellianism as a political idea encompasses the “immorality” of it that most people associate the term with, but they are not equivalent. Machiavellianism as a political idea is much more than that and it is indeed a deeply misunderstood idea, as I shall endeavor to prove in this blog post.

Niccolo Machiavelli

Unlike the political thinkers before him, Machiavelli’s personality was not predominantly shaped by the socio-political force during his time. Of course, that is not to say that the socio-political force wasn’t significant – we are all helpless against the force imposed on us by our societies and political structures. For Machiavelli, he was also a victim of the socio-political force in his time (it shall be explained in the rest of this paragraph) but he was so different from everyone else that it is impossible not to think that there was something inherently different about him. Machiavelli lived in a time of political transition from the medieval era to the Renaissance, otherwise known as the age of Rational Enlightenment. Machiavelli came from an Italian city-state called Florence where he became a diplomat. His dealings with diplomatic situations may have necessitated his pragmatic and realistic worldview, or a non-indulgent in “pointless” idealism. Here we see the socio-political force at play which justifiably made Machiavelli who he was – an extreme product of rational enlightenment in the context of his occupation which necessitated deep practicality. His extremity, however, was rare among others in his time. One can only attribute the cause of this difference to his personality. He was a rationalist that, unlike Corpernicus or Galileo, was fortunate enough to be affirmed and endorsed by a societal conscious that had a heightened abhorrence to religion and embracement of rationality. All these, however, was ultimately made possible by the socio-political context of that time so we should never underestimate it.

Machiavelli’s Realism & Utilitarianism

To put it simply, Machiavelli’s approach do not venture into “what ought to be” but rather, it courageously accepts “what is” or the reality. The driving force behind the political thinkers before him were moralities. Moralities tell us what we ought to do. Hence, mixing it with politics made political philosophy a branch of moral philosophy. However, an over-indulgence in what a society ought to be often blinds us to the reality, causing the inability to bridge the gap between the ideal and reality. We see this very clearly in Plato’s idea of Philosopher’s King. To deal with what is at hand, especially with regards to the political strength of the ruler himself, is where Machiavelli shines. Machiavelli’s realism extends to the moral philosophy of utilitarianism – now you can’t say that he is immoral. In fact, no one is immoral, we just have a different perception of what is right and wrong – where the end justifies the mean. Hence, what is right or wrong is determined by the results that the method brings – what is effective in delivering results is right, and what is ineffective in doing so is therefore wrong. The fact that this principle of utlitarianism where the end justifies the mean is still morally unacceptable would then explain why Machiavelli is not a very well-received historical figure. Hence, it should be noted that Machiavelli was immoral only with respect to our current social expectation of what morality is. In the future, possibly in the near future since we now have a US president who is very likely a Machiavellian himself, we will have a place for Machiavelli in our heart. This realization leads me to conclude, as I did when I was exploring moral philosophies in this blog, that morality is a normative concept. What is moral and what isn’t should not be seen as absolute and timeless because it is a social construct that is subjected to social mores, and by extension, time itself.

What Machiavelli saw differently

Are you in the opinion that we humans are inherently altruistic, rational and intellectual, only to be tainted by society, or are we selfish, shortsighted and prone to emotional cues, which is why we need a proper societal and political structure to keep us in check? Optimists, and likely all the religiously devouts would think the former, but Machiavelli thought the latter. As a realist, he need not look further than history to become cynical of humanity. Scientifically, this has a follow-up: we evolved from primitive creatures to an intellectual one, but are we truly intellectual? Are we not, in many ways, still primitive? We wage wars for territory and resources (warfare and the use of military force), we abhors physical differences (racism and xenophobia), we exploit the weak (capitalism and colonialism). Are all these not primitive dispositions reflected in the animal kingdom? I am in the opinion that we are in the transition, and thus there are still biological remnants of our evolutionary past that we have not shaked off – and it will take many more centuries of civility to dilute our primitive genes. By accepting this reality that we are still very much like animals, we can then model a political structure that operates on the most accurate assumptions about humanity. That, I believe, is why I think we should see our societies from Machiavelli’s perspective. Yes, this means you will become more cynical, but is cynicism really such a bad thing if it is much closer to the truth? Heck, isn’t cynicism also a normative concept, relative to the socially acceptable band of opinion on the inherent nature of humanity? Why are we so bothered?

Machiavelli’s justification of manipulation

If we are to accept the fact that humanity, in general, is selfish and prone to emotional cues, it would mean 3 things. Firstly, selfishness of individuals impedes the state’s ability to make decisions for the greater good. This, however, is a view generated by the fundamental utilitarian principle of utility maximization. Hence, if you are not agreeable to the moral philosophy of utilitarianism, we can then agree to disagree. Secondly, being proned to emotional cues means that humanity are generally unable to make sound and rational decisions, especially pertaining to political decisions where a considerably large group of people’s welfare is at stake. Thirdly, because people are so much of an obstacle based on the first 2 points, we should turn their proneness to emotional cues to our advantage, manipulating them to follow our lead – just as Donald Trump did during his election campaign. This is where the Kantians and the religious devouts scream in horror and anyone will be able to point out the elitist nature of this train of thoughts. Fair enough, but I will leave you with a food for thought: is humanity really so psychologically weak that we cannot face the reality that is presented to us? I am conflicted, because it seems like we really are so weak but I want to believe that we are not; I am DYING to prove that we are better than what Machiavelli thought of us. I want to prove it so that we do not need to resort to manipulation and elitism to put us on the right track, but are we there yet?

Process of Manipulation, Deceit and Warfare by Prudent Leaders and What Rulership Really is

Unlike what you are probably thinking, manipulation in Machiavelli’s case isn’t for a selfish purpose. On the contrary, it is manipulation for the sake of the greater good. Just like how he thought that human’s weakness of proneness to emotional cues can be turned into a strength harnessed by the state, he thought of many other ways to use human flaws as well. Firstly, manipulating selfishness into drive and motivation: As men are selfish, the state can use carrots and sticks policies to pander to men’s desire to value-add and protect their interest respectively, hence making men act for the greater good. This is evident in the practice called capitalism as men are incentivised, based on the prospect of becoming wealthy and rising above the rest in an unequal society, to work hard. Conversely, the lack of hardwork will threaten men’s interest as they will be discriminated and forever be looked down upon from those who succeded. In theory, this would raise economic productivity, increasing the overall size of the economic pie, assuming that the wealth generated will “trickle-down”, everyone will be better off in terms of standards of living. Of course, this is perfect until we realize that hardwork isn’t the only factor at play here as talent and family’s wealth create an unenven playing field, breeding injustice – as explained in the post on Meritocracy in Singapore. Other forms of manipulations include turning the tendency of humanity to imitate rather than think as individuals into actions that can bring about greater good. This gave rise to the importance of leadership by example as imitation can be for bad or for good. Hence, to manipulate people to act in accordance to the common good, the leader must lead in the same manner. This might have caught you by surprise, but Machiavelli saw leadership by example as a form of manipulation. This begs the question: if the leader is a Machiavellian, he should already be acting with the intention to serve the greater good. Doesn’t that make leading by example genuine rather than manipulative? That’s the thing about Machivelli, when he was cynical of humanity, he did not discriminate, not even himself. He was also cynical of himself and all leaders, believing that we all have the hidden desire to be self-interested just as history has proven so. Hence, what he was advocating was the idea that rulers must act in accordance to the common good no matter what, even if it is against their own desires. Based on the same principle of the end justifies the mean – where the end is the common good – Machiavelli also advocated for the use of deceit, conspiracies and warfare. The use of these tools was what Machiavelli believed to be methods used by a prudent ruler. It is worth noting that Machiavelli himself did not condone the use of manipulation, deceit and warfare in his private life as he was a Christian and he advocated Christian values in his day-to-day life. That, however, changed when it comes to rulers as he believed that the stake is too high when it comes to rulership, hence the use of manipulation to bring about greater good was justified. It is therefore thoughtful to consider: what is the threshold of stakes that needs to be reached before we are willing to resort to methods that are otherwise considered immoral? If you were to be given a choice to shoot a gunman in order to save the 100 lives that he would otherwise kill, will you do it? As for rulership, the stakes come in the form of the livelihood and survival of millions of people per ruler today, are we ok with putting our moralities above the lives of millions? This is the kind of question that we should ponder about before we criticize Machiavelli or any utilitarianistic politicians out there. If you can decisively answer “yes” to the millions people question, then I rest my case.

The end is what matters because history judges only outcomes

Machiavelli’s utilitarianistic worldview was affirmed by the fact that history only judges outcome rather than the process. The saying that “history is written by victors” have a strong justification. Are historical records not written by the ruling elites that have successfully maintained their power, without being dethroned or defeated in wars? The losers can’t influence the historical records as much right? Even if they were to try, the records would be silenced by the victorious authority. If we can accept that history was written by the victor and the powerful, then can we really trust it? The methods used by them, are they really as moral, if painted that way, as it has been written? Machiavelli challenged us to think that only the outcome of history matters because the process was likely fabricated to glorify the powerful and the winners. If that is the case, why bother so much about the means? Is it not highly possible that successful rulers have been possibly machiavellian, only that the masses are blind to it? This is mere speculation but we should keep this in mind before we look into history for examples of benevolent rulers to contest against the necessity of Machiavelli’s advocated methods.


He can arguably be called the father of political realism. The realistic and empirical approach to political science that he advocated was revolutionary, adding a whole new school of thoughts in political science. His most famous work, The Prince, possibly influenced rulers such as Henry VIII of England, Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, Oliver Cromwell and even Napoleon of France.


My criticism of Machiavelli’s work would ironically be the impracticality of his idea. He wrote his book, The Prince, as a form of guidebook of sort for rulers. Even though he doubted the ability of rulers to serve the common good, all he did was to insist that the rulers adhere to it through the book. That is not enough. To expect the rulers to follow his advice religiously is the very impracticality that I criticise. Machiavelli was right to doubt humanity’s ability to be incorruptible, but he merely advised. The biggest factor that is missing here is a system that can keep free us from the burden of trusting the ruler to be incorruptible, one with checks and balances like the one in the United States. This was why Benito Mussolini became a fascist tyrant in Italy even though he was very much a Machiavellian. Another criticism that I will offer is that Machiavelli was much too focused on how rulers should retain power – to be feared rather than to be loved, to use manipulation, deceit and warfare – but he wasn’t very specific on how this power can be used efficiently or how it ought to be used. This is where political realism, when taken to the extreme fails. The lack of ideal as to where the society ought to be headed towards is the failure on the part of Machiavelli’s practitioners. Machiavelli’s political realism guide rulers in consolidating power, because it is a practical to consolidate power first before one can even hope to effect positive changes by using their political power. Machiavelli’s advices are, ultimately, incomplete. One must concoct a combination of Machiavelli’s political realism with another politically moralistic political philosophy to be a practical, strong, efficient and benevolent ruler. In my opinion, Singapore’s late founding father, Mr Lee Kuan Yew, who had openly endorsed Machiavelli’s words and was also tacitly a Confucius, is one of the best example of how Machiavellianism should be used. One does not need to look further than the success story of Singapore under his leadership to be convinced that this kind of combination is perhaps the most effective form of statecraft to have ever existed. The last criticism I have to offer was already mentioned: to level the playing field of the society so that people can properly be incentivised to work hard. Meritocracy is the missing ingredient here. These flaws, however, are overshadowed by the contributions Machiavelli made in the academic field of political science. All political ideas so far are flawed in their own ways, why should we expect someone from over 500 years ago – who therefore have no access to more than 500 years worth of  knowledge – to be perfect when we cannot produce such perfection today? Yes he was exceptional and revolutionary, but definitely not perfect.


Machiavelli is very much a misunderstood historical figure, infamous for his deviation from conventional moral philosophies. As a man of the Renaissance, he took rationalism, empiricism and utilitarianism to the next level, changing the way humanity thought about politics dramatically, creating a whole new school of thoughts in the field of political science. His political realism led him to endorse the use of manipulation, deceit and warfare for the greater good. Even though he was a Christian living by Christian values in his private lives, he was impressively adaptable with his ethical values when the context changes. In the context of rulership, he was prepared to sacrifice his Christian values in order to protect the livelihood and survival of millions. He deeply understood his threshold of stakes against his moral values, a feat that many of us fail to even consider. Machiavelli’s adherence to the utilitarian principle of “the end justifies the mean” has a strong justification for the rulers: history is written by the victors and the powerful. The means are almost always a fabrication in history unlike the end. This unique view of history by Machiavelli challenges us to think of how we rely on history as evidence to justify our ideals as history is inherently biased. Machiavelli undoubtedly left a lasting legacy in the pages of history, influencing many prominent rulers after him. However, his ideas are flawed and incomplete. If any stateman out there wishes to use Machiavelli’s ideas, it must be combined with a politically moralistic political philosophy and an implementation of a meritocratic system in order to strike the optimal equilibrium. This optimal equilibrium would allow the stateman to be powerful (thanks to Machiavelli’s advices). In addition, he would also be able to use this power efficiently and benevolently, allowing the society that he steers to be shaped towards a certain ideal or a particular utopia. Machiavelli provided us with the missing piece needed for statesmen to achieve what they set out to do according to their ideals and to abhor Machiavelli and his gift simply out of stereotype would be a great waste.


Harley Therapy. “What Is Machiavellianism in Psychology?” Harley Therapy™ Counselling Blog. Harley Therapy, 10 Nov. 2015. Web. 16 Apr. 2017. <http://www.harleytherapy.co.uk/counselling/machiavellianism-psychology.htm&gt;.

The politics book | Hardback (2013) Available at: https://www.dk.com/uk/9781409364450-the-politics-book/ (Accessed: 16 January 2017).

Image Credit: https://illimitablemen.com/2013/12/02/understanding-machiavellianism/


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