Walter Russell Mead: The Virtues of Machiavelli

Roundup: Historians' Take

[Walter Russell Mead is Henry A. Kissinger senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and author of Special Providence: American Foreign Policy and How It Changed the World. He blogs at]

Niccolo Machiavelli is one of those rare writers so well known that his name has become an adjective; ‘Machiavellian’ means crafty and ruthless. And over the centuries, Machiavelli’s most famous book, The Prince, has vexed moralists for its seeming defiance of all moral laws.

The ruler, Machiavelli tells us, must not just learn to do good; he must learn to do evil — and learn to do it well. It is better, he tells us, to be feared than to be loved. A ruler must not be afraid to commit atrocities — but he must commit them at the right time so that they will serve their intended purpose. It is wise to break promises to the weak, and often necessary for a successful ruler to lie. It is useless to think of wars as just or unjust — it is only necessary to know when wars can bring success.

Machiavelli has been a scandal for almost 500 years — a shocking contradiction at the heart of the western canon. A long moral and philosophical tradition going back to the ancient Hebrews and Greeks insists on the opposite: that to do good is to do well. God will bless those who deal justly and punish those who mistreat their fellow beings.

Since Aristotle tutored Alexander of Macedon, the wise have counseled the great to be good. Machiavelli says that is all balderdash, and counsels rulers to be devious and ruthless rather than honorable and fair. He is so shocking that we can’t quite make our peace with him — but also too smart to ignore.

Today, the shadow of Machiavelli hangs over American foreign policy debates...

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