Along with the posts on RousseauPlato Bacon and Locke, this post, and many to follow, are part of an upcoming project – stay tuned.

James Bryce of the American Political Science Association wrote in 1909:

Political Science assumes the form of a systematic statement of the most important facts belonging to the political department of history, stringing these facts (so to speak) upon the thread of the of the principles which run through them. They are so disposed and arranged as to enable us to more easily to comprehend what we call the laws that govern human nature in political communities, so that we can see these laws as a whole in their permanent action and can apply what we have learned from history to the phenomena of today and tomorrow (emphasis added).

Niccolo Machiavelli

By this definition, it could be argued that Machiavelli was the first political scientist, particularly in terms of his use of a “scientific” method.

 What I seek to understand in this post is the method by which Machiavelli extracts a political philosophy from history [I may post this method in a separate post, “Machiavelli’s Method”]. Rather than a “statement” of “important facts,” Machivelli’s method amounts to an extraction of principles from facts.

Some doubt that there is any [strict] method in Machiavelli’s work, but rather only themes or concepts. But if no philosophy or formal methodology are to be found in Machiavelli, certain concepts recur constantly, both explicitly and implicitly binding together his theories into some sort of coherence. They are Necessità, Fortuna and Virtù (53). These themes form a theoretical framework for Machiavelli’s thought.



“Necessity” refers to the law-like consequences that must necessary follow in certain situations. “Necessity” is often used as a justification for [any means] to an end – this is the essence of what is often called a “pragmatic” approach. [find more]. As the title of G.R. Berridge’s book Diplomatic Theory from Machiavelli to Kissinger (Studies in Diplomacy) suggests, Machiavelli is viewed by many as the father of realist theory, a theory that puts necessity as [the forefront] (Berridge, Keens-Soper, Otte (Eds.) New York: Palgrave, 2001)


In The Prince, Machiavelli states that “Fortune, the woman, is ever changeable. Things rarely remain fixed for long. The politician must know this and guard against it.” (Prince, 1970, Ch 25). Fortune is chance, change or the apparent capriciousness of life. It is part of situations that require cunning. See Detienne and Vernant.


When we think of “virtue,” we think of morality. But for Machiavelli and many other writers, virtue has more to do with virtuousity or skill than morality. The Greeks spoke of virtue in this sense, as did other ancient cultures. Consider again the character of metis. Skill and morality were the same things. Being cunning and being “good” were the same concept.

Machiavelli views fortune as the critical element in the success of the Roman republic:

Many (authors), among whom is that most serious writer Plutarch, have had the opinion that the Roman people in acquiring the Empire were favored more by Fortune than by Virtu. And among other reasons which he cites, he says that, by the admission of that people, it can be shown that they ascribed all their victories to Fortune, as they had built more temples to Fortune than to any other God. And it seems that Livius joined in this opinion, for he rarely makes any Roman speak where he recounts (of) Virtu, without adding Fortune. (Machivelli Book 2, Ch. 1)

Anthony Parel (1992, 87) defines virtu as the “stable disposition of an individual or group by which they are enabled to perform acts conducive to the good of the state.” In this ethics the interests of the state are promoted by any means necessary, including cruelty and vice. The strategy is only important in that it achieves honor and glory for the state. In this paradigm, moral virtue of citizens is not important, and is assumed to be absent (Machiavelli, 1952, 89).

Machiavelli puts little faith in citizens: “for it may be said of men that they are ungrateful, voluble, dissemblers, anxious to avoid danger and covetous of gain. (Machiavelli, 1952, 90).” While in The Prince Machiavelli [puts] most responsibility on the prince to maintain stability and prosperity, in The Discourses, he places considerable [importance] on the opinion of a virtuous citizenry … virtu in the Machivellian sense, not the Socratic.

Machiavelli was a supporter of civic republican position/argument. His reason for choosing Rome as an exemplar is: “for if nowhere there is to be found a republic so successful as Rome, this is because there is nowhere to be found a republic so constitutes as to be able to make the conquests Rome made.”

The nature of the multitude, therefore, is not to be blamed any more than that of Princes, for they all err equally when they all are able to err without control.


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