Quentin Skinner on Machiavelli

When you think of the great philosophers from antiquity, especially those who were interested in social and political questions, we have a long tradition of understanding political governance within a strict ethical framework. That line of thinking suffered a serious blow when Niccolò Machiavelli quite candidly explained and advocated the idea that politics ought to be based on a realistic (if not a cynical and pessimistic) understanding of human nature as weak, fickle and wretched: a true and successful prince is one who displays a new kind of virtù, different from the classical Greek and Roman virtues of justice, courage, honesty and compassion, and different from the Christian virtues of faith, hope and charity. Instead, Machiavelli argues for the centrality of ingenuity, cunningness, flexibility, practical wisdom, and the willingness to embrace the idea that the end justifies the means, even if the means includes cruelty, torture, deceit, faithlessness and murder.

It ought to be mentioned that the end is not, as many people have mistakenly assumed, the acquisition and maintenance of power by a ruthless and control-hungry tyrant. Rather, Machiavelli thinks the prince ought to do whatever is necessary for the preservation and the benefit of the state. This becomes clear in the contrast he sets up between Agathocles of Syracuse and Cesar Borgia: the former is just a power-hungry thug whose only concern is his own power. Borgia, on the other hand, is an exemplar of a ruler who displays Machiavelli's version of virtù because he manages to simultaneously "satisfy and stupefy" his subjects through a single act that makes them both revere and fear him.

Anyway, why listen to me when we have the always brilliant Quentin Skinner lay down some historical and philosophical wisdom in the following interview with Nigel Warburton:



And if you can't get enough of Quentin Skinner, you might want to check out a fascinating lecture he delivered a couple of years ago in Cambridge on "What Is Freedom?"
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