Machiavelli’s writings explore historical situations and describe the means by which rulers gained, lost, or maintained power and political authority. Throughout The Prince, Machiavelli advocates for the use of violence and the suppression of individuals and groups that threaten one person’s rule over others. His writings focus largely on how inequality can be used in one’s favor, but does this necessarily make Machiavelli anti-egalitarian?
An egalitarian favors equality of some sort: people should get the same, or be treated the same, or be treated as equals in some respect. […] Egalitarian doctrines tend to rest on a background idea that all human persons are equal in fundamental worth or moral status.Arneson, Richard. “Egalitarianism.” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Stanford University,
24 Apr. 2013, plato.stanford.edu/entries/egalitarianism/.
The careful strategies devised by Machiavelli make numerous references to the power held by different factions in the society. With one exception, which will be discussed in the next paragraph, no one is invisible in Machiavellian politics: everyone shapes, in some way or another, the decisions of the state. In both The Prince and Discourses on Livy, the masses are given a great deal of power. Rulers are told to favor the people over the elites, and to trust the people rather than fear them. While the people hold great power, they must pay a disproportionate price (revolt) to be heard and shape their own political future. Despite giving the people a voice, this clearly puts them at a disadvantage against elites who need only speak to bring about a change. Can such a disparities exist under an egalitarian state?
Machiavelli’s comments on hereditary and ecclesiastic states are most revealing to his views on equality. From Chapter 2 of The Prince:
All one has to do is preserve the structures established by one’s forebears, and play for time if things go badly. For, indeed, a hereditary ruler, if he is of no more than normal resourcefulness, will never lose his state unless some extraordinary and overwhelming force appears that can take it away from him. [..] Because the state has belonged to his family from one generation to another, memories of how they came to power, and motives to overthrow them, have worn away.Machiavelli Niccolò, and David Wootton. The Prince. Hackett Publishing Company, 1995.
In other words, people under hereditary states are unlikely to overthrow structures of power, so the ruler need not care about their well being or lack thereof: political authority in such a state is sustained not by the virtue of a ruler, but by divine mandates embedded in culture and beliefs held by the people. Machiavelli’s open invitation to indifference in this passage is perhaps his most perverse, but it shows us that the bulk of his writings are not geared towards rulers who see themselves as fundamentally different than their subjects. Instead, Machiavelli writes for rulers whose authority is not given and must be continuously justified and defended; rulers whose equals can take over power. Because differences among men are not innate, they must be established and nourished by virtue.
Notions of violence and dominance commonly associated with Machiavelli make it difficult to see, at first, how a philosophy that advocates for the use of violence can stem from egalitarian principles. Machiavelli’s attack on tyranny (Chapter 10 of Discourses on Livy) can help contextualize the use of violence that he proposes elsewhere:
[…] almost all men, deceived by the false semblance of good and the false semblance of renown, allow themselves either willfully or ignorantly to slip into […] tyranny, and fail to see what fame, what glory, security, tranquility, conjoined with peace of mind, they are missing by adopting this course, and what infamy, scorn, abhorrence, danger and disquiet they are incurring.Machiavelli Niccolò, et al. The Discourses of Niccolò Machiavelli. Penguin, 1970.
The “false semblance of good and false semblance of renown” that Machiavelli alludes to further demonstrates his belief that rulers must continuously justify their political position. He is establishing that power does not justify abuse; the superiority of rulers in societies is fabricated and not inalienable. Virtue is earned and must be maintained. Glory, the ultimate goal of a Machiavellian leader, is reserved for those who actively understand and use the political standing of others to advance their own interests.
Ultimately, this is how I’ve come to understand Machiavellian politics: because we are all equal in principle, power and glory must be gained and preserved through virtue and a good understanding of other people’s intentions and means. Using violence against one’s opponents helps preserve or advance one’s political standing but cannot, alone, create glory.