Machiavelli’s Virtue

Robert D. Kaplan, “Machiavelli’s Virtue,” Stratfor Global Intelligence, March 20, 2013.


Self-interest informs compromise with other human beings, and thus a state governed by self-interest is likely to compromise with other states: whereas a person or state governed solely by religious or moral virtue will tend to delegitimize as immoral those with whom he or it disagrees—and therein lies conflict. Virtue, in other words, is fine. But outstanding virtue—because it tempts sanctimoniousness—is dangerous. It is ultimately with this maxim that we find philosophical justification for moderation in contemporary politics and statecraft.

Those who find such thinking dark or cynical may be under the illusion that politics can bring respite from primitive necessity. Machiavelli, as Mansfield explains, is doubtful of this. Yes, politicians may announce their intention to strive for truth and justice, but their unspoken concerns and desires, even in a democracy—especially in a democracy—are really about satisfying the selfish needs of their constituents. Face it, primitive necessity is a fixture of the human condition. And, therefore, the only way to reduce conflict and suffering is through anxious foresight: the ability to foresee danger and necessities ahead. Thus are intelligence agencies more likely to prevent atrocities than humanitarians.

In politics, explains Machiavelli (through Mansfield), one who does good often cannot be good. One must even learn how to be bad, or at least devious, for the sake of the common good. This is not necessarily the end justifies the means, for Machiavelli is careful to stipulate that only the minimum amount of cruelty should be applied for the sake of the greatest amount of good.