Machiavelli’s paradox turns on the point that he advocated evil and accurately diagnosed human moral psychology. A good person can follow his advice if they distinguish between high and low trust environments.

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Abstract. Niccolò Machiavelli advised that princes should murder their opponents rather than confiscate their land since the dead cannot think of revenge. And he famously advocated that a prince should cultivate fear over love because fear proves more reliable. He was a teacher of evil. Yet, he proved a remarkably accurate observer of human moral psychology. Is there any way a good person could *follow* his advice? The article resolves this paradox by advancing a distinction between high and low trust environments for action.


The internet is a low trust environment


The Prince is an interesting piece of work. A large portion of it is written either ironically or as a thinly veiled insult to the Medici family. The introduction of high vs low trust environments when considering how to follow Machiavelli’s advice though is very helpful. Though I’d argue that The Prince is Machiavelli’s work specifically for a low trust environment. Which can be inferred by the context of which it was written. Machiavelli had been exiled from Florence by the Medici family which had taken back control of the city. In his exile he wrote The Prince and sent it to the Medici’s basically as a resume for them to hire him as an advisor, and as a show of good faith that even if they didn’t trust him they can still have his advice in the form of The Prince. Because he stilled cared deeply for Florence, and figured it was at least better to have it run well than to have it run poorly. Florence was in a very precarious position, and The Prince is his solution to what to do in response to extreme political instability. However throughout his work he still advocates for Republicanism, arguing it to be the better and more stable form of government. So while The Prince can be read as advice on a low trust environment, it’s clear he has a very different vision for what to do in a high trust situation. Machiavelli’s point is that what you need to take power is different from what you need to keep power, which is different from what you need to do to rule, which is different from what you need to do to rule prosperously. So the use of an analytic lens of high vs low trust is a very interesting way to think about and then apply the different types of advice Machiavelli is giving.


I never thought Machiavelli advocated evil, and I don’t see how. The Prince is however the most influencial work of realism that made philosophy take empiricism into consideration instead of being all idealistic. Machiavelli advocated however for a more realistic view of a good ruler at that time.


I dig the contextualization, and would tend to agree in general. It’s been awhile since I’ve read it, but while I think as a whole he does recommend some ‘evil’ behaviors, a lot of his advice is sound in some particular context. For example, “flatterers should be shunned”, I think, is incredibly sound advice, if and only if you are accurate at distinguishing flattery from genuine complement (which I think many people are not). Even in this example, “high versus low trust” is a pretty reasonable generalization: you can trust a genuine complement; you cannot trust flattery. While I’ve never read anything explicit on the subject, I’ve always enjoyed considering the dynamic between The Prince and Nietzsche. In many ways they make the same explicit statements, ‘dominate the weak’, more or less, etc. However, I find Nietzsche to be *much* more satirical than Machiavelli, not only in language and presentation, but also by the fact that Nietzsche was notorious for being Jesus-like nice to people in his personal life.