Francis Bacon
Francis Bacon
March 20, 2017

Renaissance Thought

Niccolo Machiavelli

N iccolo Machiavelli or more formally Niccolo di Bernardo dei Machiavelli, was a Florentine Renaissance historian, politician, diplomat, philosopher, humanist, and writer. He has often been called the founder of modern political science. He was for many years a senior official in the Florentine Republic, with responsibilities in diplomatic and military affairs. He also wrote comedies, carnival songs, and poetry. His personal correspondence is renowned in the Italian language. He was secretary to the Second Chancery of the Republic of Florence from 1498 to 1512, when the Medici were out of power. He wrote his most renowned work The Prince (Il Principe) in 1513.


3 May 1469 Florence, Republic of Florence


21 June 1527 (aged 58) Florence, Republic of Florence


Renaissance philosophy


Western philosophy

Main interests

Politics and political philosophy, military theory, history

Chapter Ⅳ. Renaissance Thought

Niccolo Machiavelli


Hayagriva dasa: Machiavelli has been called the most influential political philosopher of the Renaissance, and his philosophy of politics has influenced rulers down to modern times. He is typical of the Renaissance in that he turned from the subjects of the Church fathers—such as God, heaven, and salvation—to concentrate on man and nature. The Renaissance marked a decline in the Church's power, and philosophy began a process of secularization. Machiavelli himself admitted that his most famous work, The Prince , does not apply to a Utopian state composed of good citizens; rather, it is an unscrupulous philosophy that applies to corrupt citizens. The Prince is a guidebook for a tyrant, and it contains the advice he chose to impart to the ruling Medici family. It is a justification for immoral actions. Power is the ultimate goal, and in the quest for power, the end justifies the means. Success in attaining power makes one the object of obedience and respect. Failure is the only sin.

Srila Prabhupada: So, this is politics, the occupation of ksatriyas. In Bhagavad-gita, the qualities of a ksatriya are given:

sauryam tejo dhrtir daksyam
yuddhe capy apalayanam
danam isvara-bhavas ca
ksatram karma svabhava-jam

"Heroism, power, determination, resourcefulness, courage in battle, generosity, and leadership are the qualities of work for the ksatriyas" (Bg. 18.43) Of course, in modern politics, the king or president does not come onto the battlefield to exhibit his courage. He simply appears when there is a battle of words, but when there is an actual battle, he remains in a secluded place and lets the citizens fight. And he institutes a draft board to assure that they will. According to the Vedic system, however, when there is a fight, the king or president must be present on the battlefield and should lead the fight himself so that his men will be encouraged. This is called yuddhe capy apalayanam. The leader of a nation should fight with all his ability and be determined either to gain victory in the battle, or lay down his life. Bhagavad-gita itself is a guidebook for ksatriyas and was originally spoken to the sun-god millions of years ago. Sometimes, people try to interpret Bhagavad- gita as a philosophy of nonviolence, but in politics there must be violence, because the king must emerge victorious. It is stated in the Vedas that if the king is victorious, he will be respected. Strength must be there. Apart from this, the chief of state must also be charitable, and formerly all the great kings performed big yajnas, sacrifices.

annad bhavanti bhutani
parjanyad anna-sambhavah
yajnad bhavati parjanyo
yajnah karma-samudbhavah

"All living bodies subsist on food grains, which are produced from rains. Rains are produced by performance of yajna [sacrifice], and yajna is born of prescribed duties." (Bg. 3.14) When sufficient sacrifices are performed by the royal head of government, rainfall results. Power in itself is not sufficient. One must be powerful enough to fully satisfy the citizens by supplying them sufficient grains so that men and animals can eat and be satisfied. This is an ability that the politician or prince should have. He should be not only powerful but charitable as well. Taxes exacted from the citizens should be properly utilized in performing sacrifices. Of course, it is not possible to perform yajnas today as previously. Formerly, they used to sacrifice tons of ghee and grain in the fire, but today that is impractical. The best yajna for today is sankirtana-yajna propagated by this Krsna consciousness movement. The heads of state should encourage this.

Hayagriva dasa: Machiavelli felt that the prince must at least exhibit five basic virtues, whether he has them or not. These are mercy, faith, integrity, humanity, and religion. He writes: "It is not necessary for a prince to have all the above-mentioned qualities, but it is very necessary to seem to have them. I would even be so bold as to say that to possess them and always to practice them is dangerous, but to appear to possess them is useful. Thus it is well to seem merciful, faithful, humane, sincere, religious, and also to be so; but you must have your mind so disposed that, when it is needful to be otherwise, you can change to the opposite qualities."

Srila Prabhupada: Well, Machiavelli may think like that, but unless a prince or king possesses all these qualities, he is unworthy. If he is unworthy, he cannot remain a prince because he is situated artificially. Because the kings lacked the proper qualities, monarchy is finished today, and democracy has become prominent. In Indian history, however, there were kings like Maharaja Pariksit, who actually possessed all good qualities. When Pariksit Maharaja went on a tour of his kingdom and saw a black man attempting to kill a cow, the Maharaja immediately drew his sword and said, "Who is this person trying to kill a cow in my kingdom? He must be punished." A king must exhibit such determination to give protection to all the inhabitants of his kingdom. At the present moment, governments are not offering protection for animals. They are killing cows, although cows are supplying milk from which we can make wonderful preparations. This is Kali-yuga, and the government does not exhibit good sense in any field. Since the government is unworthy of governing, there is chaos throughout the world. According to Vedic civilization, the king is worshipped as God in human form and is therefore called Naradeva. If the good qualities are lacking in a king, he can no longer be considered Naradeva, and he cannot rule for very long, because his rule is artificial. Therefore in Kali-yuga, the royal order is finished.

Hayagriva dasa: Machiavelli didn't say that this is the way political life ought to be. Rather, since this is the way political life is at present, this is the best way a prince can rule.

Srila Prabhupada: Our principles should be the same, whether in the past, present, or future. Krsna delivered Bhagavad-gita millions of years ago to the king of the sun, Vivasvan. Five thousand years ago He repeated these same principles to Arjuna on the battlefield of Kuruksetra. It is not that the principles have changed. Whether one is a prince, president, or whatever, the ruling principles should be maintained. Then the people will benefit. It is said that when Maharaja Yudhisthira ruled, the people suffered neither from intense heat nor intense cold. There was regular rainfall, and people were free from all anxiety. Such is an ideal kingdom in which the people are happy in all respects.

Hayagriva dasa: Machiavelli thought that the ruler should take the sins of the state upon himself, just as Christ took upon himself the sins of the world.

Srila Prabhupada: But if the ruler himself is sinful, how can he assume the sins of others?

Hayagriva dasa: Well, Machiavelli felt that evil in politics was a necessity. He writes: "A man who wishes to make a profession of goodness in everything must necessarily come to grief among so many who are not good."

Srila Prabhupada: But if one is not good himself, how can he introduce anything that is good? Presently, in India, there are many people claiming to be big mahdtmds, religionists, scholars, and politicians, but they cannot even protect the cows. Bhagavad-gita says:

vaisya-karma svabhava-jam

"Farming, cow protection, and business are the qualities of work for the vaisyas." (Bg. 18.44) It is at least the duty of the state to protect the cow, which is a special animal. It is the king's duty to protect the welfare of all citizens, including the cows. If the king or president does no more than sit in an exalted position, the people will not be happy. Even in America, the people dragged their president down when they were discontent with him. In any case, the head of state must be ideal and exhibit the ideal princely characteristics.

Hayagriva dasa: Machiavelli suggested that since the people usually desire peace, the prince should promote peace in his public addresses. On the other hand, the army always prefers war, which gives opportunities for promotion, and the prince should also appease the militarists. Although publicly promoting peace, the prince can break his promise whenever necessary to start a war abroad, especially when there is trouble at home.

Srila Prabhupada: No one can introduce peace unless he is educated in God consciousness. It is stated in Bhagavad-gita:

bhoktaram yajna-tapasam
suhrdam sarva-bhutanam
jnatva mam santim rcchati

“The sages, knowing Me as the ultimate purpose of all sacrifices and austerities, the Supreme Lord of all planets and demigods and the benefactor and well-wisher of all living entities, attain peace from the pangs of material miseries." (Bg. 5.29) The king should not think of his kingdom as his property or his father's property. Rather, knowing himself to be the representative of the Supreme Father, he must understand that the state belongs to the Supreme Father. He is a representative whose duty is to protect the state and the citizens. The proprietor of the state is God Himself. There is not a spot of land throughout the universe that is not owned by the Supreme Personality of Godhead; therefore all property should be engaged for the satisfaction of God. Bhoktaram yajna-tapasam. Everything must be carried out for the satisfaction of the Supreme Lord, and this is ideal activity for all societies.

atah pumbhir dvija-srestha
svanusthitasya dharmasya
samsiddhir hari-tosanam

"O best among the twiceborn, it is therefore concluded that the highest perfection one can achieve, by discharging his prescribed duties [dharma] according to caste divisions and orders of life, is to please the Lord Hari." (Bhag. 1.2.13) According to the sastras, there are social divisions—brahmana, ksatriya, vaisya, and sudra—and these divisions allow for proper management. It is the king's duty to divide human society according to thevarnasrama-dharma. There should be genuine brahmanas, ksatriyas, vaisyas, sudras, brahmacaris , grhasthas, vanaprasthas, and sannyasis. No one should cheat but should carry out his duty accordingly. The king must know what is sin so that he can take precautions against it. But if he supports sinful activities—for instance, if he maintains a slaughterhouse—how can he become sinless? The sastras say that the king attains political power by pious activities, but if he does not give security to the citizens, he loses his power automatically.

Hayagriva dasa: Machiavelli certainly believed that the people should be protected, but he also believed in the use of power and might. If there are internal difficulties, they must be put down by force. If this proves impossible, the prince should divert people's attention by starting a war abroad. He even felt that it was better to go to war than to remain neutral because a neutral nation is hated by the loser and not respected by the winner. Consequently, he praised power and war.

Srila Prabhupada: He praises war because he cannot manage internally. That is most inhumane.

Hayagriva dasa: "Trouble at home, war abroad" is one of his most famous points.

Srila Prabhupada: Yes, and sometimes the governments create artificial restlessness and poverty. We have seen in 1940, when the Second World War was going on, that the government created an artificial famine in order to get men to fight. People who didn't work had no alternative but to join the military. The government increased the price of food, and I remember the price of rice jumping from six rupees to ten rupees. The very next day, the price rose to twenty rupees. Then it jumped again to fifty rupees, whereas formerly it was only six. This is all the results of politics. When the government is not pious or strong, this will go on, and the people will be unhappy.

Hayagriva dasa: Machiavelli's view of man was very cynical. He wrote: "In constituting and legislating for a commonwealth, it must be taken for granted that all men are wicked."

Srila Prabhupada: This is not philosophy, considering all men wicked.

Hayagriva dasa: Well, he considered that men are so created that they desire all things, although they cannot acquire them. Men are never satisfied. As soon as they have one thing, they crave another.

Srila Prabhupada: Therefore it is the duty of the government to introduce Krsna consciousness so that the people can know the way of peace and happiness.

Hayagriva dasa: As long as the prince benefitted the people, they would be entirely his.

Srila Prabhupada: But he must know how to benefit them.

Hayagriva dasa: Machiavelli was very fond of speaking of "the common good," and he set love of country and the common good above the Christian love of God.

Srila Prabhupada: But what is his common good? He is thinking that people must have enough to eat, but it is for the common good of everyone to love God. Love of God is for everyone, and God is one. When we become lovers of God, our lives are perfected.

Hayagriva dasa: But if the people are basically wicked, he argued, a strong prince is necessary to control them.

Srila Prabhupada: Why should the people remain wicked? It is the king's duty to see that all the citizens become gentlemen. He should not allow them to remain wicked. The educational, social, and religious systems should be so perfect that the people become God conscious. At least a sector of the people, the brahmanas, should be perfect.

Hayagriva dasa: But he felt that if the prince were perfectly virtuous or truthful in all cases, he couldn't possibly survive in the political world.

Srila Prabhupada: That is why there are social divisions: brahmanas, ksatriyas, vaisyas, and sudras. It is not possible for everyone to be truthful, but at least a section of the people should be ideal so that others can take advantage of their good advice. It is not that everyone is in the same position, nor that everyone should join the military. Only those who are interested in fighting should join the military.

Hayagriva dasa: Machiavelli recommended compulsory military service as a primary form of education for everyone.

Srila Prabhupada: Nothing is meant for everyone. There must be divisions. Machiavelli had no idea that brahminical training is absolutely necessary for intelligent men.

Hayagriva dasa: Since youth should especially become used to hardships, he considered war as a form of education.

Srila Prabhupada: Well, any education requires hardships, and to become a brahmana or brahmacari requires the greatest hardships. In any case, there must be educational divisions, just as there are divisions in the human body: the head, arms, belly, and legs. Military education is education of the arms, but where is the education for the brain? Unless the head is educated, how will the arms act?

Hayagriva dasa: Machiavelli recommended a democratic republic for a society consisting of virtuous people. In such a state, the ruler must obtain the people's consent. But he considered such a society to be purely Utopian.

Srila Prabhupada: Yes, a completely virtuous society is Utopian in this age. It is not possible. Yet a section of the population can be ideally virtuous, and the remainder may take lessons from them. It is not possible for everyone to become a brahmana, but a few can be trained. The sky may be full of stars, but one moon is all that is necessary. If the populace consists of fools and rascals, how can anything be managed? There must be at least a section that shines like the moon.

Hayagriva dasa: This cynical view of mankind was partially based on the Christian doctrine—or at least on the doctrine of Augustine—which held that man is by nature corrupt. Whereas Augustine believed in the saving grace of God, Machiavelli believed in man's willpower to overcome bad fortune.

Srila Prabhupada: But who adjusts good and bad fortune? If we consider good and bad fortune, we must consider a dispenser, a supreme power or controller, and that supreme power is God. Therefore people should be educated in God consciousness by reading transcendental literatures like Bhagavad- gita and Srimad-Bhagavatam.

Hayagriva dasa: Machiavelli's attitude toward religion has greatly influenced modern governments. He considered religion to be a department of the state; it should not be separate in the sense that it should not compete.

Srila Prabhupada: In that I agree. It is the government's duty to give protection to religion, and if that religion is scientific, the state will be sound. America is presently strong in many respects, and now America must become strong in God consciousness. It is very good to write, "In God We Trust," but we must also know who God is and why we should trust in Him. We are therefore trying to introduce this science of God, Krsna consciousness.

Hayagriva dasa: Machiavelli felt that as long as religion is not detrimental to the state, the state may accept it as valid. But in one sense, religion is subordinate to the state.

Srila Prabhupada: Of course, they are separate, but the state must know what religion is and how to introduce it to the general public. There is no question of blind faith. The government is maintaining many different departments: an engineering department, medical department, military department, and so forth. Similarly, a religious department may be subordinate to the state because all other departments are subordinate, but religion must be based on scientific knowledge. If the state takes advantage of the Vedic literatures, it can introduce a scientific system of religion. Then the people will be knowledgeable and happy.

Hayagriva dasa: For Machiavelli, the only sin is not acting for the common good. First, the ruler must protect the citizens from physical harm. Citizens are happy when they obey the laws, follow customs, and pray to God.

Srila Prabhupada: If the ruler must first of all protect the citizens from physical harm, how can he advocate animal slaughter? Animals are also subjects because they are born in a country. A citizen is anyone who is born in a state. So how can a ruler discriminate between one type of citizen and another? If he discriminates, he cannot speak of common good. He can only say "man's good." According to the common good, animals as well as men are protected.

Hayagriva dasa: Machiavelli placed love of country and the common good above everything else. He rarely uses the word "God" or "Providence," but prefers the word "fortune." It is fortune that plays tricks on men and changes friends into enemies.

Srila Prabhupada: If God is fortune, who is misfortune? Since God is the supreme controller, He is both fortune and misfortune. When you act wrongly, punishment comes from God, and when you act properly, the reward comes from God.

Hayagriva dasa: Love of country transcends everything religious and moral, so that one may even lose his own soul for his country's sake. Indeed, Machiavelli wrote: "I love my country more than my soul."

Srila Prabhupada: But how long will he remain in his country?

Hayagriva dasa: Well, he remained from 1469 to 1527.

Srila Prabhupada:

So what is that? Time and the soul are eternal. Such deification of one's country is not very intelligent.

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