The Concepts of Motive and Intention in Modern Political Thought

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Words: 1529 |

Pages: 3|

8 min read

Published: Jul 2, 2018

Words: 1529|Pages: 3|8 min read

Published: Jul 2, 2018


Niccolo Machiavelli’s seminal work of political science, The Prince, directed at a prince of the then-powerful Medici family of Florence, has been the subject of much debate over the centuries since it was published. Decried as a shameless and unapologetic map of despotism by many, it has also been read as a careful treatise on the ultimate responsibilities of a government to its citizens. It is impossible, of course, to know Machiavelli’s true intentions when writing this tract—whether his intentions were consciously nefarious and the work was meant only to ingratiate himself to Lorenzo de Medici, or if he truly saw a better method of obtaining and exercising power and the right to do so. The only thing by which a determination of this intention can be made is the text itself.

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Fortunately, the text has survived intact during the nearly five centuries since its first publication, so this determination can be made with the assuredness that Machiavelli’s intentions have not been bastardized through editorial intervention of textual degradation. Unfortunately, this does not diminish the degree of ambiguity in the text, or the subjective necessities of an interpretation thereof. Using modern examples of political motives and actions, it is in fact possible to see both a malicious and authoritarian intent and an even more radical sense of civic duty and responsibility on the part of the prince or ruler to the people he rules. Both interpretations are supported by textual evidence in The Prince, and both can equally be seen in modern political occurrences.

A Replacement of Moral Virtue with Machiavellian Ethics

Arguably the most common interpretation of The Prince, and the one that gave rise to the term “Machiavellian” and its current meaning of unscrupulous political opportunism and authoritarianism, is that Machiavelli asserts a right for the prince to wield what is essentially absolute power, and to use any necessary and effective means for obtaining and keeping that power. He insists, for instance, that princes who obtain foreign lands should weaken that lands neighbors wherever possible, in order to be their leader and defender.1 He also speaks many times about the importance of appearing one way while actually being the exact opposite, such as appearing liberal with money while actually being a spendthrift.2

This type of Machiavellian behavior can clearly be seen by many Republicans in the current climate, who decry the national deficit as the work of the Democrats who are now in power despite having helped to create this deficit themselves, despite much protest on the part of Democrats.3 Such shrewdness, Machiavelli contends, is necessary for power in a civil principality.4 He also suggests that creating a need for protection can bind a people to an unfavorable ruler, which can certainly be seen to apply to many modern political situations, including that of budget worries.5 This way, Machiavelli contends, the people will be friendly to the leader during times of trouble; protecting them during seeming bad times leads to the prince’s own protection at the hands of the people during actual bad times.6

Machiavelli also asserts that the appearance of unequivocal animosity towards ones enemies is necessary for respect.7 Rush Limbaugh’s recent comments concerning “Mr. Obama’s” candidacy—refusing to deliver the honorific title of the nation’s leader— is a modern example of this practice.8 It also evidences Limbaugh’s determination to comment either negatively or positively in vociferous terms on everything that comes to his attention, which is another quality Machiavelli makes for an effective leader.9 Even when such attitudes appear as a vice, he contends, it can only help to strengthen the leader’s position.10 This type of conscious manipulation is often cited as evidence of Machiavelli’s evil intent.

The Responsibility of Government

Despite these seemingly nefarious methods, however, The Prince can also be read primarily as a tract regarding governmental motive; all of the “evils” Machiavelli recommends to the prince are ultimately for the good of the state, he claims.11 Too often, Machiavelli is seen as lusting after power as an end in and of itself, when in reality the consolidation and maintenance of power is a means to the moral good of a strong state.12 This is the truly radical project that Machiavelli has in mind, and in many ways it is actually a precursor to several ideas of the Reformation and the Enlightenment. He is ascribing not merely new powers to the government and the monarch, but new responsibilities, and in fact the former are derived from and meant to assist with the latter.

13 This can clearly be seen throughout the text of The Prince and at work in modern situations. The stated purpose of the new administration to return to diplomacy as a source of power rather than pure militarism reflects the responsibility of a leader to the people being led or influenced, even if they are of another sovereign nation.14 This is directly in keeping with Machiavelli’s assertions in The Prince; though he places military power in a position of supreme importance, it is as a matter of defense.15 Furthermore, though Machiavelli does advocate a certain level of duplicity when dealing with citizens and subjects, real physical defense cannot be faked, and must be undertaken for the citizens’ good.16

Above all, Machiavelli insists that a leader cannot effectively and safely lead without the respect and admiration of his people, or at the very least he must not be held in contempt.17 In order to accomplish this, he insists that a leader must appear resolute, unchanging, and uncompromising.18 Recent criticism of Sweden, which heretofore has held a marked neutrality in world affairs, is evidence of the weakened leadership that comes from an appearance of changing and easily persuaded opinions and involvement.19

It is not the having and keeping of power that is important to Machiavelli, but the proper use of that power to keep a stable state. The prince’s maintenance of both an honorable air and an extreme show of competency allows for this stability.20

A Synthesis

Coming to an either-or determination regarding Machiavelli’s meaning and intent in The Prince is definitely specious, given that none of Machiavelli’s personal commentary on these aspects is written into the margins. It is certain that Machiavelli’s primary intent was to illuminate the nature of political power in the Western world at his time. Each time he defends a means of obtaining or securing power, however, he also qualifies it with a reason.2122 This suggests that he has a deeper motive in mind then simply showing Lorenzo de Medici how to go about ensuring his own continued power. Indeed, his final chapter suggests a very noble, necessary, and immediate purpose to his methods, and so it can be seen that Machiavelli’s purpose was to outline the use of evil for purposes of good.23

Machiavelli, of course, would not have seen his recommendations as evil, precisely because they had good intentions.24 The same is true for many supporters of the “don’t ask, don’t tell policy”; though many are morally opposed to the notion of forcing homosexuals to hide their identity, it is seen as necessary for the greater good by some.25 Appearance, Machiavelli stresses, is of utmost important to a leader, and in many instances matters much more than actual characteristics and actions.26 Again, this is not simply to secure the prince’s own rights to power, but to lead to a stronger state.27 Thus it is not the practice of deception that Machiavelli is after, but the keeping of power through deception if necessary.

The seeming evils that Machiavelli endorses are a measure of protection against the evils that exist in the world at large.28 In addition, the various “good” qualities that a people like to see exhibited in their leaders are often conflicting and mutually exclusive.29

Republicans recently overtook Democrats in fundraising, for instance, yet they will continue to play the underdog on most issues because the “good” qualities of security and being disadvantaged (which is generally viewed favorably in the country) are mutually exclusive, and because the appearance of being the underdog helps their cause regardless of its truth.30 This also reflects a singularity of purpose and a determination that one’s own conclusions, and not those derived from the advice of others, should be the guiding principles of leadership.31 Political parties and leaders still tend to use this singularity while attempting to appear as populist leaders; the former allows for strength and true achievement, while the latter allows for the support of the people. Both are necessary, but they cannot be held at the same time. Machiavelli understood this, but this doesn’t make him evil.


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The Prince cannot be good or bad on its own. Like any of man’s works, it can be used for good or for bad purposes. When it comes to intent, it can only be guessed what was in Machiavelli’s heart and mind. His text shows a clear desire for a strong state with a strong leader at its helm, however, and this cannot help but be for a good purpose. The morality of his methods might be questionable, but there efficacy and efficiency certainly aren’t.

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Dr. Charlotte Jacobson

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The Concepts of Motive and Intention in Modern Political Thought. (2018, May 26). GradesFixer. Retrieved December 2, 2023, from
“The Concepts of Motive and Intention in Modern Political Thought.” GradesFixer, 26 May 2018,
The Concepts of Motive and Intention in Modern Political Thought. [online]. Available at: <> [Accessed 2 Dec. 2023].
The Concepts of Motive and Intention in Modern Political Thought [Internet]. GradesFixer. 2018 May 26 [cited 2023 Dec 2]. Available from:
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