Machiavelli, Nicolas

Lorenzo Bianchi


1This Italian man of politics and letters (Florence, 1469-1527) was elected in 1498 secretary of the second Chancery of the Republic of Florence, with the charge of foreign affairs, war, and the interior. At the return of the Medici to Florence in 1521, he retired to the country, to resume before his death some modest political activity. His direct experience of politics influenced his theoretical and historical activity. Among his historical and political works, the best known, published posthumously, are the Discourses on Livy (1531) and The Prince (1532, but written in 1513 and dedicated to Lorenzo di Piero dei Medici). We should also recall The Art of War (1516), the Report on things French (1512-1513) and the Florentine Histories (1520-1525). Machiavelli, who for posterity would be the author of The Prince, tried to compose in his major text and in the Discourses a new art of politics distinct from the classical tradition, while assimilating the experience of ancient history. If history is still the same in all times, according to Machiavelli, the history of Rome can teach through its examples the way to acquire and hold onto power.

2In his library Montesquieu had at his disposal numerous books of Machiavelli: two editions of the Discourses, in Latin and in French (Catalogue, nos. 2400 and 2404), three of The Prince, one of which was a Latin translation (no. 2399) and two in French (nos. 2401 and 2402), as well as The Art of War in French translation (no. 2402) and the Florentine Histories in Italian (no. 2405).

3Despite this knowledge of Machiavelli, the direct references to the Florentine are neither numerous nor specially significant. No mention is made of him in the Persian Letters, nor, as paradoxical as it may appear, in Romans. Only three mentions appear in L’Esprit des lois, of which one concerns a marginal fact: “Machiavelli attributes the loss of freedom in Florence to the fact that the people did not judge as a body, as in Rome, crimes of lese-majesty committed against it” (“Machiavel attribue la perte de la liberté de Florence à ce que le peuple ne jugeait pas en corps, comme à Rome, des crimes de lèse-majesté commis contre lui”, EL, VI, 5). Two criticisms are made of him: “Machiavelli was full of his idol, the duc de Valentinois (EL, XXIX, 19), or against Machiavellianism: “We have begun to get over Machiavellianism, and we will continue to every day” (“On a commencé à se guérir du machiavélisme, et on s’en guérira tous les jours”, EL, XXI, 16 [20]). The “Machiavellians” had already been criticized in Pensées no. 207, where we read remarks on Machiavelli’s idea “that it is dangerous to make great changes in a state” (Pensées, no. 184). In the Spicilège we find a reference to the Florentine Histories (Spicilège, no. 513), a mention of Machiavelli among the authors of “original works I have to read” (Spicilège, no. 561) and an allusion to Machiavelli the “great republican” in the opinion of Englishman William Cleland (Spicilège, no. 529). A useful affirmation, which seems to confirm Shackleton’s hypothesis of Montesquieu’s renewed interest for Machiavelli during his travels in England (1729-1731) thanks to a reading of the Craftsman and conversations with Cleland, a friend of Pope. Finally, in the Correspondance, we read a single reference to him (letter to Mme Du Deffand, 15 June 1751).

4But beyond references, Montesquieu constantly alluded to Machiavelli in his writings in direct or implicit fashion. In the Dissertation on the Romans’ politics in religion, read to the Academy of Bordeaux in 1716 (OC, t. VIII, p. 83-98), the debt of these pages towards chapters XI-XIV of the first book of the Discourses is already quite visible. Montesquieu presents the Roman religion as an instrument for good government and justifies recourse to superstition in the name of politics with examples similar to those of the Discourses. In addition to this undeniable influence of the Florentine, we also perceive in the Dissertation the presence of skeptical and libertine currents – from Bayle to Fréret – and of Cicero, critic of religion (De divinatione, De natura deorum).

5If there is apparently no trace of Machiavelli in the Persian Letters, his memory again appears in Romans: it again relates to the Discourses, this time with respect to the political analysis of the Roman government. This new interest for the Discourses comes from Montesquieu’s discovery of the republican Machiavelli during his trip to England, which allowed him to refuse the common and widespread notion of a “Machiavellist” Machiavelli and theoretician of the raison d’état. Despite the differences between the Discourses and Romans – Montesquieu places at the center of his analysis Rome’s “grandeur” as well as its “decadence” – the undeniable convergences of opinion clearly appear, like the idea that the very origin of the Roman republic included its destiny of grandeur and conquest. Indeed, the distinction between a republic devoted to the preservation of its territory, like Sparta, and a republic devoted to expansion, like Rome, goes back to Machiavelli (Discourses, I, 6; II, 3-4). Thus, after the corruption of Rome due to the kings, that city could only fall into complete decadence, or again become a new power (Discourses, I, 17; Romans, I, OC, t. II, p. 91-93). But the rise of the republic, according to Machiavelli, and after him according to Montesquieu, came from the conflict between the people and the Senate and the social discord as guarantee of republican freedom. For the author of the Discourses, the antagonism between the nobility and the plebes was “the first cause of Roman freedom” (“prima cagione di tenere libera Roma”) (Discourses, I, 4). For the author of Romans – who here disagrees with Bossuet – the divisions of Rome “were necessary”, since “every time we find everyone tranquil in a state that calls itself a Republic, we can be sure there is no freedom there” (“toutes les fois qu’on verra tout le monde tranquille dans un État qui se donne le nom de république, on peut être assuré que la liberté n’y est pas”, Romans, IX, p. 156-157). We could find other examples of this agreement between Machiavelli and Montesquieu. That is the case for example of the alliances which the Romans made in the countries which they wished to subject (Discourses, II, 1; Romans, VI, p. 137), or the fact that Rome became the model of an expansionist republic (Discourses, I, 5; II, 3-4; Romans, IX, p. 153-154), supported by a strong army composed of its own citizens in arms and aided by ingenious military tactics (Discourses, I, 21; Romans, II, p. 99-104). Thus, like Machiavelli for whom it was not fortune that helped Rome, but rather a “very great virtue and prudence” (virtù e prudenza grandissima) (Discourses, II, 1), Montesquieu thinks that “it is not fortune that dominates the world: you can ask the Romans” (“ce n’est pas la fortune qui domine le monde : on peut le demander aux Romains […]”, Romans, XVIII, p. 235). With respect to the causes for the fall of the Republic, the convergences between Machiavelli and Montesquieu diminish and the author of Romans goes much farther than the Florentine in the explanation of Roman “decadence”. This change in perspectives resides in the difference of approach: Machiavelli seeks in the knowledge of “examples” from the Ancients, and especially in the example of Rome, practical lessons for the moderns, whereas Montesquieu is rather interested in the unfolding of Rome’s history, which, after its expansionist phase, must end by the fall of the Empire. These are historical events that affirmed the domination of a single power over Europe, one of which Montesquieu wanted to analyze the causes to understand whether that experience can be reproduced (which he excludes in Réflexions sur la monarchie universelle en Europe, which was originally intended to appear as an appendix to Romans). Unlike Machiavelli, a true Renaissance thinker who believed in a cyclical history where examples from the past are genuinely current, Montesquieu had no nostalgia for the classical past, and he thought that English freedom was intrinsically superior to that of Rome for its capacity of endless self-correction: “The government of Rome was admirable in that since its birth its constitution was such, […] that any abuse of power could always be corrected […]. The government of England is one of the wisest in Europe, because there is a body that continually examines it, and which continually examines itself […]. In a word, a free government, in other words one that is ever agitated, cannot maintain itself, if not by its own laws capable of being corrected” (“Le gouvernement de Rome fut admirable en ce que depuis sa naissance sa constitution se trouva telle, […] que tout abus du pouvoir y pût toujours être corrigé […]. Le gouvernement d’Angleterre est un des plus sages d’Europe, parce qu’il y a un corps qui l’examine continuellement, et qui s’examine continuellement lui-même […]. En un mot un gouvernement libre, c’est-à-dire, toujours agité, ne saurait se maintenir, s’il n’est par ses propres lois capable de correction”, Romans, X, p. 152).

6Thus, the more Montesquieu’s political thought advanced, the more the comparison with Machiavelli’s became complicated: Machiavelli is not only the historian of Rome, but he is also the author who helps one think through the political laws that command the maintenance or decadence of the republican form. The problems raised by Machiavelli with regard to the preservation and functioning of the Republic hinge on a central question: that of the strategies that make it possible to safeguard “virtue” and the orders, where “virtue” is either an element proper to the people as a whole (“Lo universale”, Discourses, I, 17), or the political ability of the City to change the orders and mores in function of the evolution of circumstances (Discourses, III, 31). Beginning with this question, Machiavelli developed ideas that were to become, after him, the legacy of debates on the republic. He wonders about the place to build the city: a sterile spot might favor virtue, a fertile spot might support the state’s resources, whereas the laws can compensate for the negative effects produced by a favorable place by the virtue of the people (Discourses, I, 1). Moreover he struggles with relations between mores and laws: the republic must not only be founded with its own arms (“armi proprie”) (Discourses, I, 21), but must also retain good mores. According to Machiavelli, even the best institutions need the support of appropriate mores, whereas good laws and good mores imply each other (Discourses, I, 18). Thus a republic must always go back to its own principles, making possible a sort of palingenesis that renews it cyclically and spares it from becoming corrupt (Discourses, III, 1).

7The research of Quentin Skinner and J. G. A. Pocock has shown us how these themes became an integral part of the English political debate which Montesquieu had followed attentively and directly between 1729 and 1731. Thus in the pages on republics in L’Esprit des lois, Montesquieu not only echoes the thought of Machiavelli, from which he certainly draws inspiration, but also refers to that tradition and those debates. For Montesquieu, the problem of placement (of a republic or a state) belongs strictly to that of relations between the climate and the political laws. Montesquieu distances himself, however, with respect to Machivelli’s opinion when he thinks that material difficulties such as poverty are useful for virtue or freedom (EL, XX, 3) and that the lack of “conveniences of life” can reawaken a spirit of freedom (EL, XXI, 3). The mutual implications between good laws and good mores, already mentioned by Machivelli, are also shared by Montesquieu, who again proposes the idea that the corruption of the “principle of the government” can render “the best laws” useless (EL, VIII, 11). This reciprocal relation between laws and mores is determinant in republics (EL, III, 3; V, 1-7) and it poses the problem of the control of mores by education (EL, IV, 5), censorship (EL, V, 19), and by the cyclical return to principles (EL, VIII, 12-14).

8The tradition of thought going back to Machiavelli is also central in the discussion of republican frugality. In England, this debate affected two problems: the distribution of lands as a criterion of balance between the people and the Senate, and the limitation of luxury and transportable wealth. These two questions are found again in Montesquieu, who deals with laws over lands (EL, V, 3-7), sumptuary laws (EL, VII, 1-2), and the difficult relations between republic and trade, considered by Montesquieu as the origin of luxury. The incompatibility between trade and virtue also posed the question of the exercise of trade in republics (EL, V, 6; VII, 1-2), which Montesquieu tried to resolve in ambiguous and finally ultimately incomplete manner with the notion of “commerce of economy” (EL, XX, 2-5).

9Finally, the debate over the expansion and conquests of a republic also took its point of departure from Machiavelli. The Discourses had shown, in the case of an expansionist republic, the problems linked to the administration of the provinces and the liberty of the colonies (Discourses, II, 4; II, 21). Montesquieu shows the difficulties of “a republic that conquers” (EL, X, 6-8) and proposes the federal model as the only solution capable of guaranteeing the security of republics in the face of new national states (EL, IX, 1-3). This model, which was to gain great success in the United States of America, shows how, in Montesquieu’s thought, the legacy of Machiavelli provides impetus at the outset and not the point of arrival.

10Thus Montesquieu, who remained hostile his whole life to the teachings of The Prince and refused the raison d’état and “Machiavellianism”, nevertheless constantly confronted Machiavelli’s reflections on Roman history, finding in his Discourses an example of historical analysis that still retained, for republican thought, all its hermeneutic value.


Ettore Levi-Malvano, Montesquieu e Machiavelli, Paris: Champion, 1912.

Friedrich Meinecke, Die Entstehung des Historismus, Munich and Berlin: R. Oldenbourg), 1936.

André Bertière, “Montesquieu lecteur de Machiavel”, Actes du congrès Montesquieu, Bordeaux: Delmas, 1956, p. 141-158.

Robert Shackleton, “Montesquieu and Machiavelli: a reappraisal”, Comparative Literature Studies, I, 1964, p. 1-13, republished in R. Shackleton, Essays on Montesquieu and on the Enlightenment, David Gilson et Martin Smith ed., Oxford: Voltaire Foundation, 1988, p. 117-131.

Judith N. Shklar, Montesquieu, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1987.

Q. Skinner, Machiavel, Oxford, 1981

Judith N. Shklar, “Montesquieu and the New Republicanism”, in Machiavelli and Republicanism, ed. G. Bock et al., Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990.

J. G. A. Pocock, The Machiavellian moment: Florentine political thought and the Atlantic republican tradition, Princeton, 1975

H. Drei, La Vertu politique: Machiavel et Montesquieu, Paris: L’Harmattan, 1998.

Giorgio Inglese, “Machiavelli, Niccolò”, in Dizionario Biografico degli Italiani, vol. LXVII, Rome: Istituto dell’Enciclopedia Italiana, 2006, p. 81-97.