Unravelling Machiavelli’s Perspectives: Ethics in politics, the debate on Realpolitik and moral governance Introduction


In this in-depth exploration, we dive into Niccolò Machiavelli’s complex philosophical landscape, focusing on the interplay between ethics in politics, the debate on Realpolitik and the concept of moral governance. Already controversial since the 16th century, this topic makes for a fascinating object of study.

Ethics in politics: The Moral Dilemma

Machiavelli’s views on ethics in politics have generated much debate, with readers interpreting his position in different ways:

Some argue that Machiavelli approves of immoral behaviour or takes the position of amoral politics. The Realpolitik debate revolves around whether he advises leaders to disregard conventional moral and religious norms in favour of cruelty, violence and deceit for political gain. This perspective highlights the tension between traditional moral values and pragmatic political decisions.

Another viewpoint sees Machiavelli as a realist or pragmatist who recognises the need to suspend conventional ethics in political affairs. According to this perspective, political leaders must make difficult decisions that may not be in line with conventional moral virtues in order to ensure the stability and survival of their states.

Satire and Criticism

Some scholars argue that Machiavelli’s work, especially “The Prince”, contains elements of satire and criticism of political leaders. They argue that he uses perceptive humour to expose the weaknesses of monarchs and their advisers, rather than glorifying or condoning immoral behaviour.

An alternative perspective is that Machiavelli’s advice, especially in “The Prince”, is strategically designed to trap rulers. By giving seemingly pragmatic advice, he wanted to challenge the assumptions and behaviour of rulers so that they would reconsider their actions.

Religion and Moral Governance

Machiavelli’s views on religion and the relationship between religion and moral governance have also generated different interpretations:

Some argue that Machiavelli was critical of traditional Christianity and favoured the pagan citizenship religions of ancient societies, such as Rome. They suggest that he found these ancient religions more suitable to promote the virtù of leaders and citizens.

Traditional Piety

An opposite view argues that Machiavelli exhibited traditional piety, but did not engage deeply in Christianity. While he may have adhered to religious practices, his philosophy of governance did not revolve around religious dogma.

Christian Elements in Machiavelli’s Worldview

A divergent perspective presents Machiavelli as one who incorporates Christian theological doctrines, such as grace and free will, into his conceptual structure. This interpretation highlights the presence of central Christian themes in his writings.

Machiavelli’s Political Realism

Besides ethics and religion, political realism plays a central role in Machiavelli’s philosophy:


Book cover for Machiavelli A Biography of Niccolò Machiavelli: The Inspiration of the Renaissance. Unravelling Machiavelli's Perspectives: Ethics in Politics, the debate on Realpolitik and moral governance

Read his extraordinary work. ‘Florentine Histories’ is a comprehensive account of the history of Florence in the early 16th century. You can find our English translation here.

Machiavelli is often associated with the term Realpolitik, which refers to the practical approach to politics where the emphasis is on the interests of the state and the achievement of political goals, regardless of moral considerations. Realpolitik stands for pragmatism and the ability to make political decisions based on realistic assessments.


The term Machiavellianism refers to the application of political manipulation and strategies, often without regard to ethical standards. Although Machiavelli himself was not a Machiavellian, his work did lay the foundation for the development of this concept in political science.

Power and Political Stability / Realpolitik

For Machiavelli, maintaining power and political stability was central. He saw a strong and centralised state as essential for the stability of a society and regarded the ability to eliminate political rivals as necessary to stay in power.


All in all, the complex web of ethics in politics, the debate on Realpolitik, and moral governance in Machiavelli’s thinking continues to intrigue scholars and readers alike. The diverse interpretations reflect the continuing relevance of his ideas in contemporary debates about the complexities of political leadership, ethical decision-making, and the relationship between religion and governance. This unravelling of Machiavelli’s perspectives sheds light on timeless questions concerning political power and moral action, and highlights his enduring influence on political philosophy. By continuing to study his work, we can gain insights that help us address the challenges of modern governance and political decision-making.

A biography of Niccolo Machiavelli

Florentine Histories




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