Machiavelli’s View of Human Nature
Simple versions of Machiavelli’s conception of human nature may readily be elicited from The Prince. It is easy to find textual support for claims that appear to presuppose or be equivalent to some version of psychological egoism. He says, for example, that “men in general … are ungrateful, voluble, dissemblers, anxious to avoid danger, and covetous of gain; as long as you benefit them, they are entirely yours,” but their “love is held by a chain of obligation which, men being selfish, is broken whenever it serves their purpose.” (Prince, xvii, p. 61) Again, speaking of a prince’s counselors, he says “[they] will all think of their own interests …. for men will always be false … unless they are compelled by necessity to be true.” (Prince, xxiii, p. 89)
Beyond specific citations, there is what may be called the atmosphere of the work. Machiavelli constantly assumes that, regardless of what ought to be done, there is no reason to expect that it will be unless it accords with someone’s interests. Objectives which are not secular or this-worldly are only rarely mentioned, and those who concern themselves primarily with such aims are rather summarily dismissed as theorists only for imaginary republics and principalities. (Prince, xv, p. 56) His appeal is always to the prudence of rulers, and he constantly speaks of what is or is not in their interests. It might almost be said that he has no other arguments to offer, no other considerations to bring to bear.
Equally easily, one can find textual support – often in the same texts – for claims that seem to echo the Christian doctrine of Original Sin. Thus, Machiavelli says that “as [men] are bad, and would not observe their faith with you, so you are not bound to keep faith with them.” (Prince, xviii, p. 64) Or “[a] man who wishes to make a profession of goodness in everything must necessarily come to grief among so many who are not good.” (Prince, xv, p. 56)
But there are several reasons for trying to look deeper, for suspecting that Machiavelli may mean something other than what appears on the surface. First, though he has clearly thought long and deeply about politics, he nowhere tries to give us a systematic account of human nature. His remarks on the subject are remarks – generally in the form of asides intended to reinforce some other point. He is a careful and intelligent observer of the world around him, but there is nothing to suggest that any of his staements on human nature are meant to be self-sufficient and unqualified by what he has to say elsewhere.
Second, he is speaking of a restricted context, the arena of political power and conflict. Nobody, including Machiavelli, thinks that the topics he seeks to address encompass all of human life. Politics may set the terms within which other interests are pursued – but there are other interests and other pursuits. Machiavelli, in short, may no more need a general conception of human nature...