The Ends Justify The Means Niccolo Machiavelli

Niccolo Machiavelli
Niccolò Machiavelli, born Niccolò di Bernardo dei Machiavelli, is among the most famous and (arguably) most mischaracterized political philosopher from the 15th century. Among his most discussed quotes, is a seeming aggressive defense of utilitarianism. However, as we'll discuss below, he of course did not say this quote as it's portrayed.

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This article is about the famous quote that is claimed to have been said by Niccolo Machiavelli that seemingly defends his particular view of consequentialism. A view he fleshes out in his legendary political commentary book The Prince. Before we get into the breakdown, we’ll go ahead and let you know that Albert Einstein did not in fact make this quote (nor is it the definition of insanity). We’ll work through it below.

Citation 1:

Business Insider

Supplementary: Mashable

Citation 2:

Primary: The Epistles of Ovid Translated Into English Prose (p. 16)

Machiavelli didn’t say it? Well, not first anyway. 

Though Machiavelli may not have said it, his actual text and words were fairly close (and a good abbreviation) of what he actually said. However, we’ll get to that shortly, for now, let’s get to who actually said it. 

In his all too classic text Heroides II, the Roman poet whom readers may remember from assigned readings, the poet wrote “Exitus acta probat”, in English this can be translated to “the outcome justifies the means.” What’s important to note is that both of these authors come well before John Stewart Mill and the Classical Utilitarians who came up with the first formal arguments for evaluating actions solely on the back of the outcomes. 

Nevertheless, the shell of the idea about what justifies actions (if such a thing can ever be done) has a long, and rather a theological background (see Francis Hutcheson; 1694-1746). That said, The Prince predates all such formulations with its publication in 1532. 

However, and the point of us assigning this quote as fake/misattributed, is the fact that Ovid’s work occurred during his life (43 BC to 18 AD), more than 1,500 years prior to Machiavelli’s Magnus Opus being released. In literary terms, Ovid’s work is truly ancient. What did he actually say? 

There are three things that make us a little squeamish about classifying this quote as fake so quickly. First, the quote is, though efficient and elegant, extremely short in length. That contributes little to the debate but taken in conjunction with issue #2, it becomes a little more complex. The original Ovid quote was written in Latin and we’re evaluating an English translation. One needn’t devolve into theological debates, to understand all the various ways in which translations are open to interpretations. Let alone the fact that The Prince itself was originally written in Italian. 

Third and most importantly, even when translated into English, the quote is actually a pretty good approximation of what Machiavelli actually meant. In his intoxicating opening passage to a book that gets less interesting as it goes on, Machiavelli wrote the following: 

I wish not to speak as the world ought to be but as the world is.

Niccolo Machiavelli

Machiavelli thought that the abstract arguments over ethics (what one ‘ought’ to do and the principles one should have in doing them) were a distraction from what a ruler should be thinking about. In one example from the text, Machiavelli makes the case that if out of some misguided view about morality, a leader refuses to be deceptive they will only make themselves vulnerable to competing rulers who will use this as a weakness against the fair-minded ruler. 

As enchanting and seductive as the quote maybe it’s also nonsensical when dissected. A ruler has an idea of how the world should be FIRST and then we proceed objectively about seeing those ends. If I don’t agree with the end goal of the ruler, why should one approve of the means they use to achieve it? 

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