Machiavelli on Seduction

This article is part of a series entitled Machiavelli in Society. See also:

  1. Sex: Machiavelli on Seduction
  2. Empathy: Calculated Empathy
  3. Society: Prophylactic Power

“For how we live is so far removed from how we ought to live, that he who abandons what is done for what ought to be done, will rather learn to bring about his own ruin than his preservation.” – The Prince, XV (1)


Sixteenth-century Italian writer Niccolò Machiavelli wrote The Prince, an emotionless instruction manual for calculated political domination. He also, however, wrote plays for the stage, including the wild and rousing La Mandragola (The Mandrake Root), a wild tale of trickery and seduction! Might we find, in the Mandragola, traces of the same cold political manipulation immortalized by The Prince? Let’s find out. Below, I offer quotes from the Prince alongside their (according to me) correspondents in the Mandragola. I end with a discussion of consequentialist and deontological ethical theories.

Lacking any characters or plot, The Prince develops only maxims and strategies for political dominance. The book, indeed, lacks any explicit reference to moral concerns or moral goodness, and Machiavelli’s prescriptions often seem callous and cold. What might we make of this? I suggest that morality was simply not the author’s concern, and that the moral good is outside of the scope of (if not antithetical to) the Prince’s political ascendancy. Alternatively, and perhaps more optimistically, I might remind the reader that Machiavelli’s controversial strategies are, in the end, ultimately directed towards a peaceful, unified Italian nation (this is made clear in the book’s last chapter, “An Exhortation for the Liberation of Italy”).

The Mandragola, meanwhile, is a hilarious play. In it, the young and deft Callimaco becomes determined to seduce the lovely, but married, Lucrezia. Lucrezia’s husband, Nicia, is old and foolish, but above all wants an heir; he painfully chastises his wife for failing to produce a child (spoiler alert: it’s his fault). Callimaco, in a sequence of wild and raucous attempts, eventually succeeds in seducing Lucrezia. Dressing as a doctor (and through the help of mutual acquaintances), Callimaco presents the mandrake root to the couple as an ultimate cure for infertility – with the dire warning, however, that the medicine has the side-effect of killing the first man to sleep with the woman. Nicia, attempting to foist the burden on an unwitting fool, “accidentally” (of course) stumbles upon Callimaco, and our protagonist achieves his goal, eventually actually marrying Lucrezia. With a son for Nicia, a welcome marriage for Lucrezia, money for the accomplices, and sex for Callimaco, the story ends happily.

I note that the Mandragola is not, nor should be interpreted as, a validation of Machiavelli’s methods. Contrarily, it’s likely that he constructed the play to promote his own values! Now for the parallels.

“A man who wishes to make a profession of goodness in everything must necessarily come to grief among so many who are not good. Therefore, it is necessary for a prince, who wishes to maintain himself, to learn how not to be good.” – The Prince, XV (1). These statements evoke the diffident evil of psychopaths. This philosophy appears in the Mandragola in the form of a preference for fraud over ingratiation. Callimaco, and a friendly accomplice, Ligurio, devise various plans, such as the aforementioned mandrake plan, as well as a plan to lure Lucrezia into the Baths – and never consider winning her over through the conventional means of genuine attraction, honesty, or good will. Might these alternatives have worked? Given the stodgy protectiveness of Nicia and the shy purity of Lucrezia, the likely answer is no – and we see this story as a constructed demonstration of the (potential) effectiveness of ends-oriented philosophies.

“For if one considers well, it will be found that some things which seem virtues would, if followed, lead to one’s ruin, and some others which appear vices result, if followed, in one’s greater security and wellbeing.” – The Prince, XV (1). This quote from the Prince again characterizes Machiavelli’s moral system as one concerned with outcomes. Things which “seem virtues”, declares Machiavelli, perhaps with a nod towards alternative ethical codes, are likely to end in ruin; the implication is that they’re thus not virtues at all. In the Mandragola, this is manifested through Callimaco’s (eventually) favorable deception of Nicia and Lucrezia. Indeed, we see that actions little better than deception and fraud end in a quite favorable ending for all parties involved (an ending, in fact, which is likely better than the honestly achieved alternative).

Consequentialist ethical theories judge the goodness of actions in terms of the goodness of their consequences; most famously, Utilitarianism seeks to “choose a good and then maximize it.” Deontological ethical codes, meanwhile, seek to judge the goodness of an action in terms of the goodness of the action itself. Machiavelli is clearly a consequentialist.

I will, for now, avoid a long (but interesting, see (3)) discussion of which category of theory is more “correct”. I would like to investigate, however, why consequentialist theories seem to draw more stigma than deontological ones. (Machiavelli’s controversial “ends justify the means” philosophy has provoked reactions ranging from veneration to hate; the latter is more common.) Why do we revere the well-intentioned failure over than the effective, cunning calculator? Furthermore: why are consequentialist theories never associated with religion, while deontological ones often are? I propose that consequentialism evokes a distasteful “social engineering” philosophy, full of “I know better than you” and “I can play God.” People dislike this. Deontological theories, meanwhile, are perhaps associated with religion because religion, promising eventual justice, makes it easier to swallow “good intentions with bad results”.

But are “ends” philosophies always deceptive and evil? I’ll end with a curious argument: “Religious faith is justified, even in the absence of literal belief, because it makes us more happy, helpful, and caring people. The ends justify the means.” The notorious phrase at the end, now, seems quite benign.

References and further reading:

  1. Full text of The Prince.
  2. The Mandragola, full text, with both languages side-by-side
  3. J. J. Smart and Bernard William’s “Utilitarianism: For and Against”

3 comments on “Machiavelli on Seduction

  1. Richard says:

    You probably have given this more thought since the time when you wrote it, but I think you have missed in this analysis a more striking similarity between Machiavelli’s the prince and his work Madragola. I am familiar with The Prince but have not read the play, however from your description of the play I would have thought that a comparison would best focus on their satirical content rather than their moral content. Many commentators on Machiavelli interpret the prince as a satire, not as a serious moral treatise. The Borgia family on some of whose members the Prince is focused were known even in their own time as politically ruthless and unscrupulous even for Renaissance Italy. Writing a political manual advocating deceit and manipulation of the public can be seen as Machiavelli’s way of drawing a caricature of the Borgias. Read as a lampoon, the treatise need not be read as a piece on consequentialist ethics – it is unlikely that Machiavelli felt that the ends and goals of the Borgia were sufficient to justify any of their ruthless behavior. Other versions and interpretations exist too, of course. There is reading on which Machiavelli is regretful to realize that the power of the peace-keeping authority needs lesser evils to be committed in order to be retained. Even on this reading the tone would suggest at most a ‘meta consequentialist’ ethics according to which this ends based morality is itself a lesser evil necessary to achieve some intrinsic good, vis-a-vis lasting peace and social stability. Concerning the play, however, the idea that everyone can be deceptive and manipulative and ruthless, as both dominant male characters seem to be, and yet come out smelling of roses also reads as a satire on the Borgias.

    On your point about different ethical theories: it is true that Deontological ethics often is more closely associated with religion. But it’s not clear that your account suffices to explain this. Doing something because you believe it to be good despite the guarantee of failure cannot be in accordance with Deontological principles if the explanation for doing this action relies upon some notion of ultimate justice or final reward. Because then it looks like the action is justified because of its ultimate long term consequences. Another puzzle is this: the world’s most common religion pictures a character whose actions are sacrificial. Jesus of the New Testament allows people to do terrible things to him and allows his own suffering as a necessary evil to accomplish a greater goal, that is, the salvation of humanity. There are a lot of complex issues here.

    • Ben says:

      I was unaware that The Prince was intended as a satire, and now I feel a bit naïve. In my defense, I’ve heard philosophical investigations of The Prince in a few “high places” — none of these professionals deigned to offer any hint of this satirical intent. Machiavelli’s peculiar sense of virtù has tended to come up instead. My approach might seem more plausible under this latter light.

      It’s true that this promise of eventual resolution couldn’t possibly explain adherence to deontological moral codes among the perfectly scrupulous — they’d be choosing deontological morality for consequentialist reasons! Among the imperfect, though, it’s plausible that certain promises could draw people to ethical codes which are, otherwise, deontological. For one, religion’s promises could draw explicit reward-seekers. Excepting them, the expectation of eventual resolution could subconsciously reassure some that their painful “sacrifices” are really no such thing. Their behavior, though justified consciously by duty, would actually rest on an underlying expectation of reward.

      That’s not to say that religious traditions would endorse this reasoning. Indeed, that religions do tend to promise, as you say, “ultimate justice or final reward” shouldn’t lead us to conclude that these religions would condone the use of these promises as a justification for religious behavior. The Book of Job actually seems to exist precisely to discourage such reasoning. (See this.)

      The above observation explains religion and deontological ethics’ coexistence, provided that people are imperfect and that those promising the rewards also happen to be promoting deontological ethics. But why did religions select deontological ethics in the first place? Perhaps because God, being infinite, would reasonably be expected to extend infinite decrees, which shouldn’t be compromised or weighed against other goods. (See my writing here.)

      The kind of shift in motivation apparently demanded by The Book of Job might cost religions some of their followers. Religions could also be forced to applaud these defectors. In any case, it’s perhaps strange that religions encourage deontological reasoning while simultaneously promising rewards. It makes the motives for observed religious behavior hard to parse, and it’s a bit of a paradox.

      Again, interesting insight about Jesus and sacrifice. I’d be hesitant to accept, though, that Jesus is typically understood to have done what he did for consequentialist reasons. Rather, I think most would suggest that he did it out of “love”. My theology is inadequate here so I’ll leave it at that.

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