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By Michael Jackson and Damian Grace


The Montréal Review, December 2012


"The Friends Meeting" by an Unknown artist, 19th century Realism


Since death Niccolò Machiavelli has had a long career in the popular culture. His name spawned the adjective 'Machiavellian' and the noun 'Machiavellianism.' Not a week passes but that some journalist espies a Machiavellian and detects Machiavellianism in others. Both terms are now carved into the vernacular. Moreover, researchers in management by turns recommend or decry so-called Machiavellian methods; in psychology the manipulative Machiavellian personality is revealed in questionnaire study after questionnaire study. Michael Scott’s contemporary series of novels for young readers called 'The Secrets of the Immortal Nicholas Flamel' features one very slick Niccolò Machiavelli who is in league with the Dark Forces. All of this and more trace back to that book The Prince of nearly one hundred pages he wrote in a few weeks.

Granted that Machiavelli's name is bandied about, but what about the monkeys? Machiavelli has also been conscripted into primatology - the study of monkeys and their kind. We argue that this use of Machiavelli's name does him an injustice. What do we want? We want primatologists to stop monkeying around with his name. To make our appeal to common decency we recount how Machiavelli, through no fault of his own, came to the planet of the apes.

It began like this: Frans de Waal, a Dutch primatologist then at the Arnhem Zoo in the Netherlands, watched chimpanzees with interest, care, diligence, and insight. In 1982, he published Chimpanzee Politics: Power and Sex among the Apes. It is clearly written and accessible to general readers. It treats its subjects in the zoo with respect and brings out fascinating aspects of primate behaviour. While doing so also maligns Machiavelli, though not nearly as libelously as others have done since then. Why did de Waal associate Machiavelli with his monkeys in the first place? (We confess that we cannot distinguish bonobo, from chimpanzee, from macaque, but that is not our purpose.)

De Waal began innocently enough by writing that 'entire passages of Machiavelli seem to be directly applicable to chimpanzee behaviour' (1998 ed., p. 4) and refers to the constant struggle for power. We take that to mean that the world of the chimpanzees he observed was a turbulent world with ambitious contenders. He noted that 'Unfortunately, his [Machiavelli's] admirably realistic analysis has often been mistaken for a moral justification for these practices' (1998 p. 208). In this passage de Waal is circumspect and he distinguishes Niccolò Machiavelli from the clichéd terms Machiavellian and Machiavellianism. This distinction between the man himself and the way in which his name is used is rare. And not many others in this field are so restrained. Nor does de Waal himself let it rest there.

He goes on to say he felt 'uncomfortable labelling' his chimpanzees as Machiavellian. This discomfort was not due to his respect for Machiavelli the man, but due to his affection for the monkeys. De Waal put it this way: 'An adult male waiting for the right moment to reconcile with his rival. [is] not exactly "Machiavellian" in the usual sense. Sensitivity to others, conflict resolution, and reciprocal exchange all demand a great deal of intelligence but are left out if our terminology one-sidedly emphasizes one-upmanship' (emphasis added, 1998, p. 218 N 5).

Of course, de Waal is right about the 'usual sense' of Machiavellianism, but we also are right that this stereotyped usual sense has virtually nothing to with Machiavelli. That Machiavelli's life and work are far more varied and complex than the hackneyed use of his name admits should be obvious, but it clearly is not. Once the terms Machiavellian and Machiavellianism were ushered into primate studies, there they have stayed and proliferated.

A few years later, Richard Byrne and Andrew Whiten made official the inclusion of Machiavelli's name into the lexicon of primatology in the title of their book Machiavellian intelligence: The evolution of intellect in monkeys apes, and humans. This book is a collection of very scientific papers from a prestigious symposium and it presents, under that title, the work of twenty of international experts in primatology, including de Waal himself. While de Waal offered an analogy to Machiavelli, this book goes further to develop the first statement of the Machiavelli Intelligence Hypothesis, which has worked its way deeply into primate studies and gone on from there to cognitive evolution both in other animals and machines.

If de Waal was equivocal because he took Machiavelli to be a fellow analyst, that equivocation ended quickly enough. In the preface to this book Richard Byrne and Andrew Whiten ask our very question. 'Why did we call the book "Machiavellian Intelligence"? We expect to be criticized for appearing to emphasize the nastier side of primate social behaviour by the use of Machiavelli's name, which conjures up the use of superior knowledge and skill to deliberately manipulate, exploit, and deceive social companions. In most cases the evidence is that primates do "what Machiavelli would have advised" (p. iv).' Presto! The distance between Machiavelli the man and Machiavellianism is dissolved. Machiavellianism is what Machiavelli 'would have advised.'

They end the preface of the book with this passage from Machiavelli: '[The prince] must be a great simulator and dissimulator. So simple-minded are men and so controlled by immediate necessities that a prince who deceives always finds men who let themselves be deceived. For a prince, then, it is not necessary to have all the [virtuous] qualities, but it is very necessary to appear to have them. [It] is useful, for example, to appear merciful, trustworthy, humane, blameless, religious - and to be so - yet to be in such measure prepared in mind that if you need to be not so, you can do change to the contrary.' It is attributed to Machiavelli, but no source is cited. It is very like passages in Chapters XV and XVIII of The Prince, allowing for differences in translation.

But more important than its exact source is that the quotation is left hanging; nothing follows it, leaving the reader to guess what the Byrne and Whiten conclude from it. They evidently think the passage speaks for itself, but not to us.

The editors say nothing more anywhere in the book in answer to their question about using Machiavelli's name.

Byrne and Whiten, too, fear only that calling apes Machiavellian insults the apes. We, on the other hand, are worried that it insults Machiavelli by taking him to be a stereotyped Machiavellian.

Byrne and Whiten went on to promulgate the Machiavellian Intelligence hypothesis in article after article (Bryne 1995 'The Thinking Ape'). In a 2007 article Byrne with co-author Lucy Bates wrote, 'Niccolò Machiavelli famously recommended politicians use social manipulation for individual profit, hence the term "Machiavellian intelligence" for the idea that social manipulation has been favoured in animal evolution' (2007 p 715). 'It is favoured,' they say. Coy that, since it is they that have favoured it, but perhaps the canons of science do not permit them to speak for themselves. Yet the canons of science permit them to say that Machiavelli recommended individual profit! As simple as that! We will return to this point because we did it does Machiavelli a libel.

In the hands of Bryne and Whiten the Machiavellian Intelligence hypothesis stirred up so much interest that another international colloquium was convened at Oxford University and another, second volume appeared in 2007 bearing the title Machiavellian Intelligence II: Extensions and evaluations. There are some interesting things about this book, but the references to Machiavelli are not among them. It recycles its own past. The opening chapter by Byrne and Whiten retains the pertinent question, 'What does Machiavellian mean?' and they answer by saying Machiavellianism is a social psychology personality type that manipulates others for personal gain (Christie 1970). They go on to quote the same passage from Machiavelli about appearances and once again leave it hanging.

One chapter in the collection by the troika of Shirley Strum, Deborah Foster, and Edwin Hutchins bears the exciting title 'Why Machiavellian intelligence may not be Machiavellian.' They assert that Machiavelli's basic premise is 'do what works.' Of course, it is seldom easy beforehand to find out what works, but even so we find it a shoe hard to fit to Machiavelli. He was a man who preferred farmer militia to cannons, a man who tried to change the course of the Arno River with shovels, a man who thought Italy existed four hundred years before anyone else did. He spent most of his short career doing what did not work. If we may venture a comparison to Machiavelli's contemporary da Vinci, some say that Leonardo was a dreamer who could make some of his dreams come true, then Machiavelli was a dreamer who could not, the militia failed, the Arno resisted the shovels, and Italy was not born. Nowhere is Machiavelli's inability to do what worked more apparent than in his own career. He was never promoted, seldom recognized by his superiors, and forced out of office in a reorganization without a golden parachute, or even a handshake.

Strum, Foster, and Hutchins, having reduced Machiavelli to a stereotype, go on to exonerate the monkeys. They say it might be a misnomer to call primates Machiavellian because 'primate communities are complex' and - it gets better - 'seeing primates through Machiavelli's eyes limits and simplifies our vision of the challenges of social life' (emphasis added, p. 73).

Anyone who knows anything about Machiavelli's own life, the events and people that he observed, and the conditions of Renaissance Italy can be forgiven for laughing out loud at this point. It is as if to say the monkeys live in a complicated world but old Niccolò did not. What would he know of complications, this man who negotiated with Cesare Borgia? Who thought Catherina Sforza the equal of any man? Who saw princes murdered at prayer? Who tried to get Leonardo to finish a work on time and on budget? What would he know of complications, this Machiavelli??

Niccolò Machiavelli reappears later in the book in a chapter by Anne Russon.  There she writes, 'His notorious book, The Prince, promotes the use of intimidation for social power and suggests who to take as the best models for seizing and keeping political power.  Machiavelli even practiced what he preached.  He copied many of the books ideas as well as its structure from other works popular at the time' (in Whiten II 1997 p., 178). She cites as authorities for this remark Allan Gilbert and J. H. Whitfield. Both would be surprised at this claim. Since we scholars shiver at the implication of plagiarism, let us take this assertion slowly, one step at a time.

First, if Machiavelli is the thief she claims, why does he bear the opprobrium and not those from whom he plagiarized?? She does not even mention their names, these writers who Machiavelli robbed.

Second, books of instruction to a prince were a common genre in the Renaissance, and Machiavelli fitted his study to it.  That is the point of Gilbert's book Machiavelli's Prince and its forerunners:  The Prince as a typical de Regimini Principum (1938).  What does Gilbert himself say about Machiavelli?  He says (p. 116) that in this genre it was commonplace to urge a Christian prince to cultivate the love of his people, but mention is never made of an ungrateful or fractious people.  Machiavelli considers just this reality. In this genre the importance of the nobility is often emphasized but no mention is made of conflict and competition between the prince and the nobles. Machiavelli considers just this reality. In this genre there is little if any mention of external threats from other, aggressive cities or states. Machiavelli considers just this reality. In this genre it was common to recommend prayer and abasement to the prince. Machiavelli does not.  Gilbert (p. 234) goes on to list more than a dozen distinguishing features of Machiavelli's Prince. Gilbert leaves no doubt of Machiavelli's originality. 

Russon also cites Whitfield's Machiavelli (1947) in this same footnote to defend the assertion that Machiavelli but copied.  In our reading Whitfield likewise leaves no doubt that he sees in Machiavelli a thinker who emphasized above all else reacting to necessity and risking fortune. Hardly the stuff of the genre described by Gilbert. Nor does Machiavelli recommend acquiescence to divine will that the genre recommended (p. 67). 

Of course, there was much unacknowledged borrowing in this genre, as was common in literature before intellectual property became a principle; in fact, The Prince itself was largely plagiarized by Agostino Nifo in Machiavelli's own lifetime (Larivaille 1987). 

Then we come to the substance of Russon's remark. In the pages of The Prince Machiavelli 'promotes' distasteful practices. Does he? The Concise Oxford English Dictionary defines 'promote' as to further, encourage, or initiate. We argue that Machiavelli did none of these in The Prince and we are confident anyone who reads the book with an open mind will agree. We contend he was an analyst, who observed, dissected, categorized, and probed for causation behind what he saw and there were plenty of distasteful practices for him to study.

From these beginning the Machiavellian Intelligence Hypothesis emerged. It gives an answer to a question that is so obvious few notice it. Why do we humans have such large brains (Barrett and Henzi 2005)? Compared to other animals with similar biological features, our brain is big for our bodies. And brains are expensive to run. They are rather like Italian cars that use more fuel idling at a stoplight than a Honda sedan does on the freeway, costly while doing nothing. Moreover, brains are fragile. A thump on the head that would not be noticed by our physical analogues in the animal kingdom - think of a stoat - and we are comatose or dead. Why then do we have such an expensive and fragile brain? The primatologist can answer this question because primates, too, have big brains for their bodies. The answer is that the brain helps us live in the company of our kind - it is useful for social relations - and it does not just store data about social relations but allows us to make judgements about our social relations (Robin Dunbar 2003, p. 60). The brain means we remember that hunting with others works better than hunting alone, and we remember the techniques for such hunting, but also that we see, learn, and remember that Squiggly is a worthless hunter and so we shun Squiggly's company in future hunts.

The Machiavellianism enters on the assumption that we each use our brains to chart what is best for ourselves alone, selfishly, and at the expense of others. The primatologist study zero-sum events like sexual coupling and eating of food among their imprisoned subjects.

The term 'Machiavellian Intelligence' evolved into 'Social Intelligence' to achieve greater scope and acceptance. 'Social' rather than 'Machiavellian' is neutral, avoiding the negative connotations of 'Machiavellian' (Gigerenzer 2002, 226). The word 'Hypothesis' indicates the tentative nature of the assertion that primates possess this kind of intelligence (Knecht 2004; Hawley 2006, 148). This denotation seems important when we read fire-fights between scientists who observe apes in zoos and those who follow Jane Goodall and Dian Fossey to observe them in the wild. We will not rehearse the salvoes exchanged by these scientific methodologists, suffice it to say that each practitioner thinks the other sees a distorted image rather than a reality. But as to distortion it does not occur to any of these scientists to see how the stereotype of Machiavellianism distorts Machiavelli.

Others have followed this development in primate studies with the light it sheds on evolution. John Skoyles and Dorlon Sagan write that Machiavelli 'was the ultimate ruthless political manager' (2002, p 81). Move over Karl Rove, a comparison explicitly made by Hrdy (2009, 45). Skoyles and Sagan go on to say that Machiavelli was an accurate observer rather than an advocate thereafter, but the damage is already done. Torkel Klinberg says Machiavelli 'taught the art of domination through manipulation' (2009, p 86).

However all that has come so far pales in comparison to Darlo Maestripieri's book. We recommend reading the title slowly and out loud to get the full effect. If on a bus or in café pretend to be speaking into a cell phone. It is this: Macachiavellian intelligence: How Rhesus Macaques and humans have conquered the world. No, that is not a mis-print. 'Macachiavellian' is what he meant for his is a study of Macaque monkeys and their Machiavellian Intelligence. Maestripieri's book is a pleasure to read in every respect except the references to Machiavelli. He grafts Machiavelli to the monkeys with these words, 'Niccolò Machiavelli wrote his famous book The Prince in 1513 to instruct Lorenzo II de Medici, his patron and the ruler of Florence, in the art of politics.' It is a book about power, exploitation, and war (2007, p. 4).

We will accept the claim that The Prince was 'to instruct' Lorenzo. We cannot however remain quiet about the subsequent claim that Lorenzo was Machiavelli's patron for Lorenzo was not then nor was he later a supporter of Niccolò in any way. More's the pity. History has its own complications for there was more than one Medici called Lorenzo. Nonetheless, Machiavelli never became a client of any Medici. (There was likewise in Florence in Machiavelli's time a cousin with the same name. See Ridolfi, pp. 29 and 45.)

Maestripieri continues 'Following Machiavelli, social opportunism came to be referred to as Machiavellian intelligence. Rhesus macaques had already been using Machiavelli's recommendations in their daily lives for thousands of years.' It is quite a vexed story from Machiavelli to Machiavellian(ism) to be sure. That the macaques were already doing certain things simply underscores the point that Machiavelli observed as Maestripieri himself does. He (2007, p. 9) then refers to Senator George Allen of Virginia who in 2006 referred to one of his opponent's staff members as 'macaca' (available on You Tube). Maestripieri does so to show that it is not proper to call a dark skinned person a monkey. We quite agree that deprecating others is inappropriate, but while Maestripieri respects the monkeys and like de Waal reluctantly labels them Machiavellian, in so doing he extends no such respect to Machiavelli.

However Maestripieri goes some way to achieving mitigation for his libellous offence when he adds, 'If politicians knew more about the Machiavellian intelligence of rhesus macaques, they would probably call one another macaque: all the time, but mean it as a compliment' (p. 9). 'Malign' is too strong a word for Maestripieri's touch is light and he does not extemporize on Machiavelli as so many others do when they malign Machiavelli,

Many others have added to this primate research project, mostly without adding to our dossier on gratuitous insults to Machiavelli (e.g., Kihlstrom and Cantor 2000; Vannelli 2001; Kappeler and van Schaik 2005; Leary and Hoyle 2008; and Lyons 2009). This research agenda is worldwide and so is the attendant disparagement of Machiavelli, from Mexico (Mondragon-Ceballos 2002) to Japan (Tomonaga et al 2006). Along the way some scholars try out different twists on the argument as when Paul Giffins (2004) tries to marry social intelligence with emotional intelligence into a Machiavellian Emotional Intelligence. In so doing, he says nothing at all about Niccolò.

The insults to Machiavelli are not limited to the words. The first volume of Machiavellian Intelligence had a dust jacket that invokes the austere intellectual authority of Oxford University Press with a front cover featuring a bland office building. However that austerity fell away when the second volume was published by Cambridge University Press as Machiavellian Intelligence II. The cover of this second volume features a simian in colourful Renaissance garb with a furtive look, feigning concealment behind the blue robe with one foot raised to indicate . movement, being sneaky? The figure carries a knife on the hip, and being a monkey, has a banana in hand. We take this to be Machiavelli made over into a monkey. Words fail us at this point.

Machiavellian Intelligence II book cover

While waiting for Machiavellian Intelligence III, and we certainly hope there will be one, this line of research has shaded off into other fields, notably evolutionary biology. That is partly looking back at the evolution of primates, but also look sideways at other beasts in the Animal Kingdom and forward to future developments. We note only those parts of these developments that refer to Machiavelli.

Richard Byrne led the way with a thoughtful monograph called The Thinking Ape (1995) and the evolution of intelligence. It includes a chapter on Machiavellian Intelligence (chapter 13, pp. 195-209). Machiavelli escapes comment. Machiavellian intelligence passed into the vernacular like the Samsonite suitcase. People use the latter everyday with nary a thought to who Samson was. Likewise, scholars refer to Machiavellian Intelligence without mentioning Niccolò Machiavelli. (The Samson that gave his name to the suitcase is the Biblical strong man.)

Once the concept of Machiavellian Intelligence gained scientific credibility, then it spread. Joyce Poole and Cynthia Moss study elephants. They note Machiavellian intelligence in these land giants (2008, p, 87-88), saying that 'elephants are contenders for rank among those species possessing Machiavellian intelligence in every respect' (p. 88). In their chapter Machiavellian intelligence is simply social intelligence. There is no mention of selfish manipulation and exploitation of others. Elephants would not do that! Rather the stress is on the sense of the herd and social relations within it.

Richard Connor and Janet Mann wrote of 'Machiavellian Dolphins' (2006) with only the dead seriousness those with a PhD can contrive. We find the Bernd and Melany Wuersig's (2009) study of dolphins referring to Machiavelli's shrewd methods (p. 349) and eighty pages later these methods are termed 'Political Intelligence' (p. 420). We always said in the classroom that politics is everywhere but even in our most expansive, imperialistic moments we never thought of dolphins.

While we are all wet, let's stay in the water. Redouan Bshary (2006) found Machiavellian intelligence in fish. Bshary refers to tactical deception and strategic gain as Machiavellian characteristics. He fails to mention Niccolò. John Bonner looks to Moby Dick, suggesting the blue whales may also have Machiavellian Intelligence (2006). Juliette Arnaud (2008) reports on Machiavellian mollusks. We have yet to find insects indicted for their Machiavellianism, but only time will tell.


To conclude, the Machiavellian Intelligence Hypothesis may be the sine qua non of primate studies, but we prefer to think of it as Social Intelligence and leave Niccolò out of it altogether. Let the monkeys do what they do, but release Machiavelli from responsibility for anything about it. Our cry is Free Machiavelli! He has served his time in the prison of cliché.

In defense of Machiavelli we say that the oft-cited The Prince is but one of his many books. A more complete understanding of the of the man's ideas comes from considering his other titles, too. Moreover, we aver that The Prince is an analysis of what princes do. Machiavelli reports the facts and explains what he takes to be the ambitious and motivations of those who create those facts. He offers few generalizations, saying in his book The Discourses (I, 43) that no more than forty citizens are likely to compose the political class in an Italian city-state. It is these forty that he dissects. As for the rest, they go with their lives and loves as best they can, given what the political class does.

In Machiavelli's time the Italian political classes had a lot to do. The major European powers fought their dynastic and territorial wars in Italy. France, Spain, Venice, the Holy Roman Empire (Germany), and the Papacy marched armies through Italy, demanding tribute, hostages, conscripts, food, animals, fuel, alliances, and more.

The best analogy for the circumstances in which Machiavelli lived are to be found today in Afghanistan, Iraq, Mexico, or the remoter regions of Pakistan where power does grow out of the barrel of a gun. In Machiavelli's Florence a prince was murdered in a mass, a priest had created a bonfire of the vanities in which believers burned oil paintings and books, that self-same priest had then been hanged from a tower in central Florence before himself being burned. The rule of the city had been left to a council that changed members every two months. That constant change prevented tyranny as well as competence. Florence was threatened by successive French kings. Cesare Borgia demanded an exorbitant fee for not sacking Florence. The indecisive Holy Roman Emperor toyed with invading Italy and taking Florence as the jewel. All the while, Machiavelli's own place in the Florentine government was constantly under threat. His appointment had to be re-newed each year by a committee with an ever-changing membership. His expenses were investigated. Anonymous allegations of depravity were made against him. Complications indeed.

Moreover, he was regarded as an upstart commoner by the traditionalists who supported the Medici. Even the republican government invariably appointed a social superior to supervise Machiavelli on foreign missions. Since Machiavelli worked for the republican government his entire career, the aristocratic Medici regarded him as an enemy. But Republicans were never sure that this free spirit was ever really one of them. They found proof when, after French swords returned the Medici to rule, Machiavelli tried to counsel the Medici to act with moderation and restraint. Zealous republicans took this counsel as proof that he had always been a Medici stooge. How did Shakespeare put it in one of his bleakest moments? The good that men do dies with them ( Julius Caesar, Act III, Scene II).

Machiavelli's books, including The Prince do not advocate or advise or even teach deceit and manipulation, though they do sadly record the occurrence of all of these evils. No prince had to read his book to learn them. More importantly, he says that good and evil sometimes grow from each other. Defence against the marauding armies might be purchased by an evil act. Does a drowning man demand that the woman who rescues him be spotless? Machiavelli thought not and he thought Florence and most of Italy was drowning. Recognition that good and bad intertwine is objectionable to those that claim a pure heart, and so they revile Machiavelli.

The Prince, like his other books, also offers moral judgements, recommendations of caution, emphasis on the importance of stability, advice on treating the populace with respect, and much else that surprises those whose stereotype of Machiavellianism is transposed to Niccolò Machiavelli.

This is not the place to give a full account of Machiavelli and his times, but perhaps we have said enough to show how complicated it all was. Surviving in such a riven world was not to be taken for granted. However tough the monkeys have it in zoos or the forests, we suspect that the people in Machiavelli's Italy had it as hard. Perhaps that is speciesism, but we can hardly do other.


Damian Grace, PhD, is a research affiliate with the Department of Government and International Relations at the University of Sydney (Australia).  He is a Renaissance specialist by training. His book Business Ethics (Oxford University Press, 4 th ed. 2010) with Stephen Cohen is a standard text for students, teachers, and researchers in practical ethics.  There is a Canadian edition. He spent a year at McGill University as a research fellow.  

Michael Jackson, PhD, is an Emeritus Professor of political theory in the same department and an Adjunct Professor at Korea University in Seoul. He has published three books and a hundred journal articles in political theory and applied ethics.  His PhD is from the University of Alberta.  They are working on a book about the cultural appropriation and exploitation of Machiavelli.



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