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What “Machiavellian” really means - Pazit Cahlon and Alex Gendler

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From Shakespeare’s plays to modern TV dramas, the unscrupulous schemer for whom the ends always justify the means has become a familiar character type we love to hate. For centuries, we’ve had a single word to describe such characters: Machiavellian. But is it possible that we’ve been using that word wrong this whole time? Pazit Cahlon and Alex Gendler investigate the origins of the term.

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TED-Ed Animations feature the words and ideas of educators brought to life by professional animators. Are you an educator or animator interested in creating a TED-Ed Animation? Nominate yourself here »

Meet The Creators

  • Educator Pazit Cahlon, Alex Gendler
  • Director Hector Herrera
  • Narrator Addison Anderson
  • Producer Pazit Cahlon
  • Composer Andrew Scott
  • Sound Designer Nick Sewell
  • Content Producer Gerta Xhelo
  • Editorial Producer Alex Rosenthal
  • Associate Producer Bethany Cutmore-Scott
  • Script Editor Alex Gendler
  • Fact-checker Francisco Diez
  • See more
Additional Resources for you to Explore
In Machiavelli’s own lifetime, Florence was an idealistic republic on paper, but in actuality, its political system was unstable. The ruling families, most notably the Medici, essentially acted as dictators. Machiavelli saw for himself how much distance there could be between what was politically stated or aspired to, and what was actually done. He also saw the corruption in the papacy and the gulf between the morality preached and the actions taken by the church to gain or hold on to power.

When the Medici fell, Machiavelli experienced a sharp reversal of fortune, and when they were re-instated, he was unable to secure his former position and devoted his time to writing. Historians Quentin Skinner, Lisa Jardine, and Evelyn Welch discuss Machiavelli’s The Prince in the context of his time in a BBC4 Radio program here.

Quentin Skinner also speaks to Nigel Warburton about The Prince regarding the historical context of the book, but looking more closely at the intellectual background to Machiavelli’s writing, as well as the structure, the core concepts and the themes of the book. Skinner discusses The Prince as a response to Cicero’s and Seneca’s ideals for virtuous and just leaders. From the Open University course “Reading Political Philosophy from Machiavelli to Mill” here.

In a special supplement to the New York Review of Books in 1971, philosopher Isaiah Berlin wondered why people were (and continue to be) so shocked by The Prince, when other texts, written earlier, had said similar, and similarly brutal things. You can explore the full piece here.

The Prince was unique in that it was written in Italian, rather than in Latin. This may have delayed the spread of the actual text across Europe, and possibly allowed for rumors about the text to precede it. Translator Tim Parks talks about the original Italian and why he agreed to tackle a new translation of The Prince here.

Historians and scholars continue to argue whether or not Machiavelli wrote The Prince in earnest or as satire. Erica Benner, in her book, Be Like the Fox, argues that Machiavelli was astute, aware, and deliberate in his send-up of political machinations, highlighting the actions of successful and failed leaders so that the citizens of a republic could recognize how they were being ruled. She writes about this in an article for The Guardian here.

Professor Paolo Carta notes that The Prince was a turning point in political thought in that Machiavelli aimed to provide leaders with a guideline for political action, much as a judge is able to use a set of laws. He delivered a talk on the 500th anniversary of The Prince in 2013 at Oxford Foundation for Law, Justice, and Society.

Machiavelli, as we have seen, was concerned with power, and he might have appreciated Eric Liu’s TED Talk on why people need to understand it.

Lastly, you might enjoy exploring more of the context of Florence from Etruscan times to the Medici and beyond. The city is a UN World Heritage site because of its many Renaissance masterpieces of art and architecture. Explore more of Machiavelli’s home town here.

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About TED-Ed Animations

TED-Ed Animations feature the words and ideas of educators brought to life by professional animators. Are you an educator or animator interested in creating a TED-Ed Animation? Nominate yourself here »

Meet The Creators

  • Educator Pazit Cahlon, Alex Gendler
  • Director Hector Herrera
  • Narrator Addison Anderson
  • Producer Pazit Cahlon
  • Composer Andrew Scott
  • Sound Designer Nick Sewell
  • Content Producer Gerta Xhelo
  • Editorial Producer Alex Rosenthal
  • Associate Producer Bethany Cutmore-Scott
  • Script Editor Alex Gendler
  • Fact-checker Francisco Diez
  • See more