Machiavelli and Autonomy and Rainbow Bagels

So because I spent (a little too much) time hunting around for rainbow bagels and pink lattes in London (more on that later ;)) I completely forgot that I had 3 essays due for university! I know that sounds terrible considering how I’ve written articles for this blog about actually staying productive but seriously, I have to say that as I am not yet in an essay meltdown (yet) so far I can say that they were worth it.

On the other hand, I am no way endorsing forgetting your essays for rainbow bagels, however good they sound (and taste). No way :)) So today I thought I might share one of my essays in this article, for anyone wo needs some motivation to write theirs 🙂 And for those of you who are interested in reading about some of those crazy foods and drinks, an article all about the most incredible places to get unique food in London is coming soon! 🙂

In the meantime I hope you’ll enjoy this little write-up on Machiavelli’s conception of autonomy, and also that my university doesn’t count posting your own essay online as self-plagiarism (hahah believe it or not that is actually a thing!).

Discuss Machiavelli’s Conception of Autonomy. 

Both the instructions given in The Prince, and even Machiavelli’s own writing style, are fluid and malleable to the extent where autonomy is arguably the central underlying argument in his work. For not only does Machiavelli advise adaptability- the freedom of changing according to circumstance- but he does so applying the context of greater autonomy existing in certain states to the particular ways in which the Prince should successfully govern his territory in certain contexts. Machiavelli’s conception of autonomy is perhaps best divided into several different categories, including the autonomy of territory, which refers to the greater freedom certain states were accustomed to living in and how the Prince must alter his behaviour to be able to make correct decisions on these particular states. Other conceptions of autonomy, which will form the argument of this essay, are that which concerns morality, fortune, and finally, crucially, the autonomy of the Prince himself- conceptualised as ideally having both freedom from dependence and the power to act. Despite the word ‘autonomy’ never actually appearing in The Prince, through this essay’s discussion of the ways in which Machiavelli loosely conceptualised freedom, the centrality of the concept of autonomy in its many variants will become clear, particularly in its importance in shedding understanding and appreciation of the text itself. 

One of the key ways in which autonomy is conceptualised by Machiavelli in The Prince, and the first to be discussed in this essay, is the autonomy of territory. Machiavelli refers to states that are “accustomed… to live under [their] own laws” (Machiavelli, 1532/2010, p.38), and describes how the Prince must employ particular “methods” (Machiavelli, 1532/2010, p.38) to deal with these states which distinguishes them from other states in this respect. The very fact that Machiavelli deals with them separately is significant in that he acknowledges the freedom that exists within these states- it has real consequences that are so significant that they must guide the Prince’s actions in these particular states. Indeed, examples such as the towns of Germany, which “enjoy great freedom… [and] [fear] neither [the Emperor] nor any other neighboring power” (Machiavelli, 1532/2010, pp.80-81) perhaps influence Machiavelli’s insistence that “no change be made in respect of laws or taxes” (Machiavelli, 1532/2010, p.18).

When states have not been “accustomed to live in freedom” (Machiavelli, 1532/2010, p.38) there is “ease in retaining them” (Machiavelli, 1532/2010, p.18), whereas for those states that on the other hand have, more effort must be made by the Prince to secure them. It could perhaps be suggested that the higher the autonomy of those states, the more limited the autonomy of the Prince, in that he must be more restrained in his approach to them and the degree of change that can be brought about in these states and territories. On the other hand, perhaps it would be wrong to think of this as being a cause for conflict between the Prince and his territory; indeed, Machiavelli writes that: “It has never happened that any new Prince has disarmed his subjects… when he has found them unarmed he has always armed them. For the arms thus provided become yours” (Machiavelli, 1532/2010, p.154). In other words, so long as the prince takes measures to discourage autonomous states from “rebel[ling]” (Machiavelli, 1532/2010, p.39), i.e. by going to live there himself, autonomy of territory need not be thought of as a negative nuisance to be crushed. 

It seems fitting next to discuss the autonomy of the Prince himself, as conceptualised by Machiavelli. For the purposes of clarity it is perhaps more beneficial to subdivide this conception of autonomy into two parts. Suksi (1998) calls these “senses” and divides them into “freedom from dependence… [and] power to self-legislate”. While this is certainly an enlightening and interesting perspective on Machiavelli’s conception of autonomy as regards to the autonomy of the prince, perhaps “self-legislate” should, in light of Machiavelli’s advice to “follow evil courses if [you] must” (Machiavelli, 1532/2010, p.132), be extended to the power to act. This would arguably thus embrace Machiavelli’s insistence on “action” (Machiavelli, 1532/2010, p.18) and “force” (Machiavelli, 1532/2010, p.46). The Prince, then, must have the power and will to act, especially “under the necessity of self-preservation” (Machiavelli, 1532/2010, p.69). In addition, it should be within his powers to “stand alone… [and with] men and money at [his] disposal… get together an army fit to take the field against any assailant” (Machiavelli, 1532/2010, p.80) 

Second, and equally important, is the topic of dependence. A successful prince must (a). Be as little dependent on others as possible, and (b). have others be as dependent as possible on him. Machiavelli contrasts Selim I and his [Turkish] system of Princedom in which “all others [everyone except the prince] being his slaves” (Machiavelli, 1532/2010, p.33), to the King of France, who can deprive his nobles “only at his peril” (Machiavelli, 1532/2010, p.33), which prevents him from “guid[ing] and govern[ing] as he would” (Machiavelli, 1532/2010, p.73). In addition, Machiavelli warns against Princes being “wholly dependent on the favour and fortunes of those who have made them great” (Machiavelli, 1532/2010, p.50), for “none could be less stable or secure” (Machiavelli, 1532/2010, p.50).

This goes hand-in-hand with Machiavelli’s belief that “those who bind themselves” (Machiavelli, 1532/2010, p.74), in other words, who are dependent on the prince, “should be loved and honoured” (Machiavelli, 1532/2010, p.75), and made to be “more beholden to their benefactor” (Machiavelli, 1532/2010, p.75). This guides Machiavelli’s warning against rule through magistrates, for “[a wise prince’s subjects should] at all times… feel the need of the State and of him” (Machiavelli, 1532/2010, p.77). The mass of warnings Machiavelli gives against the dependence of Princes on others, juxtaposed with his advising the Prince to bind others to him is significant in that it demonstrates the sheer importance of autonomy to the way in which Machiavelli envisaged a good leader must act. Insistence on the prince’s autonomy is repeated throughout The Prince, arguably illustrating a particular centrality to this characteristic in successful ruling according to Machiavelli. 

Machiavelli disapproves of a Prince becoming “prisoner” (Machiavelli, 1532/2010, p.100) to forces not his own- again, discouraging dependence. However, perhaps it is important to examine the repercussions of dependence that cause Machiavelli to warn against it to such a great degree. Machiavelli answers this question in Chapter XIII, instructing the reader: “without national arms no Princedom is safe, but on the contrary is wholly dependent on Fortune” (Machiavelli, 1532/2010, pp.104-5). While arguably dependence itself is the evil Machiavelli most advises inhibition of, the importance of Fortune- it being to Machiavelli such an unpredictable force- must not be underestimated, particularly as it would seem to be in opposition to the very conception of autonomy.

To further understand Machiavelli’s conception of autonomy, one must look to what autonomy- freedom- is not, and this would seemingly be Fortune, a force which more often than not overcomes a Prince rather than offering him support, for he cannot rely on it to serve him faithfully. 

Chapter XXV is perhaps the most significant and insightful chapter as regards to understanding autonomy in terms of its relation to Fortune. Responding to his readers’ uncertainty as to whether they can really affect anything when it is unworldly forces which have the final say on a man’s fortunes, Machiavelli suggests that men are perhaps really semi-autonomous: “Fortune is the mistress of one half our actions, and yet leaves the control of the other half, or a little less, to ourselves” (Machiavelli, 1532/2010, p.184). Machiavelli does not see “our free will… [as being] wholly set aside”(Machiavelli, 1532/2010, p.184), using imagery of Fortune as a strong storm to illustrate how “in season of fair weather, men [can] by constructing weirs and dikes, take such precautions [to prevent their destruction]” (Machiavelli, 1532/2010, pp.184-5). In this we see again his insistence on flexibility- that one may ‘bend’ to avoid breaking- that runs through much of The Prince. In other words, autonomy in terms of adaptability. As Machiavelli writes, “a Prince who rests wholly on Fortune is ruined when she changes” (Machiavelli, 1532/2010, p.185); instead he must adapt “to the character of the times” (Machiavelli, 1532/2010, p.185), changing as Fortune does. 

This idea of changeability- of flexibility as autonomy, brings us to the final point of this essay: that of autonomy and morality. Shneewind (1998) describes how “Many books of advice to princes had been published before Machiavelli’s. His turned them upside-down, teaching that the maintenance of power is the goal to keep in mind and urging rulers not to count the moral cost”. Belliotti (2010) goes further, even stating that “The Prince separates Politics from morality”- an autonomy that “is required for the proper functioning of social life”. Whether or not this is actually true is contestable, however Machiavelli certainly does promote flexibility to the Prince in all his actions to the point where arguably the Prince’s morality, existing in the “private” sphere (Belliotti, 2010, p.75) is separated from his public persona.

Favouring relativity in a wise Prince, Machiavelli’s admiration and promotion of adaptability is perhaps best illustrated through the imagery he uses in Chapter XVIII, where he writes: “the lion cannot guard himself from the snares, nor the fox from wolves. He must therefore be a fox to discern snares, and a lion to drive off wolves”. (Machiavelli, 1532/2010, pp.130-131). Machiavelli’s use of the word “prudent”, (Machiavelli, 1532/2010, p.131) when describing a Prince not keeping his word when it harms him, further accentuates this ‘divide’ between morality and politics- autonomy is being free from moral restraints which prevent the Prince from acting ‘effectively’. Interestingly, Grant (2008) analyses how “There is no fixed principle or fixed character trait that constraints [Machiavelli’s ideal Prince’s] ability to respond to his circumstances… he lacks integrity, because integrity that requires constancy limits autonomous action.” In other words, autonomy comes from letting go of moral values and restraints. 

It seems fitting for me to conclude here, for in analysing and discussing the different forms of autonomy that Machiavelli conceives of, we have seen just how central it is both to his work and also to his perception of the world in which he lived in, a world in which he perceived autonomy to be favourable over fixed responses and character traits. While Fortune may be one of several limitations on a Prince’s ability to act effectively, even this can be overcome with the correct methods. Free will and flexibility, key aspects of autonomy, are championed by Machiavelli, who writes, perhaps a perfect summary of his conception of autonomy: “What remains to be done must be done by you; since in order not to deprive us of our free will and such share of glory as belongs to us, God will not do everything himself.” (Machiavelli, 1532/2010, p.194) 


Belliotti, R. (2010) Niccolo Machiavelli: The Laughing Lion and the Strutting Fox. Plymouth: Lexington Books. 

Grant, R. (2008) Hypocrisy and Integrity: Machiavelli, Rousseau, and the Ethics of Politics. USA: University of Chicago Press. 

Machiavelli, N. (1532) The Prince. In Butler-Bowdon, T. (ed.) (2010) The Prince. United Kingdom: TJ International Ltd. (Original work published 1532) 

Shneewind, J. (1998) The Invention of Autonomy: A History of Modern Moral Philosophy. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 

Suksi, M. (ed.) (1998) Autonomy: Applications and Implications. The Netherlands: Martinus Nijhoff Publishers. 


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