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In The Prince (c. 1513), Niccolo Machiavelli states:

Thus it is well to seem merciful, faithful, humane, sincere, religious, and also to be so; but you must have the mind so disposed that when it is needful to be otherwise you may be able to change to the opposite qualities. And it must be understood that a prince, and especially a new prince, cannot observe all those things which are considered good in men, being often obliged, in order to maintain the state, to act against faith, against charity, against humanity, and against religion. And, therefore, he must have a mind disposed to adapt itself according to the wind, and as the variations of fortune dictate, and, as I said before, not deviate from what is good, if possible, but be able to do evil if constrained.

This quote was at the time of the Italian renaissance. It refers to a different perspective that rulers should take. In order to be an effective ruler, you must be willing to sacrifice some religious virtuous in dire times, if it helps to better the situation. This goes against what was previously though about rulers, which was that they had to be good (from a religious standpoint) and can not do any wrong.

And can this quote not only apply to rulers, but to the urban literate elite (as the comments have clarified) in Italy as well? In the sense that they shifted away from caring too much about their religious morals, and focused on bettering themselves individually at the time of the Italian Renaissance.

According to this source, Italy's renaissance was becoming more focused on individual self morals, and less about religious morals (at least when compared to the Northern Renaissance). And that would correlated to what the quote is referring to.

So is the meaning of this quote an accurate representation of how rulers and the urban literate elite changed the view of themselves? Or is there more to it?

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  • At the time about 80% of the population in Italy was still peasant. Most likely, their moral ideals were about the same as at the turn of the millennium – Moishe Kohan Feb 9 at 0:25
  • Good point. What about the other 20%? Would this question apply to them? I'd be happy to edit my question if that's the case – Dynamic Squid Feb 9 at 0:27
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    @MoisheKohan: The population of the urban literate elite, to whom Machiavelli was addressing this work, was nearly 100% urban and much wealthier than two or three centuries earlier at the turn of the millennium; and not at all peasant. – Pieter Geerkens Feb 9 at 1:00
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    @MoisheKohan I updated my question to reflect the comments – Dynamic Squid Feb 9 at 1:14
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    Since you quote The Prince but not The Commentaries on Livy, you should be aware that you are quoting a writing that is not reflective even of Machiavelli's considered views, which were decidedly more republican in nature. Indeed, The Prince may well have been written in the hopes of securing a job. – C Monsour Apr 1 at 21:40
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Probably "little, or not at all." Judging from the opprobrium with which his views were received at the time (and later).

Machiavelli was what we would now call a "geek" or "nerd." That is, a "calculating machine." A (mostly) rational person who is also considered socially inept because he doesn't adhere to the social conventions of the time.

From the passage cited by the OP: [A prince] "must have a mind disposed to adapt itself according to the wind, and as the variations of fortune dictate, and, as I said before, not deviate from what is good, if possible, but be able to do evil if constrained."

Machiavelli was not "Machiavellian" as we might understand the term: (devious). His "crime" was (inadvertently) challenging the "divine right" of kings and princes. For instance, he tells in detail of a shoemaker's son who "thought" his way up to becoming the tyrant of Syracuse. The idea of someone "systematically" making himself a ruler was a "no-no" for his time. This, instead, was a matter of talent and ultimately birth; it was either something you had, or didn't. It was not something to be achieved.

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    Re opprobrium, it is certainly quite commonplace nowadays for people to publicly condemn attitudes & behaviours in others which they privately engage in themselves. I don't see why such hypocrisy would have been any less common in Machiavelli's day. – jamesqf Apr 1 at 17:37

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