Classic Works

Machiavelli, The Art of War (1521)

Christopher Lynch, translator, University of Chicago Press, 2005.

“A Prince should have no other object, nor any other thought, nor take anything else as his art but the art of war and discipline, for that is the only art which is of concern to one who commands.” Niccolò Machiavelli, The Prince, Chapter XIV

In The Art of War, the only one of his major writings published during his lifetime, Machiavelli sets out to consider that topic from the standpoint of the superintending military commander. The Art of War is divided into a preface and seven books (chapters), presented as a series of dialogues that take place in the garden of Cosimo Rucellai, a friend of Machiavelli, who had died two years before the book was published. Cosimo and his guests, including a silent Machiavelli, respectfully question a visitor, Fabrizio Colonna, who is treated as a military authority. Fabrizio discusses how an army should be raised, trained, organized, deployed and employed. His model is the Roman Legion of the Republic, which he argues should be adapted to the contemporary situation of Renaissance Florence.

Niccolo MachiavelliAt first glance, The Art of War, as a practical military treatise, is dated, with its discussion of medieval-style fortifications, the use of pikesmen and the hollow square, and the like. As with all of Machiavelli’s writings, we should not take the obvious for granted, for instance, by simply identifying Machiavelli’s views with those of Fabrizio. (For a careful study of Machiavelli’s deeper purposes, including the relationship of The Art of War with The Prince and The Discourses, one should consult Harvey Mansfield’s Machiavelli’s Virtue and the commentaries by William B. Allen, Hadley Arkes, and Carnes Lord in Angelo Codevilla’s translation of The Prince.) In terms of its status as a classic of strategy and diplomacy, we follow Felix Gilbert, the distinguished historian, who argued that “[modern] military thought has proceeded ever since on the foundations Machiavelli laid.” Frederick the Great—the author of Anti-Machiavel—regarded it as one of as his favorite books. Napoleon and Clausewitz likewise cited its influence of their thinking.

For Machiavelli, as Gilbert explains, war is natural and necessary; it establishes which countries will survive and expand or be annihilated. War, therefore, must end in a decision. A battle is the best method of reaching a quick decision, since it places the defeated country at the mercy of the victor. Because of the central importance of the battle, its issue should not be left to mere chance, but must be prepared so that, as far as possible, victory is assured. The efficient preparation for battle is the only criterion for the composition of an army. This necessitates a reexamination of the traditional methods of military organization. Political institutions, in their spirit as well as their form, must be shaped in accordance with military needs. An inner connection exists between technical military detail and the general purpose of war, and between military institutions and political organization. By forming a military organization in accordance with the laws which reason prescribed for it, it should be possible to reduce further the influence of chance. “Even if the term strategy did not exist then,” Gilbert writes, “this was the beginning of strategical thinking.”

Addendum: At the risk of reducing Machiavelli’s thought on strategy and diplomacy to a series of aphorisms, we can note some themes in The Art of War and across his writings:

Men, and polities, should either be caressed or crushed. They can avenge slight injuries, but not those that are very severe. Hence, any injury done to a man or polity must be such that there is no need to fear his revenge.

A ruler should act early and deal not only with existing troubles, but with troubles that are likely to develop. He should anticipate and acquire the means to overcome them. When the first signs of troubles develop, the medicine will be too late, because the malady will already have become incurable. The Romans never allowed troubles to develop in order to avoid fighting a war, for they knew that wars cannot really be avoided but merely postponed to the advantage of others.

As a general rule, anyone who enables another to become powerful brings on his own ruin.

A conqueror, after seizing power, must decide about all the injuries he needs to commit, and do them all at once; so as not to have to inflict punishments every day. Thus he will be able, by his apparent later restraint, to reassure men and win them over by benefitting them.

Destroying cities is the only certain way of holding them. Anyone who becomes a master of a city that is accustomed to a free way of life, and does not destroy it, may expect to be destroyed by it himself—the citizens will always able to appeal to the spirit of freedom in rebellion.

A principality that does not have its own army cannot be secure; rather, it must rely completely on luck or the favor of others, because it lacks the strength to defend itself in difficult times.

Factions can be tolerated, even encouraged, in peacetime, when they can be used to divide the people; but not in wartime.

A new ruler may decide to encourage the growth of enemies, so that he will be able to vanquish them, and thus rise higher.

If a ruler is more afraid of his own subjects than of foreigners, he should build fortresses; but a ruler who is more afraid of foreigners than of his own subjects should not build them. The best fortress a ruler can have is not to be hated by the people; if the people rise up there will never be any lack of foreign powers to help them.

A ruler is highly regarded if he is either a true ally or an outright enemy, that is, if he unhesitatingly supports one ruler against another. This policy is always better than remaining neutral, since if two powerful nearby rulers near come to blows, either the eventual victor will become a threat, or he will not. In either situation, it will always be wiser to intervene in favor of one side and fight strongly. The victor does not want unreliable allies who did not help him when he was hard pressed; and the loser will not show any favor.

A ruler should never ally with a ruler who is more powerful. If that ruler is victorious, you will be at his mercy.

In warfare as in politics, it is better to be impetuous than cautious.

Anyone who rules a foreign county should take the initiative in becoming a protector of the neighboring minor powers and contrive to weaken those who are powerful within those countries themselves.