Home > Ethics and Morality, Philosophy, Political Theory > Iconoclasts and Overcomers: Themes of Moral Overcoming in Nietzsche and Machiavelli

Iconoclasts and Overcomers: Themes of Moral Overcoming in Nietzsche and Machiavelli

Niccolo Machiavelli and Friedrich Nietzsche are perhaps two of the most historically vilified figures in moral and ethical literature.  Indeed, Machiavelli’s ideas were so controversial that in 1559 all of his writings were banned in Italy until the 19th century.[1]  Similarly, it has been alleged that Nietzsche advances the thesis that immorality in general is admirable.[2] In this essay I shall endeavor to compare and contrast these two titans of ‘immorality’ in an attempt to show that, rather than advancing simple immorality or amorality, Machiavelli and Nietzsche praise a sort of ‘supramorality’ which aims above the traditional limits of morality to attain a higher goal. I shall begin first by briefly providing textual support for the claim that both Nietzsche and Machiavelli seek to investigate and dissect the moralities of their day. From there I shall demonstrate how each author places the power of overcoming present-day morality in the hands of an individual of almost mythical proportions. Finally I shall discuss the differing aims between Machiavelli’s uniting Prince and Nietzsche’s Free Spirit and how each of these aims ties into the concept of a ‘supramorality.’


Machiavelli and Nietzsche: Iconoclasts

            In his seminal work The Prince, Machiavelli seeks to eliminate the imaginary conceptions of previous political theorizing and deal instead with the reality of the world. Machiavelli offers an explanation and justification for why his advice will depart from the normal advice of political theorists. On this he says:

Many have imagined republics and principalities that have never been seen or heard of, because how one lives and how one ought to live are so far apart that he who spurns what is actually done for what ought to be done will achieve ruin rather than his own preservation…Hence it is necessary for a prince who wishes to maintain his position to learn how to be able not to be good, and to use or not use this ability according to circumstances.[3]

Making a clear attack on the prevailing ideas of moral behavior of the time, Machiavelli claims it is ruinous to cling to fanciful ideas of morality and ignore the reality of life. To that end, Machiavelli takes many of the prevailing virtues and inverts them, arguing it is much better to embody the opposite vice.[4] For example, between generosity and miserliness, it is much better to avoid the morass of trying to be generous enough to be considered generous and instead accept that it is better to be miserly rather than risk the financial stability of the state.[5]

            Similarly, it is much better for a prince to be considered cruel rather than merciful, “because with a few exemplary executions he will be more merciful than those who, through too much mercy, allow the kind of disorder to spread that gives rise to plunder and murder.”[6] Closely tied to this are the qualities of fear and love, and how the former is much more efficient at preventing the hatred of the populace. In this way, Machiavelli reasons, it is better to be feared than loved.[7] Following this, Machiavelli urges that a prince should never worry about lying or not keeping his word, since no one else will be concerned with this either. In short, Machiavelli concludes that:

…one’s spirit should be calculated in such a way that one can, if need be, turn one’s back on these qualities and become the opposite…In order to maintain the state, a prince will often be compelled to work against what is merciful, loyal, humane, upright, and scrupulous…[and] must also, when necessary, know how to prefer what is bad.[8]

Not only does Machiavelli highlight the damaging nature of virtues on the prince, but he also calls attention to the usefulness of vices for maintaining power, and even moreso the utility of the ability to shift from virtue to vice and vice versa when necessity demands.

            Where Machiavelli questions the utility of morality, Nietzsche instead investigates any claim to the enduring validity and objective authority of morality. For Nietzsche, the moralities and sentiments of bygone ages have been given an artificial longevity which was never intended, and so moralities only fit for a certain period endure and eventually fester.[9] In his investigation of our moral genealogy, Nietzsche discovers that philosophers have been incorrectly assumed that in ancient cultures the concept of “good” originated with utility when instead it is intimately related to the aristocracy:

I found…that everywhere “noble,” “aristocratic” in the social sense, is the basic concept from which “good” in the sense of “with aristocratic soul,”…necessarily developed: a development which always runs parallel with that other in which “common,” “plebian,” “low” are finally transformed into the concept “bad.”[10]

The nobility associates its own qualities with “good,” and so to be “good” is simply to possess those qualities.  Slowly there develops from this “good” a contrasting “bad,” which is simply the opposite of the noble qualities. The nobles are strong, honest, and happy, and their master morality arises out of their self-determination and is in direct opposition to the slave morality which develops as a reaction to the master morality.[11] Those who do not possess the qualities of the nobles, who are weak and dishonest, develop what Nietzsche calls ressentiment, wherein the weak gradually begin to react to their lack of noble qualities and so paint those same qualities as “evil.” It is important to note that in the master morality, “good” comes first followed by the contrasting but unimportant “bad.” However, in the slave morality “evil” comes first as a reaction to the master morality and from that point on the opposite qualities of the master morality become “good.”[12] Interestingly, Machiavelli has similar sentiments regarding religion: “Furthermore, ancient religion beatified only men who were filled with worldly glory, such as generals and princes, while our religion [Christianity] glorifies men who are humble and contemplative rather than men of action.”[13] This sentiment appears to map on very well to Nietzsche’s conception of the master and slave moralities.

            Where the master morality is self-determining (in that it shapes its own values) the slave morality is reactive, and thus “slave morality always first needs a hostile external world; it needs…external stimuli in order to act at all – its action is fundamentally reaction.”[14] The clash between master morality and slave morality can most easily be seen as embodied in the struggle between Rome and Judea, the master versus the slave.[15] However, at bottom, Nietzsche believes that morality of any kind has arisen in man to prevent his animalistic nature from causing his higher self to be destroyed. On this he says, “The beast in us wants to be lied to; morality is an official lie told so that [the beast] shall not tear us to pieces.”[16] Each morality necessarily has strengths and weaknesses, but neither one nor any combination of the two has any claim to absolute truth or authority. Indeed, for Nietzsche the time has come to deeply investigate the sources and contents of our moral feeling. On this he says, “However credit and debit balance may stand: at its present state as a specific individual science the awakening of moral observation has become necessary, and mankind can no longer be spared the cruel sight of the moral dissecting table and its knives and forceps.”[17] For both Machiavelli and Nietzsche, the next step is to wonder who among us is capable of such moral overcoming, and to that end each author conceives of an individual fulfilling this purpose.  It is to this point which I shall now turn.

Moral Overcoming: the Prince and the Free Spirit

            As can be inferred from the title of his most famous work, Machiavelli’s moral overcomer is the Prince. While there have been and will be many princes in the history of politics, only a few have approximated the paragon of strength and cunning which Machiavelli sets forth. Machiavelli attributes this dearth of effective rulers to a lack of commitment to being entirely willing to do what is necessary. Machiavelli cites the example of Giampaolo Baglioni, the wicked tyrant of Perugia who held his sister as a mistress and murdered his cousins and nephews. His enemy, Pope Julius II, came to Perugia undefended and without an army to demand that he surrender rule. In fact, Giampaolo left Perugia with Pope Julius II and allowed the Pope to install a governor who was kind to the church. Of this curiosity, Machiavelli says: “So the consensus was that men often do not know how to be perfectly good or honorably evil, and when an evil deed has grandeur or is in some part generous, a man will often not know how to carry it off.”[18] Had he been able to seize the opportunity, he could have had great glory, power, and riches. However, he was unable to fully commit to always being cunning and strong and so was defeated willingly by an unarmed Pope.

            While most of The Prince is advice in how to improve skills as both a general and a leader, Machiavelli believes that success also comes through utilizing skill and cunning to avoid the changing tides of Fortune: “Nevertheless, Fortune seems to be the arbiter of half our actions, but she does leave us the other half, or almost the other half, in order that our free will may prevail.”[19] Indeed, while describing the actions of great leaders such as Moses, Cyrus, Theseus, and Romulus, Machiavelli says that the only gift Fortune gave them was the opportunity that afforded them a chance to wield their skills to build new empires – “Without that opportunity, their skill would not have flourished, and without that skill, the opportunity would have presented itself in vain.”[20] This theme of opportunity in politics runs throughout The Prince, and Machiavelli is quick to point out that a measure of a prince’s skill comes from his ability to perceive the current situation and determine what opportunity exists for him to take advantage of.[21]

            Perhaps the best example that Machiavelli provides for the astute prince taking advantage of even negative situations is that of Cesare Borgia. As Machiavelli related, Borgia had just taken over the Romagna when he realized there was significant civil unrest due to the weaknesses of the previous rulers. To that end he employed a ruthless magistrate who exercised excessive authority over the region, which pacified the public. However he recognized, as an astute prince should, that a harsh government can lead to being hated by the people and so when the magistrate’s job was finished he turned him into a scapegoat, leaving his body severed in two in the public square. The purpose of this was twofold; not only did it help him blame and eliminate the magistrate for all past cruelty, but it also gained the respect and fear of the populace for Borgia himself.[22] Not only does Machiavelli condone such opportunistic behavior, he suggests it: “In my view [Borgia] is an important example, as I know not what better precept to give a new Prince.”[23] Indeed, in his final exhortation to the Medici family, Machiavelli tells of his hope that Borgia would have been the prudent and skillful prince to have united Italy, yet his opportunity was snatched away by Fortune due to an early death.[24] As yet, Italy awaits her Prince who possesses all of the qualities necessary to forge a worthy government and unite Italy once and for all.

            This theme of waiting, of seeking, is mirrored in Nietzsche as well. For him, the moral overcomer manifests in the form of an individual whom he calls the free spirit.Though Nietzsche admits that he invented the free spirit in a time of loneliness, he hopes that one day a free spirit might emerge. However, before the free spirit can be understood, the contrasting fettered spirit must be discussed. The fettered spirit represents the vast majority of the world’s inhabitants, who are chained by duties and obligations of all different sorts. Those chains that bind the strongest are the older and deeper obligations we hold, especially that of moral obligation and religious duty.[25] As Nietzsche says, “The fettered spirit takes up his position, not for reasons, but out of habit; he is a Christian, for example, not because he has knowledge of the various religions and has chosen between them…he encountered Christianity…and adopted [it] without reason, as a man born in wine-producing country becomes a wine-drinker.”[26] Thus the fettered spirit is bound by traditions he has not examined and occupies moral positions without reason or investigation.   In contrast, the free spirit is characterized by the breaking of the chains that formerly bound him. At the onset, a free spirit will experience what Nietzsche calls a “great liberation” characterized by a rebellion against the duties and obligations that bind. Nietzsche describes such a liberation as “a will and desire awakens to go off, anywhere, at any cost…A sudden terror and suspicion of what it loved, a lightning-bolt of contempt for what it called “duty’.”[27] Such a free spirit suddenly rebels against the former system of morality and upends the former moral obligations, often over-correcting and assuming (erroneously) that the values opposite of those which fettered him must be true.[28] But over time this boldness to purposefully reverse all duties and obligations matures into an understanding that all duties and obligations, moral and otherwise, must be overcome. To this end the free spirit is “One who lives no longer in the fetters of love and hatred, without yes, without no, near or far as one wishes.” Indeed, the final stage of the free spirit is to question even that initial liberation which freed him from obligations. Upon questioning this liberation the free spirit finds the last impediment to overcome – himself.

            Echoing inside of himself, the free spirit hears, “You shall become master over yourself, master also over your virtues. Formerly they were your masters; but they must be only your instruments beside other instruments. You shall get control over your For and Against and learn how to display first one and then the other in accordance with your higher goal.”[29] And so we see that, like Machiavelli’s Prince, the free spirit must in the end overcome his personal inclinations toward what he perceived as moral virtues and instead learn to use vice and virtue like tools to achieve his goal.  I shall now discuss the end purpose of the Prince and the free spirit.

Nation-Building and Human Elevation

For Machiavelli, the highest praise goes to those princes who establish republics or kingdoms, and the greatest infamy is reserved for the destroyers of kingdoms and republics. The ideal Prince, through skill and Fortune, has been given the opportunity to either correct a corrupt state or found a brand new one. However, often those who reach this point falter and fail to achieve the ideal: “Though to their everlasting honor they are able to found a republic or kingdom, they turn to a tyranny, not seeing how much fame, glory, honor, security, tranquility, and peace of mine they are rejecting, and how much infamy, vituperation, blame, danger, and insecurity they are bringing upon themselves.”[30] Here it is very important to analyze the qualities Machiavelli says the tyrant gives up and those he acquires. Gone is any enduring moral sentiment and instead security/insecurity and peace/danger are the result. This is because the purpose of Machiavelli’s ideal Prince is as a founder of a well-ordered state, and the establishment of enduring institutions.

            Following this, Machiavelli tells us also that a city is most fortunate if a single individual can establish enduring laws: “A state can be considered most fortunate if it can bring forth a man who is so wise that he established laws organized in such a way that the state can exist securely under them without these laws needing to be revised.”[31] Founding a city and establishing laws and institutions takes the drive and power of a single person. As Machiavelli says:

It is a general rule that rarely, if ever, has a republic or kingdom been set up well from the beginning, or had its old institutions entirely reformed, unless this was done by a single man. In fact, it is necessary that one man alone give it form. Its organization must depend entirely on his ideas.[32]

Machiavelli cites numerous examples of rulers who were given absolute power but established enduring laws that protected the common good, such as Theseus, Moses, Lycurgus of Sparta, Solon, and Agis of Sparta. A single individual must necessarily form all of the laws and institutions because groups of men are not able to come to an agreement on anything due to conflicting opinions, and so the city would fail before it began.[33]

            It is also necessary that these laws be established by a single ruler for a long period of time to avoid constant restructuring as different factions take power and gain or lose influence. Such a constant changing of the institutions and orders is destructive to a state and ultimately lead to the downfall of the Republic of Florence.[34] To that end, the prince who utilizes his absolute power to establish strong institutions, like Romulus establishing the senate, deserves praise and not blame for “acting outside the law in order to set up a kingdom or establish a republic.”[35] When he says that Romulus is one of the rulers who should be pardoned for murdering his brother to gain power, it is because what he did was in order to establish Rome, one of the longest enduring and well-ordered states in history.[36] And so it is only by realizing the relativity of moral virtues and vices that Machiavelli’s ideal Prince can emerge to craft an enduring state.

Similarly, Nietzsche’s free spirit is able to overcome traditional moral values and perceives that virtue and vice can be interchangeably used and have no objective truth. However, the final purpose of the free spirit is to act as a herald for the overman, which is the next stage in human development. In Beyond Good and Evil, Nietzsche discusses his developing idea of the overman, whom he also calls the philosopher of the future: “Need I still say expressly after all this that they, too, will be free, very free spirits, these philosophers of the future – though just as certainly they will not be merely free spirits but something more, higher, greater, and thoroughly different that does not want to be misunderstood and mistaken for something else.”[37] Nietzsche goes on to say that he and the free spirits of the day are the precursor to such higher philosophers, and herald the coming of something higher, viz. the overman.[38]

            The character of Zarathustra acts as one such herald, proclaiming the teaching of the overman, who is to replace the void left with the death of past moralities. Zarathustra says, “The overman is the meaning of the earth….I beseech you, my brothers, remain faithful to the earth, and do not believe those who speak to you of otherworldly hopes!…Once the sin against God was the greatest sin; but God died, and these sinners died with him. To sin against the earth is now the most dreadful thing.”[39] Indeed, the overman is a goal; he is the highest hope toward which man can strive. A line of development stretches from beast to the overman, and man is a bridge between the two, with the danger lying in the possibility that man will miss his opportunity to fully develop into the overman.[40]

            The overman comes about when man has overcome himself. To that end, not only is the overman a creator of his own values, but man becomes a creator by creating the overman when he overcomes himself.  Nietzsche compares the inability of man to create a god but his ability to create, i.e. become, the overman when Zarathustra says:

Once one said God when one looked upon distant seas; but now I have taught you to say: overman. God is a conjecture; but I desire that your conjectures should not reach beyond your creative will. Could you create a god? Then do not speak to me of any gods. But you could well create the overman. Perhaps not you yourselves, my brothers. But into fathers and forefathers of the overman you could re-create yourselves: and let this be your best creation.[41]

Despite mans eventual ability to create the overman, to become the overman, it is not yet fully within his grasp. However, overcoming is always within mans grasp, and the progression from fettered spirit to free spirit to the self-creating overman begins with the free spirit’s liberation from the chains of moral obligation and duty. In this way, the free spirit must understand the relative nature of morality and use it to bring about the coming of the overman.

Concluding Remarks

To be sure, the end goals of Machiavelli’s Prince and Nietzsche’s free spirit differ significantly. Whereas the former is concerned with establishing lasting institutions, the latter serves as an intermediate step between man and overman. However, at bottom neither the Prince nor the free spirit deserves the ‘immoral’ moniker. Rather, they are ‘supramoral’ in that each must investigate the origin of his present-day morality system and ultimately overcome it. In doing so, the difference between vice and virtue, good and evil fades into the backdrop as the goal of a lasting society or the development of a new stage of humanity looms on the horizon. In short, while both authors encourage a type of moral investigation and relativism that appears immoral, they strive for something beyond the mundane, fettered world.


 [1] Phillip Harris, “Machiavelli, Marketing and Management: Ends and Means in Public Affairs,” Journal of Public Affairs, no. 7 (March 2007): 182, doi:10.1002/pa254,

http://www.interscience.wiley.com (accessed October 22, 2010).

[2] Marcia Baron, “On Admirable Immorality,” Ethics 96, no. 3 (April 1986): 557,
http://www.jstor.org/stable/2381071 (accessed October 23, 2010).

[3] Niccolo Machiavelli, The Essential Writings of Machiavelli, comp., ed., and trans. Peter Constantine (New York: The Modern Library, 2007), 59.

[4] Machiavelli, 60.

[5] Ibid., 61- 63.

[6] Ibid., 64.

[7] Ibid., 65.

[8] Ibid., 68-69.

[9] Friedrich Nietzsche, Human, All Too Human, trans. R. J. Hollingdale (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press,2009), 215.

[10] Friedrich Nietzsche, On The Genealogy of Morals, ed. and trans. Walter Kaufmann (New York: Vintage Books, 1989), 27-28.

[11] Nietzsche, Genealogy of Morals, 38-39.

[12] Ibid., 36-38.

[13] Machiavelli, 232. The quotation continues, “Our religion also places the highest value on humility, debasement, and disdain for worldly matters, while ancient religion placed the highest value on greatness of spirit, strength of body, and on everything that makes men strong. If our religion does demand that you be strong, it is so that you will be able to bear suffering rather than carry out feats of strength.” This last portion sounds tantalizingly close to the first metamorphoses of the camel, which must be strong to bear burdens, in Nietzsche’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra.

[14] Ibid., 37.

[15] Ibid., 52-54.

[16] Nietzsche, All Too Human, 35.

[17] Ibid., 32.

[18] Machiavelli, 175-176.

[19] Ibid., 94.

[20] Ibid., 23.

[21] Ibid., 11.

[22] Ibid., 29.

[23] Ibid., 27.

[24] Ibid., 97.

[25] Nietzsche, All Too Human, 6-7.

[26] Ibid., 109.

[27] Ibid., 7.

[28] Ibid., 28.

[29] Ibid., 9.

[30] Machiavelli, 143.

[31] Machiavelli, 113.

[32] Ibid., 140.

[33] Ibid.

[34] Ibid., 114.

[35] Ibid., 140.

[36] Ibid., 141.

[37] Friedrich Nietzsche, The Basic Writings of Nietzsche, trans. Walter Kaufmann (New York: The Modern Library, 2000), 243.

[38] Ibid.

[39] Friedrich Nietzsche, The Portable Nietzsche, ed. and trans. Walter Kaufmann (New York: Penguin Books, 1976), 125.

[40] Nietzsche, Portable, 129.

[41] Ibid., 197.

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