Machiavelli and the state
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Machiavelli was so shocking to contemporaries because he was not interested in questions of political legitimacy or even morality. He made no distinction between authority and power and asserted that whoever has the power has the right to command. The Prince arose out of his direct experience of Florentine government and was intended as a manual for the ruler who wished to maintain his power and the safety of the state.
As the legitimacy of law rests entirely upon the threat of coercive force. Machiavelli concluded that it is better for the ruler to be feared than loved.
One can say this in general of men: they are ungrateful, disloyal, insincere and deceitful, timid of danger and avid of profit…. Love is a bond of obligation which these miserable creatures break whenever it suits them to do so; but fear holds them fast by a dread of punishment that never passes.Machiavelli argues that ruler who lives by his rights alone will never succeed, because in the amoral world of politics those who prefer power to authority are more likely to succeed. In order to achieve obedience, the successful ruler needs to be trained in the art of politics.
One of his key worlds is virtù, which is not the same as the English ‘virtue’. Virtù means the qualities necessary to be a successful ruler. That ruler is best suited for office, on Machiavelli's account, who is capable of varying his conduct from good to evil and back again ‘as fortune and circumstances dictate’. The ruler of virtù is bound to be competent in the application of power.
Another key term is Fortuna. To Machiavelli, Fortuna is a malevolent goddess, responsible for the ills of the world. This makes him a determinist, because a man can only resist her if he is sufficiently prepared by virtù and wisdom. She is a woman who needs to be kept in order. (You will have gathered that Machiavelli was not a politically correct writer.)
Did Machiavelli have a coherent theory of the state? Certainly, the term lo stato appears widely in his writings, but it is seen simply as a princely possession. Machiavelli ehad no concept of a stable constitutional regime or of the principles of representative government.
A famously shocked reaction to Machiavelli's amorality came from the Englishman, Reginald Pole (1500-58):
I found this type of book to be written by an enemy of the human race. It explains every means whereby religion, justice and any inclination toward virtue could be destroyed.By the end of the sixteenth century he had become a stage villain - 'Old Nick' - appearing, for example in Marlowe's Jew of Malta. Yet there are those who see him as the greatest political thinker between Plato and Marx.