James Burnham on Machiavelli

"... The desires of mankind are immense, and insatiable..."

James Burnham on Machiavelli

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James Burnham wrote a book called "The Machiavellians: Defenders of Freedom", published in 1943.

This article contains seven selected quotations from this book.

An audio version of this article is available at: youtu.be/HkZ-UE9hZwc

I start with an arresting statement from Machiavelli himself, selected by Burnham:

Quotation 1:

"The desires of mankind are immense, and insatiable; naturally we are covetous of everything, whereas fortune allows us but little; from thence it happens that no man is contented, every man despises what he is already possessed of, commends what is passed, condemns what is present, and longs for what is to come."

Now we pass to Burnham himself.

Quotation 2:

"Machiavelli understood politics as primarily the study of the struggles for power among men."

Quotation 3:

"For Machiavelli, when the facts decide, it is the principles that must be scrapped."

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Quotation 4:

"There have been many critical discussions about Machiavelli’s supposed views on 'human nature'. Some defend him, but he is usually charged with a libel upon mankind, with having a perverted, shocking, and detestable notion of what human beings are like. These discussions, however, are beside the point. Machiavelli has no views on human nature; or, at any rate, none is presented in his writings. Machiavelli is neither a psychologist nor a moral philosopher, but a political scientist."

Quotation 5:

"He is interested in man in relation to political phenomena - that is, to the struggle for power; in man as he functions politically, not in man as he behaves toward his friends or family or God. It does not refute Machiavelli to point out that men do not always act as he says they act. He knows this. But many sides of man’s nature he believes to be irrelevant to political behavior."

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Here follow the last two quotations. They are taken from a preface to the book, written by the author James Burnham in 1963, twenty years after its original publication.

Quotation 6:

"Writing this book was primarily, I suppose, as most books are for their authors, a matter of self-education."

Quotation 7:

"Only by renouncing all ideology can we begin to see the world and man."

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This article is the basis for Episode 3 of the GreatInsights Minicast, hosted by StJohn Piano, available here:

This article contains 7 quotations from "The Machiavellians: Defenders of Freedom", by James Burnham, published in 1943.

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The quotations are taken from the edition published in 2019 on Amazon Kindle by Lume Books.

Here follow the locations of each quotation in the book:

  • Quotation 1: Location 806
  • Quotation 2: Location 703
  • Quotation 3: Location 721
  • Quotation 4: Location 819
  • Quotation 5: Location 832
  • Quotation 6: Location 125
  • Quotation 7: Location 130


  • Quotation 1 is slightly altered from the original: Three instances of the word "that" were removed.