As someone who is on the autism spectrum, I’ve always been curious about the different ways in which people think. If I had a pound for every time what I think is a simple statement is met with a completely unexpected interpretation and response, I’d be richer than the Duke of Westminster.

In my 20s, I moved from retail management into teaching English in Japan. We received no formal training before being thrown in the deep end, so I researched different ways people learn. This included people who learn best through listening or through reading and those who learn best by doing.

Niccolo Machiavelli wrote in The Prince that a prince should consider the three types of intellect when selecting a minister. The first type of intelligence is where people learn themselves, the second learn by being told, and the final type cannot learn from either.

In this article I would like to examine Machiavelli’s thoughts on these three types of intelligence, and consider where they fit philosophically within known ideas on intellect. It will be considered separately to his overall work which is up there with Saul Alinsky’s Rules for Radicals when it comes to devious political machinations.

Machiavelli’s 3 types of intelligence in context

Having said that in the previous paragraph, we do need to consider the context to a certain extent. Machiavelli wrote The Prince to summarize ideas on how a hereditary prince – in his mind the Medicis of Florence, can manoeuvre in order to be successful. 

As part of this, he composed chapter 22 which focuses on the selection of ministers. He applies his ideas on intelligence to both the prince and the ministers. The majority of the chapter concentrate on other characteristics such as whether the minister glorifies and enriches themselves or whether they put the prince first.

So this is the context of the 3 intelligences. It is regarding the qualities of a person based on how they learn overall. Let’s take a closer look.

Machiavelli’s three types of intelligence

After praising Pandolfo Petrucci, Prince of Siena, for appointing Antonio di Venafro, Machiavelli out of nowhere moves on to his three types of intellects:

Type I: “The one that understands things by its own quickness of perception.”

Type II: “Another understands them when explained by someone else.”

Type III: “And the third understands them neither by itself nor by the explanation of others.”

He then ranks the three types of intellect in terms of their usefulness. These are in the order in which he reveals them. It is preferable to have a minister who is of the first type but a second type would suffice. However, the third type is useless.

The prince ought to be a type I learner, but if this is not the case, they should be educated enough as a type II to find a minister who is a type I. His example is Pandolfo whom he sees as a type II, who hired Antonio, a type I.

Type I – Learning through experience and study

“Their own quickness of perception” means using observation to form theory. It almost certainly also means testing that theory and modifying ideas based on changing or evolving evidence.

Observation can be broken down into the senses – seeing, hearing, tasting, and feeling. It also requires a certain amount of logic, reasoning, curiosity, and analysis. 

The type I intellect is someone who examines the world around them and tries to understand how it works if not why it works. They are original thinkers, critics, those who innovate, but also those who improve.

Type II – Learning through indoctrination

The type II learner on the other hand learns through being told. This requires the knowledge to be pre-existing otherwise they are unable to learn it. In short, the type II is dependent on the existence or previous existence of a type I intellect who learned it.

Learning from being taught does require a certain amount of skill and intellect for itself. It requires the ability to listen and/or read. The intellect must then be able to process the information even if it’s not questioned, retain it, and utilize it as needed.

Type III – An inability to learn through either

There is not much to be said. The sad case is that there are those who are unable to learn either from experience (doomed to repeat the same mistakes) or from being taught. This can be a matter of intellect or an inability to retain information.

Comparing Machiavelli’s three types of learning

There are positives and negatives of both types of learning:

Type I positives: The basis of all knowledge comes from observation and processing. A type I intellect is able to explore elements of the world, understand how it works, and how to improve it. These are thinkers, innovators, creators, and analysts.

Type II positives: Type II intellects are good for the mass learning and distribution of existing knowledge. They take on information when taught and are able to carry out instructions, techniques, ideologies etc.. as needed without truly questioning them. This means for good workers and replicators. Any analysis or criticism they have can only work when compared to the indoctrination they received rather than against practical reality.

Type I negatives: There is too much in the world for anyone person to teach themselves through their senses, reasoning, and testing. Type Is need to rely on a certain amount of indoctrination themselves in order for society to progress. In short, such self-actualization if carried out by all would take far too long.

Type II negatives: Type IIs are easily indoctrinated into malformed ideas and ideologies. Their lack of questioning can allow for morality and virtue to be corrupted, but also for the propagation of bad systems, techniques, and ways of thinking.

It also leads to conformist culture and ideological puritanism as well as a lack of evolution within the system. These are dangerous elements when left unchallenged.

Type I vs Type II: Aristotle vs Plato?

It is possible to posit the idea that a clash between type I intellects and type II intellects, should they exist as put forward by Machiavelli, is a clash between Aristotelian and Platonic learning respectively.

A study of their epistemologies will reveal stark differences. Plato begins with higher forms and ideas then tries to bring them down to the particulars of the real world. Whereas, Aristotle starts with the real world – what can be experienced and tested, then takes his forms up into the world of ideas.

Aristotle’s epistemology requires both induction – where an idea requires some evidence, and deduction where an idea can be formed through logical reasoning. Plato on the other hand uses a priori fuelled deduction. Let’s look at each separately:

Aristotle: We can argue that Aristotle fuelled scientific enquiry but also developments in thought, philosophy, religion, and more. His theory is based on the idea of examining the world around us, using basic evidence to built testable and/or logical theories.

Darwin is a great example of this. He saw how a type of bird was radically different from island to island in the Galapagos. This helped inform his theory of evolution. Newton’s ideas on gravity were based on a falling apple.

Plato: Plato is a favourite of statists, Marxists, and probably confucianists too. He believed that the duty of the ruling elite was to educate the people into the form the rulers desired. This would help create the perfect state.

In order to achieve this, mass education requires type II learners who will not question or examine, but who will believe that which is taught to them. 

A good example of the dominance of type II intellectualism can be found in Japan. Someone, possibly a type I thinker sets up an idea or system, but this is taught to type II learners who re-enforce it and replicate it. 

Over time they only have one mode of action which is to follow the pre-set down system until it totally fails. I’ve seen this argument put forward as to how Japan fell into fascistic and warlike thinking prior to World War II, but also how its economic miracle set up in the 50s set it on a path to their economic malaise from the 90s onwards and their inability to fix it since. 

There’s more nuance to learning than this

I can see how Machiavelli came to this conclusion, but it is too simplistic. One of humanity’s great failures is a desire for a simple model or rule to cover vast and complex areas. How we think is one of these.

It is true to say that some people learn from doing and reasoning while others learn best from being taught things. Our education systems rely on the latter – rote learning for example. This can produce people with identikit thinking and a malformed view of the world is what is taught does not conform with reality.

Type I thinkers caught up in this kind of education soon feel a problem, but most people have a certain amount of experiential learning of the Aristotelian kind. If presented with an ideology so different to the reality around them they will feel some kind of anxiety and stress.

However, we must also understand that a lot of people are emotionally wedded to their ideologies, feelings, and world views. This means the presentation of other ideas can make them dig their heels in more. A type I personality is more likely to be open to evidence-based mind changing than a type II.

I also believe that how we learn and our type of intellect while perhaps being overall one of these three, also contains elements of all three. My 1 year in chemistry proved I was a type III when it came to that subject. I’m a type II for mathematics and for several other subjects even if overall I learn best by teaching myself. 

This is probably why I’m giving you my own thoughts rather than always quoting this or that philosopher/intellectual. I’m thinking these things through myself, on the fly, having thought about them for a few months.

Understanding what type of learner you are

It’s good to understand what type of learner you are and what your overall intellect type is. I believe with self-awareness we can modify some aspects of these types. 

There will be boundaries to many. If you have severe dyscalculia or dyslexia, then learning maths and literacy respectively are going to be difficult and potentially impossible. That makes you a type III for those, but you may overall be either a I or a II when it comes to other kinds of learning.

Be honest with yourselves and think hard. It is natural to fall into one of the three, but it’s also ok to try to change how you are. If you see type I as being admirable then aspire to be more like that. Our brains are malleable and that does mean we can, with hard work, re-train how we think. 

I for one am trying to be more conscious of how I learn and how I process information given to me by others. First I ask myself if it is logical as well as if I trust them to genuinely believe what they’re repeating (as an aspie this is not easy as I default trust everyone), and then I research the subject myself later if I’m so minded. You can do that too, but be warned, if you use your type I intellect and come up with a position different to your conformist society you will face their opprobrium. 

The duty of educators to encourage type Is

As an educator, I took seriously the mantra that the duty of a teacher is to teach students to love learning. I wanted them to be lifelong English learners and to be curious about the world around them.

However, many educations are type IIs who teach others to be so too. They take on the Confucian and Platonic ideas of education as a tool of indoctrination. Some do this without thinking and some actively believe it’s the right way to education.

I would like to posit that educators have a moral duty to help children be as type I an intellect as possible. That they assimilate data as they experience the world, that they question and analyze, and do not automatically accept everything told to them.


Well, these are my theories and ideas based on a single paragraph of Machiavelli’s The Prince. It’s quite a lot, isn’t it? What do you think about our intellects? Of course intelligence and modes of learning are far more complex than this, but does he have a point? Is he right to promote type I above type II? Let me know your thoughts in the comments.