Machia-WHO!? The dude above — Machiavelli (MocK-e-uh-vell-ee)!
… He’s one serious guy, and probably the most-important author for modern politics. (Modern, not contemporary or ancient).
You may have heard a thing or two about him … he’s evil, vindictive, devalues human life, and all sorts of other stuff.
It’s true, he wrote some pretty questionable stuff. However, I would say he’s be a misunderstood writer who actually is an advocate for representative democracy.
In either case, I’ll run through who this dude is, what he said (of course focusing on The Prince), and why he’s so important.
First off, who is this dude?
Niccolo di Bernardo dei Machiavelli. Born in 14-something in Italy, he lived through some wars and such. He became a diplomat, and was almost put to death for conspiracy, but was pardoned. He wrote in his older years.
The most-famous books of his include Discourses on Livy (the Roman historian), and, his most-infamous book, The Prince.
This book is short and sweet. To the point.
It’s a blueprint on how a prince (or any ruler) can gain, consolidate, and keep power. It also can be a dangerous book, and it’s pretty much considered the dark arts of politics.
Among the advice in his book, you’ll find the following friendly tips:
— “If an injury has to be done to a man it should be so severe that his vengeance need not be feared.”
— “it is much safer to be feared than loved because … love is preserved by the link of obligation which, owing to the baseness of men, is broken at every opportunity for their advantage; but fear preserves you by a dread of punishment which never fails.”
— “The first method for estimating the intelligence of a ruler is to look at the men he has around him.”
— “Never attempt to win by force what can be won by deception.”
— “Since love and fear can hardly exist together, if we must choose between them, it is far safer to be feared than loved.”
— “Politics have no relation to morals.”
— My personal favorite: “Because there are three classes of intellects: one which comprehends by itself; another which appreciates what others comprehend; and a third which neither comprehends by itself nor by the showing of others; the first is the most excellent, the second is good, the third is useless.”
— Another great one: “The vulgar crowd always is taken by appearances, and the world consists chiefly of the vulgar.”
The Prince was a big deal. It explains a lot of the base assumptions a lot of modern political scientists take when analyzing political events. Some of the core assumption political scientists take is that 1) leaders want to consolidate and hold power, and 2) they want to stay in power as long as they can, which is a safe assumption to make.
When looking at dictators, one could probably look to Machiavelli to explain behaviors. Machiavelli is essentially an Italian Sun Tzu, and identifies tactics and strategy meant to win wars, so to speak. He views politics as power, and, if you’re going to be an absolute ruler, you have to figure out how to consolidate power — even if it includes cutting people in half and putting them in the town square (he explains this in the book).
He emphasizes that if the people love the ruler, then that’s more-peaceful, but it’s less-safe for the ruler; because it allows space for someone to challenge authority. By contrast, ruling by fear is far more secure at the top — a tip that organized crime or drug cartels take to heart.
Once you get absolute power, he recommends killing all the people who helped get you there, preferably brutally and publically — that way there won’t be any future opponents looking for the throne (something Saddam Hussein did, and North Korean leaders continue to do).
The Prince advocates deception as a method of masking true intentions. He explains that there are two ways of governing in the world; to rule like a fox or a lion.
The first (the fox) represents laws, the second (the lion) represents force. Laws are created by men, but force is the instrument of beasts. He explains that laws do have success, and that people loving you is important, to an extent. He finds that deception and manipulation of the laws (the way of the fox) ensures longer rule (think of princes and kings in the Middle East, or, again, North Korea).
Essentially, you can twist and manipulate laws to appeal to upper classes, however, you have to use the rule-by-fear tactic for the general public, because fear is the most-secure method of ruling.
** Think of a family. A violent and mean father isn’t loved by the family, but it’s clear he’s the ruler, and a pretty secure ruler (without outside intervention — there are pretty good information campaigns combatting this these days). **
“The lion cannot protect himself from traps, and the fox cannot defend himself from wolves. One must therefore be a fox to recognize traps, and a lion to frighten wolves.” This implies that brute force alone won’t work, because eventually people will look to ally with someone else. You need to recognize when your power is threatened, and know when to use the art of making laws to your advantage.
** Now think about how laws (taxes maybe?) are instrumentally used by perhaps local leaders to maintain power (or money) — I would say, also, that gerrymandering is a great example (redrawing of district lines to ensure power in office) of this. **
Throughout the book, he uses examples of one particular duke’s fight for power. His name is Cesare Borgia, the son of a Pope who was in the army and eventually became a Duke (and briefly employed da Vinci as his military architect). Machiavelli uses a lot of examples from this guy, and says his main point of weakness was his reliance on patronage (money and such) from the Papacy (an outside source). This, in turn, creates an atmosphere where you have to rely on someone else, and opens up space for the people to rely on (or “love”) a source other than you. Hence, the people could end up loving or fearing another ruler. … This is no good.
Because of this, Machiavelli recommends that any successful leader be sure to gain absolute power by an means necessary. This means raising a loyal Army, first and foremost. Should there be any instability, a loyal military will prevent any further uprisings, and enhance your reputation as a ruthless leader — because people are always tempted to break the bond of love.
** Is breaking the bond of love a temptation of the vulgar (the general public)? … Look at how much infidelity exists in the world. (cough) Ashley Madison.**
He finds the public to generally be a bunch of worthless people. But, even though you can rule them, they have limits.
Machiavelli emphasizes that sleeping with common women has potential to severely hurt the ruler’s ability to govern (I guess Bill Clinton and Anthony Weiner didn’t read The Prince).
He says you can take everything away from people, have them fight wars, spend money, and rule by fear: but mess with one of their women, and it’s over. Also, when necessary, a small sum of money can dispel nearly any problem people have — because, in the general public, people are easily bought.
** Think about all the things you could get a common person, walking down the street, to do for $100 in cash. **
Where to see Machiavelli’s influence:
First off, watch House of Cards, it has Machiavelli all over it, in a toned down way. Also, the Sopranos has pretty much overt Machiavellian rulers (or really any gangster movie). The film Ides of March (which, by the way, is when Caesar was stabbed in the Coliseum) is a decent example. The Usual Suspects is another great example (and features Kevin Spacey).
If you read the news, look for any story in a country with a monarch or a dictator (let’s see how Syria turns out — Bashir might loose his head, or continue to rule). The story of Idi Amin reminds me of Machiavellian-style rule gone bad.
Or, honestly, look at any of the assumptions that people have a bout politics in general. Everyone assumes that political leaders lie. Everyone also assumes that politicians want power (or they should assume it).
Prior to this book, everyone believed that the Popes and Dukes were divine, and looking out for their best interests. (By the way, the Church was pretty furious that this book was published.)
Good or bad?
So, the questions: 1) was it good or bad that this book was written, and 2) why is it important?
The Prince outlines how to rule, however drastic the measures are. But, why publish it? The book was initially available, in very small quantities, in 1513. A full publishing wasn’t available until 5 years after he died. But, if we can safely assume that he intended for the book to be published, then he probably wanted lots of people to read it.
Chances are, princes of that time already knew how to rule brutally, and were schooled in this way. So, if we assume the book was written for public consumption, then we can assume that his purpose for writing the book was to let people know how the elite of that day ruled.
In his lesser -read book, Discourses on Livy, Machiavelli expands some of his ideas of Republicanism (rule by elected representatives). If I were to guess, The Prince was written to expose the ruling class, and convince people that they need to mediate power, which is why he was interested in Republicanism.
The book is important because it let people see how they were subjugated to brute force and manipulation. … Something the Church, or princes, would never admit to.
— The Constitutional framers of the United States took these teachings to heart when they created the House and Senate, and explicitly rejected royalty (although, you could interpret the Constitution as a document that consolidated wealthy, white power as well).
— Britain’s monarchs were smart, and gradually gave up power over time by allowing the House of Lords and House of Commons power. I suppose they wanted to avoid beheading.
— In France, the royal families weren’t so well off, and people played soccer with their heads in the streets.
Machiavelli explores the power of written ideas in The Prince.
… But why talk about it in the book if it was meant for a royal audience only? Perhaps the book was subversive and masquerading as an elite-centric book, when really it was meant for commoners.
Regardless of what it means, it’s been highly influential, and I suggest people read it; particularly if you are in any position of power, because it’s riddled with advice and fables.
Final thoughts on modern and ancient politics:
Machiavelli is traditionally thought of as the father of modern politics. Ancient writers (Socrates and such) emphasized how societies should live morally, explores ethical conduct, and wanted to realize the full potential of human understanding. In short, ancient politics emphasizes how things ought to be, and how to cultivate the best society.
By contrast, modern political thought is more analytical, and critical of those in power. It analyzes the actions of those in power, and seeks to limit power rather than trying to cultivate a virtuous society.
In ancient politics, writers emphasized the greatness of people, and hoped to identify the best ways to live. In modern politics, people are less interested in the greatness of people, and more interested in how societies can overcome inequalities inherent in power.
In the United States, I would say the Republican party emphasizes a more-ancient outlook, while the Democratic party emphasizes a more modernist approach to politics. So, depending on how you view the world, it may be a useful starting point to think about how people behave and develop. Is a good society based on it’s moral character, or it’s ability to distribute power as evenly as possible?
Perhaps it’s not that simple of a question. Perhaps these two differing views are needed at different points in time.
Just some thoughts …