Bri Manning

Misunderstood Machiavelli

April 24, 2017

I recently read Machiavelli’s The Prince. From Wikipedia, machiavellian can be described as:

“The employment of cunning and duplicity in statecraft or in general conduct.”

This set some expectations for the book, which is surprisingly compact and brief. The interesting thing is that I think Niccolo Machiavelli gets a bad rap.

This post is not about the common interpretation of his work. It’s not about what people have taken it to mean or what the word has evolved to mean. I’ve heard it most often used as a term for someone with a thirst for power and lack of morals.

The Prince was written for rulers before our modern republics and democracies. It was a time of nobles and commoners. The idea of a king is offensive now, but was the norm then. The book is full of historical examples of successful and unsuccessful rulers. It’s not about what should have happened, but what did happen and the results coming from those events. In one such story, he writes of Agathocles’ actions and why he had a long rule despite being cruel (emphasis mine),

“Those cruelties we may say are well employed, if it be permitted to speak well of things evil, which are done once for all under the necessity of self-preservation, and are not afterwards persisted in, but so far as possible modified to the advantage of the governed.”

His goals throughout are to show a ruler how to preserve order within a kingdom. They’re about how to maintain power. It is less about what is right or wrong, but it is looking at what has happened in the past and seeing what was successful. It’s a historical account of shifting governments and rulers. Stability is his goal. The results of a change in rule are often bloody and terrible. He wants to avoid that, so instead he gives ways to maintain power.

Much of the advice comes down to making sure that people know you are strong and stern. That the perception is important so that you are not tested, while being ready for when you are tested.

The infamous “it is better to be feared than loved” statement comes from this work. The real story behind that is because people will stop loving you and turn on you. If they fear you, that is less likely. He’s calling out the negativity of people. We remember when we are hurt and fear that. We don’t remember as well when good things are done for us. An appeal to look at all a leader has done for someone often falls on deaf ears. Fear of reprisals? That works to keep stability and would-be malfeasants in check. Being feared is not a goal itself, it’s a tool to keep the peace.

It’s usually thought Machiavelli was instructing rulers to be cruel and evil. What he was actually showing was that subjects (people) are fickle and selfish. They quickly forget when you do right by them. They remember when you show yourself as tough or dangerous.

He said people remember when you steal their land or destroy their property. They don’t remember as well when you kill their brothers and fathers. This wasn’t an instruction on what to do, but a commentary on the extreme self-interest of individuals.

His commentary was not on how to acquire power at all costs. It was an observation on how successful rulers had ruled and how that reflects on humans in general.

Machiavelli saw people as self-obsessed and selfish. The way to protect them was not to get them to love or revere you, but to show a tough and just, yet not cruel image.

Not to mention the breakdown of mercenaries and other types of soldiers and which type is better. It felt like most of the book was about the nuances involved in the different types of groups like that.

Other than ending with a plea hoping for a ruler to bring glory to Italy, his writing is dispassionate. It was an account of how people behave and how best to rule over them. Not only for the ruler’s benefit, but for the benefit of the subjects and and stability in the world. And you have to crack some eggs to make an omelette.

This makes me realize Trump is not Machiavellian.

Quick addition: while writing this I stumbled on a New York Times opinion piece from a few years ago. It has a few sentences that sum up The Prince and the public perception of Machiavelli.

“Machiavelli has long been called a teacher of evil. But the author of “The Prince” never urged evil for evil’s sake. The proper aim of a leader is to maintain his state (and, not incidentally, his job). Politics is an arena where following virtue often leads to the ruin of a state, whereas pursuing what appears to be vice results in security and well-being. In short, there are never easy choices, and prudence consists of knowing how to recognize the qualities of the hard decisions you face and choosing the less bad as what is the most good.”

Given that and the above, let’s turn our thoughts toward Putin…