“Am I politic? am I subtle? am I a Machiavel?”
‘The Merry Wives of Windsor’, Act III. Scene I.
Behind the curtain
‘Machiavellian’ is one of the most thrilling adjectives in the English language. Its adherents indulge themselves in chicanery and guile in the name of self-interest and morality is cast to the wayside.
While a political term, it’s passed over so entirely into fiction that everyone loves the ‘Machiavellian’ character. From Othello to House of Cards to Game of Thrones, hundreds of artists have entertained their audiences with the intrigues and power plays of their creations. It also happens to be one of the most unfair and inaccurate expressions against the word’s progenitor.
With some irony, the alleged master of power politics spectacularly failed at preserving a political position. Born in 1469, Niccolò Machiavelli was a diplomat who had always supported the Florentine Republic and served as secretary to the Second Chancery from 1498 to 1512. When the Medici dynasty returned to power, Machiavelli not only lost his status but was arrested and tortured. He was eventually exonerated and released after three weeks.
Machiavelli never recovered from his defenestration and retired to his estate at Sant’Andrea in Percussina and dedicated himself to historical and political philosophy. As correspondence with friends and the politically influent suggest, politics remained Machiavelli’s despairing passion. Although he became a staple of intellectual groups in Florence as well as a famous playwright beyond politics, he never gleaned political power again. He died at the age of 58 in 1527.
Throughout his career, Machiavelli had met political leaders across Europe and gained first-hand insight into European realpolitik. He was an unquestionably astute student of history, yet had just one theoretical work published in his lifetime, The Art of War (1521). His days were spent in study, living to understand the past in a bid to derive meaning and truth from the actions of historical figures in tandem with his own experience.
Though he was appointed the official historian of Florence in 1520 and entrusted with minor civil duties, it was Machiavelli’s posthumous literary contributions which have forged the pejorative adjectives to which he’s associated.
Il Principe (The Prince) was written in 1513 and is Machiavelli’s most famous work. For all the notoriety it now affords the author, it was not published until five years after his death in 1532. Although Machiavelli privately circulated the treatise among friends, it’s still debated whether the book is the rhetorical indulgence of a talented but frustrated man or a glorified CV to Florence’s Medici masters.
Across a mere 70 odd pages, The Prince addresses the acquisition, hold and use of power. Its maxims succinctly tend to matters of domination, influence and manipulation in the name of efficient governance, often at the expense of ethical imperatives.
Most notoriously, the book is characterised by its detractors as placing morality as a secondary, even perfunctory, concern for leaders navigating political waters. But is this entirely true, or is Machiavelli’s guide to ultimate authority held back by an unexpected source?
To begin with, Machiavelli’s views on human nature were not favourable. He considered people fickle and self-interested whose affections could be won or lost quickly. They are happy so long as they are not victims of something horrible, can be trustworthy in prosperous times but will turn deceitful in challenging times. People might well respect honour, kindness and loyalty, but most of them do not exhibit these virtues themselves in any significant abundance or consistency.
Throughout the text, Machiavelli articulates his political arguments with historical evidence, but his opinions on human nature are beyond the scope of fact. His arguments are a logical extension of his assessments of human life rooted in his belief that the prince’s supreme goal is to govern the state, which therefore requires the obedience of the population. He never advocates the use of cruelty for its own sake, only in the interests of procuring, securing or defending the realm.
And this is where Machiavelli’s critics run into trouble. The Prince examines all types of principality, and the circumstances that one comes to control them, but the book’s very purpose is about how to manage a population with the least amount of difficulty and without earning their ire. Machiavelli fears the power of the masses, knows their limits, and his practical instruction to princes is about how best to navigate the popular mood rather than destroy whole civilisations.
For someone so supposedly morally bankrupt as Machiavelli, he worries a great deal about princes and public opinion. Force would always be the de facto button to press if he was genuinely immoral, yet he understands you cannot beat a population down in perpetuity.
When famously asking if it is better to be feared or loved, Machiavelli concludes that between benevolence and meanness, the latter is preferable because it wards off populations expecting that which cannot be materially guaranteed forever. He explains that “a prince should guard himself, above all things, against being despised and hated; and liberality leads you to both.” His rationale is not unethical, but prudent, for the long-term benefit of societal stability and that is a continual theme throughout his works.
While it’s necessary for a prince to have good virtues, what is clear is that hatred or contempt of the populace is the barometer that measures a prince’s political authority. “Every prince ought to desire to be considered clement and not cruel” is the essence behind Machiavelli’s advice to rulers because he knows that power and force, while abundant in their form and application, are limited by what people will tolerate.
For Machiavelli, governance is critical, and the secret to understanding The Prince is not to read it as a treatise about how rulers can indulge excess and cruelty, but instead as a guide to: “avoiding being hated and despised, and by keeping the people satisfied with him, which it is most necessary for him to accomplish,”
Acknowledging that Machiavelli held hatred against a prince as such a dangerous liability is problematic, considering the maxim ‘the ends justify the means’ is often misattributed to him. In fact, Machiavelli warned deception was a cost of leadership, not an affectation, and something that should be carefully judged for the sake of the realm:
“And you have to understand this, that a prince, especially a new one, cannot observe all those things for which men are esteemed, being often forced, in order to maintain the state, to act contrary to fidelity, friendship, humanity, and religion.
“Every one sees what you appear to be, few really know what you are, and those few dare not oppose themselves to the opinion of the many, who have the majesty of the state to defend them; and in the actions of all men, and especially of princes, which it is not prudent to challenge, one judges by the result.
“Therefore it is necessary for him to have a mind ready to turn itself accordingly as the winds and variations of fortune force it, yet, as I have said above, not to diverge from the good if he can avoid doing so, but, if compelled, then to know how to set about it.”
For Machiavelli, the people are the moral universalism at the heart of The Prince. Across 26 chapters, he directs princes to pay their attention to the limits and tolerances of the populace. Whether in hereditary, mixed, ecclesiastical or new principalities, Machiavelli attempts to achieve a delicate balance of protecting the people, protecting the prince and protecting them both from the other.
“Therefore, one who becomes a prince through the favour of the people ought to keep them friendly, and this he can easily do seeing they only ask not to be oppressed by him. But one who, in opposition to the people, becomes a prince by the favour of the nobles, ought, above everything, to seek to win the people over to himself, and this he may easily do if he takes them under his protection. Because men, when they receive good from him of whom they were expecting evil, are bound more closely to their benefactor; thus the people quickly become more devoted to him than if he had been raised to the principality by their favours; and the prince can win their affections in many ways, but as these vary according to the circumstances one cannot give fixed rules, so I omit them; but, I repeat, it is necessary for a prince to have the people friendly, otherwise he has no security in adversity.”
The wisdom of crowds
The Prince was only a small part of Machiavelli’s literary output. Machiavelli wrote much more substantial works, such as The Discourses on the First Ten Books of Titus Livius, a History of Florence, The Art of War and even plays, poetry and biographical sketches. His subtle moralism is far easier to detect in The Discourses than in The Prince, but it is harder to find it without considering the two in tandem.
Discourses, written circa 1517, was also published posthumously and features a much clearer understanding of Machiavelli’s republican instincts. Discourses contained many similar negative characterisations of human nature as in The Prince, and Machiavelli suggests outright that deceit in the manner of war was laudable but detestable at all other times. His warnings, too, of the dangers of an unhappy or oppressed population, are also consistently considered.
Machiavelli declared that the people were vastly superior in all that was good and glorious when compared to princes and that the faults of the people sprang from the failures of their rulers:
“Let no prince complain of the faults committed by a people under his control; since these must be ascribed either to his negligence, or to his being himself blemished by similar defects.”
He respected the people, even feared them, and encouraged restraint as a practicality in The Prince, and as a principle in his other works. The posthumous publication of both of these texts lends credence to the idea that they were, in fact, meant to make the population aware of just how much control they had rather than being for the Medici who had stripped Machiavelli of his position and had him tortured.
Why would Machiavelli dedicate the text of The Prince to Lorenzo di Piero de’ Medici, grandson of ‘Lorenzo the Magnificent’ and a member of the ruling Florentine Medici family (whose uncle Giovanni became Pope Leo X in 1513)?
It’s unclear if they ever read it, and even if they did what purpose it would have brought them. These elites would already have had an unrivalled historical education and were now in possession of absolute political and economic power. What use then would Machiavelli’s works be if not to subtly remind the Medici of the power of the people, and to remind the people of their own influence?
The conflation of Machiavelli’s astute observations about power and the subtlety of his morality, particularly in The Prince, is the basis for the confusion surrounding his legacy in political thought. Machiavelli didn’t seek an ideal society, or to derive deeper meaning from normative ambition. He was the first political realist of the European Renaissance who was brave enough and bold enough to analyse the facts as they were with a minimal bias to the fact that power saw him tortured and cast from political life.
For all the examples and recommendations on cunning and guile that Machiavelli gives for the retention of power; one elephant on the pages of The Prince can’t be unseen. He knew that populations were intelligent, and they, alone, decided the future of leaders.
In Discourses, he not only acknowledges this point but explicitly says that checks and balances are the ideal means by which to check the power of leaders, protect the power of the people and protect the system:
“In fact, when there is combined under the same constitution a prince, a nobility, and the power of the people, then these three powers will watch and keep each other reciprocally in check.”
Of The Prince today? The fact that all of Machiavelli’s works were placed on the Catholic Church’s ‘Index of Prohibited Books’ in 1559 has only fuelled its reputation as an item of intense curiosity. He has attracted and repelled generations of political practitioners and students in equal measure, and for centuries Machiavelli and his books have been unjustly treated as one and the same.
Even if The Prince and his broader works are still generalised as handbooks on how to exercise power, it is not a fair reflection of the man or what his views actually were. As Jean-Jacques Rousseau said in The Social Contract:
“Machiavelli was a proper man and a good citizen; but, being attached to the court of the Medici, he could not help veiling his love of liberty in the midst of his country’s oppression. The choice of his detestable hero, Caesar Borgia, clearly enough shows his hidden aim; and the contradiction between the teaching of the Prince and that of the Discourses on Livy and the History of Florence shows that this profound political thinker has so far been studied only by superficial or corrupt readers. The Court of Rome sternly prohibited his book. I can well believe it; for it is that Court it most clearly portrays.”
Although mystery surrounds Machiavelli’s true intentions, the interest in his works rightly remains intense. But it should shift away from the pastiche, even novel, interpretation of a satin-robbed puppet master and into the life and mind of a man who wanted to understand the symbiosis between power, order and the liberty of the people. The secret, hidden in plain sight, is in the dedication of The Prince:
“Nor do I hold with those who regard it as a presumption if a man of low and humble condition dare to discuss and settle the concerns of princes; because, just as those who draw landscapes place themselves below in the plain to contemplate the nature of the mountains and of lofty places, and in order to contemplate the plains place themselves upon high mountains, even so to understand the nature of the people it needs to be a prince, and to understand that of princes it needs to be of the people.”
With that understanding, remember Machiavelli’s purpose as he saw it:
“But, it being my intention to write a thing which shall be useful to him who apprehends it, it appears to me more appropriate to follow up the real truth of the matter than the imagination of it”.
This he has done, and in more nuanced ways than his current reputation acknowledges. Machiavelli was the first political moralist of the Renaissance, and his name should sit with the likes of like Kant, not Kissinger, and his works should be seen not as the end of political morality but as the beginning of it.