At a time when the roster of Trumpians charged or convicted is growing longer than a working parent’s to-do list, Machiavelli’s famous handbook to political ruthlessness is looking distinctly noble and pensive by comparison. Its insights bear reconsideration on the threshold of the 2020 electoral season.
Take, for example, Machiavelli’s advice about which constituency a leader should seek to appease: “A Prince can never secure himself against a disaffected people, their number being too great, while he may against a disaffected nobility, since their number is small.” Translated to our own era, this is a mandate for economic populism. Democratic aspirants take note.
I reached a different, gentler view of Machiavelli recently when I was asked to introduce and condense his Renaissance-era guidebook. For centuries, “The Prince” has been synonymous with tactics of deception, ruthlessness and even brutality. “Machiavellian” is a term for cunning amorality. I have inveighed against popular books such as “The 48 Laws of Power,” which endorse morally neutral or unethical methods of personal advancement.
How, then, could I justify preparing a reader-friendly new edition of “The Prince,” a book considered the urtext of ruthless attainment?
A fresh look often reveals the unexpected. Machiavelli imbued “The Prince” with a greater sense of purpose and ethics than is commonly understood — and his book warrants rediscovery.
Although Machiavelli unquestionably endorses absolutist and, at times, um, ultimate ways of dealing with adversaries, he repeatedly notes that these are last resorts when peaceable means of governance prove unworkable. He justifies deception or faithlessness only as a defense against the depravity of men, who shift alliances like the winds. This logic by no means approaches the morality of Christ’s dictum to be as “wise as serpents and harmless as doves,” but it belies the general notion that Machiavelli was a one-dimensional schemer.
Moreover, the author emphasizes rewarding merit (not, ahem, family, sycophants or hacks); leaving the public to its own devices as much as possible (the essential ingredient, he writes, to developing culture and economy); trusting subjects enough to allow them to bear arms — and even arming them yourself if confident in their loyalty (as a good leader should be, he says); surrounding oneself with wise counselors (the true measure of a ruler’s ability); rejecting and not exploiting civic divisions (which weaken the whole nation); and striving to ensure the public’s general satisfaction.
One of the most striking parts of the book for me is when Machiavelli expounds on the best kind of intellect for an adviser or minister:
There are three scales of intelligence, one which understands by itself, a second which understands what it is shown by others, and a third, which understands neither by itself nor by the showing of others, the first of which is most excellent, the second good, but the third worthless.
This has always been my favorite passage of Machiavelli’s, and I challenge you to consider what place you have earned on its scale.
Some contemporary critics suggest that “The Prince” is actually a satire of monarchy: that under the guise of writing a guide to bare-knuckled politics, Machiavelli instead sends up the actions of absolute rulers and covertly calls for more republican forms of government. I think this assessment probably stretches matters. But it would be equally wrong to conclude that Machiavelli was a narrow-eyed courtier bent solely on reducing others. On balance, Machiavelli was a pragmatic tutor interested in promoting the unity, stability and integrity of nation states, chiefly his own Italy, in a Europe that lacked cohesive civics and reliable international treaties. His harsher ideas were then considered acceptable quivers in the bow of statecraft; you will also see his efforts to leaven them with insights about the vicissitudes of human nature, fate and virtue.
Although Machiavelli was considered a master of shaping and breaking alliances, he inveighed against Trump-style divisiveness and racial animus. He also admired excellence in government — and the leader who fostered it:
The choice of Ministers is a matter of no small moment to a Prince. Whether they shall be good or not depends on his prudence, so that the readiest conjecture we can form of the character and sagacity of a Prince is from seeing what sort of men he has about him. When they are at once capable and faithful, we may always account him wise, since he has known to recognize their merit and to retain their fidelity. But if they be otherwise, we must pronounce unfavorably of him, since he has committed a first fault in making this selection.
Consider what this says about a president who presides over a revolving door of cabinet members, advisers and favored political commentators — many of whom fall under darkening legal clouds and convictions by the week.
Last, Machiavelli believed that the best rulers hold power not by sneakiness but intelligence, tough-mindedness and refinement through personal trial: “They who come to the Princedom . . . by virtuous paths, acquire with difficulty, but keep with ease.”
I advise experiencing “The Prince” through the filter of your own ethical standards and inner truths; sifting among its practical lessons; taking in its tough observations about human weaknesses; and using it as a guide to the realities — and foibles — of human events.
I believe that leaders who read “The Prince” today will discover subtleties that are missing from the current administration’s power-at-any-cost ethos. In the height of ironies, Machiavelli’s ethical vision is sturdier than what we’re presently living under.