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Archive for March, 2011

Oxford English Dictionary defines Machiavellianism as “the employment of cunning and duplicity in statecraft or in general conduct.” In social psychology, a Machiavellian person is one who has a high tendency to deceive and manipulate others for personal gain. In middle school Mr. Snarey told us that to be called Machiavellian means that you are cynical, immoral and mean.

This guy seems like a real jerk. (Machiavelli, not Mr. Snarey). I’ve been researching important stuff for an evil antagonist in a new fiction novel and Machiavelli kept bubbling to the surface of my mind. I went to the library to find out a little more about him. It was there that discovered (after a whole bunch of other people discovered it and wrote books about it) that poor Machiavelli has been undeservedly demonized. Well, sort of undeservedly, at least. I think. Maybe.

It is true that Niccoló Machiavelli encouraged the odd broken promise. Point in case: In the early 1500’s Cesare Borgia supported Julius II for papal election in return for appointment of the head of the papal armies. Once elected Julius II reneged on his promise because he didn’t like Borgia’s dad, Pope Alexander VI. Machiavelli, then the secretary to the committee in charge of foreign policy and military of Florence, commended Julius’s decision and denounced Borgia for being too cocky, relying on “good fortune” for success rather than good strategy. Borgia never regained power.

This is a good story to start with in an attempt to understand Machiavelli’s point of view. Born into a Florentine middle class family in 1468, Machiavelli would never be invited to rule any land. His role would forever be as an advisor and as a go-to guy, much to his bitter disappointment:

It is the duty of a good man to point out to others what is well done, even though the malignity of the times or of fortune has not permitted you to do it for yourself, so that of the many who have the capacity, some one, more beloved of heaven, may be able to do it.

And so he studied history. Machiavelli loved to pore over accounts of past military exploits and political maneuvers. He made note of what worked and of what didn’t, and painstakingly compiled them into various how-to books both for leaders and hopeful leaders–The Art of War and The Prince–as well as a book for citizens working toward a liberty filled free state–The Discourses on the First Decade of Titius Livius.

There are many quotes that one might take from Machiavelli’s work that, out of context, sound horrible:

–If an injury has to be done to a man it should be so severe that his vengeance need not be feared.

 

–A prince never lacks legitimate reasons to break his promise.

 

–It is much more secure to be feared than to be loved.

 

–Men are so simple and so much inclined to obey immediate needs that a deceiver will never lack victims for his deceptions. (all quotes found here)

But, what is important to remember is that Machiavelli always stated what he believed to be the truth, not what he believed would be popular.

Many writers have dreamed up ideal countries, but the gulf between them and reality is so great that to neglect what is actually done for what should be done is simply to invite self destruction.

Furthermore, Machiavelli was ultimately interested in creating a peaceful and power balanced republic. He had this to say about his work The Discourses:

First, I never urged immorality for it’s own sake, but only as necessary in the pursuit of a strong, united state. Second, the ideal form of such a state is a republic.

According to Patrick Curry in Introducing Machiavelli, Machiavelli was a “classical pagan.” He longed for the days when humanity worshipped gods and goddesses who were imbued with “vigour, prowess, bravery, pride, courage, and strength.” He called these abilities “virtú” which stand in direct opposition to Christian virtues:

If our religion [Christianity] demands that you be strong, what it asks for is strength to suffer, rather than strength to do bold things…Christianity turns people away from this world, away from the collective responsibilities of citizenship, towards individual salvation. That is the effect of its “truth.”

Machiavelli never argued that Christianity is untrue or wrong. His concern was with the effects of religion on civic spirit, the desire to work together to create a smoothly running collective body rather than an actual moral code. To him, religion was simply a good inspiration in keeping men good and shaming the wicked. To him, the public had a responsibility toward keeping those in power checked, and those in power had a responsibility to protecting and caring for their people.

Maurizio Viroli writes in Niccoló’s Smile, that late in his life Machiavelli had a dream:

In his dream, he had seen a band of poorly dressed men, ragged and miserable in appearance. He asked them who they were. They replied, “We are the saintly and the blessed; we are on our way to Heaven.” Then he saw a crowd of solemnly attired men, noble and grave in appearance, speaking seriously of important political matters. In their midst he recognized the great philosophers and historians of antiquity who had written fundamental works on politics and the state, such as Plato, Plutarch and Tacitus. Again he asked them who they were and where they were going. “We are the damed of Hell” was their answer. AFter telling his friends of his dream, Machiavelli remarked that he would be far happier in Hell, where he could discuss politics with the great men of the ancient world, than in Heaven, where he would languish in boredom among the blessed and saintly.

I’m still a little up in the air about how I feel about Machiavelli, I suppose. Was he misunderstood pragmatist telling it like it is? Or was he a manipulative mastermind, paving the way for Hilter, Mussolini, Thatcher, Saddam, Osama bin Laden, Gaddafi…the list goes on and on…

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