|Behold the Man|
I think most folk have heard of the word, Machiavellian and perhaps have a vague understanding of what this means in terms of unbridled unscrupulousness especially in relation to political power. But what of the man?
Niccolo Machiavelli was born in 1469, in Renaissance Florence, during a particularly violent and politically turbulent period in the city state's history. He was born in a comfortable middle-class family and in adulthood became an important diplomat representing Florence's political affairs during an ongoing period of upheaval. This was a time when Italy was a mosaic of patchwork states and nationhood was but a dream. Outside nations exercised their international aspirations and exploited Italy's disunity with wanton abandon (nothing changes). Thus, Italy became embroiled in the machinations of the great powers of the day: France, Spain, and the Holy Roman Empire. It was in the interest of these nations to keep Italy divided and therefore weak.
In 1513, Machiavelli pissed off the latest Florentine usurper and after a bit of agonising torture, which denied his humerus of socket adhesion, he was exiled to his country farm south of the city. It is during his time as a 'gentleman farmer', and until his death in 1527, that he produced his most profound political writings. Although all the good stuff was only published after his death. It is fair to say that the death of Machiavelli in 1527 marked the end of the Italian High Renaissance.
During his life, Machiavelli wrote on a variety of subjects and became a noted playwright. The work that he is mostly remembered for today and earned him notoriety even in his own time, even though the work was published posthumously, was a political treatise called 'The Prince'. The thrust of the work was concerned with advice, ostensively given, to a hypothetical ruler.
In essence, 'The Prince' deals with the methods employed by a prospective ruler in order to gain power and to maintain it. He drew on the historical past and his own experiences of Italy's and especially Forence's political plight. He was well placed to observe the shifting political alliances and maneuvering by clever and unscrupulous rulers. He admired the skill of Cesare Borgia in his attempt to gain power although he blamed him for maintaining Italy's political fracture. There were no morals in Machiavelli's political landscape. Right did not prevail over might and the wise and circumspect ruler should use any means within his power, to gain and maintain power. The successful ruler could/should not always be good It was Machiavelli who coined the aphorism: 'It is better to be feared than loved if you cannot be both'. In 'The Prince', we see an able attempt to provide a scientific political synthesis to guide those who would rule.
As a digression, it appears that Machiavelli considered a 'belief' in state religion (take yer pick) essential, not because it was true, but because it provided social cohesion. The Popes of the day were not true believers of the Nazarene but were quite willing to bless the illiterate masses every Sundaytide.
So what are we to make of his musings? Today, Machiavelli is criticised and derided mostly by those who have not read 'The Prince' or are repelled and even incensed by its apparent cynical amorality. They commit the sin of hypocrisy and doubly so if they haven't bothered to read the tome. To the modern educated man, there isn't anything written there that should be shocking; anything can be shocking to the man who allows himself to be shocked. And indeed, there is nothing particularly profound in the book. It is the bold assertion of the tenets, and Machiavelli's attempt, at a synthesis that makes 'The Prince' interesting. There is nothing in the book that should be construed as novel. Julius Caesar knew all this as did Stalin and Churchill. Strangely enough, I would not extend this courtesy to Hitler. Hitler understood the programme incompletely and let sentimental ideas of ideology prevent a thorough exposition of the tenets. Perhaps if Hitler had been truly Machiavellian he would have won the war. Machiavelli's originality lies in the written exposition of the relevant ideas in a complete and exacting form. Thoughtful leaders of men exhibit intellectual prudence if they can be bothered to read Macchiavelli. But if the experienced diplomat gains anything new it is a mark that he hasn't applied himself assiduously to his craft.
Clearly, there is nothing new under the sun and this is particularly true of the affairs of man. The human-animal is fundamentally selfish as shaped by evolution. The thoroughly decent and 'moral' ape ancestor didn't survive to pass on his mellow constitution and genes. Only the strong, adaptive, and ruthless gained offspring. We are the true (?and worthy) inheritors of biological 'frightfulness' which if we are honest, has shaped history.
Surely, geopolitical events and war in modern times, and I include the last hundred years or so as modern, highlight the 'Machiavellian' outlook and its relevance to any age. It is simply the case that more folk, these days, are aware of the 'rules'. There is a simple truism, that shouldn't be taken too far, that we are doomed to follow the errors of the past. Surely, we are wiser than folk of old, aren't we?
Of mankind we may say in general they are fickle, hypocritical, and greedy of gain.
|Meet the Prince|