Niccolò Machiavelli is so closely associated with unscrupulous behaviour, cunning attitudes and realpolitik that his surname has been assimilated into the English language.
Modern psychologists even diagnose individuals with Machiavellianism – a personality disorder that coincides with psychopathy and narcissism, and leads to manipulative behaviour.
So how did this Renaissance philosopher and playwright, often considered the “Father of Modern Political Philosophy”, become tainted with such negative associations?
Crumbling dynasties and religious extremism
Born in 1469, young Machiavelli grew up in the tumultuous political backdrop of Renaissance Florence.
At this time, Florence, like many other Italian city-republics, was frequently contested by the larger political powers. Internally, politicians struggled to preserve the state and maintain stability.
Following the invasion by the French king, Charles VIII, the seemingly all-powerful Medici dynasty crumbled, leaving Florence under the control of the Jesuit friar Girolamo Savonarola. He claimed clerical corruption and exploitation of the poor would bring a biblical flood to drown the sinners.
The wheel of fortune was quick to turn, and just 4 years later Savonarola was executed as a heretic.
A change of fortune – again
Machiavelli seemed to benefit from Savonarola’s colossal fall from grace. The republican government was re-established, and Piero Soderini appointed Machiavelli as Second Chancellor of the Florentine Republic.
Undertaking diplomatic missions and improving the Florentine militia, Machiavelli had considerable influence behind the doors of government, shaping the political landscape. It was not to go unnoticed by the Medici family, when they were restored to power in 1512.
Machiavelli was removed from his position and arrested for conspiracy charges.
After spending several years in the thick of such tumultuous political wrangling, Machiavelli returned to writing. It was in these years that one of the most brutally realistic (albeit pessimistic) perceptions of power was born.
So, why are we still reading a book written five centuries ago?
‘The Prince’ articulated the phenomenon that ‘Politics ha[s] no relation to morals’, a distinction which had never fully been drawn before. Machiavelli’s work effectively exonerated tyrants so long as stability was their ultimate aim. It raised the insoluble question of what it means to be a good ruler.
Brutally realistic perceptions of power
‘The Prince’ does not describe a political utopia – rather, a guide to navigating political reality. Aspiring to the ‘golden age’ of Ancient Rome from the factional backdrop of the Florentine Republic, he argued stability ought to be the priority of any leader – whatever the cost.
Leaders ought to model their actions after praiseworthy leaders in history who ruled over stable and prosperous domains. New methods have an uncertain chance of success and thus are likely to be viewed with suspicion.
War was deemed an inevitable part of governance. He asserted that, ‘there is no avoiding war, it can only be postponed to the advantage of your enemy’, and thus a leader must ensure that his military is strong in order to maintain stability both internally and externally.
A strong army will deter outsiders from attempting to invade and similarly dissuade internal unrest. Following this theory, effective leaders ought only to rely upon their native troops as they are the only cohort of fighters who will not mutiny.
The perfect leader
And how should leaders conduct themselves? Machiavelli believed the perfect leader would unify mercy and cruelty and consequently generate both fear and love in equal measure. However, as the two rarely coincide he asserted that ‘it is far safer to be feared than loved’ and thus cruelty is a more valuable trait in leaders than mercy.
Controversially, he deduced that adoration alone would not prevent opposition and/or disillusionment but the pervasive fear of terror would:
‘Men shrink less from offending one who inspires love than one who inspires fear’.
Most strikingly, Machiavelli endorsed “necessary evils”. He argued the end always justifies the means, a theory known as consequentialism. Leaders (such as Cesare Borgia, Hannibal and Pope Alexander VI) must be willing to commit evil deeds in order to preserve their states and maintain territory.
However, he argued that leaders must take care to avoid inspiring unnecessary hatred. Cruelty should not be an ongoing means to oppress the people, but an initial action that ensures obedience.
“If you must injure a man, make your injury so severe that you need not fear his revenge”.
Any cruelty must be to wholly demolish the opposition and deter others from acting similarly, otherwise the action is futile and may even incur revengeful acts.
Machiavelli in our time
Joseph Stalin epitomised the ‘New Prince’, who Machiavelli described, somehow unifying love and fear whilst simultaneously pursuing his ambitious political plan for Russia.
Ruthless in his conduct, moderate estimates suggest that he was directly responsible for the death of 40 million people. Indisputably, Joseph Stalin terrorised Russian civilians in an almost unprecedented manner.
He systematically eliminated all opposition, crushing anyone who threatened the stability of his regime. His random “purges” and constant stream of executions ensured that civilians were far too weak and afraid to oppose any significant threat.
Even his own men were terrified of him, as exemplified by the reluctance of those working in his dacha to enter his office, following his death.
Nevertheless, despite his tyrannical behaviour, the majority of Russians were wholly loyal to him; whether due to incredible propaganda or his military triumphs over Nazi Germany many Russians truly rallied around the despotic leader.
Therefore, as a leader, Stalin was a Machiavellian miracle.