The Machiavellian Ethics
October 20, 2021 - Books
Niccolò Machiavelli’s Il Principe, or The Prince, is one of the most misunderstood texts of the last thousand years. When people think of The Prince, they think of a manual for tyrannical sociopaths. Certainly, its many notable fans, such as Benito Mussolini, Josef Stalin, and John Gotti add to its reputation. Its most famous fans may have been sociopaths, but were they following what Machiavelli actually advised? The two notions that fuel the popular narrative about The Prince are that a Machiavellian ruler would be oppressive, and that Machiavelli outright recommends that it is better for the ruler to be feared than loved. These misconceptions cause most people to miss the overall mission of The Prince.
Older works on statesmanship choose the righteous ruler as their end-goal, and then describe the process of being one. However, in 16th century Italy, where city-states are constantly at war, foreign powers use the peninsula for their war-games, and the people are saddled with timid rulers, Machiavelli yearns for an effective ruler, not necessarily a righteous one. A good ruler is useless if he is unable or unwilling to do what it takes to keep power. Machiavelli reverses the old formula and frames the end-goal as simply gaining and maintaining power. Then, he attempts to convince the reader that the simplest process for achieving that goal is being an effective ruler, and allowing your people to prosper. Machiavelli’s sleight of hand is to create a good ruler by enticing him with the prospect of power.
The populares and the optimates
Let’s tackle the misconception that a Machiavellian princeps would be a terror to his people. Throughout The Prince, Machiavelli makes the argument that as a ruler, you should tie your own fortunes to the people. Far from oppressing the people, Machiavelli advises the prospective princeps to arm them, so that his people might be able to form a proper citizen militia. Hardly the mark of a tyrant. Italy had been plagued by lazy mercenary armies that flee at the first sign of trouble. An armed citizen militia would be a far more effective than any mercenary force, given that they have skin in the game.
Going even further, one might expect that a Machiavellian would only be
concerned with simply keeping power. Therefore, he would logically ingratiate
himself with others who have power. In 16th century Italy, those with power were
the nobles and members of the ruling families. However, Machiavelli advocates
just the opposite. The princeps ought to align himself with the people if he
wants to keep power. One of his key observations was that in every state there
are two major forces, the
common people who are eager not to be ordered
around and oppressed and the
nobles who are eager to oppress the common
people and order them around (38). Managing these two impulses is the
chief duty of the princeps. Ultimately however, the princeps must decide
whether to align himself with the people or the nobles. Machiavelli asserts that
power is simply a numbers game, and
a king can never be safe if the common
people are hostile to him, so naturally a wise ruler aligns himself with the
people (39). Rather than oppressing his people, which the nobles are far
better at anyway, Machiavelli asserts that the princeps is best served by
tying his owns fortunes to the fortunes of the people.
They love me, they love me not
Now, let’s look at the other major misconception, which centers around his assertion that it is better to be feared than loved. Let’s first look at the exact quote:
since people decide for themselves whether to love a ruler or not, while it’s the ruler who decides whether they’re going to fear him, a sensible man will base his power on what he controls (68)
At first glance, it seems conclusive that Machiavelli advocates for an
iron-fisted ruler. But, this conclusion misses some important context.
Machiavelli warns that such a man
must take care, as I said, that people
don’t come to hate him (68). This point, of course, naturally flows
from his previous assertion that a king whose people hate him cannot survive. In
other words, being a despot is not a formula for winning the consent of the
people. He further admonishes the authoritarian mindset in his study of
Agathocles, the former tyrant of Syracuse. While Agathocles put on a masterclass
on the art of building power by force, Machiavelli opines that
we can hardly
describe killing fellow citizens, betraying friends, and living without loyalty,
mercy or creed as signs of talent (34). You may gain power, for a time,
through cruel means, but you certainly will not keep it. And, your reputation
certainly will not stand the test of time.
It must also be noted that when Machiavelli refers to
fear, his notion of
a feared ruler is much more nuanced than an image of Stalin or Pol Pot. In fact,
he addresses this point directly saying:
Actually, being feared is perfectly compatible with not being hated. And a ruler won’t be hated if he keeps his hands off his subjects’ property and their women (66).
I think we could restate his position more clearly by saying, too many rulers
insist on being well liked rather than well respected. An effective ruler will
always be well respected. Even if the people might think they want a ruler
whom they can love, they often need one whom they can respect, because
will prove more compassionate than the leader whose excessive compassion leads
to public disorder, muggings, and murder (65). The effectiveness of
his rule will bring the princeps the love of his people, not his oppression,
and not his compassion.
We could have it so good right now
If Machiavelli has in fact created a manual for effective statesmanship, then
how would he pass judgment on our current regime? First, let’s analyze how he
would even define our current regime. Machiavelli asserts that the balance of
power between the nobles and the common people
will lead to one of three
different situations: a monarchy, a republic, or anarchy (38).
Obviously, anarchy is the situation in which the common people have overpowered
the nobles. And, given that he charges the princeps with the duty of keeping
the balance between the common people and the nobles, we can infer that a
monarchy is the situation where the nobles and common people are equal. That
means that Machiavelli views a republic as a situation where the nobles
overpower the people.
Just by observation, we can see that today’s United States republic is run by
nobles. The representatives elected by us are hardly ever a simple
prole. If they were, they never stayed that way for long. We may not have any
peerage or landed gentry, but we do have a different sort of aristocracy. Titles
are conferred by elite institutions, such as Harvard, Yale, West Point, and The
New York Times. Our nobles of course do not make the mistake of calling
themselves as such. They are merely experts, or congressmen.
America’s founding fathers were likely not unaware of this problem. In theory, this is why the President exists. He serves an electable princeps. However in practice, the Presidency is heavily nerfed by Congress. Almost all the President’s important powers require the approval of Congress, including declaration of war, appointment of cabinet members, signing treaties, etc. One also wonders why the President has term limits, and yet our senators and representatives do not. Food for thought. Far from being equal branches of government, the Legislative branch overpowers the Executive branch in terms of power. In reality, Machiavelli would say our aristocratic class reigns supreme. So, how would he pass judgment upon on them?
Let’s first look at whom our ruling class fears the most. Do they fear foreign
enemies, or do they fear the people? Regarding rulers who fear their own people
more than foreign enemies, Machiavelli says that they
must build fortresses
… [but your] best fortress is to not be hated by the people, because even
if you have fortresses, they won’t save you if the people hate
you (85). This image ought to be instructive:
Next, let’s look at their use of factionalism. Consider the divisiveness of
partisan politics in America. The mass psychosis of politics is so deeply
ingrained, my sixth grade social studies class once became embroiled in a debate
about John Kerry and George W. Bush. In reality, were either of these men that
different from each other? John Kerry is a legacy Yale graduate. His father was
an influential diplomat, and his grandfather was a wealthy businessman. George
W. Bush is a legacy Yale graduate. His father was the President of the United
States, and his grandfather was a wealthy businessman. After the 2004
presidential election, George W. Bush was certainly announced as the winner.
But, did the American people win anything? The aristocratic class that holds
the reins of power did not shift one iota following that election, but the
pageantry of choice provided to the people with enough to keep them sedated.
That is factionalism, and Machiavelli states that factionalism
weakness on a ruler’s part; in a healthy, confident state such differences would
never be allowed (83).
The Presidential election is the one political event nearly every American cares
about, because it is a chance to collectively invest our power in a princeps,
who can bring the nobles to heel. This may not be the motive of the people
consciously, but they certainly do feel that urge subconsciously. That is why
every presidential candidate swears they will
fix Washington. However,
the people never get the princeps they desire for two reasons. The usual
reason is that the President is from the nobility himself. On the off-chance
that he happens to be a prole or a prole sympathizer, we have to ask whether
Congress will let him rule? The answer is, why would they?
Let’s suppose we could wave our Machiavellian wand, and endow the Presidency with all the power required for a princeps. What does a proper princeps in the Oval Office even look like, and how do we get there? Maybe I will take a swing at those questions in a future post. But, one thing is certain: we have a leadership vacuum. When there is no official method of enforcing continuity of power, then it will be enforced for you unofficially. Today, we no longer have the Medici family pulling the strings of power, but we certainly have our beloved Ivy League universities, media conglomerates, and for the more conspiracy-minded among you, the Rothschilds and the Freemasons. Is there anyone ambitious and talented enough to snatch the reins of power on behalf of the people? We shall see.
The Prince is one of the most talked about books of the last thousand years. Its sober and practical outlook on statesmanship is a breath of fresh air. It was even banned by the Catholic Church in 1559. Any book worth banning must be worth reading just to see why! At just over 100 pages in length, it’s also a quick read. So, I give it five out of five florins.
Machiavelli Niccolò. The Prince. Penguin, 2011.