Nicolo Machiavelli

You may have heard of Machiavelli. He’s the subject of rap songs, I understand, and he’s given his name to an adjective, “Machiavellian”, to describe evil, scheming people.

That’s unfortunate, since Machiavelli seems to have been a pretty nice guy. He was quite famous as a playwright, diplomat, and military commander, but he had the good sense to have his magnum opus, The Prince, published only after his death. It was this book that made him immortal.

The Prince is a guidebook to young up-and-comers who would seize political power, and, though it can seem a little tame now, it was scandalizing when it was published in 1532. To understand why, it helps to think about our preconceptions about politicians.

Bill Clinton was besieged for much of his presidency because he had an affair with an intern, and he is just one of many politicians who has been embroiled in a sex scandal. But why does the public care about politicians’ privates? I think we do because we expect our leaders to be both excellent public managers and examples of morality. We expect our leaders to be good people as well as good rulers.

Machiavelli was the first writer to blow this conjunction apart. He knew that it was important to look good; he also knew that it was often important to be bad. A prince has to do all kinds of nasty things to stay in power.

The section of the book from which these chapters are drawn describes the ideal qualities of a prince: generosity, kindness, and fame. Yet, according to Machiavelli, a perfect prince would appear good but be ready to do bad.

Truly excellent philosophers are always taking their thoughts one step further. Machiavelli turns the old ideas on their heads: he says that what appears good can actually be bad, and what appears bad can actually be good. A kind prince who is generous with money, for instance, can bankrupt the state and leave it vulnerable. A miserly prince would have conserved its power. Likewise, a magnanimous prince can erode the rule of law by giving pardons. A strict prince will appear cruel but will, in the end, ensure that his people are protect from disorder by punishing offenders