Thursday, March 26, 2009



As a cynic, I love Niccolo Machiavelli. Writing around 1500, Machiavelli understood that men are deceptive, vainglorious, fickle, petty, violent, manipulable creatures who act solely from self-interest. He bases all his arguments upon this bleak view of humanity. Sadly, common life experience all too often proves him right about men’s motives. Many people recognize his famous maxims from The Prince, namely: “It is better to be feared than loved;” and “The ends justify the means.” In Machiavelli’s world, principle means nothing compared to brute force. It only matters to the extent a ruler seems principled, when in fact he resorts to any means necessary to gain and hold political power. In short, Machiavelli is a cynic. He assumes that men have bad, selfish motives. He admonishes us to plan our interactions with other men with that assumption in mind.

True, we no longer live in Renaissance Italy with its perennial violence and political discord. But Machiavelli’s observations about men and means remain relevant to any human enterprise involving power. I often write about principle and honor. I praise men who adhere to abstract principles, not expediency. Honor refers to a person’s abiding principles. Honor bars men from adopting certain means to accomplish their goals. Machiavelli’s writings, on the other hand, remind me that honorable men rarely achieve or hold power in this world. Instead, only those who espouse honor—yet resort to treachery—win. Powerful men, in other words, live for appearances and results, not principles or conscience.

In The Prince, Machiavelli commonly reaches conclusions after examining historical examples. He typically chooses an example from antiquity, then an analogous example from his time. He draws similarities, analyzes salient elements, then presents conclusions that serve as advice to rulers who find themselves in comparable circumstances. In Chapter 8, Machiavelli examines rulers who achieve power through “crimes.” In the ancient example, he tells us about Agathocles the Sicilian, a “low and abject” military leader. The Prince at p. 36. Agathocles gathered every important Syracusan citizen in one place, telling them he wished to advise them about state affairs. At a signal, he ordered his troops to kill them. With all opposition destroyed at a single blow, Agathocles took over the government. For years afterward, he ruled decisively. Machiavelli even calls his statecraft: “Courageous and perilous effort[].” Id. at p. 37. Still, Machiavelli judges: “Still, it cannot be called virtue to kill one’s fellow-citizens, to betray one’s friends, to be without loyalty, without mercy, without religion; by such methods one can acquire power, but not glory.” Id.

In the modern example, Machiavelli tells us about Oliverotto da Fermo, a fatherless minor nobleman from Fermo. Due to his precarious family situation, Oliverotto’s uncle stepped in to raise him. The Prince at p. 37. At a young age, Oliverotto set out on a military career, during which he demonstrated “intelligence and vigor of body and mind.” Id. That aptitude led him to become the army’s commander. After many years, he decided to return home. He wrote to his uncle and asked that he be given a royal welcome because he had won many honors as a soldier. His uncle agreed. After arriving in Fermo with a whole troupe behind him, Oliverotto told his uncle he wanted to celebrate with a banquet. Every important citizen in Fermo appeared at the banquet. After dinner, Oliverotto advised that he wished to speak with the city governors in private. Along with Oliverotto’s uncle, they followed him into a separate room. Machiavelli describes what happened next: “No sooner were they seated than out from hiding places in the room came soldiers who killed [the uncle] and all the others.” Id. at p. 38. With all opposition crushed, Oliverotto took over the city and ruled it well until he died the following year. During his reign, his neighbors respected him and he withstood every attempt to dislodge him from power.

Machiavelli queries: “How it happened that Agathocles and others like him, after countless treacheries and cruelties, could live secure for so long in their native country…while never being conspired against by their own citizens.” The Prince at pp. 38-39. In answering this question, Machiavelli condemns both Agathocles and Oliverotto for their “wickedness and cruelty.” But he also praises them for effectively seizing power and governing well. On the whole, Machiavelli has more praise than condemnation for these “criminals.” True, they may have acted “dishonorably” to achieve their positions, but what does that matter? For Machiavelli, the real sign of success is whether a ruler keeps order in his State, defends it against foreign enemies and frustrates any attempt to depose him from within. Both Agathocles and Oliverotto fulfilled those criteria. By that standard, then, they were “good rulers.” In short, their results speak louder than the means they used to reach them.

Why be honorable? If criminals win accolades from Machiavelli, does it not make more sense to adopt nefarious, underhanded means to achieve goals than to follow a restrictive honor code? In Machiavelli’s world, an honorable man would never achieve power in the first place because a dishonorable criminal would kill him first. This may seem harsh. After all, in our society we equate the word “honor” with “good people” and “criminals” with incorrigible vagrants who never achieve success. But these generalizations are misleading. And they understate human beings’ remarkable capacity to deceive and hurt each other for personal gain. “Honor” implies that a person refuses to adopt certain means to win success. “Criminals,” on the other hand, are not afraid to trample “honor” in order to win. Criminals are flexible; honorable men are not. In this competition, the criminal will win. Machiavelli may condemn the means, but he would approve the end.

Machiavelli offers one important caveat to those who use “crime” to achieve success. He says: “[Success] depends on whether the cruelties are used well or badly. Those can be called well used (if it is permissible to say “well” about evil) which are done at one stroke, out of the need to make one secure, and which afterward are not persisted in, but are converted into the greatest benefits possible for one’s subjects.” The Prince at p. 39. In this formulation, we sense that Machiavelli does not use the word “crime” as we understand it. For him, “crime” means “violent cruelty,” not any trifling violation of the criminal code. “Violent cruelty,” in turn, represents a means “to secure oneself” and to win “benefits” for one’s people. Machiavelli tells us that violent cruelty works best when it happens “at one stroke” and “is not persisted in.” After all, people do not like cruelty. If a man is repeatedly cruel to enough people, he will be hated. But people forget quickly. If a ruler commits only one sweeping act of violent cruelty that provides long-term benefits to his people, he will not anger anyone.

Again, I ask, what good is honor? A truly honorable man would not commit even one unjust act against anyone, no matter what benefits it might bring. Honorable men do not employ certain means. They would love to bring benefits to themselves and others, but if the end requires unjustifiable means, such as murder or deception, an honorable man would not employ them. “Criminals,” on the other hand, face no such principled qualms. They do not hesitate to use violence if violence brings them long-term success. No moral code binds their behavior, and they actually win praise for dishonorable acts. If human beings are naturally selfish and vain, why would they adopt honor over crime? After all, if crime offers better opportunities to please oneself and others—with little risk of loss—why would anyone adopt the more difficult, honorable path? Who willingly fights a battle with one hand tied behind his back?

Self-interested people think about the most effective means to obtain personal gain. The most effective means are not necessarily the most honorable means. In that light, should it surprise us that there are few honorable men in the world? Sadly, Machiavelli’s political theory squarely answers that question for us: No.

What if long-term economic recovery in this country could only be achieved by murdering 100 paralyzed children? What if economic recovery would permanently secure a political leader’s reputation and power? Would Machiavelli support cruelty to achieve these ends? Would an honorable man?

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