Machiavelli has a bad reputation.
It is not uncommon to hear someone describe Machiavelli in deeply narcissistic and selfish terms. To be called Machiavellian generally suggests a lack of emotion, a tendency to deceive, and a darkly manipulative personality. When we describe a politician as Machiavellian, it reflects a not-so-subtle lack of moral sensitivity. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, a Machiavellian personality is “cunning, scheming and unscrupulous, especially in politics or in advancing one’s career”. According to a 2018 History Channel profile, Machiavelli’s legacy could be described as “the end always justifies the means, no matter how cruel, calculating, or immoral those means may be.”
It’s quite overwhelming. But it also lacks context.
Working as a diplomat in the service of the independent Republic of Florence after the exile of the Medici in 1494, Machiavelli was appointed head of the second chancellery in 1498, responsible for foreign policy and city-state relations. Among his duties, Machiavelli also oversaw the recruitment and training of the Florentine militia, a force with which he hoped to prevent the return of the Medici. But they came back, with a vengeance. Machiavelli was not only ousted from a position of influence, he was accused of conspiracy, imprisoned, tortured and exiled – at least temporarily – by the Medici.
When Niccolo Machiavelli penned the book that would influence political thought for the next 500 years, he was describing the intrigues and machinations that characterized sixteenth-century Florentine politics. The prince not only won Machiavelli recognition – albeit long after his death – as the first modern political theorist, but he broke with the traditional view of politics based on morality advocated since the time of Aristotle, which defined politics as a sub-branch of ethics. Machiavelli saw it differently: “There is such a gap between How? ‘Or’ What we live and how we should live than he who neglects what is made for what should be done will learn its destruction rather than its preservation.
In short, Machiavelli was a political realist. He was not an idealist. His thinking could be called cynical in some respects. But above all, he spoke of the “effective truth” of politics. He does not have beautify what he saw or what he experienced. Florentine politics was a virtual house of cards and the inspiration for the series of the same name. The prince was a survival guide to a career in politics.
The art of War
Although The prince will always be Machiavelli’s greatest legacy, his art of war was much more familiar and influential in the years following his death. Written as a Socratic dialogue between the Florentine nobility and Lord Fabrizio Colonna, art of war serves as a directed lens to explore the development of warfare and military affairs during the period. Fabrice was an ironic vehicle for Machiavelli; his influence in Italian military affairs on behalf of Spain was instrumental in bringing the Medici back to power, and he did not espouse any of the views expressed in art of war.
Apart from Fabrizio – the academic literature on Machiavelli’s motivation is substantial –art of warThe Dialogue offers a unique perspective on the broader political, social and economic changes sweeping 16th-century Europe. However, when Machiavelli ends Book Seven with Fabrizio’s 27 “general rules” of warfare, the technological impact of an ongoing revolution in military affairs is undeniable.
Although many of the rules described in art of war could be interpreted as influenced by the thought of Sun Tzu, the first Western translation of Master Sun would not be complete for almost 200 years. The fundamentals of warfare, however, have stood the test of time and are relatively universal. Nevertheless, the influence of “modern” technology on military affairs is clearly evident. Machiavelli notes that “new and fast things scare off armies” and advises captains to embrace technology: “give experience to your army”. And if your opponent is one with advanced technology, “learn (the strength) of a new enemy through skirmishes, before engaging with them”.
If Machiavelli understood one thing, it was that even if times change, people do not change. In the 500 years since he wrote The prince, many believe that humanity has approached the dawn of a technological singularity, a hypothetical moment when human civilization is threatened by uncontrollable and irreversible technological growth. But people? They are pretty much the same as in Machiavelli’s time. Those wise enough to understand this have recast its wisdom for doing everything from increasing women’s competitiveness in the workplace to developing hit TV shows. His words might actually be more relevant today than ever.
In politics, in business and in life, Machiavelli’s maxims prove timeless. Can they be a little harsh? Yes. Brutal? Sure. But do they reflect the reality of our existence? Absoutely. Try on a few for size.
- “All courses of action are risky, so prudence is not about avoiding danger, but about calculating risk and acting decisively.” Fortune favors the brave.
- “For there is no other way to guard against flattery than if men understand that they do not offend you by telling you the truth.” Find the truth, even if it hurts to do so.
- “The prince…must also make himself the leader and protector of his weaker neighbors, and strive to weaken the stronger ones. Defend those who cannot defend themselves.
- “The first opinion we have of a prince, and of his ability, is by observing the people he has around him.” Surround yourself with good people.
- “If a prince cannot recognize evils until they are upon him, he is not truly wise; and this insight is given to few. Watch your back.
- A good prince “defends himself by being well armed and having good allies”. Cultivate your network with people who really care about you.
- “A prince must above all strive always in all his actions to develop the reputation of being a great and remarkable man. “Be the best version of yourself that you can be.
- “He who believes that new blessings will make great people forget old wounds is mistaken.” People have long memories; revenge is a dish best served cold.
- “You must know that there are two kinds of fights: one with the laws, the other with force. For some, there is no fair fight.
- “A wise man should always follow the paths trodden by great men, and imitate those who were the best, so that if his skill does not equal theirs, at least it will have some traces of it.” Learn from the echoes of history.
A final maxim often quoted but rarely put into context is particularly relevant. “In connection with this, a question arises: is it better to be loved than feared or feared than loved?” Do you prefer to be respected or loved? This is a false dichotomy faced by many leaders. The answer should be obvious, but is it?