I’ve just caught up with Alan Yentob’s BBC documentary on Machiavelli and The Prince, broadcast (I think) around Christmas. Old Nick is going through something of a rehabilitation at the moment (Jonathan Powell has recently published a sympathetic “updating”, for example) at the hands of our plutocratic elite, who are increasingly confident and willing to openly flaunt their Machiavellianism. Boris Johnson’s remarks last year about greed being good and rich and poor deserving their lot was another example of this tendency.
Taken on its own, The Prince is a horrible book, but one perfectly in tune again with the age. One of Yentob’s contributors made the point that we’re living through times remarkably similar to those Niccolò Machiavelli lived through at the beginning of the Renaissance: intense but futile competition for power, instability, a collapse of old certainties, widespread fear about security, and a bunch of unscrupulous rulers of dubious competence.
It’s an age of turbulence and Machiavelli’s harsh message strikes a chord with many. Not least those in power, to whom it offers a virtual carte blanche to behave as they see fit if they can get away with it. “The common people,” Machiavelli wrote, “are only interested in appearances and results.” But what are these “results” and why should a Machiavellian ruler care?
Machiavelli’s fans — always most plentiful among the rich and powerful — contend that he is “only telling it the way it is”. Like it or lump it, people really do only care about themselves, and experience shows it is better to be feared as a leader than loved (obviously no one told that to Nelson Mandela). But for me it’s never been really clear what all this Machaivellianism is for. Often boiled down to “the ends justify the means”, Machiavelli’s thinking in The Prince seems to lack any concept of the common good. What are the ends exactly? Sometimes he talks (in striking echo to today’s leaders in the US and UK) about the “security of the state”, but this often means little more than the leaders own personal interests.
Machiavelli’s is an impoverished view of human nature. Even if it’s true to some extent of all of us, it’s not all that we are. Yes, we all want power and control over our own destiny, not everyone wants the same destiny, or sees the means of pursuing it as irrelevant to the value of acquiring it. He assumes everyone wants to live in a perpetual state of competition. This may suit the story of hyper global capitalism, but I don’t think it’s how most people want to live their lives.
The Prince is a book born of despair, written by a desperate man just released from prison trying to ingratiate himself with the new Mr Big in Florence, Lorenzo di Piero de’ Medici. It leaves no room for love or kindness, or for the idea that the people might want to collaborate (or any other “idea” for that matter). Machiavelli knew a lot about one aspect of human nature and one aspect of power, but he either knew nothing about the other half, or chose not to express it in The Prince. Probably, every politician needs a bit of Machiavelli. But Machiavelli’s Prince, and Powell’s “new Machiavelli”, would be half a politician and, worse still, a bloodless half of a human being.
(Incidentally, Machiavelli emphatically did not take his own advice. Shortly after writing The Prince, he retired to his vineyard outside Florence and lived a quiet life writing books and plays. You can still buy his wine – I imagine it leaves a bitter taste.)
Andrew Rawnsley wrote on Nelson Mandela: ‘His ego was pressed into the service of an idea, not self’. Machiavelli has nothing to say about ideas and, for him, self-interest is the only thing that a prince should concern himself with. But there is low scheming and there is scheming in pursuit of an idea, what Rawnsley called Mandela’s ‘classy cunning’. Ultimately, what’s wrong with the Machiavelli of The Prince is not that he thinks the means don’t matter (although they do a bit, because bad means can tarnish good ends), but that he doesn’t think the ends matter much either.