Alastair Stewart: Machiavelli – moralist of people power

The thinker's statue outside the Uffizi. Picture: Hulton Archive/Getty
The thinker's statue outside the Uffizi. Picture: Hulton Archive/Getty
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The word “Machiavellian” is one of the most thrilling adjectives in the English language. From Othello to House Of Cards to Game Of Thrones, hundreds of shows have entertained their audiences with their intrigues and power plays.

With some irony, the alleged master of deceit and realpolitik spectacularly failed at preserving his political position. Born in 1469, Niccolò Machiavelli was a diplomat and supporter of the Florentine Republic who served as secretary to the Second Chancery from 1498 to 1512. When the Medici dynasty returned to power, Machiavelli not only lost his status but was arrested and tortured. He was eventually exonerated and released after three weeks.

Il Principe (The Prince) was written in 1513 and is Machiavelli’s most famous work. For all the notoriety it now affords the author, it was not published until five years after his death in 1532. Although Machiavelli privately circulated the treatise among friends, it’s still debated whether the book is the rhetorical indulgence of a talented, but frustrated man, or a glorified CV to Florence’s Medici masters.

In The Prince Machiavelli gives over a remarkable amount of time to discussing how best to deal with people. Force would be the de facto button to press if he was genuinely immoral, yet Machiavelli understands you cannot perpetually beat a population down. The Prince is about how a leader should manage people with the least amount of difficulty and without earning their ire. Although he considered people fickle, he subtly warns of the power of the masses and knows the limits of what they’ll tolerate.

When asking if it is better to be feared or loved, Machiavelli concludes that between benevolence and meanness, the latter is preferable because it wards populations away from expecting the good times to last forever. He explains that “a prince should guard himself, above all things, against being despised and hated; and liberality leads you to both.” His rationale is not unethical, but prudent, and rooted in material reality.

Avoiding the hatred of the people is critical for Machiavelli, and the secret to understanding The Prince is not to read it as a treatise about how rulers can indulge excess and cruelty, but instead as a guide to “keeping the people satisfied with him, which it is most necessary for him to accomplish”.

People are the moral universalism at the heart of The Prince. Across 26 chapters, he directs princes to pay their attention to the limits and tolerances of the populace. Whatever the system, Machiavelli attempts to achieve a delicate balance of protecting the people, protecting the prince and protecting them both from the other.

So why would a historian and humanist like Machiavelli dedicate the text of The Prince to Lorenzo di Piero de’ Medici, the new Florentine ruler, from the family that ordered his incarceration and torture?

The Medici elites would already have had an unrivalled historical education for the time and were now in possession of absolute political and economic power. Machiavelli was the first political realist of the European Renaissance who was brave enough to analyse the facts of power as they were – his was a warning to arrogant princes about the power of people, and not the other way around.

The fact that all of Machiavelli’s works were placed on the Catholic Church’s Index of Prohibited Books in 1559 has only fuelled its reputation as an item of intense curiosity. He has attracted and repelled generations of political practitioners and students, and for centuries Machiavelli and his books have been unjustly treated as one and the same.

Although mystery surrounds Machiavelli’s true intentions, interest in his works remains intense. But it should shift away from the pastiche, even novel, interpretation of a satin-robed puppet master and look at the life of a man who wanted to understand the symbiosis between power, order and liberty.

Machiavelli’s name should sit with the likes of Kant, not Kissinger, and his works should be seen not as the end of political morality but as the beginning of it.

Alastair Stewart is a freelance writer and journalist. He writes regular features on politics and history with a particular interest in nationalism and the life of Sir Winston Churchill. Read more from Alastair at www.agjstewart.com and follow him on Twitter @agjstewart