Happy Happy Birthday, Niccolo Machiavelli
Niccolo Machiavelli was born today in Florence in 1469. It is the misfortune of some people to become a misleading adjective, and this was never more true than of poor Machiavelli. A proud Florentine and a proud republican, he was a product of a restless and discursive form of government that had contributed to Florence’s emergence as the most culturally exciting place in Europe.
His story coincides with the end of this republican experiment, and the end of Florence’s golden age. The inability of the Italian city states to combine to resist foreign invaders depressed him greatly. These days, he is best known for The Prince – which is a kind of extended (unsuccessful) job application addressed to a young Medici ruler. The term “prince”, incidentally, does not mean (necessarily) one of royal blood, in this context, but rather a “princeps” – whoever is the governing personality within a state. The book does not offer a model constitution or even a set of rules for governance but rather a series of carefully juxtaposed examples that illustrate policies that have succeeded and failed over the centuries. His heroes are not tyrants or megalomaniacs but rather those with the kind of flexibility needed to guarantee a measure of stability and prosperity.
Machiavelli was quickly stigmatized as an amoral degenerate who celebrated blind worldly ambition. Not so. Machiavelli’s political writings are valuable because he secularizes power – and this was the real scandal as far as the monarchies and clerisies of his age were concerned. For Machiavelli, power is not of divine origin, and nor should its exercise be a mystery. Accordingly, popes and prophets are not celebrated for their piety but for their politic intelligence. Moses himself is praised as a legislator rather than as the mouthpiece of God. For Machiavelli, Good government involves flexibility and adaptability. Machiavelli is a republican and he would like to see a workable republic more than any other form of government. But it has to work.
Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall locks Thomas More and Thomas Cromwell in just the kind of struggle that cries out for Machiavellian analysis. Personally, I’ve always enjoyed orchestrating discussions which pitch Machiavelli and More in direct conversation (just as my favourite poet Matthew Prior pitched Thomas More and the Vicar of Bray in direct conversation). More – the man who eventually dies for his faith (though not before ensuring that others die for his faith), and Machiavelli, the man for whom faith, detached from any practical outcome, is an essentially hollow concept. “Faith without works is Dead”. Machiavelli didn’t say that, it’s in the New Testament. Second letter of James, Chapter 14, verse 26.
There’s a kind of ethical structuralism at work in his thinking: what needs to be done requires constant reference to what everyone else is doing. Meaning is not timeless but relational. Nothing is more dangerous than lazy reliance on measures which have worked in the past. Machiavelli is the enemy of complacency, and the transparency with which he explains the ways and means by which states and rulers succeed and fail in practical ways laid the foundations for the modern discipline of political science. He was feared and misrepresented not because he was a cynic but because he was a demystifier.
We should all do something Machiavellian today. In a good sense.