The roots of Machiavellianism: Machiavelli, of course.
“Experience hath shewn, that even under the best forms of government those entrusted with power have, in time, and by slow operations, perverted it into tyranny.”
Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826), Third US President
“We are dominated by the relatively small number of persons who understand the mental processes and social patterns of the masses. It is they who pull the wires which control the public mind.”
Edward Bernays (1891-1995), “Father of Public Relations”
Portrait of Niccolò Machiavelli, par Santi di Tito, Palazzo Vecchio, Florence.
One of my favorite historical figures is someone whose name has become synonymous with the kind of people who are willing to do whatever it takes to make gains for themselves—to achieve their own objectives at the expense of everyone else. To outmaneuver enemies, or use brutal force to defeat them. Someone cunning, sly, manipulative, and with an unrelenting drive for power.
His name is Niccolò Machiavelli. Even most of those who appreciate the meaning of his name do not know his background, the rationale for his views, and the extent to which his ideas have “… been appropriated to label modern individuals who seek or love to exercise power." If you don’t know about him, then read on, and get acquainted with his ideas. A core question for you to reflect on as you go through this, is: what is your propensity (and the willingness of others you see around you) to wield power, clout, authority, influence, or control–to do whatever you want?
We can ask this question another way, with a historical focus. How did an Italian Renaissance diplomat and writer, considered a founder of modern political science and shady ethics, also become the namesake to people who are the very epitome of being deceptive and unscrupulous?
Start with something most surprising of all. You would be very mistaken for thinking that Machiavelli himself exhibited these traits. He did not. His association with these behaviors is due to his 1513 work, Il Principe (Italian) or De Principatibus (Latin) or The Prince (English). He wrote about power and aspired to it, but in his own life’s game of snakes and ladders, he got only a modicum of power, and then suddenly slithered down the slippery slope to the bottom of the Florentine hierarchy.
He rose to prominence to become what we would call now a public servant in Florence at the end of the fifteenth century. Italy at the time was a collection of fragmented, warring city-states nestled amongst, and in competition with, unified nation-states like France and Spain. In the Italian Renaissance, the powerbroker cities were Florence, Milan, Siena, Venice, Naples, and Rome. Their currency was piety, religiosity, wealth, political intrigue and standing armies, alongside the finest art, sculpture, architecture, and literature.
Having served as the Secretary to the Second Chancery of the Republic of Florence from 1498–1512 (civil servants were big on titles, even then), whilst the Medici family (the real powerbrokers in the city) were out of favor, Machiavelli was tortured, then exiled as an enemy of the state when they returned to power in 1513. It was whilst in exile that he wrote The Prince.
'Portrait of Leo X', Raphael, 1519.
His treatise aimed to guide a Prince (read: the most important aristocratic Florentine powerbroker) in how to maintain power. It gained huge notoriety then and since because of the type of blatantly corrupting moral and ethical behavior it endorsed. The book, unusually, chooses the subject as a “new Prince” rather than a hereditary one. Even more unusually he dedicates the book to Lorenzo di Piero de' Medici of that remarkable family—the very people responsible for his mistreatment and banishment.
The dedication to Lorenzo is followed by 26 chapters that can be roughly broken into four sections: The first discusses different types of principalities or states, the second, the Prince as a military commander, the third, the necessary character and behavior of a Prince, and the last analyzes Italy's political situation.
One core maxim of the book is to place importance on a leader who is willing to be firm with both his subjects and enemies and the behaviors he endorses towards either are often captured by the tenet “the ends always justify the means”. A leader must be willing to act immorally for larger, grander purposes—to save the state, for example, or topple and replace a weak leader. This includes the use of force, deceit, or coercion, without any namby-pamby doubts. For example, he argues, matter-of-factly, that it may be necessary to kill noble families in order to suppress any challenges to the new Prince and his goals.
Machiavelli advises the Prince on maintaining an image in Chapter XIX titled ‘That one should avoid being despised’: “… the Prince must consider … how to avoid those things which will make him hated or contemptible; and as often as he shall have succeeded he will have fulfilled his part, and he need not fear any danger in other reproaches.”
Self-preservation of the Prince is a clear, ultimate and defensible objective. Machiavelli places great weight on military and warcraft prowess. These are of the utmost importance to a government: “A Prince must have no other objective, no other thought, nor take up any profession but that of war, its methods and its discipline, for that is the only art expected of a ruler. And it is of such great value that it not only keeps hereditary princes in power, but often raises men of lowly condition to that rank” [Chapter XIV].
A famous quote appears in Chapter XVII ‘Concerning cruelty and clemency, and whether it is better to be loved than feared’. This is one of the more well-known sections in the book due to these lines which have made an indelible stamp on history: “Here a question arises: whether it is better to be loved than feared, or the reverse. The answer is, of course, that it would be best to be both loved and feared.
But since the two rarely come together, anyone compelled to choose will find greater security in being feared than in being loved …”.
Lest you think that to be an a-historical idea, consider HL Mencken in our own time: “The whole aim of practical politics is to keep the populace alarmed (and hence clamorous to be led to safety) by menacing it with an endless series of hobgoblins, all of them imaginary.”
All of this might be seen as Machiavelli as an unreconstructed backer of tyrannical rule. That is only partially true, but he should also be seen in the light of his cynical evaluation of human nature—in terms of those who are to be ruled. He makes multiple references to the masses, and in doing so he anticipates the likes of the skeptic PJ Barnum, who was quick to express aphorisms of the kind: “There’s a sucker born every minute” and “No man ever went broke overestimating the ignorance of the … public”.
For example, in Chapter VI, anticipating modern messaging designed to influence everyday citizens, Machiavelli writes: “People are by nature changeable. It is easy to persuade them about some particular matter, but it is hard to hold them to that persuasion. Hence it is necessary to provide that when they no longer believe, they can be forced to believe.” And in another section he writes: “… above all things he [the Prince] must keep his hands off the property of others, because men more quickly forget the death of their father than the loss of their patrimony.”
The Prince, and its companion work, the Discourses, in their reinforcement of the view that people are fickle and manipulatable, are sometimes viewed as excessively pessimistic today, and have been rejected by many. Yet even in the ruthless 16th Century, there was a backlash. The Catholic Church banned The Prince, relegating it to the Index Librorum Prohibitorum (List of Prohibited Books). Despite being banned, some held the book responsible for the 1572 St. Bartholomew's Day massacre in Paris 50 years later. However there isn’t much evidence that it had an influence in France before the massacre, and it is unlikely it was in fact related, and certainly not causative.
It wasn’t long after its publication, though, that the notion of being a Machiavellian started. Indeed Shakespeare uses the phrase with clear negative connotations in Henry VI, Part III, written in 1591-1592:
I can add colours to the chameleon,
Change shapes with Proteus for advantages,
And set the murderous Machiavel to school.
Rousseau by Maurice Quentin de La Tour, 1753
Yet there was another, different reaction to The Prince, to the effect that it was a kind of mocking satire. Jean-Jacques Rousseau, the Swiss political philosopher suggested this in the 18th Century and more recently it has been an idea teased apart by the American philosophers Leo Strauss and Harvey Mansfield, among others.
Most notably, Machiavelli writes in a style which a popular audience could read so it is hard to accept that he was hiding his views. Some commentators, like Antonio Gramsci, the Italian Marxist philosopher, argue this shows Machiavelli intended his work not for private advice to a Prince, but as a cautionary message to the public, revealing the realities of leadership and the extent to which some are willing to go.
Another more sinister argument is that it was a trap for the Medici family who had tortured him. He was dismissed from his Florentine civil service post in November 1512 and shortly after accused of conspiracy against the House of Medici. The penalties for plotting against rulers were swift and severe in those times: removal from one’s position in society, imprisonment, inflicting brutal pain and suffering, and expulsion from the city-walls. And that was if you didn’t get hung, drawn, and quartered.
It was indeed relentlessly, unapologetically tough in those days for anyone judged to be guilty of treason. But having gone through such punishment at the hands of the Medici it is suspicious that he should want or care to help them. Stephen Milner, Professor of Italian at Manchester University reported discovering his arrest warrant in 2013, lost amongst Florence’s archives for five centuries. The warrant was looking for information about him within the hour, leading Milner to conclude he was “public enemy number one” at the time.
However, there is evidence that Machiavelli felt passionately about his writings, and was not intending his work to be either a satire or a missive against the powerful, but that he was simply hopeful of reinstatement in the Florentine Republic. It was everything to him to secure a position of authority again in Florence under the new Medici administration. In a letter to Francesco Vettori in 1513 he wrote that he would accept any form of restoration:
“there is my desire that these Medici Princes should begin to engage my services, even if they should start out by having me roll along a stone. For then, if I could not win them over, I should have only myself to blame. And through this study of mine, were it to be read, it would be evident that during the fifteen years I have been studying the art of the state I have neither slept nor fooled around, and anybody ought to be happy to utilize someone who has had so much experience at the expense of others”.
Leo Strauss thus argued that Machiavelli had no political agenda but to please whosoever was in power at the time.
Of course, his masterwork can also be seen as a philosophical intellectual exercise. No one since Aristotle had analyzed power in such an unadorned way, and Machiavelli set new heights in exposing, with scalpel-like precision, its nakedness at the hands of the unscrupulous dictator.
Satire, deceptive handbook for those in need of it, or not, the importance of Machiavelli’s real contribution, his greatest addition to the assessment of power, is revealed in this line of argument: rather than addressing an ideal government, he was addressing political and historical realities. He shattered idealistic notions of politics, and his lesson was the importance of realism. As Stephen Milner puts it, his is “the ultimate spin doctor’s manual”.
Let’s say this, then: the fact that Machiavelli has become the namesake to such an ugly, calculative, exploitative personality type is perhaps more than a bit unfair to the man himself who was not, paradoxically, much of a Machiavellian. Machiavelli fell short of endorsing this kind of behavior in any and all situations. For him, if you had to be cruel or do dark deeds, it was of necessity, not for the pleasure of it, and not continuously.
Modern thinking, expressed from the standpoint of a rules-based society, goes further. The present-day Prince is the Chief Executive, and contemporary management and leadership training does not reinforce these traits. Indeed, 21st Century leadership studies suggest that the context of any leader and the law of the land will be of primary importance in mitigating excessively ruthless actions, rather than giving people license to do everything possible to win.
If I may moralize: even if you are willing to lie or act expediently in a manner corresponding to Renaissance rulers of the Italian city-states, there is no excuse today for being Machiavellian. Having said that, we are in the era of Donald Trump, and you don’t have to read the business news or financial press for long to know duplicitous manipulators and swindlers arise in corporate companies with alarming frequency.
But if you do have Machiavellian tendencies, I’m acutely aware that I’m unlikely to stop you behaving as you will.
In fact, if you are highly Machiavellian, allow me to let you pass by on your way to securing whatever goals you aim to achieve by whatever means you wish to apply. There’s not much I can do to dissuade you. But if that’s you, you already know that.
Christie, Richard and Geis, Florence (1970). Studies in Machiavellianism. Academic Press: New York.
Giorgini, Giovanni (2013). "Five Hundred Years of Italian Scholarship on Machiavelli's Prince". Review of Politics. 75 (4): 625–40. doi:10.1017/S0034670513000624
Kessler, Stacey R, Bandeiii, Adam C, Spector, Paul E, Borman, Walter C, Nelson, Carnot E, Penney, Lisa M (2010). Reexamining Machiavelli: a three dimensional model of Machiavellianism in the workplace. Journal of Applied Social Psychology 40: 1868-1896.
Machiavelli, Niccolò (1513). The Prince. Translated by WK Marriott. http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/1232?msg=welcome_stranger
Najemy, John M. (2010). The Cambridge Companion to Machiavelli. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.