Few people have their names turned into words. No doubt Thomas Bowdler had no such intent when he published his expurgated “Family Shakespeare.” Captain Charles Boycott, ostracized by the Irish tenants of the lord he acted for, never anticipated his enduring fame, any more than did Vidkun Quisling when he served as Nazi puppet Prime Minister of occupied Norway. The top title of them all, however, surely goes to Niccolo Machiavelli, born 550 years ago on May 3rd, 1469.
He was active in the politics of the Italian city states of his day, in the world of de Medicis and Borgias. He served as Secretary to the Chancery of his native Florence and undertook diplomatic missions. While he wrote poems, songs and comedies, he is best remembered for “The Prince,” a work of political analysis set in the form of a letter to Lorenzo de Medici. What made the work infamous was its brutal realism. Machiavelli broke with the tradition of describing how wise and just leaders should behave, and wrote instead about what princes actually do.
Machiavelli wrote that governance is about seizing and holding power, and doing whatever it takes to do so successfully. It is important, he said, to be ruthless. When a prince needs to act cruelly in order to inspire fear, he should do so quickly and decisively. Benefits, on the other hand, should be eked out slowly so their goodwill lasts longer.
Duplicity is important because people see only the appearances, and are fooled by them. Rulers have to be brutal, even evil, he advises, because force is successful, whereas virtue is not; but the ruler should feign virtue to avoid incurring hatred. Sometimes, he advises, a prince has to murder opponents, especially if they are of a family that previously ruled.
His stark insights into power have made his name endure as a catchword for devious duplicity and double dealing. This overlooks his originality. He saw past the honeyed words and understood that government is about power, the power to make people live as you tell them to live rather than as they might want to live.
Many leaders since Machiavelli have realized that a monopoly of armed force can be used for the brutal suppression of dissent. Lenin, Stalin and Mao knew that, as did Castro and Chavez, and more recently Maduro. It helps if, like Machiavelli’s prince, you pretend to be virtuous, and proclaim it is all done in the name of the people. “Brotherhood of mankind” and “rule by the workers” have proved effective cloaks to hoodwink people into supposing virtue when the cold reality has always been about maintaining the naked power of the ruler and his clique.
The only antidote has been the separation of powers so that some elements of it can restrain its use by others. Even this, though, knows no final victory, only a constant ongoing tension between them. Machiavelli saw what rulers were like, and had the nerve to speak the truth about them.