This Day in History 5/3: Niccolo Machiavelli

Niccolo Machiavelli (1469-1527)

Niccolo Machiavelli (1469-1527)

If you don’t like today’s post in the Neighborhood, simply fear my wrath.  At least, that’s what today’s birthday boy would suggest.

Happy birthday to 16th Century Italian philosopher Niccolo Machiavelli.  Among his talents, including a leading politician in the Republic of Florence during the early 1500’s, was the writing of perhaps the first book on modern politics, The Prince.  Rare is a college student who did not sit through an introductory philosophy or political science course without reading Machiavelli’s seminal work.  It’s a remarkably short read, but is full of ideas that still resonate today–even though most of us are loathe to admit it.

Machiavelli still evokes controversy today.  Many perceive him as favoring dictatorships or autocracy, as well as the use of brute force to maintain power.    We even have the word “Machiavellian” to describe measures that are cunning and deceitful.  Richard III, Cleopatra, Stalin, and even some modern politicians come to mind.  If it were this simple, then a lot of pretty rotten people would still enjoy power. 

To counter this, a little context is in order.  The Prince was written at a time when the Republic of Florence was about to collapse under the weight of war with the Hapsburgs and the Holy See.  The republican government, which existed in Florence for at least two centuries prior, was to end once and for all, and republican politicians like Machiavelli would feel the wrath of the incoming rulers, the powerful Medici clan that had ruled Florence from behind the scenes.  For Niccolo to avoid being drawn and quartered, it was important for him to play nice with the new leadership.  Even the preface of the book is dedicated to the new duke, which shows that even Machiavelli can be Machiavellian.  He basically wrote this, in part, to save his own ass. 

However, the lessons of the republic were not completely lost.  The Prince was prescribed as a manual for the attainment and preservation of power.  It was not the basis for a fair and just society, as Plato and Aristotle attempted in their works.  Machiavelli did not see it that way.  He saw power, and especially morality, as the maintenance of societal norms and functions using necessary, swift and short-term uses of aggressive force.  However, he also believed in the patron-client relationship, and viewed prescribed rewards as beneficial in maintaining power.  In short, a prince (or a government or a President, for that matter) needed to balance the use of force and authority with the rhythms and needs of elites and the people.

We hate to admit it, but most governments today are pretty much maintained through Machiavelli’s principles.  In fact, the use of opinion polls, instant access to current events, and internet communication make today’s politicians even more like Machiavelli’s prince than ever before.  Whereas political elites of yore can act on principle every once in a while and get away with it, today’s leaders must at least use a veneer of popular opinion to advance their agenda.  If he/she chooses not to–and actually act on principle, heaven forbid–then it is seen as a loss of credibility and legitimacy.  How can a person make decisions if he/she refuses to answer to the people that elected that person in the first place?

For high school students, Niccolo Macchiavelli’s work can lead to awesome discussions about power, morality, ethics (or lack thereof) and modern politics.  I would not recommend teaching about this to younger children, though.  It’s probably better to make sure they have a good set of morals before teaching them they are really subjective to your needs.

Besides, they’ll figure that out in the playground soon enough.

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