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Machiavellism - Europe

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The most famous European Machiavellian was, of course, Niccolò Machiavelli, and his most famous, most Machiavellian book was Il principe (1513; The prince). Like his other works, it was nourished by his personal experience, especially as a diplomat, and by the literature of ancient Greece and Rome. Machiavelli must have been familiar with Thucydides's ability to report on history in an objective, amoral spirit, as in the famous dialogue in which the representatives of Athens say to those of Melos that in human affairs the question of justice enters only where there is equal power to enforce it, and that the powerful exact what they can and the weak grant what they must. Machiavelli knew Cicero's De officiis (On duties), which discusses the same political problems that he does, though with usually milder, more moral conclusions. Like Machiavelli, Cicero asks whether it is better for a ruler to be feared or loved—loved, Cicero concludes—and uses the image imitated by Machiavelli of the ruler as either a lion or a fox. Both Cicero and Machiavelli agree that a ruler must curb himself so as to escape hatred.

Machiavelli's Machiavellian views are that present-day human beings are incorrigibly changeable, ungrateful, and insincere; control of government therefore requires the use of force, so the ruler should be capable of leading his state in war and should be ready to abandon honesty and mercy when they interfere with effective rule. Put metaphorically, because humans act like wolves, the ruler must be the lion, and because humans do not keep their word, the ruler must also play the fox, though never openly. Knowing that humans are evil, the ruler should not be troubled by the cruelty that keeps his subjects united and loyal. But the wise ruler will keep a balance between reckless trust and the extreme distrust that unrestrained cruelty causes.

Franceso Guicciardini (1483–1540), a Florentine historian and politician and (at times) Machiavelli's friend, never became as famous as Machiavelli even though he was just as hard-headedly amoral as a political thinker, maybe even more canny, and rather more skeptical. His advice on public relations is always to deny what one does not want to be known and, regardless of even the most convincing contrary evidence, to sow doubt in people's minds by boldly stating what one wants to be believed. Mercy should be shown only when practically useful. No one who understands political life would ever show mercy when it endangers the fruit of a victory, but when it costs nothing to be merciful, mercy is politically advisable.

Guicciardini criticizes Machiavelli for reading contemporary events too often in the light of unrevealing Roman precedents. History is too mutable, he says, for us to learn much from it except not to expect any reward for good behavior or any success from the use of intelligence. The best we can do, according to him, is to maintain our dignity.

Machiavelli's Prince aroused interest, most of it indignant, everywhere, with the result that Machiavelli's name became a byword for evil. In Shakespeare's Henry VI (part 3), the future Richard III boasts that he can murder while he smiles, wet his cheeks with artificial tears, orate, deceive, conquer, change shapes, "and set the murtherous Machiavel to school." As king, in Richard III, this self-proposed tutor of Machiavelli is finally destroyed, like Machiavelli's hero, Cesare Borgia, by failing to control his lust for power.

A few almost contemporary philosophers praised Machiavelli's ideas. Michel de Montaigne (1533–1592) refers to him in his essay "On Presumption" and says that Machiavelli is one of those writers who prefers the good of the state to his fidelity and conscience. Almost always, says Montaigne, there is some gain in a breach of faith, as in all other wicked acts. The wretchedness of the human condition is such, Montaigne goes on, "that we are often driven to the necessity of using evil means to a good end." He sympathizes with a prince whose conscience does not allow him to do what is essential for his own preservation or the preservation of his people but doubts that such a prince will get the favor of God that he deserves ("On the Useful and the Honorable"). Though lying is to Montaigne an "accursed vice," he is ready to say that "to deprive wiliness of its rank … would be to misunderstand the world," and that anyone whose morals are conspicuously higher than those of his time "must either distort and blunt his rules" or "have nothing to do with us."

Francis Bacon (1561–1626), who experienced both high office and political disgrace, said that he was indebted to Machiavelli as one of those "who openly and unfeignedly declare or describe what men do, and not what they ought to do." His own aphorisms often have the disabused flavor of Machiavellism. In his essay "Of Simulation and Dissimulation," he concludes that it is best "to have openness in fame and opinion; secrecy in habit, dissimulation in seasonable use, and a power to feign if there be no remedy." Like all Machiavellians, he insists that greatness does not come to any nation that does not "directly profess arms."

Of the other philosophers close in time to Machiavelli, those most like him in their negative estimate of ordinary humans are Thomas Hobbes and Benedict de Spinoza. Hobbes (1588–1679), who does not mention Machiavelli at all, makes similar negative estimates of human behavior. But unlike Machiavelli, in Leviathan he belittles the idea of learning from past experience and wants his theory to be a carefully structured, syllogistic science. Spinoza (1632–1677) praises Machiavelli in his Tractatus Politicus (Treatise on politics) as a wise man who, because he is wise, must have had a moral purpose. He explains Machiavelli's text as probably meant to show "the folly of attempting—as many do—to remove a tyrant when the causes which make a prince a tyrant cannot be removed, but become rooted more firmly as the prince is given more reason to be afraid." Or, Spinoza says, perhaps Machiavelli wanted to show how careful a free people should be in entrusting its welfare completely to one man, who has to go in daily fear of plots and "is forced in self-defense to plot against his subjects rather than to further their interests." Rather like Machiavelli, Spinoza says that humans are by nature subject to great anger, envy, and the like and so are by nature enemies to one another. However, he adds, echoing Machiavelli's Discourses, it is not the inherent wickedness of the subjects of a commonwealth that leads to rebellions, wars, and contempt for the law but "the corrupt condition of the commonwealth" that has framed its laws ineptly; for "citizens are not born, but made." Spinoza also believes that a person can break his promise "by the right of nature," that is, the right of self-preservation.

Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (1770–1831) was an interestingly qualified admirer of Machiavelli. He thought that Germany, which, like Machiavelli's Italy, had difficulties in becoming a united nation, also needed Machiavelli's advice. Machiavelli, he said, had no special interest in advising a tyrant but in correcting an impossible political situation. For Machiavelli's "great and true conception produced by a genuinely political head" expresses his understanding that, under the circumstances, the "Prince" had no choice but to secure his own power as a tyrant by all the violent means that are usually considered to be crimes. The acts are justified by the vision of the sovereignty and independence of the people, the Volk, which depend on the destruction of the lesser local authorities. But when the tyrant's work is done, he automatically appears as a despot, and "then, it is the tyrant-slayers who are heroes."

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