Niccolò Machiavelli was one of the most influential theorists of political philosophy. He was known as an Italian diplomat, philosopher, historian, and politician of the Renaissance period (Rubio, 2016). However, his notoriety stems from being known as the “father of modern political theory,” and his theory inspired the term “Machiavellian” (Rubio, 2016). The world in which Niccolò Machiavelli lived, surprisingly enough, resembles modern-day society to some extent. Even though city states have been replaced with nation states, empires have permanently collapsed, and modern warfare is now unimaginably waged with weapons and tactics, there are still similarities that remain the same (Stratford, 2015).
Although Machiavelli died hundreds of years ago, he would likely be able to expertly navigate the political sphere of today, as if it was his own, seeing as how the principles that prevail remain the same (Stratford, 2015). Even though some of his teachings justified and inspired tactics involving dishonesty, immorality, and murder, there are still many positive takeaways from his teachings that have impacted modern-day society. As a result, his theories have become a guide for contemporary policymakers of all types across the world.
Machiavelli was born on May 3, 1469 in Florence, Tuscany during the Renaissance movement (Borghini, 2017). He was the son of a lawyer from a rather distinguished family, and he spent hours educating himself in his father’s library (Borghini, 2017). As a result, there is reason to believe that he was exceptionally educated. In 1498, he accepted a political career covering two governmental roles in Florence, Italy (Borghini, 2017). He was assigned with diplomatic missions to local European courts which required a sophisticated understanding of politics along with great diplomacy (Borghini, 2017). In 1509, he was responsible for establishing the Florentine militia and leading the troops to recapture the town of Pisa (Borghini, 2017). Machiavelli was indeed a Renaissance man successful in most endeavors, leaving a lasting mark on history as a writer of short stories, histories, and plays. In 1513, in he was imprisoned, tortured, and exiled. He later retired to his country house, where he began writing his famous works including a classic masterpiece that is still read today, “The Prince” (1513) (Borghini, 2017).
According to Machiavelli, in order for an individual to maintain one’s state and achieve great things, one must be powerful, bold, flexible, resolute, and be prepared to break promises against charity, truth, religion, and humanity (Machiavelli, 1810). One must have the cunning of a fox and the strength of a lion (Machiavelli, 1810). This also means that in order to be successful, one must be willing to act deviously, ruthlessly, violently, and cruelly when deemed necessary. In today’s politics, actions are judged by their success, which means one will be praised regardless of their wrong so long as the “end justifies the means” (Ratner, 2018). This message seems cold and calculating; however, it is one that many politicians live by. Machiavelli believed that rulers and citizens should not shrink from “setting aside every scruple” if the survival of the republic is at stake (Ramsay, 2017). In other words, political success excuses any unjust, cruel, or disgraceful deed, regardless of how harsh the consequences may be. Admittedly, this is a cold way of dealing with society, and even though it does in some places exist to this extent today, this generally leads citizens to strike back.
Even though the mere utterance of Machiavelli’s name has become synonymous with treachery and deceit, one of his main concerns was security of the state as well as the welfare of its people (Demack, 2012). When taken in correct context, his theory of leadership has some common sense to it. In Chapter 21, for example, he explains what leaders must do in order to be esteemed (Demack, 2012). Roughly transposed to today’s way of thinking one could say that presidents who attend the Olympics and CEOS acting as philanthropists are actually following his counsel.
Machiavelli admired Borgia but in his book depicted his weaknesses using brutal honesty (Demack, 2012). He identified the unpleasant truths of human nature in a straightforward manner. (Demack, 2012). The most successful politicians of today seem to be the ones who have an edge to them, the ability to get step outside the normal parameters of niceties. Jimmy Carter was a good example of one who totally lacked this sort of ability. Donald Trump is quite the opposite in his tactics, speaking and acting brutally at times. President Carter was an ineffectual president in some ways due to his clutching so closely his values. We have yet to see what the outcome will be for President Trump.
Thomas Cromwell, the mastermind behind the English reformation, was said to have specifically admired Machiavelli and Roman Emperor Charles V and Henry VII were both found owning copies of “The Prince”. (Stratford, 2015). His works ended up inspiring Henry VII to defy the Pope and seizing religious authority (History Channel: Machiavelli, 2018). Machiavelli was also cited as the “murderous Machiavel” according to Shakespeare (History Channel: Machiavelli, 2018). Philosopher Edmund Burkes believed the French Revolution bore evidence of “the odious maxims of a “Machiavellian policy” (History Channel: Machiavelli, 2018).
Later, during the 20th century, his works were blamed him for the rise of Adolf Hitler and Joseph Stalin because a book was kept by their bedside, and they were known to have read the book before (History Channel: Machiavelli). Business leaders also use Machiavelli’s theories in their aspirations of getting. Others go as far as to call it the Mafia Bible for gangsters like John Gotti (History Channel: Machiavelli, 2018). There are those who question his work and propose that it is a warning of what could potentially happen if power is not checked. However, a majority of individuals are said to think of it as a blueprint for how to gain power and hold onto it. (History Channel: Machiavelli, 2018)
Cesare Borgia in “The Prince” is Machiavelli’s example of a prince with great prowess; however, this young man was also known to be the enemy of the Renaissance period (Demack, 2012). He was the illegitimate son of Pope Alexander VI, who ravaged Northern Italy, seized towns, and murdered many of those who attempted to stand in his way. (Demack, 2012). This meant no one was safe and anyone was liable to be strangled, stabbed, or poisoned with impunity.
Niccolò Machiavelli was a Florentine diplomat during this time, therefore, he spent four months in Borgia’s court, writing dispatches to his superiors which helped inspire “The Prince” (Demack, 2012). In “The Prince”, he uses Borgia as an example to explain the dangers of acquiring principality by virtue of another got to change these words (Demack, 2012). Since Borgia was given power by virtue of his father, he ruled Romagna with overall skill. However, once his father died, a rival to his family gained influence, and Cesare was overthrown (Demack, 2012). This event having occurred hundreds of years ago may seem like an isolated moment in history, but the abuse of power is not peculiar to Renaissance politics. This abuse can occur anywhere, any time, and with anyone. Along with the brutality of war and politics, it seems that principles espoused by Machiavelli apply to not just today’s society but to various time periods leading up to this.
“The Prince” was intended to be a royal advice book explaining in detail the virtues that a good prince should possess (Machiavelli, 1810). “The Prince” gives instruction as to how a leader gains power and stays in power. In this book, he described how to run a principality without regarding what is traditionally right or wrong (Littell). Even though he did gain power in Florence, when the leadership changed, he also lost his political influence. The Prince, however, has become known as one of the best examinations of politics and is studied by political thinkers to this very day. Francis Bacon, British statesman and philosopher, wrote that “We are much beholden to Machiavelli and others, that write what men do, and not what they ought to do,” meaning that he wrote about the reality of politics rather than the theory (Littell). Even though “The Prince” had many practical insights on human behavior, it is also known to display a very pessimistic view of human nature and condones unethical ways of manipulating others (Littell).
“The Prince” also teaches the inner workings of power. In his book, he asserts the importance of properly judging one’s relationship with people of power (Demack, 2012). Misjudging these types of relationships, he reasons, can only jeopardize one’s career, health, and bank balance. Power is usually abused when both the perpetrator and the victim share dysfunctional beliefs concerning power (Demack, 2012). Oftentimes, there are those who abuse their power and those who become victims, both of which act out of fear (Demack, 2012). The victim fears humiliation and the perpetrator fear the loss of power.
Thus, Machiavelli tells us that the key to effective leadership is one’s self-acceptance and self-knowledge. This was portrayed when men in “The Prince,” like Cesare Borgia, were destroyed simply because they lacked self-knowledge (Demack, 2012). Machiavelli asserted that if Borgia had recognized his weaknesses, he could well have ended up being far more successful. Self-acceptance, according to Machiavelli, is important because once one accepts their imperfections, they lose their power and others cannot manipulate them (Demack, 2012). This then gives one the courage needed to speak the truth to power and accept imperfections in others. This means that self-knowledge and self-acceptance are indispensable regardless of leading or following (Demack, 2012).
In this sense he expresses the importance of individuals taking responsibility for their relationship with power. Machiavelli states that an appreciation for human nature allows one to foresee problems, defuse dangerous situations, and make wiser decisions (Demack, 2012). Applied to today’s politics, these characteristics are very important in traversing the political playing field. To be able to understand what drives others and to have the objectivity to assess situations are both vital skills if one is to be successful.
Machiavelli is said to have broken from politics in pursuit of a unified public and private good life (Stratford, 2015). This gave one the notion that politicians can operate according to the demands of the state as an entity independent from civil society and its moral imperatives (Stratford, 2015). He believed that in private morality the means matter just as much if not more (Stratford, 2015). However, in public morality, the ends are fundamental under all circumstances (Stratford, 2015). This means a leader who shows off their own moral imperfections to the public is more virtuous. In other words, he believed that to show one’s imperfections was not a liability but an asset. Again, if we look President Trump, he definitely uses this philosophy. To his credit, he has garnered an admiration for his brutal honesty. Those who truly support him do not waiver, and much of this is, indeed, due to his unapologetic nature of “telling it like it is.”
Machiavelli was the first to argue persuasively rules that constitute a morality as legitimate as that of one’s everyday lifestyle (Stratford, 2015). His persuasiveness of the case rests in its relation to the world rather than its philosophical expansiveness (Stratford, 2015). Machiavelli’s writing came to life and even shaped the way generations of political leaders, publics, and philosophers understand how politics work. It also shaped the way that statesmen and politicians practice politics. This means that his legacy requires one to look at what he wrote and refer it to the world it was written about because that world involved the beginnings of the modern state.
The term “Machiavellian” is used to characterize politicians who are evil because of the behaviors he is known to justify himself in his famous book, “The Prince” which turned Aristotle’s theory of virtues upside down and shook the European conception of government at its foundations (Borghini, 2017). Toward the end of the Sixteenth Century, “The Prince” was suddenly translated in all major European languages (Borghini, 2017). “The Prince” had also been a new subject of heated disputes into the many courts of the Old Continent. Unfortunately for Machiavelli, his main ideas have been misinterpreted at times. This led to the term coined as “Machiavellianism,” which would refer exclusively to “his type” (Borghini, 2017). Today, the term indicates a person with a cynical attitude, who is justified to do anything if the end requires it so long as they are a politician (Borghini, 2017). Again, an example of how this philosophy has sustained. One does not need to have read his book to understand the meaning of the word “Machiavellian.”
“Machiavellianism” has also made its way to the business world. This term used in the setting of the workplace means the employment of deceptive behavior in a business setting (Greenberg, 2003). Machiavellianism has even been studied as a personality characteristic sharing features with manipulative leadership tactics (Greenberg, 2003). Recently, however it has been applied to the context of the workplace and other organizations in a different way. Machiavellism, psychopathy, and narcissism, have been identified as the “dark triatic” personality traits (Greenberg, 2003). The Machiavellian generally manipulates individuals in pursuit of achieving his or her goals. A newer model of Machiavellianism is based on maintaining power, manipulative behaviors, and harsh management tactics (Greenberg, 2003).
Studies have shown there to be a positive correlation between Machiavellianism and workplace bullying. The groups of bullies and victims were said to have a higher Machiavellianism level compared to those who were uninvolved (Greenberg, 2003). Machiavellians are known to manipulate and exploit individuals to advance their own personal agendas and maintain power over all. The guiding principles of Machiavellianism include that one must never show humility, arrogance is more effective when interacting with others, ethics and morality are for weak individuals, powerful people have the right to deceive others when necessary, and it is much better to be feared than to be loved (Greenberg, 2003). This means these individuals oftentimes neglect to share important information, fail to meet their own obligations, find ways of making others in management look bad, and spread false rumors. Research has shown Machiavellianism to be positively associated with subordinate perceptions of abusive supervision which includes workplace bullying (Greenberg, 2003).
However, if one looks deeper, Machiavelli actually addresses this issue. Bullying seems to be the only strategy known for individuals who can’t lead. These individuals are weak, which means one will only become a victim if they cower. In the end, neither stance brings true happiness and one must always remember to watch their backs. Machiavelli addresses the danger of this. For example, most of the Roman emperors in “The Prince” died tragically before their time (Demack, 2012). Everyone is given the opportunity to lead others at work, in politics, in the community, or within one’s family. Once one becomes a leader, however, they will be challenged which also means if there are any self-doubts, they will become very evident to those around them. Despite ones many strengths, often trying to hide one’s weaknesses will only lead to them becoming exposed. (Demack, 2012). Machiavelli encourages strength and does say that the ends justify the means, but he also addresses the virtues of cunning and prowess, the ability to be a statesman. Bullying on its face would not be something that he endorsed but would rather warn against as an excess and a weakness.
Through Machiavelli’s teachings, a very basic yet difficult question for politicians arises: Is it better to be fear or loved? According to Machiavelli, “one should wish to be both, but, because it is difficult to unite them in one person, is much safer to be feared than loved, when, of the two, either must be dispensed with” (Machiavelli, 1810). This is because fear is easier to maintain for a ruler than love. Machiavelli believes that “fear” is the most reliable emotion that can be most easily controlled. One cannot rely on love because it is unstable. Fear, however, is constant and will remain true no matter what the circumstances are. Love creates a bond of obligation while fear encourages obedience. It is always difficult to rely on being loved because people can be “ungrateful, fickle, false, cowardly, covetous, dissimulating, hungry for profit and quick to evade danger” (Machiavelli, 1810). These are all very valid points that be interpreted the wrong way.
Machiavelli never said it is better to be feared than loved, instead he only said it was safer (Machiavelli, 1810). This, again is another facet of his philosophy that has carried over to today’s politics. Throughout the world, we have despots that reign with terror, not so many with compassion. This remains a question still pondered by today’s politicians as they attempt to establish and maintain their position. Again, President Trump comes to mind as an example of this facet of Machiavelli’s theory. He admittedly uses fear as a political tactic to get what he wants. Again, we will have to wait to see if this proves to be an effective tool.
Machiavelli changed the course of world history by his revolutionary philosophy. Perhaps it was really nothing new, but the fact that he defined his thoughts so clearly gave the politician a tool with which to traverse the political environment. This book has been translated in different languages and is still used today in other fields (i.e. business). Good or bad, Machiavelli changed the way the game of politic has played to this very day.