Lyndon Hood - differently waged, Lower Hutt

Tuesday, April 27, 2004

So I though I'd have a look on the web, and sure enough: any number of people were discussing the actions of the Coalition of the Mislead and Coerced in Iraq with reference to the opinions of Niccolò di Bernado Machiavelli. Opinions, unsurprisingly, varied and many people were clearly working from cliché rather than from the source, but it does all raise a few questions. Not least: why do we care what some 534-year-old Italian thinks anyway?

Machiavelli enjoys a reputation as an advocate of unscrupulous cunning which has been enshrined by the award of his own adjective, machiavellian. He's also a good paternity candidate for modern political philosophy. The latter description does him more justice, but it probably doesn't take much thought to realise that the two are not entirely unrelated.

Because Machiavelli, unlike certain predecessors who he does not name, took as his subject of discussion the way things are and what works, rather than the way things should be and what is morally right. If you listen closely you can still hear the echo of those fourteenth-century eyebrows rising.

Most people quote from The Prince, which contains most of the famous bits and is about being a monarch. I smugly prefer The Discourses, which covers republics, monarchies and tyrannies. Actually I only have an abridged version of both in one volume, but The Discourses is easier to navigate through because of the more informative chapter headings (for example, from book three: "Chapter XVII. A man should not be offended and then assigned to an important governmental post","Chapter XXVI. How a state is ruined because of women","Chapter XXXVI. The reasons why the French have been, and still are, considered braver than men at the outset of a battle and less than women afterwards").

Selective reading of the facts and the author can of course get you any conclusion you want. The Nazis had an enduring success demonstrating this with Nietzsche. More recently, one site that enlisted Machiavelli's support for the invasion of Iraq had previously concluded the Immanuel Kant would have considered Howard Dean "imprudent".

As to why we care, I'm not sure. It is of course nice to have someone famous for being clever agree with you. But Machiavelli's advice wasn't perfect even for the tortuously conspiracy- and war-ridden climate of the Italian city-states. And I don't think he has much to add to a discussion of the Iraq occupation that hasn't already been said. A quick skim of Machiavelli reveals that there were some things people knew even in the 1500s (I quote from the first book of The Discourses):

Chapter XVI. A people accustomed to living under a Prince maintains its freedom with difficulty if, by chance, it becomes free


Chapter XVII. A corrupt people which acquires its freedom can maintain its freedom only with the greatest of difficulty


Chapter XVIII. How a free government can be maintained in corrupt cities if it exists there already; or, how to establish it there if it does not already exist

... But because these institutions when they are suddenly discovered no longer to be good have to be changed either completely, or little by little as each (defect) is known, I say that both of these two courses are almost impossible...

As to changing these institutions all at once when everyone recognizes they are not good, I say that the defect which is easily recognized is difficult to correct, for to do this it is not enough to use ordinary means, as ordinary means are bad, but it is necessary to come to the extraordinary, such as violence and arms, and before anything else to become Prince of that City, and to be able to dispose of it as he pleases. And as the re-organization of the political life of a City presupposes a good man, and the becoming of a Prince of a Republic by violence presupposes a bad man; for because of this it will be found that it rarely happens that a (good) men wants to become Prince through bad means, even though his objectives be good; or that a bad one, having become Prince, wants to work for good and that it should enter his mind to use for good that authority which he had acquired by evil means. From all the things written above, arises the difficulty or impossibility of maintaining a Republic in a City that has become corrupted, or to establish it there anew.

I also include this admonishment from book two:

Chapter XXXI. How dangerous it is to believe exiles

The most famous Machiavelli quote is more of a traditional mistranslation: "the ends justify the means". What he was getting at (in chapter XVII of The Prince) was that sometimes a leader, though generally good in the traditional sense, must do bad things to maintain the state; and that, as long as the leader appears to be virtuous in all things, any actions will be judged by the populus on whether or not they succeed.

I know a president who's fast beginning to look far worse than machiavellian.

Update:I've just recieved an email from a "supporter of the misled and coerced" pointing out a very different Machiavelli reference.

I also remembered I'd missed out a bit from The Discourses (From book one again. Can you tell I haven't read the whole thing?):


... because those who try to do away with it almost always increase its strength and accelerate the harm which they feared might come from it.