How to think and act like a Machiavellian

Niccolo Machiavelli was a Florentine scholar, diplomat, and political advisor who lived from 1469 to 1527. Please note that this is in the middle of the renaissance – both in time and space.

He is perhaps most famous for his book: “The Prince” and it is from this book that Machiavelli has developed his popular reputation. Perhaps no work in history has occasioned more controversy, or rendered the name of the author more generally odious than The Prince.

In political discourse, Machiavelli’s reputation has been something comparable to the Grinch. Whereby Machiavelli is regarded as having invented the idea of temptation, reckless ambition, and revenge. He is treated as if hypocrisy, tyranny, simulated virtue, or crimes of convenience would have never come into being if it were not for him putting pen to paper.

This has been the popular story of Machiavelli and his work for the past 500 years. And this, in the highest order, is fake news.

But Machiavelli has always maintained a very small minority throughout the years who do not strawman his work. I would like to count myself among their company. Because my view of Machiavelli is the same as the inscription above his resting place: tanto nomini nullum par elogium, so great a name has no adequate praise.

Machiavelli showed us how dictators thought, not in order to support them, but to defeat them. He showed us what tyranny looks like, not in order to create it, but to prevent it. But he also showed us that the business of States, or politics, is often ugly, and that we could and are well advised to examine the actions of politicians through a different moral lens. 

This lesson, perhaps, has some utility today, and it is where Machiavelli’s ideas can help us better order our understanding of the political environment.

As a general example that is evidenced throughout Machiavelli’s work – a good state does not test principally for morality, but rather capability, competence, and effectiveness. A complete lack of morality will be harmful, because the people will not accept it; similarly, an absence of the willingness towards violence will either invite a willingly violent tyranny from within, or subjugation from without. Leaders must know when to follow rules, when to set them, and when, themselves, to break them in order to maintain higher rules for the State.

The goal of the leader, and politician, is to take and maintain power, and to secure their State. The goal of the State, and by extension, its people, is to test those leaders principally on capability, competence, and effectiveness. Everything else is secondary, not by choice, but by definition. And if you flip that definition, you don’t achieve your moral goals – you simply lose capability, competence, and effectiveness.

How can you be charitable without the ability to create wealth? How can you create a safe space for anyone without the ability to project power? How can you defend your community against lions, or wolves, or both, without strength and cunning. Machiavelli said the leader must be both a lion and a wolf, in order to have both the strength to fight or frighten off foes, and have the wit and cunning to recognize and avoid traps.

Moral well wishing is great! Now how are you going to achieve it? Ought implies can – period. So said Alexander Hamilton, so said George Washington, said as well, Niccolo Machiavelli. If you cannot DO what you believe you ought do – then find a new ought, or build yourself up so you can. Ignoring this principle does not absolve from it.

This is political realism and political first principles of all States, from dictatorships to democracies. But this is not a treatise of despair but one of hope, because as Machiavelli himself said: “A return to first principles in a republic is sometimes caused by the simple virtues of one individual. Their good example has such an influence that the good people strive to imitate them, and the wicked are ashamed to lead a life so contrary to their example.”