Saturday,17 November, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1317, (27 October - 2 November 2016)
Saturday,17 November, 2018
Issue 1317, (27 October - 2 November 2016)

Ahram Weekly

Was Machiavelli right?

Writer, politician, diplomat, poet, playwright, philosopher and humanist, Niccolo Machiavelli was one of the most outstanding figures of the Renaissance period. They simply neglected to call him ‘prophet’.

Watching the shenanigans of the election process of the great American democracy, we realise that Machiavellianism is alive and well, thriving in the USA.  The corruption, deceit, duplicity and dishonesty emphasises the theory of the founder of modern political science. It is as petty and decadent a rigged system as any ‘banana republic’, rampant across the globe.

Is this a condemnation of the theory of democracy?

Written in 1513, during tumultuous times of greedy monarchists, Il Principe, or The Prince, seems as relevant today as it was then and always will be.

Hardly the first theorist to maintain that politics is a ruthless business, Machiavelli was preceded by Xenophon, a student of Socrates, Greek historian Thucydides and pre-Socratic philosophers who also emphasised power politics. 

The staying power of The Prince comes from the insistence on the need for a clear-sighted appreciation of how men really are as distinct from the moralising of how they ought to be. Today, politicians hide the necessary ruthlessness of political life behind the rhetoric of family values and religious principles. Machiavelli shunned the hypocrisy. “Put your soul at rest.” 

Now, they do it all the time, everywhere.

The Catholic Church was shocked, but Machiavelli did not care. He believed politics must do evil in the name of the public good and to be totally unconcerned with ending up with “dirty hands”.  At least his aim was the ‘public good’ not the personal one, as we are witnessing today.

Is there anyone who believes Hillary Clinton cares about doing anything for the public good, but she got the evil part, all right.

The readers of The Prince claimed it was teaching evil and providing evil recommendations to tyrants, helping them to maintain their power… His blunt candor was condemned and The Prince, one of many writings, was placed on the Papal Index of banned books in 1559.

The theory of The Prince is to retain power at any cost. There are good and bad ways to be cruel. Cruelty is a tool for a political end, but once achieved, it must stop. The Prince must first stabilise his newfound power structure. “A leader guided by public necessity is likely to be less cruel and vicious than one guided by religious moralising.” 

Public and private morality, are two different things. “In order to rule well, the ruler must be concerned not only with reputation but must be positively willing to act immorally at the right times.” Always emphasising the good of the people, he has been called a true republican. The law mattered because in republics the opinion of citizens mattered.

He distinguished between political realism and political idealism.

Between realism and idealism in any realm is a chasm man cannot overcome. Who amongst us is without “dirty hands”?  Politics may head the list but in any walk of life be it trade, science, show-business or business business, we all had our hands soiled once in a while, for idealism fades when realism looms.

What is happening by the Clinton team, the dirty tricks, Wikileaks, lies, crimes, destroying evidence, accepting bribes, why their hands are mired in mud… enough to make Machiavelli blush.

Why is Machiavelli still relevant today after having been condemned for five centuries? 

In 2013, in celebration of 500 years of the writing of The Prince, four new books were published with a new and fresh look at this:”teacher of evil”.  They describe, analyse and explain the scandalous book of the evil Machiavelli. Author Alan Ryan analyses the decline and fall of the great theorist of the early modern state.  Philip Bobbit explains that “if power is no longer personal, it had to assume a new ethic: “ragioni di stato”… reason of the state. Viroli Maurizio and Corrado Vivanti reinforce the image of Machiavelli, calling for the redemption of Italian Republicanism, four centuries before the final re-unification of the Italian states. Machiavelli emphasised, boldness, courage and skills that worked.

In an article in the prestigious Atlantic Monthly, writer Michael Ignoticeff, in his article A Machiavellian Moment (2013), proposes that Machiavelli is: ”a political leader taking the ultimate risks that go with the exercise of power, now awaiting the judgement of fate.”   

Is he the villain he is widely known to be?  When the father of the American progressive movement Saul Alinsky fell upon Machavelli, he seems to have found a twin soul, seeing only the dark side of controlling and organising groups cunningly and skillfully to follow his lead Alinsky is teacher and mentor to Hillary Clinton and others of the new breed of American politics. A non-practising Jew he was a cynic without faith, without mercy without moral obligation…         

It has been said that American Democracy is being influenced altered by Alinsky’s ideas, but Machiavelli had a far deeper view of the good of society even under a despotic ruler. 

Satan was the most successful organiser according to Alinsky and dedicated his book Rules for Radicals to Lucifer

Niccolo di Bernardo dei Machiavelli (1469 – 1527) deserves another look. His moral clarity lay in how men are, not how they ought to be.  

Only 58 when he died, his Prince has lived for over 500 years.

His epitaph reads: “So Great a Name Has No Adequate Praise.”


“In statesmanship get formalities right, never mind the moralities.”

Mark Twain (1835-1910)

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