It has come to be an accepted fact of life these days that politics is about individual benefit, whether it is the benefit of one particular nation against all others or the re-election of the politicians that govern that nation. It is rarely about the general good. We are so used to this that we barely question it. We accept the fact that modern politics means zero ethics. Nobody thinks of the general good, and if they claim to it is often just a mask for some other well-conceived ulterior motive. There are no men of vision; there is no Churchill, no Roosevelt and no Gandhi – not any more. Even if such individuals did exist, they would soon be relegated to marginal positions by the prerogatives of others. We know from History that one man can change the world, if the time is right, but what about one book?
A book, like a player on the world stage, can bring change both good and bad. I could quote numerous examples of books that have not changed the world for the better, but that would stretch the scope of this article and my own sanity too far so I will restrict myself to one such book, whose author I know a little for the cameo role I gave him in Gioconda, and whose name everyone knows as a byword for evil: Niccolò Machiavelli.
Machiavelli is widely considered to be a paradigm of wickedness because of a book he penned in 1513, entitled, The Prince. The book can arguably be said to have laid the foundations for modern politics, or more specifically realpolitik, which means, briefly, politics without morality. In other words, kill, torture, deceive if you must in the interests of gaining and keeping power. It’s all good.
Just to give you a taster, here are a couple of examples:
“In seizing a state, the usurper ought to examine closely into all those injuries which it is necessary for him to inflict, and to do them all at one stroke, so as not to have to repeat them daily. Thus by not unsettling men he will be able to reassure them, and win them to himself through subsequent benefits.” (Chapter VIII, The Prince)
“Men ought either to be well treated or crushed, because they can avenge themselves of lighter injuries, of more serious ones they cannot…”(Chapter III, The Prince)
“If he who has annexed them wishes to hold them, (he) has only to bear in mind two considerations: the one, that the family of their former lord is extinguished; the other, that neither their laws nor their taxes are altered.” (Chapter III, The Prince)
Some have said that The Prince could be read as a satire and they may well be right, since the tone of the book is so straightforwardly cruel that you wonder if Machiavelli was really serious. It reads like a manual for a building a bomb in elegant Italian. But if Machiavelli was only having a laugh and poking the finger of accusation at the Borgia’s or the Medici of his day, he might at least have said so, because the fact is that it ended up as a book of influence rather than a book of entertainment. What Machiavelli’s realpolitik actually bequeathed us is exactly what we have today, political immorality on a global scale.
Like a seed that needs its moment to flourish, The Prince germinated slowly. It was held up by liberalists during the Enlightenment as an example of the evils of power. But just because such evils were denounced did not mean they could be eliminated. Even if he didn’t know it at the time, Machiavelli had given birth to the Nation State he wanted so badly for Italy. Italian unification came at last in the wake of the Enlightenment. Soon other nations followed, including Germany, and before we could measure the dangers of realpolitik, two world wars swept through Europe, one after the other. Machiavelli’s treatise on power had secured the foundations of nationalism. The guns of the Second World War may have fallen silent, but National Interest meant that we would always need a weapon.
So what now? Machiavelli, poor chap, was merely stating what he believed to be a fundamental fact of human nature, that man is born evil, and the sooner we come to terms with this monster in the mirror, the better. To drive home the point of this innate evil, he gave us what is possibly the most quoted line of all time. The end justifies the means.
This is how he put it. Once in power, do what you need to secure yourself, and do it at once. Then stop. If you must use force for the greater good of the people, then do it. He does not exactly say ‘the end justifies the means’ but he certainly implies it.
Such ideas continue to serve as a justification for many policies carried through on an international scale. Should we accept Machiavelli’s monster or endeavour to defeat it? I do not have the answer to that, of course, but one thing I do know. As with all books, context is everything. Every work was written in a particular time, and for a particular time. Updates are a good thing. Revision, the constant rethinking of old ideas, is a good thing. If realpolitik has had its day, perhaps we need another book.
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