“Machiavelli was the Stephen Colbert of the Renaissance.”
-S. Peter Davis and David A. Vindiola, “6 Books Everyone (Including Your English Teacher) Got Wrong”
Writers are warned not to use clichés. The rationale is that they are trite, shopworn, and commonplace. Hannah Arendt pointed to the use of clichés by the man in the glass booth as proof that a critical and ethical mind was lacking in Herr Eichmann. The cliché is the easy way out. Though there is incontrovertible truth in that statement, at the same time, contained within each cliché is an equally incontrovertible Truth. Unfortunately, clichés are in the public domain and, as such, are mingled in with all the cognitive dissonance or felliniesque absurdity, distorted and often co-opted to justify an agenda. For example, the day that the Supreme Court ruled on DOMA, using language reminiscent of the Civil Rights Era, the state of Texas celebrated its 500th execution: It was a great day for all Americans.
The year 2013 marks both the celebration of Italian culture in America and the five-hundred-year anniversary of Niccolò Machiavelli’s The Prince. Written in 1513, but not published in its entirety until 1532, five years after Machiavelli’s death, the author’s heady advice has turned his last name into a pejorative adjective, synonymous with deceit, deception, ruthless manipulation, and state-sponsored violence. Irony number one: the man for whom Machiavelli penned the advice for died before he could enjoy it, and irony number two: the de’Medici family, who sponsored the work, never read it.
“The ends justifies the means” is the cliché most associated with Machiavelli. What he wrote, however, in Chapter XVIII of The Prince, is si guarda al fine, which is best translated as “one must think of the final result.” Not quite the same thing — not by a long shot. The context for the phrase is a discussion on whether the prince’s words should convey certain virtues. Niccolò, who knew his Latin well, might have been thinking of the Ovidian phrase exitus acta probat, which translates into English as “the outcome justifies the deed,” but that is very different from “one must think of the final result.”
So Mr. M never wrote the phrase il fine giustifica i mezzi. Marie Antoinette never did say qu’ils mangent des brioches. Darwin, however, did indeed say survival of the fittest, but only as a metaphor for his theory of natural selection. Herbert Spenser would later apply Darwin’s phrase to economic theory. Darwin’s words were then adapted to support eugenics and other forms of sloppy thinking. Last but not least: Freud never said that where there’s a taboo, there is a desire. Each one of these phrases wants to distill the complex personality and theories of prominent historic figures into a memorable sound byte, for the benefit of listless students in the future. It is part of that process of creating sound bytes, wrenching words out of historical context, that ends up transforming culture into banality.
The Prince is considered the handbook for crackpots, wannabee despots, and full-blown dictators on the one hand; the inspiration for tailless Gordon Geckos with or without an MBA, on the other. Lenin kept a copy of Il Principe at his bedside. Mafia dons supposedly cite it as the governing text of their “organization.” Somehow, I think it takes a whole lot more than badda bing badda bang to read Don Niccolò’s text. Yet it is rather amazing that Mr. M wrote the text at all. Even Tony Soprano lacked the creativity of the de’Medici family as literary patrons. The famiglia for whom Nicky had written and to whom he had dedicated his slim volume had him hoisted up strappado. Machiavellian, eh? Machiavelli endured six drops. The de’Medici family had reclaimed Florence and they were separating the chaff from the seed and wheat. See how cliché mitigates violence? Machiavelli, the diplomat, had nothing to confess to the de’Medici’s henchmen. They let him hobble off to his estate. The Prince is a short work for good reason: he wrote the damn thing with both arms broken while recuperating.
It is better to be feared than loved. The cliché is from Machiavelli and not just a line in A Bronx Tale. Winston Churchill felt that war was natural and inevitable, whereas his contemporary (whom Sir Winston loathed with a passion as “a half-naked fakir”) Mohandas Gandhi believed the opposite. Gandhi espoused truth-force or Satyagraha. I added this just to offer a different cultural POV. The methods elucidated in The Prince have floated down the empyrean as practical, pragmatic advice, albeit rooted in psychological warfare. Machiavelli, who witnessed anarchy in its true etymological definition of rule without any one, true government, is the wily architect of statecraft, the first brilliant mind of modern political theory, an astute propagandist, but in the end, a supporter of a stable republican government.
The United States, like Italy, is a republic. The U.S., like Italy, has had its share of princes: George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, FDR, JFK, and Ronald Reagan. However, the American prince that you might think of is not the man behind the desk, he is the man or woman behind him: the Secretaries of State or other advisers. Here is a select sample: Jefferson to Washington, John Marshall to John Adams, Lansing to Wilson, John Foster Dulles to Eisenhower, and Kissinger to Nixon and Ford., and Hillary Clinton. And to think, by comparison, that the Emperor Domitian roused his consilium principis — our equivalent of the presidential Cabinet – to ask his advisers how to cook a large turbot.
Scholars have debated Machiavelli’s intention in writing The Prince. The prevailing argument is that he was trying to curry favor with the de’Medicis. Machiavelli’s models for leadership were found in the idealized past of a Greek democracy or a Roman republic. He saw that both societies had become corrupt from human weakness. The republic had become Christianized, lost its sense of oligarchy. He had hoped that his Prince would unite all the Italian cities and regions under a single government, but this new man was not to be the hero of the early republic, men such as Publius Valerius, Mucius Scaevola, Coriolanus, and Cincinnatus. Machiavelli wanted a thoroughly new type of man. Machiavelli’s ideal man is found in Shakespearean creations: Iago in Othello, Macbeth, Richard of Gloucester in Richard III, and Edmund and Cornwall in King Lear. The Machiavellian education is complete in Prince Hal’s journey from reprobate to militant royal in Henry IV and Henry V. The Modern Man is not Hamlet, the indecisive neurotic. Machiavelli’s idea of virtue is not Christian, but semantically aligned to the Latin virtus, man.
Machiavelli, a diplomat, had witnessed popes waging war on city-states, the rise and fall of Florence and Venice, personal ups and downs, and the meddling of foreign powers. He despised the Borgias, who, though Italian by birth, were Spanish in origin. He detested the use of mercenaries in the army because there was no loyalty in them. The Catholic Church was to Italian aristocrats what the Empire was to the German prince electors: the institution through which they exerted their residual power in the age of the rising nation states. In matters of faith, for political expediency to avoid moral conflict, Machiavelli seems to have practiced a devout atheist.
In a bizarre twist of literary history, The Prince was roundly attacked in England long before there was an English translation. Edward Dacres would provide the first English translation in 1636, but not before Reginald Pole, the last Catholic Archbishop of Canterbury, had set the stage for a condemnation of Machiavelli in 1539. He declared Machiavelli an “enemy of the human race”; and that “the hand of Satan” had written The Prince. Pole’s condemnation makes sense since he is Catholic. Henry VIII would become Fidei defensor (Defender of the Faith) in 1544. Even the Protestants who found Papist conspiracies everywhere were obligated to condemn Machiavelli because he espoused atheism. The French Protestant Innocent Gentillet, a Huguenot, saw Machiavelli’s dark thinking as the cause behind the St. Bartholomew’s Day massacres in 1572, so he wrote Discours sur les moyens de bien gouverner contre Nicolas Machiavel (1576). Voltaire would help Frederick the Great write Anti-Machiavel (1740), which was rather hypocritical since Frederick himself was wholly Machiavellian in his pursuit of power. Disfavor continued through the centuries.
Modern examples of the Prince all tend to be negative: Russia’s Stalin, Cambodia’s Pol Pot, China’s Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping, and North Korea’s Kim Jong iI and successor Kim Jong-un, but it would seem heretical to suggest that American politicians have exhibited Machiavellian traits. Hitler isn’t a part of this list because he was a demagogue. In their preface to the Portable Machiavelli the translators Mark Musa and Peter Bondanella suggest that U.S. political parties have replaced the Prince and that their shaping of the candidate’s image is Machiavellian. They offer up as an example the Republican Party’s brilliant misdirection in having the presidential Bushes, George I and George II, perceived as homespun Texan cowboys when they are in fact New England bluebloods.
I agree with them to a point: political parties may have replaced the prince, but more dangerous and elusive powers have replaced them, only partially subject to the democratic control of public opinion — the technocracies, the corporations, the all-mighty bureaucratic structures that sign under-the-table, cross-border alliances unbeknownst to the public — these CEOs are the modern Machiavellian princes. As to democracy — demos for people and kratos for force – it has fallen into cliché and I tread carefully writing that, but the simple truth is that America is a republic under constant tension, both from within and without. The Pledge of Allegiance, whose lines include “to the Republic for which it stands,” is not recited in public schools anymore because of the offending phrase, “one nation under God,” yet POTUS ends each formal speech with, “Thank you, God Bless you, and may God Bless the United States of America.” Is this cognitive dissonance, irony, cliché, or all of the above?
I’m more cynical about politics: in any system (republic, monarchy, real socialism or whatever), elites do and will always decide policies; elites who often do not listen to the elected leaders, and usually don’t, and whose agendas do not coincide with the publicly discussed agendas or the public good. Self-interest and material gain will prevail. One might hedge the notion that Absolute power corrupts absolutely and has since time immemorial. But today’s world would appear as a monstrous dystopia to any Renaissance man like Niccolò Machiavelli. Yes, there has been a lot of material progress, but there is no spirituality, which Machiavelli and his princes considered the final goal of human life. Molta scienza, nessuna sapienza: A lot of knowledge, little wisdom.
In a complex, multi-layered society, we can’t avoid the formation of elites. All we can do is do our best to ensure that they do not succeed in imposing their hidden agendas by subordinating the policies of the representative systems in place to those agendas. We adhere to political systems that were devised centuries ago, keeping the Constitution in a state of Talmudic debate because We the People fear that once the parchment is altered in spirit all will go to hell in a handbasket. We need policies for the Big Data Era at a time when we are thinking like those who lived in the horse-and-buggy and telegraph era. We do not drive our cars using the rules of the road from the days of horses and carriages (or do we?). But that is exactly what we do with politics.
Machiavelli’s principles animated politics in Western Europe, its colonies, and its logical heirs, the United States. The Founding Fathers referred to the liberated United States as “our rising empire.” The Founding Fathers were aristocrats and oligarchs who also understood that as they have rebelled so might those under them rebel against them. They feared a pure democracy. Jefferson worried about whether a republican government “would be practicable beyond the extent of a New England township.” The founding few had an empire to build and they drew some of their strategies from Machiavelli.
The United States has systematically used war and treaty, starting with the Northwest Ordinance of the 1780s, as its method for expanding west of the Mississippi, culminating in the 1840s with the outright claim to divine right inherent in “Manifest Destiny,” which presidents from Theodore Roosevelt on down to Ronald Reagan would invoke without blinking an eye as they lessened the white man’s burden in bringing civilization to non-white but noble savages who did not know that they were yearning to be free. Machiavellian.
The Monroe Doctrine of 1823 told Europe in no uncertain terms that the entire Western Hemisphere was “off limits.” The gloved threat of retaliation was Machiavellian. Squatters essentially annexed Texas, stealing it from Mexico. When politicians conjured up the pretense that American blood had been shed and that the U.S. must go to war with Mexico, a young Whig pol from Illinois protested and asked to see that spot of blood. The Congressman was Abraham “Spotty” Lincoln. The manipulation of sugar as a staple and Cuba’s dependency on the American economy through the 1901 Platt Amendment were Machiavellian. The acquisition of Guam, the Philippines, Puerto Rico, and the annexation of Hawaii have the Machiavellian touch, as does the overt manipulation of entire economies, as happened in the Dominican Republic, Haiti, Nicaragua, and Panama after the 1898 war with Spain. The American and British intelligence concoction, the Zimmerman telegram, and the public outrage over the loss of American lives in the sinking of the Lusitania are pure Machiavellian sleight-of-hand. The ship was sunk in May of 1915, but the U.S. did not enter the First World War until April of 1917. The two-year delay seems logically dissonant.
As to what happened after the First World War – the United States may have declared that it would not join the League of Nations, yet, in a typical about-face, it continued to sign trade treaties. Colonialism and imperialism were conflated terms. Despite the glaring contradictions between declarations and actions, American citizens believed that they were striking out against political oppression, against foreign aggression. Machiavellian. Americans refuse to see the United States as an empire despite its military presence around the world, despite its staggering budget to maintain that presence. Machiavellian. The clichéd power behind the throne is often Machiavellian. Roy Cohn to Senator Joseph McCarthy and Robert Kennedy as Attorney General are examples. The Espionage Act of June 1917, the Sedition Act of May 1918, the arrest of Eugene V. Debs, the Palmer Raids of 1918-1921 were all Machiavellian. Were he around still, what would Machiavelli make of the subsequent use of his ideas? He would point to language, to clichés blindly mouthed, their truths forgotten, and he’d give us that inscrutable smile of his, as if to say that the Prince of Peace, the Prince of Lies are one and the same, and, “Thank you, God Bless you, and may God Bless the United States of America.”