The Real Machiavelli: For the Past Five Centuries, the Political Genius of Niccolo Machiavelli Has Been Overshadowed by His Reputation as a Cold Supporter of Corrupt Ruling. Only Recently Have His True Beliefs Come to Light

Article excerpt

Few European writers and thinkers have been so consistently criticised, and so consistently misunderstood, as the Florentine statesman and diplomat Niccolo Machiavelli. To most people he is known solely for his statement that "the ends justify the means", arguing that in times of extreme crisis it may be appropriate to use dishonest methods for the purposes of achieving a greater good. For those five words, Machiavelli's reputation has been paying the price for nearly five centuries. In fact, Machiavelli was not in favour of tyranny, nor did he believe that leaders should act immorally. A convinced republican, he was a believer in democracy who argued that the only true political virtue springs from the people. His powerful observations on leadership and organisational dynamics are relevant not only to contemporary politics but also to modern business as it struggles to find the right balance between empowerment and control, centralisation and decentralisation.

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A man before his time

Machiavelli was born in Florence on May 3, 1469, the son of a lawyer and minor noble. He began his career in the civil service under the rule of the Medici family, and kept his post following their overthrow and the establishment of a republic under the religious fundamentalist Savonarola in 1494. He survived the fall of Savonarola in 1498 and went on to achieve high rank under the subsequent moderate republican government, serving as secretary to the body known as the Ten of War During this period he was a figure of some importance in Florence. After the return of the Medici to power in 1512, Machiavelli was removed from office and, in 1513, he was imprisoned and tortured. Released, he retired to his country estate at San Casciano, near Florence, and it was here that he produced his most famous writings: The Prince, Discourses on the First Decade of Livy and The Art of War (only the latter was published in his own lifetime). He recovered some public favour after 1521, but the second overthrow of the Medici in 1527 led to the end of his hopes of a return to public. He died on June 21,1527 after a short illness.

Even before his death, Machiavelli was pilloried for his supposed lack of morals. The Prince, in particular, was subjected to what one modern commentator called "a firestorm of invective" (Dietz 1998:17). Late Renaissance and early modern propagandists depicted him as being in league with the devil. Had he lived a century later, and in northern Europe, it is likely that his ideas would have found a more favourable reception. But in 16th century Italy, where the Papacy and its allies were fighting tooth and nail against reformation, Machiavelli stood little chance.

Power and morality

Machiavelli's greatest sin, in the eyes of his religious critics, was to consider concepts such as politics and power outside the framework of Christian ethics. In The Prince, political leadership and decision making are evaluated not in terms of whether they are ethically "right", but whether they were ultimately to the benefit of the state. Machiavelli accepts that leaders will sometimes use torture and tyranny in times of crisis. He recognises that these things are morally wrong, but he points out that the consequences of failure - the ruin of states and the sack of cities - can be far worse. Princes should not hesitate to use immoral methods to achieve power, if power is necessary for security and survival. Today, as we debate issues such as whether evidence extracted from terrorist suspects by torture is admissible in courts of law, Machiavelli seems alarmingly prescient.

For centuries, it was argued that Machiavelli was justifying or condoning corrupt ruling. But a variety of observers in the 20th century, from the romantic novelist Rafael Sabatini to the American philosopher James Burnham, argued that Machiavelli was merely spelling out things as they were. Burnham (1943), a passionate defender of Machiavelli, argued that the latter was not passing judgement on princes, but merely describing a kind of realpolitik. …