Machiavelli Was Ahead of His Time

By Rust, Michael | Insight on the News, September 13, 1999 | Go to article overview
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Machiavelli Was Ahead of His Time


Rust, Michael, Insight on the News


Dick Morris and the 16th century spin doctor? His new book is a perfect fit, while other writers this summer also find inspiration in the old rogue and idealist.

For all his shrewdness, the subtle Florentine, Niccolo Machiavelli, would seem to be in need of a competent late 20th century spin doctor. "Murderous Machiavel" was how Shakespeare referred to him; others in the 16th century used the satanic label "Old Nick" for the crafty philosopher. In 1827, Lord Macaulay, poet and philosopher, wrote that he doubted "whether any name in literary history be so generally odious." In this century, the left-leaning philosopher Bertrand Russell dismissed Machiavelli's masterpiece, The Prince, as "a handbook for gangsters." The 10th edition of Webster's Collegiate Dictionary informs latter-day students that "Machiavellian" means "marked by cunning, duplicity or bad faith."

Perhaps it was inevitable then that The New Prince appeared this summer, written by political consultant Dick Morris, whose strategy of "triangulation" helped revive President Clinton's political fortunes. Morris, who survived the torture of media scrutiny following revelations about his mid-nineties cavorting with a Washington prostitute and became a public cog in the media empire of Rupert Murdoch, claims in his book to write in "the spirit of the original Prince to help an incumbent," although critics have been dubious.

Also on the shelves is Machiavelli on Leadership by conservative foreign-policy expert Michael Ledeen, which argues that Machiavelli's observations on leadership ring true five centuries later. Search a little more carefully, and you can find Machiavelli for Children, an amusing spoof offering Machiavellian maxims geared to the younger set. Harper's editor Lewis Lapham, this summer, offers Lapham's Rules of Influence, another spoof of class and manners in America of the 1990s, with advice worthy of the 16th century sage. On possessions, Lapham opines: "Possessions testify not only to social status but also to an individual's worth as a human being. Small and shabby collections belong to small and shabby souls. Act accordingly."

But hold. In a summer of drought, celluloid witches and Hannibal Lecter, the voice of Machiavelli is still being heard, and many find it a welcome presence. In the late 15th and early 16th centuries, the Discourses, The Art of War and his posthumously published The Prince marked the beginning of modern political science, a turn toward Renaissance humanism, which sought to unite classical pagan philosophy and Christianity.

In contrast to the medieval preoccupation with divine providence, Machiavelli saw what he called Fortuna as the key element in political success, a notoriously capricious force that intervenes for good or ill in all our lives. "It is probably true," he wrote, "that fortune is the arbiter of half the things we do, leaving the other half or so to be controlled by ourselves." Machiavelli, in contrast to many who preceded him, asked citizens to recognize that good can lead to evil and order to disorder. History, especially Roman history, he argued, provides a body of knowledge that can be used to derive lessons applicable to daily life, a life inundated by corruption and lawlessness.

In the centuries that have passed, succeeding generations have been shocked by what they see as clear-eyed ruthlessness. "Men must be either pampered or crushed, because they can get revenge for small injuries, but not for grievous ones. So any injury a prince does a man should be of a kind where there is no fear of revenge."

In 1513, Machiavelli composed The Prince as a means of currying favor with the Medicis, the autocratic rulers of Florence. The philosopher's premature republicanism had led to his falling out of favor with the Medicis, who had been reinstalled in power in Florence by the Spanish that year. The republic to which Machiavelli had been loyal was gone and, to accentuate the point, the newly empowered Medicis had Machiavelli imprisoned and tortured for 22 days.

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