Rediscovering the Prince in Machiavelli

By Walters, Colin | The Washington Times (Washington, DC), June 9, 1996 | Go to article overview

Rediscovering the Prince in Machiavelli


Walters, Colin, The Washington Times (Washington, DC)


Does the face of the CEO du jour on the cover of Forbes magazine or on the newspaper business pages make you think of Machiavelli? Probably not (unless you are among the recently fired), but in fact, the author of "The Prince" was the first to use the word "execute" with management squarely in mind. And he meant it.

No fan of classical Greek "imaginary republics and principalities," Machiavelli preferred to argue by historical examples taken from the Romans or more recent Italian experience. Harvey Mansfield returns more than once to that of Don Remiro de Lorqua, brought in by Cesare Borgia following the conquest of Romagna to purge unruly lords of that province. The Spaniard did his job too well. Cesare, fearful of the purger's growing authority, purged him, "and one day had Remirro displayed in the piazza at Cesena in two pieces."

The executive was, on that occasion, governing indirectly rather than through open leadership such as would have been approved by Aristotle. And in sacrificing Remiro when he had served his purpose, Cesare demonstrated the necessity, as Machiavelli saw it, of a politician learning how not to be good. For, and here is Mr. Mansfield on the point:

"The evil can be brought to see that their glory requires action for the common benefit, but the good are self-sufficient and ineducable because they think goodness is enough." Talk about tough love.

Doubtless, Cesare came down on Remiro like a wolf, decisively, suddenly and after preparing the move in secrecy - all desirable skills in an executive. Finally, and though he had chosen for the moment to govern indirectly, the conqueror knew that periodically a prince needs to show himself to the governed, and to spectacular effect. It teaches that the guilty get punished and reminds the people of their primitive "beginnings" before they had a city for their prince, in his rough justice, to protect.

The spectacle of Remiro's fate, we are told, "left the people `at the same time satisfied and stupified.' " Afterward, Cesare showed how moderate he could be by establishing a more constitutional government. One thinks of Lyndon Johnson's handling of successive troop movements in the Vietnam War, threatening to commit another 100,000, then creating a sense of relief by sending only 60,000.

Scholars today tend to excuse Machiavelli's brutal side, his dismissal of the ancient Greeks' belief in intellectual and moral virtue and his invitation to evil in the view that man cannot, as a practical matter, always afford to be just. Or these same scholars dismiss Machiavelli as quaint in light of later liberal institutions, such as the doctrine of separation of powers, which he failed to anticipate. He tends to be seen as "a harbinger of later developments of nationalism, of science, and in Isaiah Berlin's interpretation, even of liberalism."

At times one senses Machiavelli's contemporary apologists trying to separate the man from the things he clearly said, even going so far as to suggest that he really was religious despite all the contemptuous references to "the present religion." (However, in approving of decimation as a means of punishing the populace, he was quite happy to appropriate the Christian notion of original sin.)

Mr. Mansfield is not interested in any of these ameliorations. He does "not recommend them," preferring to take his Machiavelli neat. Indeed, he sees Old Nick as laying the foundation on which Hobbes would construct his model of the modern state.

Certainly, Machiavelli's idea, prompted by the example of Lycurgus of Sparta, to exclude a portion of the populace from governing, then let others compete for power with the consent of the people, points in the direction of representative democracy so far as it goes. …

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