Category : Guest Articles
PhD student Andrea Di Carlo of University College Cork applies contemporary examples to re-assess the thinking of the most misunderstood philosopher of Western philosophy.
As a scholar of Machiavelli, I’ve always the impression there must be something wrong with what I’m working on: people believe I’m doing research on the most diabolical thinker in the whole of Western philosophy. But, like any long-standing prejudice, this view is far from being correct; what I’ll try to do in this article is to show that Niccolò Machiavelli wasn’t actually that bad. He was simply being practical, but let’s start now!
Machiavelli: a short bio.
Niccolò Machiavelli was born in Florence. When he was born and in the first part of his life, Florence was a republic. Machiavelli had a very important political role in the Florentine set-up: he was the secretary of the republic. But when the Medici were able to go back into power, he was forced into exile. Since he was seeking new employment, he went against his own political ideas and wrote a booklet. This very booklet is The Prince, a pivotal text which is supposed to show leaders how they should behave when dealing with the nitty-gritty of politics. Unfortunately, this very text tainted his reputation and thousands of works were written against him, by example Gentillet’s Anti-Machiavel. Even England had its own share of anti-Machiavellian sentiment: in Marlowe’s The Jew of Malta, the prologue is recited by a Machivel and still nowadays the nickname ‘old Nick’ is modelled on Machiavelli’s name. So much for his biography!
Machiavelli and politics: a never-ending personal story.
Machiavelli lived all his life in politics. And there’s no doubt politics informed his literary work. The Prince is no chance title: he wants to teach leaders how it behoves them to behave when they’re dealing with real-life politics. Machiavelli’s text is a backlash to medieval philosophy: no Christian advice, no moral advice, or pre-established political category. Everything is true: his philosophy is based on context. If for leaders a certain course of action is deemed to be necessary in specific circumstances, then they have to go down that route. That course of action may not be necessarily be ok from a moral point of view, but it is what they have to do. Hence the infamous (and never written) phrase ‘the end justifies the means.’ What he actually wrote was leaders have to assess the circumstances and the results of their decisions can be deemed to be either honourable or despicable only ex post (after the decision-taking process). This means that politics cannot be considered to be an abstract category: there can’t be any official form of political practice because politics, like our lives, is unpredictable.
The behaviour of leaders: the fox and the lion.
The lion and the fox are compelling metaphors: they highlight the fact we ought to be both cunning and violent, if need be. Machiavelli’s animal-like leader derives from the centaur Chiron: Chiron, who brought up Achilles, was half beast and half man. So like Chiron, even politicians have to be the same. What are the consequences of such advice? Politicians, on the basis of their assessment of circumstances, have to be cunning. As Machiavelli himself writes, it is better to appear to be pious, devout, religious, dutiful, or committed; therefore politicians are required to be simulators. But actually you aren’t that way. In addition to being devious (because such is the nature of politics), you also have, as again Machiavelli writes, to enter into evil. That means leaders have got to be ready to be violent if the end they want to achieve requires them to be ruthless. Again, Machiavelli is realist and practical because he knows the workings of politics. He is not being amoral, but his advice is sound: politics, as Kierkegaard would write with reference to the Old Testament, is something where you live and suffer. Donald Trump is no exception to the Machiavellian strategy: he had to curry favour with the conservative and religious electorate, and therefore he reached out to them by promising he would, for example, appoint conservative judges on the Supreme Court.
So why was Machiavelli ruthlessly slandered for such a long time?
In order to answer this momentous question, one should taken the context (again) into account. Europe was a war-torn continent: religious conflicts had been sweeping all over Europe since 1517 and political instability was something that had to be reckoned with. The idea of politics that (on paper) was based on scheming and devious strategy wasn’t the best option. The mother of the king of France, Catherine of Medici, came from Florence, Machiavelli’s birthplace. These factors (and many others) contributed to creating a climate of suffocating doubt and lingering suspicion. England was very harsh on Machiavelli, but Elizabeth I had her own copy of The Prince. Machiavelli was frowned upon because he was ruthless, but the fact European politics was as ruthless as he was supposed to be bears witness to an obvious conclusion; that they were all relying on his advice. But, again, Machiavelli’s supposed immorality is just untrue because he was practical and realistic.
Is present-day politics Machiavellian?
The answer is undoubtedly yes. Trump and his cohorts are simply practising Machiavelli’s simulation. Are they really interested in pursuing a conservative or populistic agenda? Is their crackdown on immigration and their nationalistic rhetoric something you can give credence to? People would usually buy into their rhetoric but, as Machiavelli would say, it is better for you to appear rather than to be. And this is usually what these people do.
The topic of this article was to re-assess in an easy and accessible way the thinking of the most misunderstood philosopher of Western philosophy, Niccolò Machiavelli. The usual consensus on his philosophy is he’s spiteful and amoral but, as I’ve tried to prove, his supposed amorality has to be contextualised. Context is the key word in Machiavellian philosophy, because the archetypal Machiavellian politician knows that politics can only work when it engages with specific circumstances. Thus, accusations of amorality usually levelled at Machiavelli don’t add up: if leaders behave in a certain way it is because they think they have to take such a decision. And this is not because they’re evil. Therefore, politicians saying they understand politics are actually lying because politics can only be made sense of in its own context, not out of it.
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