Devil’s Advocate or Misunderstood Genius?

Machiavelli took an unprecedented approach to answer questions like — ‘Are there such things as necessary evils?’ ‘Do the ends justify the means?’ ‘Should we do the wrong things for the right reasons?’

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Chess board with black and white pawns on either side, at center is a black pawn with a crown
"One must therefore be a fox to recognize traps, and a lion to frighten wolves" — Niccolò Machiavelli

Niccolò Machiavelli (1469-1527) – Politician, Diplomat, Writer

Trying to decipher the intricacies of the character of a man can be a tough ask, especially when the said man has been dead for a while, and as defamed as one Machiavelli!

Being indulgent in philosophy, and dabbing in political/economic spheres myself, I couldn’t help but come across his works. Now, I am well aware that Machiavelli’s name has turned into a derogatory synonym for mischief. Apparently, the English slang ‘Old Nick’ has been derived from his first name ‘Niccolo’. Yet, there are those who have looked to him for guidance, calling him the ‘prototype of the modern empirical intellectual’!

He has been labeled a coward for preaching treachery, impish, crooked to the bone, even the devil himself. How many of these claims are true, though, remains to be seen. Which brings us to the question, ‘Has a politician-cum-philosopher ever been as infamous as a son of Florence, who so vociferously declared that man is feral in his nature’?

It can be agreed unanimously that Machiavelli didn’t exactly invent evil. The honors would land on the shoulders of Cain, son of Adam if the Scripture is to be believed. What, then, was the reason that so angered his academic peers and the Church during his time, and countless others after him?

Truth be told, what earned Machiavelli the plaudits of Benito Mussolini and Thomas Cromwell, was also his undoing. His crime being, giving a voice to ethical/political dichotomy that, even though has been a subject of high controversy and lengthy debate, to this day has proven elusive to all, bar even the most brilliant minds.

But this is only part of the problem. Many before him, and even more afterwards commented on the necessity and essence of ethics and their correlation with politico-economic themes. The problem is, Machiavelli, sided with the devil! Benjamin Wiker explained this well when he remarked ‘Machiavelli knew evil. But then, so did many others, in many other times and places… What makes Machiavelli different is that he looked evil in the face and smiled.’

There is a prevailing belief that one needs to conduct one’s business in a legitimate and orderly manner. That good is good and is explicitly separated from evil. That morality needs to be observed in conducting one’s affairs. That ethical values need to be adhered to.

Machiavelli questioned these beliefs, and spectacularly so. He questioned the effect of artificial empathy on the integrity of an individual, and enquired, ‘Must a man act sympathetic even if he harbors no such feelings?’ The answer according to him is yes, one should. But only to meet one’s perverse objectives rather than a misplaced sense of morality!

He demanded that to consolidate his power, ‘The Prince’ needs to be ruthless. That the ordinary standards of righteousness need not be observed. That fear is the driving force in captivating masses and keeping people in line. That ‘The Prince’ must act his part in front of the public and keep his darkest thoughts to himself.

“One can say this in general of men: they are ungrateful, disloyal, insincere and deceitful, timid of danger and avid of profit…Love is a bond of obligation that these miserable creatures break whenever it suits them to do so, but fear holds them fast by a dread of punishment that never passes.”

– The Prince

In Machiavelli’s world, Utopia does not exist. Man is violent, unpredictable and evil in his true nature. In the ideal Machiavellian Utopia, the end justifies the means. Pragmatism and experience take center stage and idealism is denounced. Empiricism, on the other hand, is exalted and preached as the cure to cure for all that is wrong.

In Machiavelli’s vision of the perfect state, deceit is what separates a successful Prince from a failed one. But not any deceit, mind you! The careful and planned use of deceit, deviousness, dishonesty, and disloyalty, backed with a show of power and force, is bound to land a successful Prince a chapter or two in history. This he called ‘Virtu’, the use of cunning and necessary ruthlessness to govern the people.

“Therefore it is unnecessary for a prince to have all the good qualities I have enumerated, but it is very necessary to appear to have them. And I shall dare to say this also, that to have them and always to observe them is injurious, and that to appear to have them is useful; to appear merciful, faithful, humane, religious, upright, and to be so, but with a mind so framed that should you require not to be so, you may be able and know how to change to the opposite.”

– An excerpt from The Prince

But is that all? Is that why Machiavelli is so popular some six centuries after his departure? Or is there something subtly buried within all the controversies that compels so many of his academic peers in political philosophy to call him the father of their subject?

There is little doubt that Machiavelli was the original politician to have wandered on the borders of modern political philosophy. His writing is too inconsistent and self-contradictory to be considered a true philosophy. There are enough hints to look at him as a budding prospect that could do with a bit of polishing, but there is no coherence in the subject matter or the content.

Instead, what makes him stand out amongst his fellow intellectuals in an astutely positive way, is the realization that morals and politics should be considered separate spheres and should be dealt in their separate respective territories accordingly. In doing so, he delivered the first blow to the Church’s grasp on the state affairs, thus laying the foundations for the concept of modern secular states, where the law is independent of religious principles.

In attempting to decipher Machiavelli’s musings, I want to draw attention to the genius of the man who voiced the debate that is both alive and well in taxing times such as these. The debate being: Should the end justify the means? Are there such things as necessary evils? Should one do the wrong things for the right reason?

Taking up the matter of this debate, I will try to discern the Machiavellian principles both in terms of governmental and state-level decision making, and business and entrepreneurial tasks. Perhaps Machiavelli’s philosophy is enamored for purely political thinking, but I (and many others) will argue that politics and economics can’t be dealt with individually. It is the economic circumstances that will, more or less, ultimately be the perpetrators of what political stance a government will take.

Proof of this is that the debate has extended to our capitalist markets. The question being raised today by the Yellow Vests and Hong Kongese is that, should the entrepreneur be allowed to indulge in profit maximization at the cost of exploitation of labor and deterioration of political and environmental health? There are Machiavellian marks over these issues. The struggle to keep hold of power through instilling fear. Election to the office and super-normal profits taking precedence over good governance and customer satisfaction. Risk minimization at the cost of environmental pollution. Fear of job security. Fear of what tomorrow might have in stock. The end justifying the means. One is bound to wonder how much of a hand does Machiavelli has in all this.

Which gives rise to even further questions!

‘Is Machiavellianism now the true face of our generation?’ ‘Do all politicians necessarily need to engage in tariff and trade wars to secure the interests of their people?’ ‘Does unethical marketing need to be the hallmark of all advertising campaigns?

Probably the biggest enigma lies herein. Although treachery is considered to be the trait of a cur, in coming out as a dedicated and true Machiavellian, Niccolo didn’t exactly act like a coward. Rather, he achieved what can be considered one of the bravest feats in all history. In announcing himself as the anti-hero and writing The Prince, Machiavelli gave a voice to unheeded forces of nature. Ones that always existed, but no one had understood them.

Isaac Newton’s discovery of gravity allowed us to manipulate some equations and turn a few screws, and as a result, we were able to land a man on the moon after a few decades. Similarly, by tapping into nature’s unrivaled force of human cunning and greed, Machiavelli ushered in an era, one that sees its peak nowadays where credit score matters the most.

Statue of a boy placing a Crown on his head
“It is necessary for a prince wishing to hold his own to know how to do wrong, and to make use of it or not according to necessity.”

Machiavelli’s genius doesn’t just encompass these perspectives of human behavior alone. Rather, it can be taken as a prophecy for the times to come. A Europe under the effects of the Renaissance was enough to give Niccolo an insight into the future. As the industrial revolution took England, and then Europe by storm in the 16th and 17th, a pattern emerged. Jobs became more specialized. Industry turned to mechanization. It became harder to maintain public order with masses taking to the streets and strikes up and down the continent. The demand for The Prince rose sharply in the aftermath of the execution of King Charles, suggesting that men of power were willing to lend an ear to a Florentine politician. Suffice to say that, the ‘founding fathers’ of the USA took ample guidance from Machiavelli, in deciding what direction would the young nation head. Josef Stalin is also believed to have possessed a copy of The Prince!

At long last, we come to the question of, what do we make of all this?

Machiavelli’s works are one of a man adept at what he is trying to convey, delivered with a ferocious passion. It is, therefore, safe to say that the debate will rumble on. There will always be those who will point at how simple and legitimate Machiavelli’s philosophy is, and how eloquently it defines human nature. For them, he will forever remain a guiding light. And there will always be those who will rival him by pointing at the pure human emotions of love and self-expression.

As in the scientific management theories of early behavioral scientists, some glaring flaws do exist within Machiavelli’s proposed political scheme. For Instance, there’s a total disregard of the human element. The qualities like loyalty, trust, and honesty are degraded as if they were the true vices and not virtues.

Another one of the most basic defects is that this management style leaves little to no room for growth and improvement. Everything channels through ‘The Prince’, and he is not only the ceremonial head of the state/organization but is also the judge, the jury and the executioner. There is no power delegated to juniors and accomplices, which means they cannot take initiative. This can’t possibly work in large bureaucratic organizations, let alone a governmental system of colossal size.

Modern theorists also suggest that, instead of consolidating power, a true Prince would consolidate the economy, and let the forces of Demand and Supply take over with minimal government intervention. They argue that waging wars and totalitarian governments are unacceptable in society these days (China being an exception) and puts a massive strain on the budget. There will be repercussions from the global stakeholders on the belligerents as well (Iran being the latest example).

All I can say is, convinced though he was, Machiavelli’s ideas might have been suitable for a certain city-state government. In today’s highly competitive and globalized geopolitical situation where the satisfaction of your customer/citizen is key to a corporation/government’s success, these ideas wouldn’t stand the test of time. Similarly, purely ethical business/political practices won’t land you the top spot either. The bigger sharks will be out to hunt you, soon as they see you. It is a thin line though, and how far you want to lean is up for debate!

One thing that I can state with a fair degree of confidence and one we can all agree on is that Machiavelli surely revolutionized our perspective of political/ethical dogma by challenging the very foundations it was built on. He brought the debate of right and wrong, what is acceptable and what is not, from religious institutes and imperial courts to our streets and doorsteps, giving the layman insight and exposure to the workings of labyrinthine political dungeons. And that probably is the biggest feat he achieved.

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