The Relevance of Niccolo Machiavelli’s The Prince to Contemporary Society and Politics

The Relevance of Niccolo Machiavelli’s The Prince to Contemporary Society and Politics

Leadership and Human Nature

Niccolò Machiavelli was born on May 3, 1469, in Florence, Italy. He began his work in government as a clerk in 1494. This was the same year that the Medici family, who ruled Florence for approximately 60 years, was exiled. In 1498, Machiavelli became a diplomat for the Florentine Republic. The Medici's banishment was only temporary, and they returned to power in 1512. Machiavelli was suspected of conspiracy and outlawed. It was during this time that he wrote his most famous work yet: The Prince. His theories reflected on how rulers and leaders ought to rule and maintain power. His perspective on human nature can make his concept of a great leader seem cruel and evil. In fact, the word Machiavellian is used to describe a ruler who leads by the philosophy of the ends justify the means. In other words, it is justifiable to do whatever it takes to get and maintain power. The ability to enforce fear and behave evilly or good is essential when one is trying to obtain, preserve or lengthen their power according to the principles of Niccolò Machiavelli. Machiavelli is regarded as the father of modern political theory. His ideas influenced many of history’s greatest leaders. Vladimir Illich Lenin is one of the greatest Machiavellian rulers, for he was able to rule with both force and love. Harry Truman, the 33rd President of the United States, is also often regarded as a Machiavellian ruler. His decision to drop the atomic bomb on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki shredded morals and disregarded the principles of evil and good. It was justified by the fact that it sought to achieve one desirable result: to the end the war. Machiavellian principles are used as a guide to leadership and management. His theories are evident in contemporary American politics.

One of the major principles Machiavelli elaborated on is this concept of appearances. Throughout The Prince he is constantly reinforcing this notion that a prince should appear to be all faith, friendship, humanity, and religion but not actually be any of these things. The characteristics people want in an ideal leader contrast with reality. They may want someone who is honest, faithful, and unbiased, but reality indicates that this is not what is best. Humans are self-interested, profit-driven and deceitful. Therefore, if a leader wants to remain in power he must to be self-interested, profit-driven, and deceitful. Machiavelli has a very low opinion of humans; they are easily manipulated and would withdraw their support for you within seconds. A prince or leader must be a mirror of an ideal and perfect person to rule. They must be “a great pretender and dissemble.” This game of appearances can be applied to modern politics. Many politicians of today can be regarded as Machiavellian. For example, people started speculating when former President Barack Obama had a change of heart on homogeneous marriage. Was he pretending to be a Christian just to win votes or did he actually have a change of heart?

In 2006, Barack Obama stated his opposition to same-sex marriage. He made his faith a central part of his campaign strategy in 2008. Many have claimed that Obama misled Americans into thinking that his opposition to gay marriage was because of religious background. Nick Spencer’s “The Mighty And The Almighty: How Political Leaders Do God” describes the effect Christianity has on contemporary political power. The story told by Obama’s former senior advisor David Axelrod claiming that Obama “had always supported same-sex marriage, but had been persuaded to hide his position during his first campaign” verified the belief that the president “lied about his religious beliefs in order to further his agenda.” Some conservatives still find the authenticity of Obama Christian faith questionable. The United States is predominantly a Christian nation, so it would make sense for politicians to make religion a campaign strategy in hopes of winning the votes from the American people. During a campaign stop in Sioux Center, Iowa in 2016, Donald Trump stated that as president he will strengthen the power of Christians as detailed in Business Insider’s Colin Campbell’s article, “TRUMP: If I'm president, 'Christianity will have power' in the US.” He stated: "Because if I'm there, you're going to have plenty of power. You don't need anybody else. You're going to have somebody representing you very, very well. Remember that." Former President George Bush is labeled as a Machiavellian leader because of his decision to invade Iraq in hopes of protecting American territory. In 2003, Bush made the decision to declare war against Iraq. Allegedly, Bush was religiously motivated to end the dangers in Iraq. In an article, “Bush ‘God Talk’ Rumors About Iraq War Spark Controversy And Debate, posted by the Americans United. Bush supposedly stated to “Nabil Shaath, then-Palestinian foreign minister, ‘God would tell me, ‘George, go and fight those terrorists in Afghanistan.’ And I did, and then God would tell me, ‘George, go and end tyranny in Iraq’…and I did.’” Machiavelli stressed that the only good war is just war. It could be argued that Bush used religious tactics to justify his decision. Do politicians use religion to appeal to the masses and make their decision seem favorable in the eyes of Christians? According to Machiavelli, they do. They make it appear as if God is using them to fulfill his duties. Machiavelli would approve of these tactics. It does not only strengthen the love the people have for their leader, but it makes the leader appear like the ideal ruler.

Machiavelli implied that it is fine for a prince to be good, but only in a state where everyone is good and honest. However, since we live in a world of evil and selfish humans it is necessary to behave evilly. According to Machiavelli, a prince must be neutral, so he can behave immorally or moral when he must. In The Prince, he stated, “Hence 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.” The prince, as Machiavelli describes him, is moral. He is not necessarily cruel or righteous. He must be morally neutral so that he can behave in a way that is evil or good if necessary. Humankind, in general, is evil so we must be comfortable with having to do immoral things. During the 2002 mayoral election for Newark, New Jersey, councilman Cory Booker felt strongly about his positive “stick with the facts” image and thought that it will be sufficient in defeating four-time Mayor Sharpe James. In the documentary, Street Fight, Booker soon realized he stepped into a ring with a pit bull. The veteran mayor’s campaign was filled with illicit tactics and mudslinging. James accused Booker of conspiring with the KKK and the Taliban, collaborating with Jews to take over Newark, and being a Republican. James even went far enough to question Booker’s ethnicity and incited that his opponent wasn’t “black enough” to run a city like Newark. Booker’s campaign took many hits. Local businesses owners who displayed Booker signs were shut down and raided. Residents who held meetings in their homes were threatened with eviction. During the name-calling and slandering, Booker stayed true to his positive image and continued to shut down James’ wild allegations. He did not behave like a “lion” but more like a “fox”. As Machiavelli stated a leader has to be both a lion and fox “because the lion cannot defend himself against snares and the fox cannot defend himself against wolves. Therefore, it is necessary to be a fox to discover the snares and a lion to terrify the wolves.” James was able to do both. On May 14th, 2002, Booker lost the election. James did what was necessary to remain in power. His methods weren’t morally justified but it was effective. Booker addressed his supporters after the defeat, saying that they, “have now slipped a small end of a larger wedge into the door of this political machine.” American politics are known to be dirty. This principle can also be applied to material and business success. In Michael Walden’s book, Battleground, he explains how unethical people can be successful in the business world and corporate business scandals are proof of that. One of the examples he used was Andrew Fastow. Fastow, former chief financial officer of Enron Corporation, an energy trading company, disgraced his legacy when he was convicted and charged with fraud. Although he was eventually caught, his unethical behavior kept him wealthy and an honorary figure in the business world for years. Walden elaborates on how corporate businesses have one goal in mind: to make money. Since financial performance, not ethical, is rewarded, “it is very easy for ethical standards to get compromised”. This correlates with Machiavelli’s notion that the ends justify the means. Are consequences of one's action morally relevant to the action itself? Fastow achieved what he wanted to do and that was to obtain millions and millions of dollars. Disregarding the fact that was fired and convicted, his unlawful and unethical behavior helped him achieved that goal just like Sharpe James’ mudslinging helped him secure another term. Many people may not find James and Fastow’s actions moral and are appalled at their actions. This would not be so shocking to Machiavelli. To him, this world is filled with unrighteous people. People may want to live in a good world filled with good people, but their actions say otherwise.

We all have a vision of how society should be and how we all should be righteous. Machiavelli exposes mankind of their hypocrisy. This is evident when he states: “…because how one lives is so far distant from how one ought to live, that he who neglects what is done for what ought to be done, sooner effects his ruin than his preservation; for a man who wishes to act entirely up to his professions of virtue soon meets with what destroys him among so much that is evil." Machiavelli is saying that this vision of how we should be does not correspond to what we are and what we do. Machiavelli’s principle can be applied to America’s obsession with reality shows. In her book “Reality Bites Back: The Troubling Truth About Guilty Pleasure TV”, Jennifer Pozner slams reality shows and proclaims the need for higher quality television. She argues that “reality TV exacerbates media’s superficiality” rather than adding any type of depth. Pozner’s argument may be true but people are going to watch what they want. The National Geographic Channel and Discovery Channel may offer content that is more educational than the content presented on VH1 or MTV, but statistics show that educational content is not what consumers are attracted to. Pozner presented the fact that “in January 2007, CBS Evening News reported that more people watched American Idol on Fox than saw President Bush’s State of the Union speech on ABC, NBC, and CBS combined”. The Kardashians are publicly ridiculed and declared as trashy. However, it does not stop millions of people from tuning into their successful reality show, stalking their social media accounts or purchasing their products. It is true; we should be exploring educational content. We should be reading Shakespeare. There should be marketing of scholastic programming. However, that is not what is going to happen. Machiavelli is saying that is how we ought to live but not how we are currently living. Advertisers are going to promote what people want to see and not what they need. Just like Sharpe James’ goal was to win and Andrew Fastow’s goal was to be wealthy, businesses main goal is to make money.

The ideologies of Machiavelli’s The Prince continue to live on through contemporary society and politics. The guidance he offered rulers is still applied today. His suggestion to act as if you obtain all the characteristics the people want basically sums up America’s political system. Humans are fascinated with appearances. They want leaders with all the great attributes: honesty, faithfulness and integrity. A great leader must pretend to be these things because that is how they will rise to power. However, to maintain that power they must be able to use good and bad interchangeably. Being good all the time can lead to ruin. Sharpe James appeared to be the voice of the people without being the voice of the people. Cory Booker proved that countless times throughout his campaign. Crime and poverty was rising in Newark, New Jersey at the time even though the establishment of a performing arts center was bringing tons of money into the city. However, Booker lost his first mayoral election trying to live up to his good image and James won because he had no problem getting dirty. Donald Trump won the 2016 presidential election and shocked the nation. Many people thought: “How can someone who is so outspoken and impulsive be selected as the leader of one of the greatest nations in the world?” It was his ability to appear as “fox” and “lion” that won so many people over. Although Machiavelli was a pessimist of human nature, his evaluation of humans proves to be true. Not only can his principles be applied to politicians and corporate businesses, it is also relevant to contemporary society. We live in a society in which the things we ought to do is not what we really do. Our affection is won by those who appeal to us the most. However, we are quick to turn on our beloved leaders during difficult times. We do not possess the traits we wish to see in a leader. Five hundred years ago, Niccolo Machiavelli wrote a manual on leadership that is still pertinent today.

Cover Image Credit: R.M. Illustration

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