Niccolo Machiavelli

Statue of Niccolo Machiavelli

Niccolo Machiavelli – Documentary Notes

Reading time: ~5 min.

Machiavelli was an Italian 16th century thinker and politician. He wrote a famous manuscript named ‘The Prince’ about power: about how to get it and how to keep it. Today it is basically an how-to guide for politicians. You can be good, you can be evil… or you can play the game well. Why concern yourself with morality? Is it better to be feared than loved?

A very short biography of Machiavelli is told. ‘The Prince’, the most famous Machiavelli’s work, is described by the narrator as a ‘job application’ addressed to the king, explaining to the king why he needed him. In fact the book had no title, the title was given to it after he died by the publisher. It was named this way because it generally talks about how a prince should behave in order to get and maintain power. One of the most sinister chapters is how princes shouldn’t always keep their word, as experience shows that people with little regard to their word have achieved great things. As other men have no regard in keeping their word to you, then you have no need to keep your word to them.

Machiavelli was the first to look at power for what it is, devoid of morality, and to think about it strategically. It shows us what the world looks like when the ethical dimensions have been removed from consideration. There are those that go to politics wanting to change things for the good of the people, and those that are there to play the game, they could be described as ‘political animals’. Many of well known politicians like Napoleon, Stalin, Mussolini, read the Prince. The last one even did his dissertation on it.

Two TV shows are mentioned as relevant to this topic: ‘House of Cards’ which deals with the insides workings of politics and also ‘Game of thrones’ where rulers have to make decisions like killing a family because of the good of the kingdom. We tend to think that a good person can become a good leader, a good ruler. But when we look at the real world and the history, that’s not really what’s happening.

Are corporations the modern day Machiavellies? In order to exercise power in the world you have to give the appearance of being nice and good. If you look like you are too ambitious for power, people are going to see that and dislike it. People want to feel that you are motivated by a good higher purpose so you have to manage your appearance. And all companies play that game. Sometimes the confidence with which a speaker pitches can be more persuasive than the idea itself.

Machiavelli argues that to maintain power it is better to be feared than to be loved, because the latter can be changed at one’s convenience, he says. It is a two way thing, so the other party can stop loving you, while the former is only one way. They can’t stop fearing you [is that really?]. He also says you shouldn’t trust anyone, because they are going to do things that are best for their own interests and not yours. So what’s the point of making them love you, if they’re going to thrown you down the river? Better to make them at least slightly frightened. An example of this is a CEO firing people. Not even the most loyal employees should be exempt of this. But you shouldn’t be hated, because that way they can get rid of you. The proper feelings towards you should be respect mixed with a pinch of fear. In order to avoid hate he advises that other people do your dirty work. If things go wrong, that person gets punished, if possible, in a way that people get slightly fearful of you. An example is of a leader that ordered a minister to pacify a village. That minister does it very cruelly, so people get even angrier. So one day the minister is found in the square of the village in two pieces. The crowd gains some respect for the leader and is satisfied, because the minister was bringing terror to the village, but at the same time slightly fearful, as they think, ‘wow this guy has power, he can do anything, even kill the minister and put him on display in the town square’. Without knowing it at the time this is one of the steps to rule a tyranny. It seems that lots of world leaders had someone like this, who did their dirty jobs, and were the ones seen as the bad guys, whereas the leader could distance themselves from them when that happened.

Some interviewees say how the feeling of powerlessness to control one’s own destiny and others’ actions is something no one wants. The power struggles are present everywhere, from college kids trying to be leaders of their group to world leaders. Another interviewee argues how that once you enter the game, you need to play it or you’re going to get pushed around.

The test personality test 3) (see below) has been done with a lot of people and some interesting results are that men are slightly more machiavellic than women, and that it peaks in adolescence. Both right and left-wings are equally machiavellic.

Is the prince a manual for tyranny or a realistic guide to life? Morality is argued to be something that we invented to survive. “If virtuousness isn’t necessarily rewarded, why be virtuous?” is something Machiavelli would ask. According to him, you shouldn’t worry about being morally good, only the final consequences. The Prince is the kind of book someone who lost faith in humanity would write. Power is a tool. It can be used for good and for bad.

Then the documentary goes back to tell about a bit of story. The book was published in early 1500s, and banned by the pope. Then slowly the word Machiavellic started gaining negative connotation, firstly as the devil, but it changed throughout the times. Interesting that in Italy Machiavelli is taught in school in a more positive manner, and his statue is alongside other Italian great minds.

But what about the man himself? He never got his job back. At the time, if people were indeed using his advice, then according to that advice, they wouldn’t make themselves known to be doing it. Still, little did he know that 500 years after his death his little leaflet would be one of the most influential books ever written.

Useful reading:

  1. The Prince
  2. The Hexaco Personality Inventory (personality test)
  3. Machiavelism Test (personality test)
  4. The 48 Laws Of Power
  5. The 50th Law

Do you know any “machiavellian” people? Being that a characteristic of a good machiavellian is being able to fake well, how have you been able to see through the facade?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *