Gerard van der Leun

Deception. Cunningness. Manipulation. These divide the world into two kinds of people. The first half likes, and practices these skills. The second half is appalled by the very idea of misleading another person or an institution. The first half is called Machiavellian, whereas the second half is called innocent. So why is it that a 16th century Italian state official’s book has caused an uproar resounding through the centuries, to this date? What exactly is Niccolo Machiavelli’s book “The Prince” about, and why is he called the father of modern political science? And more importantly, are its learnings applicable to this day and age of global conflict and fragile international relations?

Niccolo Machiavelli was born in Florence, Italy in the late 15th century. His father was a lawyer, and his family was very influential in general throughout Italy. It is important to know that Italy, especially Florence, was constantly forming new allies and making new enemies. Under the pretext of defending Christian values, the popes waged wars. To add to that, foreign powers such as France, Spain and Switzerland also battled for regional influence. These were times of fear and distrust, since cities could go to war with a new adversary every single day of the week.

1494 was the year when Florence became a republic again, removing the tyrannical Medici family that had ruled Florence for over half a century. This is when Machiavelli started with his diplomatic missions. These helped him see the actual condition of political warfare, and the tactics used by different leaders throughout the state. In his works, he pays great emphasis to Cesare Borgia and his father, Pope Alexander VI. They tried to rule most of Central Italy, and their brutal techniques to control power fascinated and shocked Machiavelli. The Medici took control of Florence in 1512, and Machiavelli was labeled as a conspirator. He was tortured and eventually shunned from society. Sitting in his home, overlooking a vineyard, he started writing “The Prince”, which he meant to offer to the ruling king then, Lorenzo Medici. He hoped this would bring him in the good books of the king, arguing that the knowledge on how to retain power was the most important thing for a ruler to know. Unfortunately, the king did not even read it, and the book was only published five years after Machiavelli’s demise.

Fast forward five centuries, and we see some of the world’s greatest and some absolutely terrifying leaders worship the book. Napolean Bonaparte and Joseph Stalin read the book. The founder of Italian Fascism, Benito Mussolini did his dissertation on Machiavelli’s work. The Iron Lady’s tenure, especially towards the end, has been often compared to the political turmoil in early 16th century Florence.

In line with the very (in)famous saying “If an injury has to be done to a man, it should be so severe that his vengeance need not be feared”, Margaret Thatcher implemented swift and radical policy changes as she stepped into 10 Downing Street. It is said of her that she wasn’t really liked by her colleagues, as was apparent from their disagreement on her views of the European community. But again, as Machiavelli said, it is better to be feared, than to be loved. And the Iron Lady, indeed, was feared.

More recently, Vladmir Putin has been dubbed as a shining example of the Modern Machiavellian man, or a “Prince”. It is no secret that his cunning and shrewdness has allowed him to hold office for almost two decades now. Putin is infamous for abusing his power and making extravagant financial gains. Voices of opposition have been brutally murdered, and he and his friends are rich beyond imagination.

Internationally, he is considered to be a dictator and violator of human rights, yet, the people of Russia love him. Why is that? In short, he has exercised three Machiavellian principles, which I have abridged. Firstly, he absolutely crushes his enemies. There can be no possibility of a retaliation. Secondly, he is never caught doing the dirty work himself. Henchmen and fallguys work as his invisible hand. The trail never leads to him.

Thirdly, and what I think is most intriguing, is that he makes sure he has a good image in the eyes of the public, and this is directly related to the second technique. When the Obama administration was being criticized for considering to launch airstrikes in Syria, Putin wrote a scathing op-ed New York Times article, delineating the horrible humanitarian and political consequences of this. The irony is that Russia itself has attacked Syrian camps. This was a ploy to get regional dominance, by Russia, veiled in the guise of humanitarian appeal and political instability.

We have seen that Machiavellian strategies are full of shrewdness and deceit. But is it fair to call it evil? Is “Anti-Christ”, which was used as a label for Machiavelli for centuries, justified? In his world, there was no love, and absolutely no trust. He saw the world, after the fragile curtain of humanitarian emotions was removed. Thus, his works speak of controlling power, and exercising it. It was the only way in which a ruler could keep his citizens under control, and be ready to fight opposition. Otherwise, they would be crushed to death by their adversaries.

Maybe we live in a similar world. Maybe we don’t. Everyday, we hear terror attacks killing innocent people. We are currently on the verge of nuclear war. International relations are tumultuous. But, we also have people supporting refugees. We have people fighting to end global poverty and hunger. We have people that we love, and who love us.

It is up to you to decide. It is up to you, to choose your brain over your heart, or otherwise. Do you want to annihilate your enemy? Is it better to be feared, than to be loved? Finally, if you believe you’re Machiavellian, ask yourself this, does the end justify the means?