Next year there will be another kind of anniversary—the quincentennial of The Prince, the little book that Niccolò Machiavelli wrote in 1513. The prince to whom it was addressed was Lorenzo de' Medici—Lorenzo the Magnificent—who was then the ruler of Florence, one of the city-states of non-unified Italy.
In the book, Machiavelli sets out his ideas on how to obtain, hold and expand political power. In substance, he argues that the end justifies the means; it therefore isn't accidental that his name has given the English language the adjective "Machiavellian", which my dictionary defines as "cunning, scheming and unscrupulous, especially in politics or in advancing one's career".
But Machiavelli was unsentimentally advising on power, and while people like me wring our hands over what we see as the decline in values and ethical behaviour, many others, not only politicians, see life through very different lenses indeed.
One commentator, Daniel Donno, says that "Machiavelli's chief contribution to political thought lies in his freeing political action from moral considerations. For him, the political imperative was essentially unrelated to the ethical imperative. This is not to say that he was an advocate of immorality. There is ample evidence, in fact, that he held moral views which, by and large, coincided with those of his contemporaries.
(But he) affirmed that religion and morals had no place in the political arena except insofar as they served political ends. For him, the value of an institution or a ruler was to be determined only by practical success, and ... success meant the acquisition and preservation of political power." If things have changed, why is Machiavelli's book still widely read and analysed?
The following quotations from The Prince are principally for those (the vast majority) who are merely in politics but call themselves "politicians", and for those who are merely in leadership positions, but are called "leaders". See if you can recognise anything or anyone in our firmament, current and past, political and other. The word "prince" in this context is of course gender and occupation-neutral; it could also mean "board chairman", or "princess":
1. "(The) prince who causes another to become powerful thereby works his own ruin; for he has contributed to the power of the other either by his own ability or force, and both the one and the other will be mistrusted by whom he has thus made powerful."
2. "A wise prince ... will steadily pursue such a course that the citizens of the state will always and under all circumstances feel the need of his authority, and will therefore always prove faithful to him."
3. "(Of) all the things against which a prince should guard most carefully is incurring the hatred and contempt of his subjects. Now, liberality will bring upon you either the one or the other; there is therefore more wisdom in submitting to be called parsimonious, which may bring you blame without hatred, than, by aiming to be called liberal, to incur unavoidably the reputation of rapacity, which will bring upon you infamy as well as hatred." (The word "liberality" here means "lavish spending").
4. "A prince should be a fox, to know the traps and snares; and a lion, to be able to frighten the wolves; for those who simply hold to the nature of the lion do not understand their business."
5. "We must bear in mind ... that there is nothing more difficult and dangerous, or more doubtful of success, than an attempt to introduce a new order of things in any state. For the innovator has for enemies all those who derived advantages from the old order of things while those who expect to be benefited by the new institutions will be but lukewarm defenders."
6. "(The) prince who has but recently acquired a state by the favour of its citizens (should) consider well the reasons that influenced those who favoured his success. For if it was not a natural affection for him, but merely their dissatisfaction with the previous government, then he will have much trouble and difficulty in preserving their attachment, for it will be almost impossible for the prince to satisfy their expectations."
7. "There is no other way of guarding against adulation, than to make people understand that they will not offend you by speaking the truth."
Machiavelli, who didn't have an elevated opinion of human nature, also said this:
1. "A sagacious prince ... cannot and should not fulfil his pledges when their observance is contrary to his interest, and when the causes that induced him to pledge his faith no longer exist. If all men were good, then indeed this precept would be bad; but as men are naturally bad, and will not observe their faith towards you, you must, in the same way, not observe yours to them; and no prince ever yet lacked legitimate reasons with which to colour his want of good faith."
2. "(The) prince should know ... how to be a great hypocrite and dissembler. For men are so simple, and yield so much to immediate necessity, that the deceiver will never lack dupes."
Cynical, you may call him. Amoral, even immoral. Untrustworthy. Deceitful. Unethical. But, I repeat, he was writing about power. Five hundred years later, can we truthfully say that the intrinsic essence of power, political or other, has significantly changed for the better, if at all?
Lennox Grant's column appears tomorrow