Niccolò Machiavelli is the founder of political realism. He wrote his most famous work, The Prince, in 1513 and it is still in print. This blog attempts to reconstruct his thought process, to update it to take modern advances into account and to present his perspective on current events. This page explains Machiavelli’s perspective and why it is important.

First, I must note that Niccolò Machiavelli was not a villain. He wrote comedies. He believed (as he makes clear in his major book (Discourses on the First Decade of Titus Livius) that a republic is superior to a dictatorship or as he called it a principality. His beliefs about how political leaders (such as a prince or a king) were obliged to act were no different from those of his peers. Political leaders of his day, as they do in our day, acted according to the principles that Niccolò Machiavelli described in The Prince. Even the works of other authors of his own day, such as Guicciardini’s Ricordi and his History of Italy, are much more frankly cynical than are Machiavelli’s works.

Machiavelli’s evil reputation rests on two facts.

  • In 1559, the Pope placed Machiavelli’s works on the Index of Prohibited Books, a list that was also to contain the works of Galileo and Darwin, among other supposed villains.
  • In The Prince, under the guise of writing a book of advice to a prince, Machiavelli told the truth about power. He made it clear that a powerful leader and especially a dictator must act in ways that are personally reprehensible. It follows that all leaders, especially powerful leaders, do things that are reprehensible. For this, the power-elite could not forgive him and for this their propagandists have, ever since been anxious, to condemn him.

Niccolò’s views are still unusual because of the attractiveness and prevalence of wishful thinking. Many, perhaps most, people prefer pleasant ideology to unpleasant reality and they have been at pains, since 1513, to show that Machiavelli was wrong and that even dictators are basically nice guys with whom we could get along if only we would talk sincerely and at sufficient length

Nonetheless, Machiavelli’s perspective remains important and relevant for two main reasons.

  • Human nature has not changed. Hence, his insights about politics are still valid.
  • Business is an important part of our modern life and businesses are essentially autocratic institutions that operate much like the Renaissance principalities that he wrote about in The Prince.

Machiavelli’s perspective is different from most because it is realistic, not idealistic.

Most discussions of current events engage the issues at the surface, at the level of rhetoric. Policy debates concern what and who is right or wrong. Unfortunately, both sides get to make up their own moral standards and while everyone agrees that no one is perfect, it always seems that on the speaker’s side the sins are venial and on the other side the sins are mortal.

The news media portrays politics as a clash of ideologies. They report on news: press releases, speeches, and events, many of which are designed to attract media attention. The public relations contest helps the media perform its public purpose, and also helps it more easily fulfill its economic function. The ideological rhetoric fills endless column inches and air time; the more so if the parties are arguing at cross purposes. However, the stream of words does not (and is not intended to) produce understanding.

Most discussions conclude by recommending ideological solutions. Like the Pope’s annual Christmas appeal for world peace, most discussions conclude that people should simply do the right thing, which usually means that other people should behave in a way that is altruistic or otherwise contrary to human nature.

It is supposed to follow that if people do what is right; the outcome is bound to be good. For example, the Catholic Church tells us that birth control is wrong. However, ineffective birth control especially in poor areas, leads to unwanted children, over population, inadequate education, poverty, crime, and misery. The Church does best in these areas so perhaps its position is understandable (Popes like us other humans seem to be born with the capacity to convince ourselves of what is in our interests to have other people think we believe). However, no law of nature dictates that good actions automatically produce good results. The means do not justify the ends.

One important tenant of the Machiavellian perspective is that most policy discussions (in government or business) are best regarded as sales talk: education and persuasion at best, deception and propaganda at worst. Political discussions among Republicans and Democrats are like children discussing whose breakfast cereal is best. It does not follow that all breakfast cereal is the same or equally good for you. However, it does follow that both sides are selling a product. The real question is who is selling what to whom and why.

Machiavellian solutions also differ from the norm. Whereas most discussions concern what is right versus wrong, Machiavelli considered what was good versus bad, and advocated choosing the course of least evil. He did not claim that the ends justify the means but he did claim that a leader was sometimes obliged to use bad means to avoid more evil ends. In these cases, he claimed that the ends excused (or mitigated) the means.

The Machiavellian perspective has two main features:

  • A Logical Approach to Strategic Analysis
    Machiavelli focuses, not on surface rhetoric, but on more basic considerations. His approach nearly always starts with a case by case analysis. He considers the participants, the logically possible actions, and the players interests in the outcomes. His point of departure is much like that of the modern discipline of Game Theory, which we must consider one of the two pillars of the modern Machiavellian perspective.
  • A Realistic Understanding of Human Nature
    His analysis and proposed solutions were based on a realistic understanding of human nature. We are fortunate in this respect because we have access to critical ideas that Machiavelli did not have: the modern theories of inheritance by DNA and the theory of evolution by natural selection. The new discipline of Evolutionary Psychology applies these theories to human behavior and has made a convincing start at defining and explaining human nature in terms of evolution. Thus Evolutionary Psychology is the other main pillar of the modern Machiavellian perspective
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