فصل 9

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فصل 9

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chapter 9

The Fox and the Lion

Niccolò Machiavelli

Imagine you are a prince ruling a city-state such as Florence or Naples in sixteenth-century Italy. You have absolute power. You can issue an order and it will be obeyed. If you want to throw someone into jail because he has spoken out against you, or because you suspect him of plotting to kill you, you can do that. You have troops ready to do whatever you tell them. But you are surrounded by other city-states run by ambitious rulers who would love to conquer your territory. How should you behave? Should you be honest, keep your promises, always act with kindness, think the best of people?

Niccolò Machiavelli (1469–1527) thought that would probably be a bad idea, though you might want to seem honest and seem good in that sense. According to him, sometimes it is better to tell lies, break your promises and even murder your enemies. A prince needn’t worry about keeping his word. As he put it, an effective prince has to ‘learn how not to be good’. The most important thing was to stay in power, and just about any way of doing that was acceptable. Not surprisingly, The Prince, the book in which he spells all this out, has been notorious ever since it was published in 1532. Some people have described it as evil or at best a handbook for gangsters; others think it the most accurate account ever written of what actually happens in politics. Many politicians today read it, though only some will admit this, perhaps revealing that they are putting its principles into practice.

The Prince wasn’t meant to be a guidebook for everyone, only for those who had recently come to power. Machiavelli wrote it while living on a farm about seven miles south of Florence. Sixteenth-century Italy was a dangerous place. Machiavelli had been born and brought up in Florence. As a young man he was appointed as a diplomat, and he had met several kings, an emperor and the Pope in his travels across Europe. He didn’t think much of them. The only leader who really impressed him was Cesare Borgia, a ruthless man, the illegitimate son of Pope Alexander VI, who thought nothing of tricking his enemies and murdering them as he took control over a large part of Italy. As far as Machiavelli was concerned, Borgia did everything right, but was defeated by bad luck. He fell ill just at the point when he was attacked. Bad luck played a large part in Machiavelli’s life too and it was a topic he thought hard about.

When the immensely rich Medici family, who had previously ruled Florence, returned to power, they threw Machiavelli into prison, claiming that he had been part of a plot to overthrow them. Machiavelli survived torture and was released. Some of his colleagues were executed. But his punishment, because he hadn’t confessed to anything, was to be banished. He couldn’t return to the city he loved. He was cut off from the world of politics. There, in the country, he would spend his evenings imagining conversations with the great thinkers of the past. In his imagination they discussed with him the best way to keep power as a leader. He probably wrote The Prince to impress those in power and as an attempt to get a job as a political advisor. That would have allowed him to return to Florence and the excitement and dangers of real politics. But the plan didn’t work. Machiavelli ended up being a writer. As well as The Prince, he wrote several other books about politics and was a successful playwright – his play Mandragola is still sometimes performed.

So what exactly did Machiavelli advise and why has this so shocked most of his readers? His key idea was that a prince needed to have what he called virtù. This is the Italian word for ‘manliness’ or valour. What does that mean? Machiavelli believed that success depends quite a lot on good luck. Half of what happens to us is down to chance and half is a result of our choices, he thought. But he also believed that you can improve your odds of success by acting bravely and swiftly. Just because luck plays such a large part in our lives, it doesn’t mean that we have to behave like victims. A river might flood, and that’s something we can’t prevent, but if we have built dams and flood defences we stand a better chance of surviving. In other words, a leader who prepares well and seizes the moment when it comes is more likely to do well than one who doesn’t.

Machiavelli was determined that his philosophy should be rooted in what really happens. He showed his readers what he meant through a series of examples from recent history, mostly involving people he’d met. When, for example, Cesare Borgia discovered that the Orsini family were planning to overthrow him, Borgia managed to make them feel confident that he knew nothing. He tricked their leaders into coming to talk with him in a place called Sinigaglia. When they arrived, he had them all murdered. Machiavelli approved of this trick. It seemed to him a good example of virtù.

Again, when Borgia took control of the region called Romagna he put a particularly cruel commander Remirro de Orco in charge. De Orco terrified the people of Romagna into obeying him. But once Romagna had calmed down, Borgia wanted to distance himself from de Orco’s cruelty. So he had him murdered, and left his body cut into two pieces in the city square for everyone to see. Machiavelli approved of this gruesome treatment. It achieved what Borgia wanted, which was to keep the people of Romagna on his side. They were glad that de Orco was dead, but at the same time they realized that Borgia must have ordered his murder and this would have scared them. If Borgia was capable of that sort of violence against his own commander, none of them was safe. So Borgia’s action was manly, in Machiavelli’s eyes: it displayed virtù and was just the sort of thing a sensible prince should do.

This sounds as if Machiavelli approved of murder. He obviously did in some circumstances if the results justified it. But that wasn’t the point of the examples. What he was trying to show was that Borgia’s behaviour in killing his enemies, and in making an example of his own commander de Orco, worked. It produced the desired effects and prevented further bloodshed. Through his swift, cruel action, Borgia stayed in power and prevented the people of Romagna rising against him. For Machiavelli, this end result was more important than how it was achieved: Borgia was a good prince because he wasn’t squeamish about doing what was necessary to keep in power. Machiavelli wouldn’t have approved of pointless murder, killing just for the sake of it; but the murders he described weren’t like that. Acting with compassion in those circumstances, Machiavelli believed, would have been disastrous: bad both for Borgia, and for the state.

Machiavelli stresses that it’s better as a leader to be feared than to be loved. Ideally you would be both loved and feared, but that’s hard to achieve. If you rely on your people loving you, then you risk them abandoning you when times get tough. If they fear you, they will be too scared to betray you. This is part of his cynicism, his low view of human nature. He thought that human beings were unreliable, greedy and dishonest. If you are to be a successful ruler, then you need to know this. It’s dangerous to trust anyone to keep their promises unless they are terrified of the consequences of not keeping them.

If you can achieve what you are aiming for by showing kindness, keeping your promises, and being loved, then you should do this (or at least appear to do it). But if you can’t, then you need to combine these human qualities with animal ones. Other philosophers emphasized that leaders should rely on their humane qualities, but Machiavelli thought that at times the effective leader would have to act like a beast. The animals to learn from were the fox and the lion. The fox is cunning and can spot traps, but the lion is immensely strong and terrifying. It is no good being like the lion all the time, acting simply by brute force, as that will leave you at risk of falling into a trap. Nor can you just be a wily fox: you need the strength of the lion occasionally to keep you safe. But if you rely on your own kindness and sense of justice, you won’t last long. Fortunately, people are gullible. They are taken in by appearances. So, as a leader, you may be able to get away with seeming to be honest and kind while breaking your promises and acting cruelly.

Now you’ve read this, you are probably thinking that Machiavelli was simply an evil man. Many people do believe that, and the adjective ‘machiavellian’ is widely used as an insult to refer to someone who is prepared to scheme and use people to get their own way. But other philosophers believe Machiavelli expressed something important. Perhaps ordinary good behaviour doesn’t work for leaders. It is one thing to be kind in everyday life and to trust people who make promises to you, but if you have to lead a state or a country, trusting other countries to behave well towards you may be a very dangerous policy. In 1938 the British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain believed Adolf Hitler when he gave his word that he would not try and expand German territory further. That now looks naïve and foolish. Machiavelli would have pointed out to Chamberlain that Hitler had every reason to lie to him and that he shouldn’t trust him.

On the other hand, we shouldn’t forget that Machiavelli supported acts of extreme brutality against potential enemies. Even in the bloody world of sixteenth-century Italy, his open approval of Cesare Borgia’s behaviour seemed shocking. Many of us think there should be strict limits to what a leader can do to his or her worst enemies, and that these limits should be set by law. If limits aren’t set, we end up with savage tyrants. Adolf Hitler, Pol Pot, Idi Amin, Saddam Hussein and Robert Mugabe all used the same sorts of techniques as Cesare Borgia to stay in power. Not exactly a good advertisement for Machiavelli’s philosophy.

Machiavelli saw himself as a realist, someone who recognized that people are fundamentally selfish. Thomas Hobbes shared that view: it underpins his whole account of how he thought society ought to be structured.

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