Niccolò Machiavelli is remembered by most as a manipulative, power- seeking political theorist from the 15th century.
Some may remember his austere portrait or the title of his most famous work “The Prince.” Whatever the associations, few people think of Machiavelli in a positive light, despite his political genius.
It is exactly that political genius, however, that makes Machiavelli relevant today. His ideals deeply permeate modern politics. We may look down on Machiavelli for his cruel ways, but po- litical success or failure often depends on the ability to follow his advice.
First, look at the issue of taxes. In chapter seventeen of “The Prince,” Machiavelli writes that a prince will not be hated “as long as he abstains from the property of his citizens and subjects and from their women.”
He is saying that the most important way for a leader to avoid being hated is to let his or her people keep their personal property. Now let us look at this piece of advice from the modern-day point of view. What is one of the most contentious points in poli- tics today? Taxes.
No social class is happy when the government decides to increase its portion of that social class’ income. Taxpayers want to keep their money, and they want a leader that lets them do exactly that.
In chapter 21 of “The Prince,” our author advises that a prince “declares himself in favor of one party against the other; which course will always be more advantageous than standing neutral.”
Machiavelli is stating that whenever two factions arise, the best way to succeed is to pick a side. Anyone heard of a divided Congress? Succeeding in Washington without affirm- ing Democratic or Republican ties is extremely difficult. Moving up through the ranks is better facilitated by releasing neutrality and joining one side of the political battle.
The final excerpt we will look at from this Renaissance classic is on the subject of a prince’s ministers.
Machiavelli writes, “And the first opinion which one forms of a prince, and of his understanding, is by observ- ing the men he has around him and when they are capable and faithful he may always be considered wise…”
In this chapter, Machiavelli shows the importance of a leader’s servants for his reputation. Every time a presi- dent picks a Supreme Court justice or a secretary of state, he is viciously scrutinized for that choice.
Whether they are called ministers, servants, or secretaries, the people a leader surrounds himself or herself with are vital for political success.
“The Prince” is filled with instruc- tions on sticky issues such as taxes, neutrality, and advisors. These are but three of the infinite number of exam- ples proving that Niccolò Machiavelli is still alive and active in our politics today: a fact that makes many people deeply uncomfortable.
The uneasiness is justified, but can politics truly let go of the Machiavellian ideal? It would mean a mass upset of the American values that keep society functioning, but perhaps a mass upset is precisely what is necessary.
–Emilie Raber, Sophomore
In the nearly six years that President Obama’s politics have received national scrutiny, he has been the subject of countless comparisons to historical figures. His supporters compare him to Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King, Jr., and John F. Kennedy. His loudest, most extreme opponents see a closer political resemblance to Franklin D. Roosevelt (here, the worst of insults), Hitler, Stalin, or some com- mendably inventive mix of the three. But in his second inauguration ad- dress, the president’s rhetoric was surprisingly similar to that of a political figure whose name is rarely spoken in the same sentence as Obama’s: Machiavelli, the Renaissance-era politi- cian and author of “The Prince.”
Machiavelli is known for his tactless, cruel advice to politicians on how they should run their states. His most infamous advice to a leader is that it is better to be feared than loved. To enlightened readers living in a democrat- ic state, Machiavelli’s prince sounds power-hungry– a leader must main- tain power at whatever cost, despite the ethics of his actions.
However, buried within Machiavelli’s severe political advice are several viable, and sometimes controversial, recommendations for leadership. President Obama followed this advice in his inaugural address, with which he intended to set the tone for the next four years.
The president perhaps unintentionally parroted two pieces of Machiavelli’s advice. The first is to be a flexible politician. Machiavelli criticizes Italian leaders in his time who “never thought there could be a change” and therefore lost their principalities to invading French armies.
In contrast, Obama has implemented some enterprising military strategies, shifting U.S. military attention away from the Middle East and into the Pacific. Further, in his inauguration speech, Obama said, “We have always understood that when times change, so must we; that fidelity to our found- ing principles requires new responses to new challenges.”
Obama, a liberal Democrat, would interpret the Constitution as granting government extensive implied powers, and would find it necessary to alter laws to address a modern problem – say, gun control.
While Machiavelli wasn’t big on democracy and would not agree with Obama’s policies, he would agree with Obama’s forward-looking perspective. Machiavelli and Obama agree: a leader must be willing to change as the times change.
The second Machiavellian point has to do with Obama’s unambiguous rhetoric, which was more unashamedly in line with his party’s platform. He ar- gued for the necessity of government programs like Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid, and he pushed for an organized response to climate change.
Overall, Obama chose to place himself more firmly on the left. Machiavelli would have shuddered at Obama’s liberal policies, but he would have encouraged Obama’s decision to pick a side. In “The Prince,” Machiavelli suggests that “a prince is also respected…when, without any reservation, he declares himself in favor of one party against the other.” Again, the methods, if not the doctrine, of Obama and Machiavelli align.
Still, Obama would never consider himself a student of Machiavelli. In more ways than not, Obama and a contemporary Machiavelli would disagree politically: Obama panders too much to the public, and he is attempting to pass gun control legislation: two unfor- giveable moves in Machiavelli’s eyes. Yet in practice, the two politicians are more alike than we might think.
–Brendan Erb, Senior