Niccolo Machiavelli (1469-1527) is best remembered as the progenitor of the infamous axiom, “The ends justify the means.” He was a diplomat, by career, and a political philosopher, whose writings have greatly influenced political leaders from his day to the present. He lived during the apex of the feudal system, when most of the world was ruled by kings, emperors, and/or by endless strings of feudal lords, with the latter operating either under the aegis of the nearest monarch or on a freelance basis, challenging all comers. Machiavelli’s beloved Florence, and Italy, were in turmoil most of his days – alternately under the rule of the Pope, the regional “lord”, or the French or Spanish. Machiavelli desperately wanted Italy to resume control of its own destiny. He was often viewed as subversive and dangerous by the “ruler of the moment” (ironically, even by his sometimes mentors, the Medici’s, to whom he dedicated The Prince), and, as such, he was tortured, imprisoned and/or exiled (to a remote agricultural area in Italy) for many years. He never really recovered from his first “fall from grace”, and he lived on meager means and devoted himself to his writings, many of which (including his masterpiece, The Prince) were published posthumously.
While he had every reason to be jaded and cynical, he wasn’t. His much quoted statement (“The ends justify the means”) was not intended as a directive, but, rather, as an observation. To his mythical or ideal “prince”, he mused, history proves that, to the masses, the ends indeed justify the means; to wit, the masses will forgive and forget most any evil “means”, if, in the end, the masses themselves are not unduly injured or robbed. The mistreatment of a few will always be forgiven. He stressed the importance of “Fortune” (luck) to success and importance of virtue, once the necessary misdeeds are effected.
“Man is a wolf to man,” he iconically penned, as he recounted countless instances where tyrants (princes) abused many in the most brutal manner; he showed that lies, robbery, murder and the like are basically customarily necessary for a prince to gain and retain his position.
A reader of The Prince can almost feel the eyes of a Clinton, Bush (II), Obama and many others having preceded the reader there, as the predilections, cruelties and tactics of such men often mirror Machiavelli’s admonitions. Machiavelli’s blueprint for tyrants does more than advise would-be leaders of all stripes, it reveals human weaknesses. Machiavelli, in the end, did not admire such conduct, but he saw it as necessary for one to be a successful ruler – which had to exist, as the masses could not hope to direct themselves. He was a realist first and foremost.
His Prince is a fascinating commentary on leadership, the interplay of same with the masses, and on human nature. It is far from elegant or poetic prose, but it is lucid, laconic and unforgettable, and its lessons are being practiced expansively to this day.