With the primary elections around the corner, I began to think about how politics became the juggernaut it is today. This should be intriguing to you because politics can be defined as: getting what you want, when you want. Even if you only retain a bit of the knowledge I’m about to throw at you, it may be useful when vying for that girls attention at a bar when you need to sound educated (think Matt Damon in “Good Will Hunting” bar scene). To begin, I examined the way influential thinkers of our past had grappled with practical issues, visions of politics, and why they are still considered relevant and modern today. Through these ideas we are able to gain perspective of how political ideas contributed to the evolution of political practice. This led me to the grandfather of it all: Niccolo Machiavelli.
Niccolo Machiavelli is the father of political science. His realist political philosophy was created by a scientific study and analysis of history. Just as Leonardo da Vinci of this era was anatomizing the world of nature, Machiavelli was doing so for the world of politics and history. He wrote during the Renaissance period when people strived to revive the days of classical Greece and Rome. The seeds of humanism, art, architecture, science, and politics all began to blossom during this period. However, Machiavelli’s environment and the culture he lived in were rich with instability and corruption. His adulthood in Italy was quite tumultuous with Spain, France, and the Roman Empire aligning with various city states. When the wealthy Medici family were eventually kicked out of Florence and Italy became a republic, Machiavelli was given a job in the government as a clerk and quickly ascended to become a low level diplomat. When the Medici returned however, he lost his government post and retreated to his country home to write The Prince (basically a guide book on gaining and maintaining power).
Machiavelli was the first person to conceive of the possibility of what we know today as the discipline of political science which is the discipline unto itself, objective in character and independent of other social and human sciences. Machiavelli was a man of action who articulated the separation of ethics and power. The method of his writing started from the premise that all people are evil; a leader is justified to lie, cheat, or kill if it’s in the best interest of the people. Shrewd and cunning leaders can be considered Machiavellian, a pragmatic realist approach that often forsakes morals and effects to achieve goals – the end justifies the means.
The Prince covers what must be done to establish a principality and maintain it. Machiavelli is concerned specifically not with a hereditary state, not with a republic, but with a new ruler (prince) who recently comes to power. This book did not appeal to religion. The book was made famous due to its basic amorality; it did not appeal to Christian values. Religion concerned him only if it benefited or weakened the state. He gives advice to be completely ruthless. Famous quotes include “it’s better to be feared than loved”. To ensure this, awing the populous with one’s own greatness or virtu is vital. And doing other things like avoiding traditional and classical issues such as liberality, because is it really a virtue if it leads to taxation and aggravating the populous? The one objective is to maintain power, adapt with the times, be bold when necessary, and cautious when necessary.
Machiavelli outlines how a prince should conquer a new state. First, the prince should destroy the previous hereditary line because the greatest threat would arise from there. An example of this is the murder of Nickolas II, the last emperor of Russia, and his entire family by the Bolsheviks during the Russian revolution of 1917. Secondly, the prince must weaken the strong inhabitance and leave the weak inhabitance alone. The strong ones must be weakened because they are a threat to power and the weak ones must be left alone in order to prevent them from rising against you. If they don’t rise up, they are virtually harmless. One famous Machiavelli quote that comes out of this: “men ought either to be treated well or crushed”. In other words, one shouldn’t inflict small injuries because that just makes the inflicted angry which still possess a problem. An example of this is the Chinese Communist Revolution of 1949 which purged all of the extremely wealthy but appeased all of the poor in the country. Next, the prince should live in a conquered state in order to quickly diminish uprisings and to establish presence. Also, the customs and traditions of the state should be maintained because the populous will detest losing their culture much more than losing their ruler. This was done in the Roman Empire when conquered territories were allowed to keep their customs as long as they contributed soldiers and tax dollars to the capital. Next the prince should prevent foreign influence from entering the new conquered lands. In other words, the prince should avoid using allies if at all possible. In WWII for example, one of the reasons that the atomic bombs were dropped on Japan were so that the U.S. could keep Soviet influence out of post war Japan. Then once the area is secured, the prince should send in colonists and missionaries rather than soldiers because the political populous would prefer them to soldiers. As Napoleon said for example “the pen is mightier than the sword”, meaning that influence is worth more than military control. Lastly, if there is a military problem, the prince should deal with it immediately because “war is deferred only to one’s disadvantage.” If one doesn’t deal with war soon, it will only become worse. That’s the whole idea behind Bush’s doctrine of taking the war to the enemies’ soil rather than having the war brought to us.
Machiavelli talks about the different kinds of states and how the prince should treat them. He says there are two kinds of states: centralized and decentralized. At the time, the Turks were a centralized state; they had a central government which all of its providences reported to. As a result, the Turks would be hard to conquer because they were so unified. They would be easy to control after they had been conquered because they already have a unitary system in place. France on the other hand, was at the time a decentralized state. There was a loose central government and as a result it would be easy to conquer because one is essentially fighting many small states, some of which you may align with. One modern day example of this would be Iraq which was more decentralized because there are three major factions: Sunnis, Shiites, and Kurds. It was relatively easy to conquer Iraq because the Shiites and Kurds supported the overthrow of Saddam’s Sunni government but it had been hard to pacify because each faction has its own prerogative separate from the Baghdad government.
Machiavelli goes on to talk about how to conquer other kinds of states in. If the prince conquers a free state for example, the prince should nurture it rather than try to make the populous assimilate. The thinking behind this is that their tradition of freedom will prevent them from ever obeying your rule. Therefore you should just nurture it from the beginning. One example of this is from WWII where the French resistance was strong. From Paris and other places around France, the free French movement worked to antagonize the Germans until they eventually lost France toward the end of WWII. On the other hand if the prince acquires a city through force, peace should also be maintained through force. If the prince needs to do something risky such as start an uprising he should do it all in one day. For example if the prince prolongs the uprising over a long period of time the people have time to assess the validity of the uprising. If you do it all at once though, they won’t have time to react. Napoleon frequently left power then came back, forcing the people to constantly switch sides between the monarchy and the empire.
His military oriented chapters in The Prince, state the prince should study military history so that he knows the most important part of ruling military affairs so that he knows the surrounding terrain in the event of a full scale war. Also, the prince is nothing without his army and his army is much more effective if he knows how they operate. He must have no other thought or profession than that of war says Machiavelli. One example of this thinking is President Eisenhower as he was about to leave office in the 50’s; In his farewell address about the military industrial complex, he warned that an American president with a non-military background is dangerous because he doesn’t know the cost of war and might be reckless. Machiavelli believed that a home-grown militia was superior to using mercenaries or auxiliaries. Mercenaries are to be avoided because they are only motivated by money. As a result, they are unmotivated and will likely not perform well in battle. In addition, if their commander is ambitious then he poses a significant risk to the prince’s power. An example of this are the problematic mercenaries in Iraq. With over 120,000 mercenaries and private military contractors fighting on the coalition’s behalf. Since they are not technically on the US grid, they do not always do the politically suitable thing. There was a battle in Fallujah because four mercenaries from Blackwater USA were killed and forced the coalition to go in and pacify the area. Likewise, Machiavelli says that auxiliaries or troops borrowed from another state, are to be avoided because it is a lose-lose situation. If the auxiliary lose, then you lose the battle. If the auxiliary wins, then you lose your sovereignty because they essentially control you now. For example, in the Spanish American War, the Philippine insurgency brought in American soldiers in order to revolt form the Spanish. After a successful revolt, the Americans stayed and essentially imperialized the Philippines. Similarly in Panama, American troops established a presence despite the revolution being over.
Machiavelli believes that the best form of government is a republic. This is the only way people can truly be free. Freedom is the absence of other people to control you and the product of two groups clashing – between common people vs. grandi (wealthy).
Machiavelli focused on the attributes that formed a successful ruler. Machiavelli saw human nature with regards to those who rule. His view was to benefit the prince by maintaining power rather to serve the well-being of the citizens.
Our perspective into modern political theory has been changed by great thinkers. It is clear that Machiavelli’s ideas translate into the modern world. The more we understand these ideas, the less bewildering it becomes, and the more we are able to change. It is important to debate these theories in a concerted effort to make certain that we remain objective and vigilant going forward as a society. Harnessing these ideas will help us question philosophical theories and ideas and live an examined life aware of alternatives. We have a responsibility to reflect and think clearly about these critical issues and to assume our share of the responsibility to help our society become more enlightened in which we would all like to live – “How about them apples!”.