May 3, 1469 — Niccolò Machiavelli was born in Florence, in the Republic of Florence located in modern-day Italy. He was a politician, a philosopher, a diplomat and an early Italian humanist. He was devoted to the unification of Italy and penned many politically inclined philosophy books that would eventually make him (according to some) the father of modern political science.
Machiavelli most famously wrote “The Prince,” a book that spawned the Machiavellian philosophy that made him famous (or infamous). Machiavellianism is essentially a disregard for morality in order to achieve a goal, summed up in the phrase (which has disputable origins): “The ends justify the means.” There have been other interpretations of his work, but this is by far the most widely accepted version.
Need to win a war? Kill as many civilians until the other side gives in. Use rape as a weapon, poison their food supplies and conduct public executions. Do anything to break their will to fight.
Need to reach a high level of political office? Step on other careers, lie, cheat and blackmail until you make it up there. There are no friendships — only alliances and favors to those who will one day pay it back. Use force to coerce the opponent, seek help from anyone that’s useful.
Do whatever it takes. Winning is the only thing that matters.
Under the Machiavellian way of thought, a ruler must be willing to abandon his or her morality at a moment’s notice. Things like reputation and likability are simply tools to achieve one’s political goals, and any reflection of character is irrelevant.
The goal was to separate politics from morality, as if politicians have needed any more encouragement in that regard.
As he opposed the way ethics interfered with one’s political goals, he also opposed their sources. Like idealism, he viewed religion (particularly Christianity) as a well from which many of these interfering ideals sprung forward.
This philosophy is often used in popular culture to describe the villains in various stories. Netflix’s new “Lost in Space” features a woman who embodies these Machiavellian traits in the context of survival in a strange and dangerous planet. Little Finger from HBO’s “Game of Thrones” could be described as a Machiavel. Shakespeare illustrated these ideas in several plays, including Aaron (and probably Tamora too) from “Titus Andronicus.”
However, seeds of the Machiavellian philosophy can be seen from non-villains in everyday life. How often have you heard, regarding a TV Show or book, that “the main character got himself killed because of his petty idealism” or some form of the same? As if death was the same thing as losing — perhaps the protagonists in these stories do not consider their lives more valuable than their ideals. A true Machiavel would say this is a failure.
These debates are had in regard to fiction, but also in conflicts both foreign and domestic.
Overseas: How many civilian casualties are considered acceptable losses in the pursuit of an enemy? What practices are off-limits when trying to subvert covert terror cells (waterboarding, torture, dismemberment, rape, drugs, etc.)? What kinds of meddling in foreign governmental affairs are acceptable, and what is not?
Back home: How many freedoms ought to be impinged to secure our own safety? How many laws can a politician skirt around in order to secure a place of power? Or from a journalist’s perspective, is the truth more important than success and popularity?
The Machiavellian philosophy was just a more extreme, yet articulated version of an argument that has been made in the military and politics for as long as anyone can remember. These debates have been going on since the beginning of debates.
Featured images courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.