Opinion

What can you learn from Machiavelli?

“It is necessary for a prince wishing to hold his own to know how to do wrong.” Advice like this, offered by Niccolò Machiavelli in The Prince, made its author’s name synonymous with the ruthless use of power. But Robert Harrison suggests you should be careful before looking for leadership lessons in The Prince.


[This article is adapted from a radio commentary originally broadcast on December 7, 2009.]

Let me begin with a simple question: Why are we still reading this book called The Prince, which was written 500 years ago? 

It’s a simple question but there’s no simple answer. If I were introducing Machiavelli to students in a political science course, I would emphasize Machiavelli’s importance in the history of political thought. I would point out that, before Machiavelli, politics was strictly bonded with ethics, in theory if not in practice. According to an ancient tradition that goes back to Aristotle, politics is a sub-branch of ethics—ethics being defined as the moral behavior of individuals, and politics being defined as the morality of individuals in social groups or organized communities. Machiavelli was the first theorist to decisively divorce politics from ethics, and hence to give a certain autonomy to the study of politics. 

Machiavelli wrote The Prince to serve as a handbook for rulers, and he claims explicitly throughout the work that he is not interested in talking about ideal republics or imaginary utopias, as many of his predecessors had done: “There is such a gap between how one lives and how one should live that he who neglects what is being done for what should be done will learn his destruction rather than his preservation.” 

This is a prime example of what we call Machiavelli’s political realism—his intention to speak only of the “effectual truth” of politics, so that his treatise could be of pragmatic use in the practice of governing. But here is where things start to get complicated. 

How so? Let’s take a step back. One of the ironies surrounding Machiavelli is that there has never been anything resembling a Machiavellian school of thought. For all their so-called realism, his political theories have not led to any grand social or political movements, nor has he sponsored any revolutions, nor inspired any new constitutions. In the history of European or world politics, he is not nearly as important as someone like Rousseau, for instance, who in many ways laid the ideological foundation for the French Revolution, to say nothing of Marx, whose theories led to concrete social and political transformations in many 20th-century societies. 

The Prince was not even read by the person to whom it was dedicated, Lorenzo de Medici. If the truth be told, this strange little treatise for which Machiavelli is famous, or infamous, never aided—at least not in any systematic way—anyone in the actual business of governing. The most one can say about The Prince in this regard is that Kissinger and Nixon preferred it as their bedtime reading. 

So why are we still reading this treatise five centuries later?

The answer, I think, has to do with the fact that this book is what we call a classic. Its enduring value in my view lies not so much in its political theories as in the way it discloses or articulates a particular way of looking at the world. The Prince shows us what the world looks like when viewed from a strictly demoralized perspective. I think that’s what the fascination and also the scandal is all about.

And so we ask ourselves, for example, what does human nature look like when looked at from a demoralized or hard-nosed realist point of view? We get an unambivalent answer to that question in chapter 17 of The Prince. In this passage, Machiavelli is addressing the typically Machiavellian question of whether it is better for a prince to be feared or to be loved: 

But since it is difficult for a ruler to be both feared and loved, it is much safer to be feared than loved, if one of the two must be lacking. For this can generally be said of men: that they are ungrateful, fickle, liars and deceivers, avoiders of danger, greedy for profit; and as long as you serve their welfare, they are entirely yours, offering you their blood, possessions, life and children...when the occasion to do so is not in sight; but when you are faced with it, they turn against you. And that prince who lays his foundations on their promises alone, finding himself stripped of other preparations, falls to ruin... For men are less concerned with hurting someone who makes himself loved than one who makes himself feared, because love is held by a link of obligation which, since men are wretched creatures, is broken every time their own interests are at stake; but fear is held by a dread of punishment which will never leave you.

In sum, human beings are wretched creatures, governed only by the law of their own self-interest. It is better for a prince to be feared than loved, because love is fickle, while fear is constant. 

I bring up this passage because it highlights the main dichotomy that traverses this treatise, namely the dichotomy between what Machiavelli calls virtù and fortuna, virtue and fortune. The Prince is a sustained attempt to define, in the most realistic terms possible, the sort of virtue that a prince must possess if he wants to succeed in achieving his objectives. 

Now there’s a slight problem here. The word virtù occurs 59 times in The Prince, and if you look at the Norton critical edition, you’ll notice that the translator refuses to translate the Italian word virtù with any consistent English equivalent. Depending on the context, virtù is translated as virtue, strength, valor, character, ability, capability, talent, vigor, ingenuity, shrewdness, competence, effort, skill, courage, power, prowess, energy, bravery, and so forth. So for those of you who read The Prince in English, you may not fully appreciate the extent to which Machiavelli’s political theory is wholly determined by his notion of an enduring antagonism between virtù and fortuna.

It is in fact impossible to translate with one English word the Italian virtù, but it’s important that we come to terms with what Machiavelli means by it, because it has everything to do with his attempt to divorce politics from both morality and religion. He knew full well that he was taking a traditional word and evacuating it of all its religious and moral connotations. 

Let me give you some more terms which I think encompass the meaning of virtù in The Prince: I think probably the best word we have in English would be “ingenuity.” The prince’s supreme quality should be ingenuity, or efficacy. He should be efficacious. Another good word for it is foresight, because if you look at the concept of virtue in The Prince you’ll find that the most virtuous prince is the one who can predict or anticipate fortuitous occurrences within his state. 

The great antagonist of virtù is fortuna, which we must understand as temporal instability—the flux and contingency of temporal events. In fact, love, as opposed to fear, falls under the rubric of fortune, because love is fortuitous, you cannot rely on it, it is not stable, it is treacherously shifty. Therefore it’s obviously better for a prince to be feared rather than loved, since fear is a constant emotion, which will remain true to itself no matter how much circumstances may shift. 

Let me quote another famous passage of The Prince, which speaks about the relation between fortune and virtue:

I hold that it could be true that fortune is the arbiter of half of actions, but that she still leaves the other half, or close to it, to be governed by us. And she resembles one of those violent rivers which, when they become enraged, flood the plains, tear down trees and buildings, lift up the earth from one side and deposit it on the other... But this does not mean that men, when times are quiet, cannot take precautions with floodgates and embankments, so that, when the rivers swell up again, either they would move along through a canal, or their rush would not be so unchecked and harmful. The same happens with fortune, who displays her force where there is no prepared resource to resist her.

In the remainder of my time, I would like to focus on one of Machiavelli’s prime examples of what a virtuous prince should be. Examples are everything in The Prince. Every time Machiavelli sets forth a theoretical premise about politics he gives examples, and almost invariably he will give examples from two different historical eras, antiquity on the one hand and contemporary political history on the other, as if to suggest that history is nothing but an archive of examples either to be imitated or to be avoided.

The example I would like to focus on is that of Cesare Borgia. Borgia was a contemporary of Machiavelli’s. I don’t want to spend too much time on the biography of this fascinating figure. Suffice it to say that he was the “natural,” or illegitimate, son of Pope Alexander VI, who helped Borgia put together an army and conquer the region of Romagna, in central Italy. 

In chapter seven of The Prince, Machiavelli discusses at great length the political career of Borgia and proposes him to the reader as a paragon of virtù. He is the very embodiment of the ingenuity, efficacy, manliness, foresight, valor, strength, shrewdness, and so forth that defines Machiavelli’s concept of political virtuosity. 

I would like to read a passage from the text in which Machiavelli gives an example of this virtuosity of Cesare Borgia. The episode occurs after Borgia has conquered the region of Romagna, and now his task is to set the state in some kind of order. How does a prince who has just conquered a state gain the obedience of his subjects if those subjects are characterized by a human nature governed by fickleness, greed, fear, and the law of self-interest? Well, this is how Borgia went about it: 

First, to bring about “peace and obedience,” he put in place a cruel and efficient minister. 

Later, Borgia decided that such excessive authority was no longer necessary, for he feared that it might become odious…. He had the minister placed one morning in Cesena on the piazza in two pieces with a block of wood and a bloodstained knife alongside him. The atrocity of such a spectacle left those people, at one and the same time, satisfied and stupefied.

What’s brilliant about this action for Machiavelli is the way Borgia manages not only to exercise power but also to control and manipulate the signs of power. One of the great insights of The Prince is that to be an effective ruler you must learn how to orchestrate the semiotics of power, so as to place yourself in a position where you don’t actually have to use power to achieve your aims.

Borgia’s way of dealing with his minister is a prime example of what Machiavelli praises as political virtue, because in this instance Borgia demonstrates a knowledge of the inner essence of the people, or of what the people need and expect in a ruler. The spectacle of punishment on the one hand leaves the people “satisfied,” because iniquities, cruelties, and injustices were indeed committed against the people by the minister, but on the other hand it also leaves them “stupefied,” in the sense that it reminds everyone of an awesome power operating behind the scenes. 

If we look at the symbolism of the minister’s punishment, we find that the spectacle is brilliantly staged. It is almost as if Borgia is declaring, in a sort of ritualistic language, that here one of my ministers, one of my representatives, has done violence to the body politic, and therefore he will have his just punishment, that is to say he will be cut in half, because that is what he did to our state—he divided it. 

In fact, if you read Machiavelli’s letters about this incident—Machiavelli was a diplomat at the time and was actually present when the body was placed in the piazza of Cesena—Machiavelli suggests that Borgia was even engaging in literary allusions in this spectacle of punishment. In canto 28 of Dante’s Inferno, the so-called “sowers of discord” are punished in Hell by dismemberment.

The example of Cesare Borgia is significant for another reason. Remember, Machiavelli says, “I would not know of any better precept to give a new prince than the example of his action.” And yet if you read chapter seven of The Prince carefully, you will find that Borgia was ultimately defeated by the great antagonist of virtue, namely fortune. 

For all his foresight, Borgia was not able to foresee that at a crucial moment in his campaign to conquer all of Italy, his father, Pope Alexander VI, would die prematurely. He knew that his father could die at any moment, and he had even made contingency plans for that eventuality, but he could not predict that precisely at the moment his father would die, he too would fall sick and be on the verge of death. 

Borgia himself said to me [me being Machiavelli, because Machiavelli knew Borgia and had followed his campaigns] that he had thought of what might take place when his father died, and he had found a solution for everything, except he never thought that when his father was at the point of death he too would be about to die.

This story, with all its ironies, raises a question that in my view goes to the heart of The Prince and its exasperated attempts to detach politics from morality.

When I read that passage I can’t help but think of one of the great critics of Machiavelli, namely Shakespeare. Shakespeare’s plays are filled with famous Machiavellian villains—Lady Macbeth, Iago, Edmund. Think of King Lear, for example. There are a number of characters in that play who have an explicitly Machiavellian cynicism about politics, who believe that politics is nothing but efficacy, the will to power, naked ambition, pragmatism devoid of ethical considerations. One such character is Edmund, the illegitimate son of Gloucester. Others are Lear’s two daughters Regan and Goneril. And the other is, of course, Cornwall, Regan’s husband.

And I can’t help but think of that scene in King Lear when Regan and Cornwall blind Gloucester by gouging out his eyes, and a servant who is standing by cannot bear, morally cannot bear, the sight of this atrocity, and so draws his sword and challenges his own master, Cornwall, in the name of natural justice. They engage in a sword fight and Cornwall gets wounded by the servant before Regan stabs the servant from behind and kills him. And Cornwall, who was on the verge of realizing his naked political ambitions through all means necessary, however vicious, declares: “I bleed apace, Regan; untimely comes this hurt.” 

That line has always struck me as the encapsulation of what Shakespeare envisioned as the tragedy of power, once it’s divorced from ethics: that there’s this element of the unpredictable; that there’s something about the wound that comes untimely; that no matter how much you try to control the outcome of events and prepare yourself for their fluctuating contingencies, there’s always something that comes untimely, and it seems to be associated with death. 

For all his virtuosity, there seems to be a blind spot at the heart of Cesare Borgia’s foresight, for the one thing he cannot foresee or bring under his control or manipulate with his political rhetoric and strategizing is death. It comes unexpectedly. It leaps out at him from the shadows as the last trick or trump card of a fortune he thought he had mastered. 

In any case, one is left wondering at the prodigious irony of Machiavelli’s treatise, which proposes as the supreme exemplar of virtù the one protagonist in contemporary Italian politics who was most beaten down and overcome by the forces of fortuna. Borgia’s life ended ignominiously and prematurely, in poverty, with scurvy. He died a few years after his father’s death, at the age of 32, in a street brawl in Spain.

It’s as if Machiavelli’s treatise is saying, almost against its own doctrine, that this vision of the world, this sort of radical political realism, where any means are justified if they serve the securement and consolidation of power, is doomed never really to flourish. It’s like Cornwall. Some fatality of fortune will always win out over the shrewd, efficacious strategies of this sort of virtù

What I’m putting forward as my own interpretation of The Prince is that the treatise was doomed from the beginning to the same sorry failure as Borgia’s political career. By that I mean that it’s not by chance that the unredeemed realism of The Prince has not had any direct, concrete effect on political history. If its ambition was to be a handbook by which rulers could advance their own agendas, if its ambition was to instruct a prince who could one day unify Italy and throw out the foreigners, if its ambition was to found a school of political theory or promote some kind of trans-formation in the history of nation states, or even if its ambition was much more modest, namely to ingratiate its author with the Medici rulers of Florence, then we have no choice but to conclude that as a political treatise The Prince was an abortion. It failed to achieve its ends. 

The abortive fate of The Prince makes you wonder why some of the great utopian texts of our tradition have had much more effect on reality itself, like The Republic of Plato, or Rousseau’s peculiar form of utopianism, which was so important for the French Revolution. Christianity itself— its imagination of another world beyond the so-called real world—completely transformed the real politics of Europe. Or Karl Marx, for that matter. It’s not the realism of the Marxian analysis, it’s not his critique of capitalism’s unsustainable systemic contradictions—it’s more his utopian projection of a future communist state that inspired socialist movements and led to political revolutions throughout the world.

You cannot get reality to bend to your will, you can only seduce it into transfiguration. And the fact remains that reality cannot be seduced by realism, only by trans-realism, if I may use a word that denotes more than fantasy, utopianism, intuitionism, or religious supernaturalism. Trans-realism refers to something that neither resists nor escapes reality but calls on reality to transcend itself, and to turn its prose into poetry. 

What I’m trying to suggest is that realism itself is doomed to a kind of fecklessness in the world of reality, while the real power—the real virtuous power—seems to be aligned with the faculty which Machiavelli held most in contempt, namely the imagination. It’s the human imagination that in the long run proves itself the truly efficacious and revolutionary force. 

You can listen to the original broadcast from which this article was adapted and other episodes of Robert Harrison's radio program at the Entitled Opinions website.

Rosina Pierotti Professor in Italian Literature and Chair of the Department of French and Italian, Stanford University; Host, "Entitled Opinions (about Life and Literature)"