The proposer introduced Machiavelli by remarking that he had first read ‘The Prince’ in his early twenties and found it profoundly influential (one assumes in a general way, rather than as a guide to his own conduct).
As a prolific writer and with a range of other activities and achievements, Machiavelli was an archetypical ‘Renaissance Man’. “The Prince” describes in some detail the employment of cunning and duplicity in political affairs, and the proposer considered it to be a book with no moral compass, demonstrating a low opinion of the human race. A moral vocabulary is sometimes employed, but shorn of its moral meaning. The appearance of virtue, for example, is considered as valuable as virtue itself. In some respects the book is a sycophantic job application, but its enduring interest lies more in the proposal of various taxonomies, which can be applied to the behaviour of power-holders and power-seekers in all periods of history. A particularly interesting game to be played, therefore, is applying Machiavelli’s precepts and taxonomies to illuminate the methods of contemporary politicians and rulers.
The proposer identified three relevant omissions in the book’s approach: it assumes the possibility of secrecy, it ignores technology, and it leaves out God.
Discussion opened out with a range of questions and views loosely clustering around the key enquiry: is the book applicable today?
Is it a manual for behaviour? Or was he writing for common people, to explain to them how princes behave? After all, it wasn’t written in Latin. Is it written as a warning to the naïve? Is it satirical?
These questions divided the group, and a number of conflicting views came up.
The proposer – a computer scientist – suggested it could be viewed almost as if it were a guide to writing a computer programme, since it sets rules and parameters for actions: if ‘x’ then ‘y’.
Another reader wondered if it was written with an eye on a wider audience, and said that it would have multiple layers of meaning for different audiences.
Some detected irony and satire. Others suggested that it was neutrally descriptive – blunt, but neither a manual for behaviour nor ironic. However, it was agreed that it was hard not to detect satire in Machiavelli’s advice not to waste time ingratiating oneself with Popes because they only lasted ten years!
Another reader commented that it was an accurate account of political science, spanning all historical periods. In his view it correctly identified the chief aim of all politicians – including those in modern democracies – as being to stay in power. In modern democracies, one reader commented, attention-seeking was also a key motivation. There was some discussion of what motivated those who sought power, or sought to hold onto it once gained. There was general agreement that this was not typical or normal human behaviour. The power game was played best by those who acknowledged no raison d’etre outside its boundaries, whether their original starting point had been idealistic or cynical. In Machiavelli’s book, and in the eyes of contemporary politicians, to be in power is taken as a given good, and objectives beyond that are little considered.
This interpretation and application of the book was not accepted by all. One reader commented that in unstable times – such as when the book was written – strong rule was essential to provide stability. It was remarked by others that war can be taken cynically as a pretext for taking extra powers. Creating an ‘enemy’ is a well-known strategy for leaders in difficulties.
War is certainly a main focus of Machiavelli’s account – business, trade, banking, culture – all key elements of the Renaissance Italy in which he lived – are absent from his discussion. ‘The business of a prince is war’, he says.
Some more discussion of contemporary applications of Machiavelli followed. There are parts of the world that still operate exactly like the warring city states of Machiavelli’s Italy. The situation of General Gaddafi in Libya was brought into the debate. Had his use of mercenaries been rash? How effective had been his manipulation of tribal rivalries? Would Machiavelli have awarded him a gold star, or merely a ‘could do better’?
On the other hand, one reader suggested that modern western democracies practise Machiavellian principles ‘with the gloves on’. Someone remarked on Margaret Thatcher’s political ‘executions’, but it was pointed out that the only heads to roll did so metaphorically. A wag remarked that in our present coalition government, Liberal Democrats had had their spines removed.
One reader pointed out that the modern banking crisis perfectly illustrated Machiavelli’s advice to princes that they should be particularly liberal with money that did not belong to them.
Another reader considered Machiavelli’s ideas so sound that it was in effect impossible to be a successful political leader without employing the methods he describes. This reader, not unconnected with the world of local government, was supported by a chorus of hardened cynics with political experiences of their own. The ghost of Jonathan Swift also drifted through the room. Some voices were raised in defence of a rosier view of human nature, and debate heated up nicely for a while.
Your blogger raised a small side-bar debate on Machiavelli’s proposition that ‘Man’s nature is to feel beholden to those who have done them favours’ (to paraphrase the Italian). Various members of the group identified their experience of strategies to get opponents onside by seeming to seek their advice.
As we moved into summary mode at the end of the evening, one reader said that he thought the book’s main function was to warn the uninitiated about how a lot of people in power act, acting as a guide to how others manipulate. Most agreed that these principles could be observed at work in all organisations, and that, even if we abide by a moral code ourselves, at least we’ve been warned about those who don’t!
Looking at the evening on the whole, the cynical Machiavellians outplayed the gentle moralists, and emerged victorious, as they generally do.