Human nature is portrayed in traditional characters, its not all good

By Ben Kourakis: Literature Columnist

The term, “Machiavellian”; it’s probably the greatest piece of ‘political jargon’ that a person can include in their work to describe something. In fact, the term has nearly become as famous as the person it’s based off, 16th century Italian politician Niccolò Machiavelli.

But what is Machiavellianism and what does it exactly mean to be Machiavellian? Is it a status to be paraded around like a trophy? Is it a nefarious trait that a person would be desperate never to be ever associated with? It seems that the history of the term and how it came to be can be attributed to a small, yet damning 140-page memento to gaining and maintaining power, this being Machiavelli’s “The Prince”. It’s through The Prince and an understanding of Machiavelli himself that one can see why the Catholic Church almost immediately deemed him the Devil upon its publication.

The background of how The Prince came to be lies in and around one family in particular, the Medici. They had unrivalled influence in the Renaissance papacy and politics, still remaining Italy’s most famous family today – even though the bloodline eventually died out in the 1700s. The story goes that in 1494 they fall from power in Florence and immediately a new government is established, with Machiavelli being appointed as a diplomat. However, they return and seize back control in 1512. Machiavelli is deposed, arrested and tortured on unproven accusations of plotting against the Medici. Although when Pope Julius II dies the following year, he is replaced by Pope Leo X (who he himself was also a part of the House of Medici). Feeling altrusitic he allows amnesty, therefore letting Machiavelli be released. Retreating to his farm estate it’s here where he pens his work in 1513 – though it’s not officially published and even named “The Prince” until 1532 (initially being untitled), five years after his death. Its purpose? A gift to the Governor of Florence, who belonged to the same family that tortured him. Desperate to regain power, Niccolò tried to appease Lorenzo de’ Medici and win his job back. Though not only did Lorenzo never read it, Machiavelli didn’t become a diplomat again either.

Machiavellianism can inherently be reduced to a few describable characteristics, examples including manipulation, cunningness, scheming, deviousness, deceit and treachery. It’s a ruthless book at times, Niccolò makes statements such as “if an injury has to be done to a man it should be so severe that his vengeance need not be feared”, “there is nothing so self-defeating as generosity” and “never attempt to win by force what can be won by deception”. These are all great for highlighting in some regards The Prince’s cynical – or maybe realist – views on power and leadership. The book is essentially a guide to the ideas of “realpolitik”, which emphasises practicality over morality, and is what helped Machiavelli gain his reputation and spawn Machiavellianism consequently.

A typical visual representation of Satan, encompassing negative traits

Knowing from fourteen-years of experience how things simply are, Machiavelli therefore doesn’t concern himself with humanism when it knows the pursuit of powerful desires don’t care for those factors. The most prime example of a disregard of ethics is Chapter 18, which proposes the idea of ‘if the ends justify the means’ – an infamous quotation which isn’t even stated in the book verbatim.

Despite this, it also inadvertently highlights Machiavelli’s negligence for religious factors due to these lack of morals. He was presumably an atheist – though in that age, to be atheist was to be a heretic, not necessarily an unbeliever in God – and promoted ideas that disregarded any fear associated with the Christian “Day of Judgement” belief. In a society strongly shaped by the Vatican and Catholicism, this is what eventually formed his bad reputation. Reginald Cardinal Pole, an Englishman who was a part of the Catholic Church, was particularly recognised as one of The Prince’s first serious critics. Upon reading it he stated that he ‘found this type of book to be written by an enemy of the human race’, and that ‘it explains every means whereby religion, justice and any inclination toward virtue could be destroyed’. The Prince was eventually placed in the Church’s Index of Prohibited Books in 1559.

It’s no surprise that in a profession like politics, Machiavellian principles are so present. Aspects of The Prince are littered all across the last forty-years of British politics particularly and have acted as an influence for numerous prime ministers. Strangely enough, the two most plausible examples are in fact people from different sides of the political spectrum; Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair. In Chapter 17, Machiavelli famously asks whether or not it is better to be feared or loved, eventually settling on the former. Thatcher herself embodied this principle.

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Though she was perhaps disliked and unpopular throughout her Party and Cabinet, she still commanded fear and respect from her colleagues – hence her nickname of the Iron Lady and eleven-year reign. Blair mimicked Chapter 21 with the daring leadership qualities that a prince requires when he did a political U-turn by introducing New Labour in 1994 which won him a landslide election in 1997 as well as two further successions in 2001 and 2005. The press even coined the term ‘Machiavellian’ to describe Blair 358 times during his first year of office.

The Prince was eventually placed in the Church’s Index of Prohibited Books in 1559.

With the rise of the ‘anti-hero’ in televison across the last few decades, numerous fictional protagonists have also begun to embody Machiavellian traits. By far the greatest example is Francis Urquhart in House of Cards. No character has possibly ever been as devilishly Machiavellian as Urquhart, who effortlessly maintains all the dirty qualities needed to rise through the ranks of the Conservative Party and gain power. Interestingly enough, Michael Dobbs who wrote the House of Cards novel (before it was later adapted to the screen) based it off his experiences as Chief of Staff during the Thatcher years.

However, other notable non-political examples include Tony Soprano from The Sopranos, who ruled his New Jersey crime family with respect and especially fear, as well as Walter White from Breaking Bad, who schemed and manipulated to fuel his ego and run his drug empire.

Perhaps one of the greatest realisations however is that corporations themselves are so Machiavellian that the everyday person cannot see past the front they put up for marketing purposes. Whilst they mightn’t necessarily lie to consumers, there is a carefully constructed perception with how they handle business. They may put on a market-friendly façade to commercialise their products to a large audience, but they consequently push aside any question of ethics simultaneously. Whether it be the countless accusations against Apple for having their workers clock twelve hour days and reportedly even setting up suicide nets in response to high workplace death rates, or other well known brands linked to child labour and criminally low pay. In the age of the corporate monopoly, the ideas of The Prince are ever so relevant in the business world with companies constantly eliminating competitors by simply buying and taking over – with Amazon alone owning fourty subsidiaries.

Despite what happened with Machiavelli’s career in politics, maybe he truly got the last laugh overall. Though he was never around to see the legacy and condemnation of his work, there probably hasn’t been a more influential book on politics since. Not many can say that Napolean, Stalin and Mussolini have read their book after all, even if these were monstrous men.

He is evidently better remembered as an individual than Lorenzo, who died at 26 and is only a small figure in a much wider family legacy. However, there was a price to pay considering he is now strongly associated with the Devil from the term ‘Old Nick’ – which according to a (false) urban legend derives from his name. Even through his criticism, he is still widely praised and venerated across Italy today. He has a statue erected in the place he loved most, Florence, The Prince is taught on Italian school curricula and translated into dozens of languages Worldwide.

Maybe the greatest surprise of all however, is that Machiavelli himself wasn’t even a self-serving Machiavellian, but just a patriot and passionate civil servant of Italy. Niccolò appreciated democracy and republics, despite his most regarded work becoming a symbol of tyranny. The Prince’s ending sheds a new and unique light that differentiates itself from the rest of the book. Niccolò pleads for Lorenzo to help unite a (then) deeply-divided Italy under the Medici banner so it can all be free and strong as one, using what he learns through The Prince’s teachings to lead.

Machiavelli finishes his work and request with a powerful section taken from a poem by the famous Italian poet, Petrarch, which he composed when Italy was previously in another state of nationwide turmoil between 1344 and 1345. Perhaps this is truly the greatest indicator that Niccolò Machiavelli was simply a misunderstood man who didn’t preach what he notoriously taught, even if society might not ever remember him that way:

Virtù contro a furore
Virtue against fury shall advance the fight,
Prenderà l’arme, e fia el combatter corto;
And it in combat will soon put to flight
Che l’antico valore
For the old Roman valour is not dead,
Nell’italici cor non è ancor morto.
As it lives on in Italian hearts.