A good idea from... Machiavelli

THE FONDNESS of modern politicians for kissing babies in public before elections reflects a deep-seated wish on the part of the electorate: that there should be no incompatibility between being a powerful ruler and a nice one, between being a great politician and a good-hearted one. Which is perhaps why the name of Niccol Machiavelli (1469-1527) has proved so offensive down the ages.

In the autumn of 1512, in a farmhouse outside Florence, Machiavelli wrote a short book of advice on how to govern a state, addressed to the Medicis, the recently restored rulers of Florence. The Prince followed a long tradition of advice books begun by Seneca and Cicero. Both Roman authors had advised rulers to be clement, tolerant, generous and peaceful - a line propounded over the centuries.

But Machiavelli gave the Medicis stiffer counsel. If they wanted to survive and lead Florence to glory, they would have to be ready to disregard every traditional "Christian" virtue when circumstances dictated. Cicero had argued that a ruler would turn into a beast if he used force, and a fox if he used fraud. Machiavelli, turning the idea on its head, argued that a ruler had to "imitate both the fox and the lion". He needed to be a centaur, half-man, half-beast, to survive in a harsh world.

It was no use being idealistic and high-minded if the rest of humanity wasn't: "A ruler who does not do what is generally done, but persists in doing what ought to be done, will undermine his power rather than maintain it." Neither should a ruler worry about being thought cruel. "It is much safer to be feared than loved." Rulers should be ready to deceive, kill, plot and torture.

It is common to dismiss Machiavelli as a vulgar immoralist. But the truth is more complex and awkward. Machiavelli fervently believed in good and evil, but the highest good in his eyes was the flourishing of the state, not blood-free hands. The state was the criteria by which actions should be evaluated. Something was bad in so far as it harmed the state, and good in so far as it aided it. However, the qualities which could make you a good ruler were not necessarily those which could make you a good person according to Christian morals. And yet Machiavelli stressed that the moral duty of a good ruler should, in difficult moments, be to the state, not to his Christian conscience. Rulers could be blameless in killing people so long as they did so for the glory of the state (but not otherwise, which is why Machiavelli condemned the noto- rious tyrant Agathocles of Sicily for murdering the entire Senate of Syracuse - an action that was unnecessary for good government).

Machiavelli's writings draw attention to an unfortunate possibility: that we may not be able to be "good" in all areas of our life. Perhaps it is impossible to be an effective ruler and a good Christian, or a good businessman and a humane person, or a great artist and a pleasant person to live with. It points us to a choice - we may have to decide what we truly think of as good, and sacrifice some other virtues in its name. No wonder Machiavelli has been so hated for shattering the lovely idea that we can combine all the virtues.

Arts and Entertainment

Filming to begin on two new series due to be aired on Dave from next year


Arts and Entertainment
Kit Harington plays MI5 agent Will Holloway in Spooks: The Greater Good

'You can't count on anyone making it out alive'film
Arts and Entertainment
War veteran and father of Peter and Laust Thoger Jensen played by Lars Mikkelson

TVBBC hopes latest Danish import will spell success

Arts and Entertainment
Carey Mulligan in Far From The Madding Crowd
FilmCarey Mulligan’s Bathsheba would fit in better in The Hunger Games
Arts and Entertainment
Pandas-on-heat: Mary Ramsden's contribution is intended to evoke the compound the beasts smear around their habitat
Iart'm Here But You've Gone exhibition has invited artists to produce perfumes
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Fishing for votes with Nigel Farage: The Ukip leader shows how he can work an audience as he casts his line to the disaffected of Grimsby

    Fishing is on Nigel Farage's mind

    Ukip leader casts a line to the disaffected
    Who is bombing whom in the Middle East? It's amazing they don't all hit each other

    Who is bombing whom in the Middle East?

    Robert Fisk untangles the countries and factions
    China's influence on fashion: At the top of the game both creatively and commercially

    China's influence on fashion

    At the top of the game both creatively and commercially
    Lord O’Donnell: Former cabinet secretary on the election and life away from the levers of power

    The man known as GOD has a reputation for getting the job done

    Lord O'Donnell's three principles of rule
    Rainbow shades: It's all bright on the night

    Rainbow shades

    It's all bright on the night
    'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

    Bread from heaven

    Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
    Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

    How 'the Axe' helped Labour

    UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power
    Rare and exclusive video shows the horrific price paid by activists for challenging the rule of jihadist extremists in Syria

    The price to be paid for challenging the rule of extremists

    A revolution now 'consuming its own children'
    Welcome to the world of Megagames

    Welcome to the world of Megagames

    300 players take part in Watch the Skies! board game in London
    'Nymphomaniac' actress reveals what it was really like to star in one of the most explicit films ever

    Charlotte Gainsbourg on 'Nymphomaniac'

    Starring in one of the most explicit films ever
    Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers

    Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi

    The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers
    Vince Cable interview: Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'

    Vince Cable exclusive interview

    Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'
    Iwan Rheon interview: Game of Thrones star returns to his Welsh roots to record debut album

    Iwan Rheon is returning to his Welsh roots

    Rheon is best known for his role as the Bastard of Bolton. It's gruelling playing a sadistic torturer, he tells Craig McLean, but it hasn't stopped him recording an album of Welsh psychedelia
    Russell Brand's interview with Ed Miliband has got everyone talking about The Trews

    Everyone is talking about The Trews

    Russell Brand's 'true news' videos attract millions of viewers. But today's 'Milibrand' interview introduced his resolutely amateurish style to a whole new crowd
    Morne Hardenberg interview: Cameraman for BBC's upcoming show Shark on filming the ocean's most dangerous predator

    It's time for my close-up

    Meet the man who films great whites for a living