A good idea from... Machiavelli
Alain de Botton
Alain de Botton is a philosopher, writer and television presenter. His books include Essays in Love (published when he was only 23), How Proust Can Change Your Life (1997), Status Anxiety (2004) and Religion for Atheists (2012)
Sunday 28 February 1999
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.
GlastonburyWI to make debut appearance at Somerset festival
TV reviewIt has taken seven episodes for Game of Thrones season five to hit its stride
FilmPalme d'Or goes to radical and astonishing film that turns conventional thinking about immigrants on its head
Potter's attempt to create an Essex Taj Mahal was a lovely treattv
Arts & Ents blogs
- 1 Engineer pictured fixing plane's engine with 'duct tape' by concerned EasyJet passenger
- 2 Two-year-old says goodbye to bin man best friend
- 3 Saudi Arabia mosque bombing: Two volunteer security guards hailed as heroes for stopping Isis suicide bomber reaching worshippers
- 4 There is something wrong but very right about this Bible illustration
- 5 Remove smartphones from the hands of under-18s and maybe they will grow up to be less dumb
Jay Z's Tidal could be about to lose Beyonce's music in ultimate humiliation
Britain's Got Talent 2015: Jamie Raven divides Twitter as fans expose mind-boggling magic trick
Thrill of the chaste: The truth about Gandhi's sex life
Bob Dylan: How the Isle of Wight festival managed to steal the voice of a generation from Woodstock
Big Brother 2015 new housemates: Simon Gross returns as stripper Marc O'Neill, model Harry Amelia Martin and X Factor reject Sam Kay join
EU referendum: David Cameron's rules are a 'democratic disgrace', says French-born Scottish politician set to be denied a vote
Migrants in Kos: Photos show real tragedy after Brits abroad complain of 'awkward' holidays
British tourists complain that impoverished boat migrants are making holidays 'awkward' in Kos
A nation of inequality: How the UK is failing to feed its most vulnerable people
Australian man punched in the face for defending Muslim women from abuse on train
David Starkey 'tells Amal Clooney to shut up and stop over-promoting human rights'