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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.