Sunday, February 08, 2004


Niccolo's Advice for the Mayberry Machiavellis

Since the term "Mayberry Machiavelli" has been bandied about so much in recent times to describe President Bush and his administration, I thought it might be useful to go back to the source to see how well the President has been following Niccolo's advice. The answer is, quite well in some respects. However, as I shall also suggest at the end of this post, Machiavelli also shows how George W. Bush is vulnerable:

Here is what Machiavelli has to say about leadership in the eighteenth chapter of The Prince:

Everyone admits how praiseworthy it is in a prince to keep faith, and to live with integrity and not with craft. Nevertheless our experience has been that those princes who have done great things have held good faith of little account, and have known how to circumvent the intellect of men by craft, and in the end have overcome those who have relied on their word. . . .

But it is necessary to know well how to disguise this characteristic, and to be a great pretender and dissembler; and men are so simple, and so subject to present necessities, that he who seeks to deceive will always find someone who will allow himself to be deceived. One recent example I cannot pass over in silence. Alexander VI did nothing else but deceive men, nor ever thought of doing otherwise, and he always found victims; for there never was a man who had greater power in asserting, or who with greater oaths would affirm a thing, yet would observe it less; nevertheless his deceits always succeeded according to his wishes, because he well understood this side of mankind.

Therefore it is unnecessary for a prince to have all the good qualities I have enumerated, but it is very necessary to appear to have them. And I shall dare to say this also, that to have them and always to observe them is injurious, and that to appear to have them is useful; to appear merciful, faithful, humane, religious, upright, and to be so, but with a mind so framed that should you require not to be so, you may be able and know how to change to the opposite. . . .

For this reason a prince ought to take care that he never lets anything slip from his lips that is not replete with the above-named five qualities, that he may appear to him who sees and hears him altogether merciful, faithful, humane, upright, and religious. There is nothing more necessary to appear to have than this last quality, inasmuch as men judge generally more by the eye than by the hand, because it belongs to everybody to see you, to few to come in touch with you. Every one sees what you appear to be, few really know what you are, and those few dare not oppose themselves to the opinion of the many, who have the majesty of the state to defend them; and in the actions of all men, and especially of princes, which it is not prudent to challenge, one judges by the result.

All of this sounds quite familiar: The judicious manipulation of religious language in Bush's speeches, the secrecy, the refusal publicly to admit mistakes, the blatant dissembling, the flagrant hypocrisy exercised before a fawning coterie of admirers.

But Machiavelli is far more important for other reasons. He has a great deal to tell us about how leaders succeed and how they ultimately fail. This from the twenty-fifth chapter of The Prince:

[T]he prince who relies entirely upon fortune is lost when it changes. . . .[H]e will be successful who directs his actions according to the spirit of the times, and . . . he whose actions do not accord with the times will not be successful. . . .

But a man is not often found sufficiently circumspect to know how to accommodate himself to the change, both because he cannot deviate from what nature inclines him to, and also because, having always prospered by acting in one way, he cannot be persuaded that it is well to leave it; and, therefore, the cautious man, when it is time to turn adventurous, does not know how to do it, hence he is ruined; but had he changed his conduct with the times fortune would not have changed.

Pope Julius II went to work impetuously in all his affairs, and found the times and circumstances conform so well to that line of action that he always met with success. . . . [T]he shortness of his life did not let him experience the contrary; but if circumstances had arisen which required him to go cautiously, his ruin would have followed, because he would never have deviated from those ways to which nature inclined him.

I conclude therefore that, fortune being changeful and mankind steadfast in their ways, so long as the two are in agreement men are successful, but unsuccessful when they fall out. For my part I consider that it is better to be adventurous than cautious, because fortune is a woman, and if you wish to keep her under it is necessary to beat and ill-use her; and it is seen that she allows herself to be mastered by the adventurous rather than by those who go to work more coldly. She is, therefore, always, woman-like, a lover of young men, because they are less cautious, more violent, and with more audacity command her.

These final passages sum up Machiavelli's most important views on the world of politics: Politicians follow the stratagems and approaches that stem naturally from their character; they succeed if their tendencies are in tune with the tendencies of the time. But no one succeeds forever, because people are insufficiently flexible to go against their natural tendencies. Given this fact, fortune favors the bold and impetuous, because by taking the offensive they have a greater chance of reshaping the situation to their advantage; acting agressively and forcefully requires others to respond to them and play their game. But even the bold and impetuous fail when the times call for caution and circumspection.

Looking over the three years of the Bush Administration so far, it seems clear (to me at any rate) that Bush has followed Machiavelli's advice admirably. He has shown himself by nature bold and reckless; by acting decisively, and refusing to compromise, he has forced first Congress, and later the world to dance to his tune. His domestic policies show little concern for what tomorrow may bring; and his bold maneuver into Iraq was made heedless of the consequences of a long occupation. In conformity with Machiavelli's remarks on fortune, Bush has acted "less cautious, more violent, and with more audacity;" he has treated fortune like a woman. And he has brazenly dissembled whenever dissembling was required to promote his aims. This is the source of his considerable success.

But Machiavelli warns that this course of action pursued consistently will eventually run into trouble. At some point conditions change; audacity fails to work as it did before; the piper must be paid. The President seems willing to bluff through his current difficulties, attempting to defer every looming problem and inconvenient fact until after the 2004 elections. The great question of the present moment is whether the strategy of the first three years will continue to be the right strategy for the next nine months, or whether the President, given his natural tendencies toward recklessness and gambling, will have played his hand too boldly too often. Only time will tell. But it is worth noting, with a certain degree of Machiavellian admiration, an Administration that, for a time, kept the country in sycophantic submission through bold moves and brazen deceit. Bush arrived at a point in American history when bullying and thuggishness were rewarded, when both his opponents and the press proved cowardly, corrupt, feckless and effete. He took advantage of those facts, and thus took advantage of us. We must marvel not only at his facility in gaining and holding power, but at the features of American politics that allowed such a man to seize the moment and misuse the country so badly in three short years while a servile press and the public fell fawning at his feet, his political opponents, corrupt and cowardly, ran for cover, and no one raised a finger to stop him.


Even if you’re a committed person, you should always look available, BUT never be available.
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