Sunday, 05 February 2012 07:34

Niccolo Machiavelli - Men of Ideas

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Whereas Aristotle is generally considered the first social scientist, Niccolo Machiavelli (1469-1527) is considered the first political realist. Machiavelli went from merely studying politics to suggesting how politics ought to be practiced. Based on his understanding of what people do in politics, as opposed to what they say that they would do, Machiavelli advised leaders, The Prince, (in this case, the Duke of his native  Florence) to behave in a certain manner that he construed as politically realistic, if he wants to accomplish his political goals, that is.

Machiavelli was born in Florence (part of what is now called Italy). At the time of his existence Italy was splintered into small city states. These states, such as Florence, Milan, and Venice etc were individually weak and unable to withstand the aggression of their larger and stronger neighbors, such as Spain, France and Austria. These larger and stronger neighbors made sports of conquering Italian city states and making them tribute paying satellites. Yet the Italian city states did not realize that their problem laid in their smallness and consequent weakness. Each of these city states clung to its so-called independence and struggled to protect it even as it is dependent on the stronger powers around it. Clearly, there is something wrong with such political behavior.

Machiavelli served his Florence city state and as is usually the case when the party that was in power that he served was out of office he was thrown out of office. As it were, he was given early retirement and used that free time to reflect on the nature of politics. He wrote his now famous track, The Prince, in this semi retired state. Apparently, he hoped that whoever is in power in Florence would hear him and implement what he recommends for the good of Italy. It has also been suggested that he had hoped to ingratiate himself to the current ruler of Florence so that he would be given some office?

Machiavelli is not really as amoral as he has been made out to be. He merely felt that some ends justify certain means. His end is a strong Italy. He wanted a Prince to emerge in Italy (preferably the ruler of Florence) who understood the nature of power politics and used power realistically to do what had to be done to bring about a unified and strong Italy. The goal is Italian unity, the means is power politics.

The prince, the leader, the politician who wants to unify Machiavelli’s beloved Italy ought to understand that in the real world power is what is used in unifying a polity and holding it together. If you want to create a polity then you must not shy away from power, for no one makes an omelet without breaking eggs.

Power is a means of getting people to doing what otherwise they would not like to do. People want to live their lives, doing their own things and seldom care for the whole, the polity.

If you want to unify the polity you have to recruit and train the people in armies and use them to fight those opposed to your concept of national unity. In fighting many are killed, including so-called innocent persons.

In real politics people are used as political instruments and die in the process and that is reality. The leader should not hesitate in spilling blood if in so doing he accomplishes his noble objective. The end justified the means. 

Once the unity of the polity is secured the leader must appreciate human nature. Whereas the many lack the initiative in doing what brings a polity into being, once you do what it takes to bring it into being, like the lazy freeloaders they are, they want to benefit from your efforts. The many want to expropriate the power of the leader and lead the polity he fought for. Thus, the leader must anticipate rivals challenging him for the leadership of the polity. This is the way human beings are, they like to reap where they did not sow.

Okay, be realistic about what is going on. Round up those who oppose you, kill as many as is possible and jail the rest (but do it under the guise of following the rule of law). Whatever you do please do not be sentimental.

People respect power, not feelings. The leader must desire to be feared and respected rather than loved. You should strive to be respected by being powerful rather than desire to be loved by being Mr. nice guy. Swiftly eliminate those who challenge your power, your right to rule.

Be as monstrous as is possible. However, while doing these necessary cruel things, you must give the appearance of been a nice person. Hold babies and kiss women’s rosy cheeks and appear as humble a guy as is humanly possible.  People like those who seem humble (but act tough).

Go to church and appear to be the most fervent worshipper of God, even if you do not believe in God. People tend to take those who go to church as nice persons, so go to church and pretend to be a nice person. At night stick a knife into your enemies’ backs and goes to Church in the day time and appears a pious person.

Even if the idea of God, heaven and hell seem utter rubbish you must appear to accept them.  Why so? The masses need the idea of God, heaven and hell to obey the laws you made for them. People obey their rulers because they obey God and fear his punishment, fear been banished to hell.

To get people to transfer their fear of their god’s punishment to fear of your punishment you must therefore encourage their religiosity.

Cities, polities or, as we say today, nations…there was no such thing as nation-states when Machiavelli wrote, the idea of nation state arose from the treaty of Westphalia in 1648… were brought into being through brutal exercise of power and are maintained through unsentimental exercise of violence.

Consider the Americas. A bunch of Europeans landed in what is now called the Americas, killed off most of the native population (who had killed the animals to get the land) and took the land. The land is now a European land by virtue of exercise of brute power. The land would be maintained a European land for as long as white folk use force to destroy all opposition. If white folk become sentimental the Indians would rise and take over the land. That is how Machiavelli sees it, anyway.

Politics is about who gets what, when and where, Harold Laswell told us. It takes power to get what you want from other human beings.

In international politics stronger nations use force to intimidate weaker nations; the powerful get the weak to do what they want. If you want to be free and not subjected to others rule then you have to become powerful. If your neighbor discovers a weapon system you must strive to have it for if not he would not hesitate using it to subjugate you. Freedom derives only from balance of power, not from the assumption that human beings are helpful to other persons.

If in doubt note the current international scene. When the USA and USSR were relatively balanced in their power there was a measure of checks and balances. When the sentimental Gorbachov allowed the power of the Soviet Union to decay and America became the unchallenged superpower, the world Hegemon, look what has happened. Brain dead American presidents like George Bush feel justified using power preemptively in removing governments they do not liked (in Iraq).

(There is some sort of poetic justice in the world; America is now bleeding its self in Iraq and by the time it is all over probably would no longer have the money to run around as a wild cowboy trying to impose its will on every one else.)

Machiavelli advises been realistic in ones approach to power politics. Even in domestic politics (all politics, someone said, is domestic) what is really going on is men struggling for power and control of their territory. Men are like animals; they are territorial and are always struggling as to which one would control a specific territory. Each wants to be the dominant, alpha male. You must therefore see your so-called political allies, those in the same political party as you, as your rivals and always check mate them before they send you to your political, if not physical, grave (and make no mistake about it, they would urinate on your grave and dance the jitterbug on it).

Human beings are depraved and if you have not learned that fact you should not go into politics, Machiavelli tells you. Politics is not for the faint hearted, not for those who squirm at the sight of blood, but for those sadistic characters who actually like to vanquish other persons and enjoy the pain of other people (while professing sympathy for them). This is the nature of political realism, Machiavelli writes.

Where is God in all these? Machiavelli would rather you asked realistic questions rather than a sentimental question such as god. Where have you seen god come to defend the weak? Did god defend Africans as they were enslaved in America? Did god protect the Jews as the Nazis were gassing them to death? Does god lift a finger to help the poor as the rich and powerful screw them? Of course not. Either God does not exist or if he exists he does not intervene in the affairs of men on earth. Forget god and do what is politically expedient, Machiavelli advises the politician.

To all these you say: excellent. So what good did it do Machiavelli? Did he obtain a job from the prince he was advising to do these things? Of course he did not.

You see, Machiavelli was smart by half. If a prince understood that Machiavelli thought along this line why would he risk his position and life by giving Machiavelli some power? If you are part of the palace and are this amoral what prevents you from killing the prince and taking over? Therefore, the right thing to do is keep the advocate of untrammeled power in retirement; keep him on the farm and let the secret service keep an eye on him; if he makes false moves send him to his untimely grave.

If Machiavelli was smart he would have tried to practice what he preached rather than merely talk about it. Perhaps, his book would have been useful if it was published after his death, as posthumous memoir on what he did to rise to power.

If you seek power go get it but do not tell folk how you are going to get it. If it takes stabbing your friends in the back then do it but by all means do not talk about it. Talking about it means that you are afraid of doing it. Real power practitioners like Joseph Stalin just do it and don’t just talk about it

(Adolf Hitler actually talked about what he was going to do if he came to power and yet folk gave him the opportunity to do it; this tells you how stupid people are; many of them actually did not even think that Hitler was going to kill people even though he told them that he was going to do so; even the Russians trusted him and entered into a treaty with him to divvy up Poland, even though in his book, Mein Kampf, he had said that all Slavs are subhuman beings who had contributed nothing to evolution and that he was going to either kill all of them off or reduce them to slavery. He, of course, tried to kill off all Russians or reduce them to slavery and take over their lands!)

Machiavelli wrote other books, poems and whatnot but his fame rests on his The Prince.  The prince is a manual on how to acquire and maintain power. It should be read by aspirants to power who thereafter should claim to have not read it; they should do what it suggests while denying doing so. In the real world, one must be a monster while pretending to be an angel.

Machiavelli’s was a realistic thinker but whether he was also a realistic actor is a different matter. He is correctly called a political realist, even a political scientist. He reminds me of the current neocons surrounding (president) George Bush urging him to go on a warpath and use America’s political and military power to subjugate other people. Good for them. However, these little bedroom Machiavellians seem to forget to tell Bush how he is going to finance his wars! At present he borrows from China to finance the Iraq war, and as we all know a debtor soon becomes a slave. Let us see how long America would last before she joins the dustbin of history’s former powerful countries. There is a limit to the exercise of power.

May be there is something to the alternative of governing men out of love? Ah, love is weakness, Machiavelli says. We shall see which is correct: power or love, or a combination of both?


Niccolo Machiavelli, The Prince (there are many editions).

Ozodi Thomas Osuji

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Ozodi Osuji Ph.D

Ozodi Thomas Osuji is from Imo State, Nigeria. He obtained his PhD from UCLA. He taught at a couple of Universities and decided to go back to school and study psychology. Thereafter, he worked in the mental health field and was the Executive Director of two mental health agencies. He subsequently left the mental health environment with the goal of being less influenced by others perspectives, so as to be able to think for himself and synthesize Western, Asian and African perspectives on phenomena. Dr Osuji’s goal is to provide us with a unique perspective, one that is not strictly Western or African but a synthesis of both. Dr Osuji teaches, writes and consults on leadership, management, politics, psychology and religions. Dr Osuji is married and has three children; he lives at Anchorage, Alaska, USA.

He can be reached at: (907) 310-8176