By ellymelly – If you enjoy my work, consider shouting me a coffee over on Ko-Fi
It is often the case with human thought that our works of brevity contain caverns of knowledge.
Machiavelli, a Renaissance philosopher, believed that an artist who wished to sketch the mountains should put himself down in the plains. At this distance, the faults and beauty of the towering ranges are easily observed. The same is true of the low-lying fields, whose secrets are indiscernible unless one has the courage to scale the cliffs and look out upon them as an undulating expanse blurring into the horizon. It follows that to comprehend the complexity of a nation’s people, one has to be its leader but only the ordinary citizens are positioned to judge the merits of their ruler.
We see this duality of perspective in our statues. Scattered through parks and cities, they bookmark pages in history when the world shuddered under breath. That is all we are – wind passing over the terrain. We scratch so lightly that it takes a million souls to weather humanity into the features we recognise today.
Mortality drives us to build symbols of permanence. The bronze eyes of Winston Churchill are a shrine for the nameless in his chapter, while an obelisk in a Roman village with a cross protruding like mistletoe from its peak, signifies the conquest of two empires. Their scars both built and maimed the world. Do we judge the beauty of the scaffolding by the same measure as the façade? Our history provides the framework for our moral present. If we tear down its structure, expect the building to collapse.
One after the other our cities fall, humanity recognising no constant except the perpetual desire to destroy itself. Ruins haunt us with the dreams of those we killed. For all their savagery, it does not escape our notice that the most ancient of our kin built works of unparalleled beauty. They climbed from bloodshed, poverty and misery with rock and sweat, creating cities fit for the gods who were imagined as both our torturers and salvation.
The less we have, the more we achieve. When civilisation reaches the point of comfort, those that lounge in the rarefied atmosphere kick in the gates and let hell pour through the streets to begin again. Sometimes, we can’t. Every revolution flips the coin between progress and predatory politics. Fate favours the latter, as it is easier to destroy than build. Gradually, piece by piece, the world is given over to dictators until a cluster of leaders close their eyes and whisper, ‘no’. These outsiders are the men immortalised in bronze.
Few have lived who understood civilisation with Machiavelli’s clarity. He saw our empires as a tally of intertwined personal motivations, dismissing ideology in favour of humanity. History gives him a bad rap because he dared to tell the truth about our behaviour. We do not enjoy looking at ourselves in high definition, particularly stripped away from the platitudes of morality, leaving the secret rules that govern us meticulously detailed. The single finest political work in history, The Prince, is a deceptively short masterpiece in leadership – a cautionary tale for careless rulers and ambitious crowds. Any evil attributed to his name is merely a reflection of what he found in his subject matter.
To those who cling to the Machiavellian verb – to those who invoke his name as a slur synonymous with unscrupulous wickedness – know that his greatest admiration was reserved for Marcus Aurelius, whom he regarded as the best of us. That is what The Prince aspires to; a better world. It is why he rejected false utopias, considering them a dangerous lure. His suspicions were proved correct with every passing century. Those who chased Shangri-La politics brought about the worst depravity in political theory and a pile of skulls that not even Machiavelli could fathom in his nightmares.
The following are Machiavelli’s five suggestions for surviving civilisation.
“Never let any Government imagine that it can choose perfectly safe courses; rather let it expect to have to take very doubtful ones, because it is found in ordinary aﬀairs that one never seeks to avoid one trouble without running into another; but prudence consists in knowing how to distinguish the character of troubles, and for choice to take the lesser evil.”
This is a warning about the inherit risk civilisation faces simply by existing. It has been the preference of our leaders since the end of the last war to pursue the lowest risk policies at all cost, even when they appear ludicrous. The immediate memory of conflict has given way to the philosophy of pacifism. We have entered the era where our political leaders fear giving minor offence on the world stage rather than engaging in the necessary international geopolitics to preserve the safety and interests of their countries.
The United Nations has used empty threats to coerce obliging leaders in the West out of their money and into treaties that do not benefit them, while power hungry dictatorships climb. Our desire to avoid global conflict and shroud egos with peaceful politics is ironically creating the environment necessary for a third world war. This is what Machiavelli means when he says that safety cannot be guaranteed by saintly behaviour. Civilisations that sit idle are the first to be sacrificed and there is no virtue inviting your cities to be sacked. Allowing others to be invaded without comment for fear of the aggressor makes that aggressor more powerful by the silence. China knows this. By continuously pushing out the boundaries of acceptable behaviour they make anything acceptable, including conquest.
Machiavelli spoke of the Romans, who knew that battle was an inevitable feature of being alive. The best any leader can hope to do is pick which battles to engage in to avoid laying the foundation of wars that cannot be won. Some of these are pre-emptive. Western leaders have been raised to subscribe to the dangerous ideology of ‘make the most of the present time’ while the Romans, in Machiavelli’s words, made the most of their prowess and prudence, thus ensuring that the present time was always secure and advantageous instead of facing gradual erosion.
To them, political strife was like a disease that wasted away the body. If you acted while it was difficult to diagnose – it was also easy to cure. Leaders who waited until the ailment became obvious to everyone, found it invariably fatal. Our disease is the infiltration of violent dictators and ideologies into positions of influence on the boards of institutions that were designed specifically to stop them holding power. No one is safe, least of all their people, if the depraved start orchestrating geopolitics.
“Without doubt princes become great when they overcome the difficulties and obstacles by which they are confronted, and therefore fortune, especially when she desires to make a new prince great, who has a greater necessity to earn renown than an hereditary one, causes enemies to arise and form designs against him, in order that he may have the opportunity of overcoming them, and by them to mount higher, as by a ladder which his enemies have raised. For this reason many consider that a wise prince, when he has the opportunity, ought with craft to foster some animosity against himself, so that, having crushed it, his renown may rise higher.”
It may seem unfair, but humans come from a primordial system of war and adventure. We have, buried in our nature, the desire to vanquish challenges even if they are mundane. As individuals, we continuously place ourselves into open conflict. Children play games with each other and relish in their victories. It is not only how we choose to entertain ourselves, it is the foundation of education. The wild teaches lessons with severe punishments and so we are hard-wired to value those individuals who continually solve problems placed before them. They were the early leaders of humanity – our protectors, heroes, and champions.
The famous figures of our history are usually found in periods of darkness where their fame is the product of an adversary they overcame, often unwillingly. Winston Churchill is remembered for leading the West against the horror of two political ideologies enslaving and murdering their way across Europe. Others chose nature itself to vanquish, by climbing her mountains or pressing into the uncharted edges of the world. They conquered two things; death and the unknown. Even if they failed, their ambition left a revered stain in our minds.
For political leaders, it is rarely enough to beat a rival party at an election (unless that party is of significant threat to the public interest). Do not get me wrong, a political victory carries with it a measure of short term fame, but to achieve one of those bookmarks in the story of humanity, a leader has to be put against a force that the nation will admire him for overcoming. Wars are the natural enemy of a leader and peacetime leaders often find their names fading. Steady economies, serenity, and incomprehensible nests of policy are hardly things to inspire the hearts of citizens.
In order to maintain popularity and power, Machiavelli’s suggestion is to create a circumstance to overcome. To manufacture conflict where there is none. This does not mean throwing darts at a world map and sending in the troops (unless you’re an unscrupulous warlord like Xi Jinping). What he means is to create conflict out of an existing issue. If a leader is fighting poverty in his city, the advice is to talk this up into a war. Pit yourself against the task so that the monotonous completion becomes an event to remember. Or, actively pick political rivals from the ranks of the opposition. Challenge them, even if they’re not much of a challenge…
US President Obama is remembered predominantly for the colour of his skin. In a time of identity politics’ toxic insistence on defining individual value by a mixture of race, sexuality, and gender – his victory was the position of power he reached. It is not enough to stick. The foe of ‘institutionalised racism’ in the US is mostly imaginary in the twenty-first century and after the achievement of election was realised, Obama’s policies were uninspiring.
Love or hate US President Trump, his victory against the Deep State held a similar amount of theatre as Obama’s election – but it is not what he is going to be remembered for. His foes are global super powers Russia, China, North Korea and the entire swamp of the United Nations. He turned unemployment and border security into wars of ideology before being hit by the twin existential threats of a pandemic and rising domestic Communism. This is the sort of noise that enshrines leaders in memory, whether they win or lose.
Why is it not enough to rule well? People are fickle. They grow bored of prosperity and so, for a good government to maintain power, it must adopt a measure of theatre even if its politics are not naturally inclined to drama.
Conservative parities have failed in this task over the last forty years. While they ruled peacefully, the left have been picking battles, creating conflict out of nothing, and rising up with the ghosts of Stalin.
“It makes him hated above all things, as I have said, to be rapacious, and to be a violator of the property and women of his subjects, from both of which he must abstain. And when neither their property nor their honour is touched, the majority of men live content, and he has only to contend with the ambition of a few, whom he can curb with ease in many ways.”
Machiavelli pre-dated Communism and its little on-ramp to hell (Socialism) by centuries, but he correctly identified the flaw that would lie at the heart of their failure.
Citizens want their leaders to leave them alone.
It might sound simple, but this unifying truth of civilisation has been abused by various forms of government for thousands of years. Dictators raped, pillaged, and burned the property of their people, feudal systems overtaxed the poor causing bloody revolutions, while theocracies erected oppressive social rules to control the minute details of everybody’s lives. Even in the Western democracies of today, we are stuck in an endless battle to keep the creep of government out of our lives where committees of moral busybodies and pick-pocketing bureaucrats treat the people like a buffet. The European Union is another species of this sin, except it plays the game on the grander stage of sovereignty.
No political movement on Earth has indulged the error more than Communism. Karl Marx wrote these ills into the spine of his ideology, attempting to spin state sanctioned theft of private property, indentured slavery, and government ownership of personal thought into a political system advertised as ‘kindness’.
No matter how many apologists attempt to soften the propaganda, humans recognise tyranny when they see it. We are hard-wired to reject the principles of re-distribution from our earliest consciousness where we began creating and collecting trinkets to separate us from the our fellow animals. Humans keep what they work for. They might make a few small tax concessions in return for a leader who protects them from external enemies, or engage in charity work if they can, but the proposition of Communism is no different to Machiavelli’s envisioned despot, riding through villages with a pack of villains.
Conservative politicians should take note that the popularity of your politics lies in the rejection of this ideology. The more autonomy you enshrine into policy, the higher your vote. While you may not be faced with dismantling Communism, it is worth stripping your government of unnecessary incursion into the private life of your citizens, ignore the demands of censorship, and lower taxes wherever possible. This behaviour will take you closer to having a relationship with the citizenry based on respect rather than force.
“We have seen above how necessary it is for a prince to have his foundations well laid, otherwise it follows of necessity he will go to ruin. The chief foundations of all states, new as well as old or composite, are good laws and good arms; and as there cannot be good laws where the state is not well armed, it follows that where they are well armed they have good laws.”
Or put more familiarly, ‘law and order’. The two pieces of civilisation have been latched together since antiquity because law, by its very nature, is enforced. Peaceful nations require solid laws to keep criminality at bay or else risk falling into the common state of anarchy found in the world’s failed entities.
With serious political leaders in the West embracing the idea of abolishing their police forces, there could not be a more poignant moment to remember Machiavelli’s warning. Ordinarily, countries are not stupid enough to dismantle their own police systems. Usually it happens during an external siege where a larger war robs a city of their police and the defenceless citizens are left to the mercy of warlords and criminals. Dismantled law gives way to the lowest form of social control by the mob until liberty exists only for those with sufficient brutality.
The same can be said about the gradual reformation of law. To achieve what Machiavelli puts as, ‘good laws’ requires a process of enforcement that can judge a law’s merit as it is written. For example, ridiculous laws prove impossible to police and are dropped entirely. Laws that are out of step with majority behaviour share the same fate. If a leader, in a fit of ego, decides to introduce a law banning an activity that everyone engages in and loves, he risks a rebellion for trying to fill his jail cells. Jonathan Sumption, in his lectures about Law’s Expanding Empire, carries this argument through to its natural conclusion where unenforceable laws risk the validity of the government or body writing them until finally, their authority is no longer recognised. It is the act of policing that conducts a Litmus test on the health of legal systems.
To enforce a good law requires the arming of police. If police are not respected and yes, feared, then criminals cannot be policed. We have seen in recent weeks our police running from violent mobs – unable to stand their ground and protect public and private property from gangs of opportunistic vandals. This leads immediately to the destruction of society.
This is not an argument from Machiavelli about creating a military force to police citizens. The point of democratic politics is to sit above the police force as a system owned by the people. It is them, the people, who write the laws and decide upon how they wished to be governed. Once decided, the laws have to apply equally to all or else jealousy erupts inside the populous.
A situation we are seeing play out today.
We have bad laws, weak police, and inconsistent politicians.
“And if there are some who think that a prince who conveys an impression of his wisdom is not so through his own ability, but through the good advisers that he has around him, beyond doubt they are deceived, because this is an axiom which never fails: that a prince who is not wise himself will never take good advice, unless by chance he has yielded his aﬀairs entirely to one person who happens to be a very prudent man. In this case indeed he may be well governed, but it would not be for long, because such a governor would in a short time take away his state from him.”
All leaders take advice, even those who do not surround themselves with visible advisors. There is a fine line between listening to a range of opinion and being presented to the world as a plaything of conspirators.
A leader must be prepared to take his own opinion – to trust it and to pursue it if he thinks it is better than the crowd of advice offered at his ear. The people elect leaders for this express purpose – to lead on the promises they made at election. There are often points in history where the systems surrounding a leader have formed institutions against the desires of general population. In this case, their advice is bad advice, even if it is the prevailing noise. The Deep State is a notable example of an entire political class that has fallen out of step. We see it perhaps more insidiously with the prevalence of identity politics where a minority of opinion in the population has become over represented in the upper echelons of politics. This has resulted in the majority voting for combative leaders whose job it is to walk against the torrents of unsolicited advice.
Scott Morrison is a Conservative Prime Minister in Australia governing during a time of plummeting support for the United Nations, the Renewables industry, and government censorship – yet all three things have been endorsed and expanded on the advice of those that surround him. This not only makes him personally unpopular, his voters either see him as a traitor to the cause he was elected to serve or a weak-willed leader bent over the knee by the Canberra press gallery.
Fearing the press is the most dangerous thing the political class ever decided to do. The press have their own interests sitting somewhere between clickbait and personal politics. The only thing a politician should fear is the opinion of the people who elected him.
Yes, Machiavelli acknowledges that it is possible to be advised well and that some leaders may be lucky, but the best leaders are certain of their own minds and are not afraid to offer their honest opinions when confronted by questions.
In conclusion, Machiavelli says that, ‘goodwill and fortune are the two most inconstant and unstable things. Nevertheless, he who has relied least on fortune is established the strongest.’
His lesson is the same as the one offered by our grandparents. Rely on yourself, work hard and you will achieve great things. Only the fool assigns his fortune to life’s sadistic gamble.
By ellymelly – If you enjoy my work, consider shouting me a coffee over on Ko-Fi. I have to purchase a new laptop this month, so it’s even more appreciated than normal. ❤