In The Garments of Court and Palace: Machiavelli and the World That he Made, author Philip Bobbit tries to remove the badge of infamy from the Italian thinker who advocated “political realism” as survival in city-state politics in 14th century Europe. Today, politics is often described as Machiavellian because of how politicians behave, with some “reinterpreting” Machiavelli as the villain of modern politics, guiding politicians from his grave. This view isn’t matched by reality.
What Machiavelli’s writing focused on was the survival of the Italian city-state against the neighboring states of France, Spain and the Holy Roman Empire. His “wisdom” is compressed in the following sentence: “I shall depart from the practices of other writers who depict an imaginary world and shall instead describe the ways princes actually behave and how the world reacts.” This remark is easy to misconstrue: that he is rejecting the philosophical paradigm of describing a model utopia and advocating a villainous worldview of a prince in perpetual power. Early writers on politics today appear more “practical” to us than “principled.”
In his own words
One can encapsulate Machiavelli’s worldview in the following statement: “It is the nature of man that he will behave badly in order to get what he wants. One can say about men that they are ungrateful, fickle, deceitful, cowardly and greedy. Men are a wretched lot whose obligations are voided whenever it suits their self-interest. This obsession with self-interest is an elemental function of man’s nature and does not evolve with time. It is a consequence, sometimes this will create a situation in which necessity—the necessity of preserving the state—requires that a prince depart from the customary virtues in order to cope with adversaries who are deceitful, greedy, etc.
“Trickery is detestable yet in the conduct of warfare it is nevertheless praiseworthy and glorious, and the more so with an enemy who has deceived you the same thing may be said of other nominal vices—cruelty, dissimulation and deceit. Whether these are in fact virtues or vices depends entirely on whether they are necessary to preserve the state. Therefore it is a prudent rule that the prince who governs the state must do unto others as they would do unto him. Accepting man’s nature as it is and accepting that men, not angels, govern states, a prince must avoid the wishful thinking that his competitors will treat him as he wishes to be treated. Instead, the prince must learn to treat others as they would treat him.”
Like Ibn Khaldun and Kautilya?
Niccolo Machiavelli’s life (1469-1527) recalls to mind Ibn Khaldun (1332-1404). Both lived in a period of politics of principalities, one in Italy, the other in North Africa. Both were involved in the politics of their times and both were regarded as soldiers of fortune by their contemporaries and hounded and honored in turns. When you read the ideas expressed by Machiavelli you think less of Ibn Khaldun (although his theorizing on the state would have pleased Machiavelli) but more of Kautiliya, the philosopher of the Maurya Dynasty in India (320-180 BC). Today, it is Machiavelli’s basic political thought that the world is following, calling it “pragmatism” and “national self-interest,” while the term “Machiavellian” has become a weapon in the hands of the moralist to chastise the modern-day hubris of the cunning politician.
Machiavelli was born in Florence, a city-state ruling over a number of smaller cities on the basis of alliances. It interacted with the other great city-states of Italy—Venice, Venice, Romagna, Naples and Rome—in a complex competition of balance of power. When Machiavelli came of age, the Medici family had been rejected by the people and driven out of the city. The political decline of the clan took place at a time of great moral and social decrepitude. A failing economy saw the rich get richer through aristocratic connections, while the poor were condemned to penury and prostitution. Along with the Medici family, the church also went down, becoming politicized and degraded after getting embroiled in European politics. Florentines responded to the millennial figure of Savonarola, who predicted divine calamity to punish the city and subjected the politicians to severe moralistic criticism.
What was the basic character of the city-state in Italy? It was an unstable political entity that lived by forming alliances and bargaining with invaders from the rest of Europe, usually the rapacious French king. The five states could unite to fend off invaders but they were more persuaded to prevent each other from becoming powerful than to unite, very much like the city-states of India at the advent of the British in Bengal. The idea was to keep the other city-states from expanding and trespassing on to the area of influence of each other. No standing armies were kept by the city fathers, who were usually merchants more interested in peace for the sake of business than in making war to keep peace. The tendency was to make alliances with France and Spain, the two neighbors with standing armies, to take each other down. Invariably these pacts extracted prices too high for poor citizens to pay, resulting in residents despising their rulers.
It was under the House of Soderini that Machiavelli was appointed secretary of a committee that looked after foreign relations. He wrote convincingly about foreign policy and the conduct of the state and expressed views that appealed despite their heretic novelty. He was convinced that Florence must keep a standing army instead of relying on mercenaries (often foreigners) to fight its wars. His observations on the dangers of allowing mercenaries to live in society and let them take battlefield decisions read very well for Pakistan, which has passed through the process of being brought down by surrogate warriors called “non-state actors.” His understanding of politics got him many special missions. He went to France and watched the French king and his entourage up close; he was with the rising Borgia tyrant of Romagna whose power and popularity sprang from total command of affairs and inscrutability of personally operated policy, somewhat like Zulfikar Ali Bhutto. From Borgia he definitely learnt the importance of being cruel and generous at the right time.
Is Machiavelli still relevant?
The Soderinis allowed Machiavelli to raise Florence’s own army. This prompted citizens to question what the soldiers would do when they were not fighting—would they stage coups and take over themselves? This dilemma has echoes in developing nations of the 20th century, which have seen decades of rule under military officials. States that forwent the luxury of keeping armies did not suffer military coups: the U.A.E. for instance. Machiavelli might have rejoiced when these states had to pay dearly for their defense against Saddam Hussein in 1990.
In his writings, Machiavelli cites examples from Greek and Roman history, from Plutarch and Livy, insisting that a standing army did not mean that it would work always. He called for high quality leadership for appropriate decision-making. One should remember that much of Machiavelli applies to the conditions of the city state, just as Rousseau’s utopia was based on the city state.
The Soderinis fell from power after the Spaniards invaded Florence and decimated its citizens. The Medicis came back indirectly and Machiavelli immediately got into trouble. He was imprisoned and tortured. After he was let off, he wrote his famous The Prince, thinking that Medici ruler Lorenzo would read it. But the prince was a half-wit, more interested in hunting than in reading books on politics. In fact, no one got excited by what was probably the greatest treatise on politics in world history. Machiavelli survived by writing plays, some of them well received. He wrote his Discourses, which did a little better than The Prince, but generally speaking he was not recognized as a great political theorist. Towards the end, his book on Florence was noted by the Medici ruler who wanted to reform the city institutions and thought Machiavelli might write a good reform report. Machiavelli knew that he was not understood. He cultivated a measure of cynicism and devoted himself to love affairs (despite his wife and children) to forget that he was living in uncongenial times. He loved Florence nonetheless and its freedom of speech under democracy.
A Machiavellian Pakistan?
Retired civil servant Tariq Khosa, describes the politics of today’s Pakistan in daily Dawn on June 9, 2022: “Recent developments in Pakistan can be summed up in three words: bizarre, shocking and depressing. We have not seen a more fractured polity, defined by an acrimonious debate for and against vested interests that are jockeying for power. Self-interest trumps the national interest, tainted by a corrosive narrative with certain buzzwords like ‘conspirators’, ‘traitors’ and ‘looters’ entering the political lexicon of the self-righteous ‘us-versus-them’ posturing.
“The consequences of recent follies are being reflected in reputational costs to all the major national institutions, including the sacred cows. Pakistan today faces daunting challenges: an economic meltdown, governance collapse, brazen corruption, violent extremism, virulent militancy and organized crime. Who is going to stem the rot and how? That is the question. I was in public service for about half a century, starting my career in law enforcement in 1973. For about four decades, I was part of the state apparatus that was dealing with challenges such as sectarianism, religious extremism, terrorism, drug trafficking, migrant smuggling, human trafficking, money laundering and cybercrime. All these reflect the nefarious nexus between corruption and organized crime, weak rule of law and the involvement or collusion of the state.”