Five hundred years ago, a Renaissance writer gave a prescription for effective government. What lessons—for better and for worse—can we learn?
Do you believe that “history is written by the victors”? Do you feel that “the end justifies the means”? If you do, you are indebted to a notorious philosopher who lived five hundred years ago.
The year 2013 marks the 500th anniversary of a famous little book, The Prince, written by a European nobleman named Niccolo Machiavelli. That book, which he wrote in 1513 (but which was not published until after his death), is one of the most famous and influential books on politics ever written. It has even given the name “Machiavellian” to the amoral practices it advocates—of scheming and deceit for the acquisition and maintenance of power.
Machiavelli lived from 1469 to 1527 during a turbulent time in Italian history. His family had been wealthy and influential for centuries, but his father, while well educated, was insolvent and struggled to make a living. Machiavelli spent much of his life courting the wealth and power that his father lacked.
In Machiavelli’s day, Italy was disunited, and its great noble families engaged in labyrinthine struggles for control, both against each other and foreign powers. In Florence—a city which existed as a separate republic—being in or out of favor with, say, the Medici family or a particular pope could mean either high office or imprisonment. Machiavelli experienced both. These forces forged the worldview of this talented—but amoral—diplomat, administrator and political philosopher.
Today, a bad career decision may force a change of jobs; in Machiavelli’s Florence it could mean imprisonment or death. This hostile environment was reflected in the cynical view Machiavelli expressed in The Prince: that a ruler should be guided by the necessities of acquiring and maintaining power rather than by a moral code. Machiavelli advises the rising and ambitious ruler that the dictates of power are the primary consideration in all policies and actions.
The mainstream view of Machiavelli can be summarized nicely be the following description from Encyclopaedia Britannica’s entry on the man. “The first and most persistent view of Machiavelli is that of a teacher of evil... To maintain himself a prince must learn how not to be good and use or not use this knowledge ‘according to necessity’ ...from this standpoint Machiavelli can be interpreted as the founder of modern political science, a discipline based on the actual state of the world as opposed to how the world might be... The amoral interpretation fastens on Machiavelli’s frequent resort to ‘necessity’ in order to excuse actions that might otherwise be condemned as immoral.”
What was Machiavelli’s vision of political science? In The Prince, he presented a number of rules for rulers, including:
Are there people today who actually live the way Machiavelli proposed? In the early 1970s, psychologists Richard Christie and Florence L. Geis published a study identifying a distinct personality type characterized by manipulation in relationships and cynicism about human nature. They administered a test containing statements such as: “Never tell anyone the real reason you did something unless it is useful to do so.… The best way to handle people is to tell them what they want to hear.… Anyone who completely trusts anyone else is asking for trouble.”
Respondents who agreed with such statements got high scores and were called “High Machs.” They were found very prone to having a “Machiavellian” personality. On the other hand, someone who scores low as a Machiavellian would tend to agree with statements such as: “It is never right to lie to someone else.… Most people are basically good and kind.… One should take action only when it is morally right.”
Commenting on the study, psychologist Harriet B. Braiker wrote:
“Machiavellian personalities are committed to the proposition that a desired end justifies virtually any means. Machiavellianism is defined as a manipulative strategy of social interaction and personality style that uses other people as tools for personal gain.… High Machs influence or manipulate others in predictable ways, using tactics that are exploitive, self-serving, and nearly always deceptive.
High Machs tend to constitute a distinctive type. They tend to be charming, confident, and glib; but they are also arrogant, calculating and cynical, prone to manipulate and exploit. In the context of laboratory experiment games, high Machs display a keen and opportunistic sense of timing, and they appear to capitalize especially in situations that contain ambiguity regarding the rules” (Who’s Pulling Your Strings?, Harriet B. Braiker, Ph.D., pp. 85–87).
Machiavelli presented his ideas forcefully, but he was not the first to think these things. For instance, the ancient Greek playwright Euripides wrote, “If wrong may ever be right, for a throne’s sake is wrong most right—be God in all else feared” (Phoenician Maidens, lines 524–25). Machiavelli could not have said it better—and indeed, as an educated man of his day, he likely read Euripides’ play or saw it performed.
The influential German general and military theorist Karl von Clausewitz called war “the continuation of politics by other means.” In today’s world, it even seems that politics has become war by other means. Candidates and office holders engage in perpetual political battles, firing salvos of press releases and political propaganda. Just as in the past, today’s aspiring leaders deeply desire the personal validation of power and will take almost any measure to achieve it.
The Apostle James explained why. “Where do wars and fights come from among you? Do they not come from your desires for pleasure that war in your members? You lust and do not have. You murder and covet and cannot obtain. You fight and war” (James 4:1–2). It is all about two very different ways of life: “give versus get.” In many respects, it is as simple as that. God is love, and His very nature and character is love and outgoing concern for others—the way of “give.” But the way of the politics of this world is “get”—self-focused—in obedience to a very different ruler.
Jesus Christ identified the true prince of this current world when He said to His disciples, “...the prince of this world cometh and has nothing in me” and “...the prince of this world is judged...” and “...the prince of this world is cast out” (John 14:30; 16:11; 12:31, KJV). Jesus even referred to this prince having a kingdom in this world (Matthew 12:26) and the Apostle Paul said he is the actual “god of this age” (2 Corinthians 4:4). This prince covets the role of ruler and god.
Who was Jesus referring to as the current ruler of today’s world? The Bible reveals that this world has a spiritual ruler who embodies all of the ambitions and willfulness of today’s ambitious rulers. Notice the willful, ambitious nature that this former archangel presents: “I will ascend above…” and “I will exalt my throne…” This spiritual being was once called Lucifer—the “light bringer”—but in his willful rebellion against God Almighty he became Satan, or the “Adversary.”
“How you are fallen from heaven, O Lucifer, son of the morning! How you are cut down to the ground, you who weakened the nations! For you have said in your heart: ‘I will ascend into heaven, I will exalt my throne above the stars of God; I will also sit on the mount of the congregation on the farthest sides of the north; I will ascend above the heights of the clouds, I will be like the Most High.’”
But notice that God declares this evil being’s final destination: “Yet you shall be brought down to Sheol [grave], to the lowest depths of the Pit. Those who see you will gaze at you, and consider you, saying: ‘Is this the man who made the earth tremble’?” (Isaiah 14:12–16).
In contrast to this evil prince—the “prince of the power of the air” (Ephesians 2:2), Scripture tells us that another Prince will soon come to the earth—the “Prince of Peace.” Jesus Christ taught a way very different from that of Machiavelli. In the New Testament, we find that one of the greatest virtues people (including rulers) should seek is peace. Peace is listed as one of the fruits of God’s Holy Spirit (“...love, joy, peace...” Galatians 5:22).
Scripture shows that Christ will return as the leader of a powerful army, but He will use His power to establish and to rule a peaceable Kingdom. The prophet Daniel recorded a vision picturing the return of Jesus Christ at the end of this age and the establishment of His government on Earth. In that vision, Christ destroys an existing worldly system that rejects God’s government. The vision begins by depicting a series of previous world-ruling empires, which regular readers of this magazine know consist of the Babylonian, Medo-Persian, Greco-Macedonian and Roman empires, then culminates with the good news of God’s Kingdom:
“You, O king, were watching; and behold, a great image! This great image, whose splendor was excellent, stood before you; and its form was awesome. This image’s head was of fine gold [Babylonian Empire], its chest and arms of silver [Medo-Persian Empire], its belly and thighs of bronze [Greco-Macedonian Empire], its legs of iron [Roman Empire], its feet partly of iron and partly of clay [end-time revival of the Roman Empire]. You watched while a stone was cut out without hands, which struck the image on its feet of iron and clay, and broke them in pieces. Then the iron, the clay, the bronze, the silver, and the gold were crushed together, and became like chaff from the summer threshing floors; the wind carried them away so that no trace of them was found. And the stone that struck the image became a great mountain and filled the whole earth” (Daniel 2:31–35).
In Scripture, God often uses the symbol of a mountain to symbolize a government. Here, the mountain that grows to fill “the whole earth” is the “holy mountain of God”—His government on earth. God said through the prophet Isaiah, “They shall not hurt nor destroy in all My holy mountain, for the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea” (Isaiah 11:9). This is not only a reference to Christ’s headquarters in Jerusalem, but to a government that grows to “fill the whole earth” and replaces current profane governments.
Jesus, after 40 days of fasting, even made reference to this mountain when Satan tempted Him. It was Satan’s mountain—his government and kingdoms—that Jesus saw when Satan offered, “All this authority I will give You, and their glory; for this has been delivered to me” (Luke 4:6). This world and its power and government were indeed Satan’s to give—his mountain is very real—and many have taken their share of his seductive deal.
Of course, Jesus remembered what He had prophesied centuries before in Daniel 2: “You watched while a stone was cut out without hands… And the stone that struck the image became a great mountain and filled the whole earth” (Daniel 2:34–35). Jesus rejected Satan’s offer and, in effect, blew him away with the breath of His lips when He said, “Get behind Me, Satan! For it is written, ‘You shall worship the Lord your God, and Him only you shall serve’” (Luke 4:8). Those who today fashion themselves as followers of Machiavelli are essentially accepting an offer from the wrong prince!
Modern political science acknowledges that The Prince, despite being written 500 years ago, has profoundly influenced modern political thought, and it continues to do so. But today’s politicians do not understand that the principles expressed in that book represent the corrupt spirit of a system that will soon come to an end. Thankfully, Christians today can be set apart from that system, and God’s Church strives to practice His way of government, free of the cynicism and manipulation Machiavelli advised.
Five hundred years after The Prince, what is Machiavelli’s legacy? During his lifetime, he certainly wrote other works, some taking a rather different view of the ruler’s role. For instance, his Discourses on Livy contains advice on how to preserve republics. Serious historians dispute the degree to which The Prince represented Machiavelli’s true feelings. In any case, we know that in the dedication letter of The Prince, Machiavelli says that his little book contains all he knows. One may understandably conclude that The Prince came from the treasure of his heart. Thankfully, Christians look instead to a very different Prince—the Prince of Peace—as the One from whom their values come, and who will soon return to lead a government far, far different from what Machiavelli described.