A few weeks ago I was asked to write an article about Macchiavelli for Oceans, the network for students and alumni of specific bi-lateral exchange programmes between the European Union and other industrialized countries. Here is what I submitted.
Not necessarily a sociopath
A recent survey suggests that most people buy books because they like to be seen reading rather than because they actually enjoy the experience. If this is the case, then you would better choose highly pretentious stuff, and trust me: nothing can beat collections of political essays written in ancient Italian. I am glad I can announce you I recently had the pleasure to embark in such a fashionable public display of intellectual engagement. Not that I did it entirely on purpose: this peculiar interest happened by accident rather than by design. Though studying politics, in fact, I always carefully avoided reading the original Italian philosophy classics considering them as immensely boring and rather pointless to account for the complex times we live in. But then the opportunity came to me thanks to the editors of this magazine, who came up with the idea of writing something about philosophy and leadership, the latter being the topic of our upcoming AGM in Vilnius. As it turns out, one of the most authoritative philosophers on leadership is the Florentine renaissance philosopher best known as Niccolò Machiavelli. And here is where I kick in, as the only Italian OCEANS member who currently lives in Florence, studies politics, and has enough spare time to write an article about the great intellectual master of power-politics. A fortunate combination indeed.
So there I am, reading Macchiavelli’s books every chance I get, and impressing the hell out of anyone who spots me doing so. Never mind that I rarely go out to read, and that therefore the only persons likely to spot me doing so are my flatmates, who at the time I’m most likely to be reading Macchiavelli’s books are very much sleeping flatmates. Maybe it is better so. After a few weeks of reading, I discovered that in psychology ‘Machiavellianism’ is used to describe anti-social behaviour commonly found in sociopaths. I guess this has something to do with the fact that Machiavelli has the reputation for being a ruthless son-of-a-bitch. But, in fact, describing him in such a way would be misleading (as well as, perhaps, slightly disrespectful). His most famous book, The Prince, is a satire of the Medici family who was in power in Florence in the 15th century, at the time when Macchiavelli was writing. In his other political works, he offers a different perspective of the Prince and in no single treatise did he rigorously expound his theory of man and leadership. Take notice that in Macchiavelli the latter cannot be understood in separation from the former. Let think in these terms: Macchiavelli’s entire philosophy spurs from a study of man’s innate traits, as a creature of insatiable desires and limitless ambition with a primary desire is for self-preservation. The human being, therefore, is short-sighted and rather imitative: indeed, given his human nature, the outlook for social cooperation may appear dim. Leadership, as a detached, rational manner to analyze the ways power can be acquired and maintained, is the most effective instrument to mold man’s essentially evil nature.
No doubt, then: men’s desire for self-preservation and their very shortsightedness make them peculiarly susceptible to manipulation by leaders. Am I the only one thinking of the Frank Underwood kind of leader now? But be sure, in Macchiavelli’s view leadership can also mold man’s essential evil in pursue of a good society. Astute leadership and rational social organization can, and indeed should, maintain civic virtues. According to Macchiavelli’s most careful commentators, the political virtuoso is rational, calculating, and eminently self-controlled, plays many roles with aplomb, and is prudent enough to identify his own interest with the well-being of those he seeks to manage. It is not by chance that Machiavelli’s heroes are statesmen and founders of civilizations, including Moses, Cyrus, Romulus and Theseus. As Isiah Berlin explained in his essay, Machiavelli admired these characters because they were high-minded and tough enough to use brutality against the few to help the public good of the princedom. He particularly admired the moderate, liberal-minded, and humane military genius Scipio Africanus Major and got inspired by his story.
In a similarly inspiring vein I suspect reading Macchiavelli is likely to affect a significant part of the rest of my life. The grandiose way of describing this shift is to say that I have been slowly making my peace with ancient Italian philosophy. Alternatively, to express it with the accurate words of another contemporary philosopher known as Nick Hornby, I have discovered that some old shit, after all, isn’t so bad.