Robert Zaretsky in the LA Review of Books:
Let’s begin with, well, the hands of a political leader. Midway through The Prince, Machiavelli declares that we must judge politicians by the hands, not the eyes. Not by the size of their hands, mind you, but by the work of their hands. In other words, a politician’s vows are verbiage until he proves otherwise. Take Pope Alexander — please, Machiavelli might have added sotto voce — a sceptered wheeler-dealer whose lies were as legion as his bastard children. Alexander “never did nor ever thought of anything but to deceive, and always found a reason for doing so.” No one swore oaths with greater flourish, Machiavelli observes, and no one broke them with fewer qualms. And yet, Alexander’s fibs never failed him for a simple reason: “He knew the weakness of men in that particular.”
We are as weak now as we were then. We still want to believe, and not the small stuff. We want, instead, to believe the big stuff. The bigger the lie, the greater our satisfaction; the greater our satisfaction, the deeper our credulity. Yet Machiavelli, contrary to popular belief, does not applaud this sort of dissimulation. Instead, he agonizes over it. Time and again, he urges citizens to exercise their reason, to beware of leaders who appeal to their passions. In troubled times, he warns, citizens turn against minorities within their countries by turning them into scapegoats. This reflex, in turn, lifts to power those who promise to protect the people against their imagined enemies. The enemy of my enemy is not just my friend; he is my leader.
How do we guard the republic — just another way of saying we, ourselves — from ourselves? Machiavelli would urge us, first, to commit ourselves to the essential virtues. Whether Machiavelli was an atheist is still debated, but also still irrelevant. The pagan virtues of ancient Rome and Greece — courage, strength, justice, and compassion — that Machiavelli praised were, he believed, also the foundations of the Christian religion. Just as there are good and bad Christians, so too is the case with atheists. An “atheist” inspired by these virtues, no less than a Christian (or Jew or Muslim), would make for an honorable leader. What Machiavelli feared, instead, was a leader who scorned both the pagan and religious varieties of these particular virtues. The sort of leader, one imagines, who mauls scripture while his followers maul opponents.