Have we got Machiavelli all wrong?

Erica Brenner in The Guardian:

TonyIf you’re a political outsider who wants to move fast to the top job in a democracy, how to do it? You could start by dipping into a book written 500 years ago by an out-of-pocket Italian civil servant. The quickest way, it says, is to have fortune on your side from the outset, with plenty of inherited money and a leg up through family connections. If lying and breaking your oaths help you crush the opposition, so be it. Make the people your best friend. Promise to protect their interests against predatory elites and foreigners. Fan partisan hatreds so that you alone seem to rise above them, saviour of the fatherland.

The book is The Prince, its author Niccolò Machiavelli. Minus television and Twitter, it seems the techniques of ambitious “new princes”, as he calls them, haven’t changed a bit. But why did Machiavelli write a whole book about them, peppering it with men who soared to power by greasing palms and exploiting weaknesses: Julius Caesar, Pope Alexander VI, Cesare Borgia? Most people today assume that Machiavelli didn’t just describe their methods, he recommended them – that he himself is the original Machiavellian, the first honest teacher of dishonest politics. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the adjective has come to mean “cunning, scheming, and unscrupulous, especially in politics”. Along with our daily news, popular culture has brought legions of Machiavellian figures into our homes and made them both human and entertaining: Tony Soprano, Frank and Claire Underwood in House of Cards, Lord Petyr Baelish from Game of Thrones. These Machiavellians are scoundrels, but subtle ones. In watching their manoeuvres on screen we, like their victims, can’t help being a little seduced by their warped ingenuity. So it no longer shocks us to think that a highly intelligent man who lived five centuries ago, in times we imagine were far crueller than ours, spent night after night at his desk in the Tuscan countryside, his wife and children sleeping nearby, drafting the rulebook for today’s cynical populists and authoritarians.

Picture: Machiavellian scoundrel … James Gandolfini as Tony Soprano in the HBO TV series The Sopranos.

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