Two days ago I watched a programme (http://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/b03kqdnb/imagine…_Winter_2013_Whos_Afraid_of_Machiavelli/) about Machiavelli’s The Prince, his theoretical treatise on how to manage power. This turns out to have been bed-time reading for, among others, Mussolini, Napoleon and Stalin. More to the point it is the pillow book du choix for many modern statesmen, corporate bosses, generals and other powerful individuals.
Interviews with some of these guys were very convincing; to wield power successfully, achieving results for the good of the majority, following the Machiavelli recipe is a winner. A leader needs to ditch ethical considerations, honour, the notion of being loved and do whatever works to hold onto power and make things happen. Instilling a level of fear is necessary, delegating unpleasant actions and decisions to a henchman makes sense. You will be judged, especially historically, by appearances and results, rather than methods.
Yes, it makes sense and yes, it works… but… Only towards the end of the programme where any doubts raised about the original premise – that all men (and women) are unreliable, self-serving and corruptible. The Prince was written by a man who was in a very low spot in his life. He himself never achieved power, the prince he had in mind probably never read his thesis and it was not published until 5 years after his death.
I have no problem with The Prince as a thought experiment, the result of an intelligent man thinking through a trauma in his life… but… I think he was wrong about humanity. I have no religion, I don’t think men and women are born good or bad – just human. Life events and genes contribute to how they turn out. I also think there have been several humane, just, ethical, beloved and successful leaders who have wielded power. One supreme example will do.
Nelson Mandela proves that Machiavelli’s Prince is neither the only, and certainly not the best, model to follow.