Seeming is an important issue in The Prince. Given that moral qualities are no longer to be taken as guides for correct behaviour, what then is their importance? They become no more than attractions. It is attractive when a man is compassionate, generous, and modest. It is attractive when a man keeps his word and shows loyalty to friends. We are in the realm of aesthetics, not moral imperatives. And what is attractive, of course, can be manipulated as a tool of persuasion. So even if a Prince is actually better off without certain moral qualities, he should appear to have them, because people will be impressed. In particular, he should appear to be devout in his religious beliefs. “The common people are always impressed by appearances and results,” Machiavelli tells us. But he leaves us in no doubt that if you have to choose between the two, what matters is the result.
One of the great pleasures of reading and re-reading The Prince is the way it prompts us to assess contemporary politicians and the wars of our own time in the light of Machiavelli’s precepts and examples. To read The Prince in the 1980s was to have Thatcher and Reagan very much on one’s mind, to think about American interference in Nicaragua, about the British adventure in the Falklands, as Machiavelli might have thought of them. Returning to the book in 2006, the reader is struck by how many of his observations could be applied directly to the Anglo-American invasion of Iraq, or indeed to many other such enterprises. This for example would seem applicable to any post-invasion situation:
a prince is always compelled to injure those who have made him the new ruler, subjecting them to the troops and imposing the endless other hardships which his new conquest entails. As a result you are opposed by all those you have injured… and you cannot keep the friendship of those who have put you there. You cannot satisfy them in the way they had taken for granted, ye you cannot use strong medicine on them as you are in their debt. For always, no matter how powerful one’s armies, to enter a conquered territory one needs the good will of the inhabitants.
Future readers, no doubt, will have other wars to think of as they turn the pages of The Prince. That fact alone is a sad confirmation of Machiavelli’s understanding of international politics. Yet after the obvious parallels have been made and we have marvelled at how applicable this Renaissance writer’s precepts still are, the further surprise is our growing awareness that, like it or not, the way we judge the wars of our times is indeed “Machiavellian”. Would we be so critical of Suez, of Vietnam, of Iraq, if those adventures had succeeded? Wouldn’t we rather begin to think of them as we think about Korea, or the Falklands. We do not, that is, judge the action in and for itself on a moral basis, but for the consequences it produces. Which is the same as saying that for us, as for Machiavelli, the end justifies the means.
“The wish to acquire more,” The Prince laconically reminds us, “is admittedly a very natural and common thing; and when men succeed in this they are always praised rather than condemned. But when they lack the ability to do so and yet want to acquire more at all costs, they deserve condemnation for their mistakes.”
If there is a difference between ourselves and Machiavelli in this regard, it is that he remembers to condemn the adventurers for their mistakes, while most of us prefer the comfort of a moral high ground, imagining that we would have condemned the adventure even had it been successful.
Are we then simply to accept Machiavelli lock stock and barrel? In many ways he presents us with the same problem as the lesser known but even more disturbing Max Stirner who in The Ego and His Own (1845) extended the amoral Machiavellian power struggle into the life of every individual, rejecting the notion that there could be any moral limitation on anyone’s behaviour. For Stirner the only question a person must ask before doing what he wants or taking what he desires is: Do I have the power to get away with this or not?
Certainly it would be foolish not to be warned by what Machiavelli has to tell us about politicians and politics in general. We must thank him for his clear-sightedness. Yet a charming ingenuity in The Prince allows us at least to imagine a response to what appears to be a closed and largely depressing system of thought. Why did Machiavelli publish the book?
Ostensibly written in the attempt to have Lorenzo de’ Medici give him a position in the Florentine government, The Prince is obviously self-defeating. Who would ever employ as his minister a man who has gone on record as presenting politics as a matter of pure power? If Machiavelli himself remarked that leaders gain from appearing to have a refined moral sense and strong religious belief, why did he not at least hint at these qualities in himself, or find some moral camouflage for his work, or put the book in Lorenzo’s hands for private consultation only?
The answer has to be that as he was writing Machiavelli allowed himself to be seduced by the desire to tell the truth come what may, a principle which thus, at least for him, in this text, takes on a higher value than the quest for power. And in exposing the amoral nature of politics he actually and rather ironically threatens the way the political game is played. If it has not been possible, for example, for our contemporary armed forces in the west simply to lay waste to the various countries they have recently invaded, that may, in some tiny measure, be due to the kind of awareness that Machiavelli stimulated with this book, not in princes, perhaps, but in their subjects.