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Why #Machiavelli Teaches Evil…and Its Limitations

posted Jan 1, 2014, 4:46 PM by Peter Joseph Moons   [ updated Jan 1, 2014, 4:46 PM ]

Why Machiavelli Teaches Evil…and Its Limitations

By Peter Joseph Moons


            Machiavelli does not advocate evil, per se, though he does teach that a prince who uses certain techniques will maintain his rule.  Essentially, he teaches how a Prince should rule effectively in the face of challenges and stay in power.  He notes that atrocities are acceptable, if they result in achieving the desired ends.[1]  However, gratuitous violence against the people under one’s rule is unacceptable for they will rebel against the ruler.  To be timid against one’s real or potential enemies is also a sign of weakness; Christianity is in this vein.[2]  Therefore, the best route is to rule by creating fear of the Prince, without hatred.  His oft-cited choice is between being loved or feared, of which he chooses the latter, but also cautions against needless cruelty[3] that results in enmity.  Thus, these are not concepts of persistent evil but of moral realpolitik, for cruelty committed all-at-once is less cruel than when done sparingly and in a protracted manner.[4]


Critics of Machiavelli’s leadership techniques recognize their unsustainability, particularly for rule in an expansionist, militaristic, constant crisis-mode style.  A prince could grow an empire by continuous expansion and keep moving his capital to conquered kingdoms.  However, there are limitations to ruling as if an emergency exists every day, as subordinates may tire of this constant stress and strain.


A prince who rules per Machiavelli’s advice would need to remember that being feared and committing violence against enemies holistically are the best paradigms to follow in order to stay in power.  To say that Machiavelli teaches evil implies that there are good and bad forms of governance…and there are.  However, he notes that if a person who gives a gift, as well as the recipient of the gift, think the gift is good, then that gift is good.  In this case, the gift is the advice on how a prince should rule.


In context, Machiavelli was a disgruntled, former government civil servant then attempting to curry favor with his treatise, doing so in a sly, seemingly sarcastic style.  His manner of writing was over-the-top in its time and is still so today.  He appears as an extreme realist and is emulated now only by autocrats.  Machiavelli’s intense nature is because the prince operates in a world with like-minded princes.  Machiavelli’s environment is one where the prince who follows Machiavelli’s teachings will realize that to win, he needs to dominate the other guy, every time.


Certainly, the prince has to be more ruthless, more feared, and more cunning, because all the competition does the same.  For this reason, Machiavelli completely disfavored the magnanimity of Christianity and the softness of politicians who just want to be loved by their people.  Those qualities will only get the prince in trouble and threaten his ability to rule.  Finally, the prince’s behavior is limited as he must avoid cruelty, otherwise he will incur the enmity of his people.[5]


On Machiavelli and the Use of Technology


            The employment of technology under Machiavellianism would significantly increase a leader’s ability to achieve desired ends.  Competitors to a prince would likewise use technology against him.  The likely result would be a never-ending spiral of invention and innovation…for exceedingly evil ends.  One could see how a Machiavellian leader would use technology: to instill fear in a population, to manipulate citizens, to efficiently eliminate enemies, for militarism, to aid the military-industrial-media complex, for expansionism, to create a constant state of emergency, and to control domestic or international commodity supplies, currencies, and markets.  These points are reminiscent of Nineteen Eighty-Four or the pervasive police state in the former East Germany.


Interestingly, today’s technology could enable a Machiavelli-inclined despot.  When one looks at the applications on any smart phone, there are usually two kinds of apps: ones that influence what we think (information/news/Yelp-type reviewing) and others that influence what we do (games/tools).  Thus, while technology allows a person to run their life better, technology in a Machiavellian realm would make easy the maintenance of a regime, aid in population manipulation, and achieve results faster, more easily, and more completely.  There is an oft-quoted saying that man never invented a weapon he did not use; whether true or not, in a technologically driven country, Machiavelli would exploit the tools available to him in order to prolong his regime.


A connection between technology and population manipulation exists especially in, but is not limited to, undemocratic political orders.  There are several historical examples that show the paradigm of new technology exploited for propaganda or for mere control.  Nazi Germany used three: they had a vast radio propaganda program, the first live television broadcast followed by its use, and monumental films, particularly those by Leni Riefenstahl and the state-sponsored film industry.  In that country, the leader was loved more than feared, one could surmise.


Another example is Egypt during its so-called Arab Spring uprising. To stem the opposition's use of technology, the country's leadership hit the internet ‘off button’ and the web there went dark for days.  Machiavelli would have approved as this all-at-once action, which bought the regime some time.  Lastly, the use of ‘big data’ in political campaigns works well in democracies now but will work even better in corrupt and autocratic regimes, where limitations on data mining, surveillance, and media manipulation are stronger.  Thus, without the pervasive protection of freedoms, such as those in the Bill of Rights, the ability for a Machiavellian prince to leverage technology to control the population, defeat political enemies, and maintain his regime will only increase.

[1] Niccolo Machiavelli, The Prince, 2nd ed., Harvey C. Mansfield, trans. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998), 9.

[2] Ibid., 69.

[3] Ibid., 66.

[4] Ibid., 38.

[5] Ibid., 37.