Machiavelli's legacy

After half a millenium, Machiavellianism remains characteristic of our political practice

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Interpretations of Machiavelli are legion. No other political author has provoked either the same volume of critical responses or caused such sharp disagreement about his purposes. Machiavelli is variously described as the Galileo of politics, the first political scientist, a realist, a pragmatist, a cynic.

Conversely, he is artistic and intuitive, rather than scientific. Or, he is the founder of the doctrine of ‘reason of state’ he is an advocate of realpolitik, a cold technician of political life. He is condemned as an evil ideologue, a despot, an absolutist, a teacher of evil, an anti-Christ. He is hailed as an anguished humanist and admired as a passionate patriot, an embryonic utilitarian, the father of Italian Nationalism, a giant of the Enlightenment and a committed republican.

A partial explanation for such conflicting views lies in his own lack of rigour as well as tensions, contradictions and ambiguities within and between his works which make them vulnerable to different readings. But what is it about Machiavelli that stirs such passionate and enduring interest?

Part of his appeal is due to the dynamic way he expressed his ideas, overstating his case to achieve an effect. It is this which excites comment beyond the text. But it is the case itself, his demonstration of the collision between the demands of conventional morality and the requirement of power politics that compel us to engage with his arguments and which provoke disparate judgments.

Machiavelli will be damned, praised, revised, modified and embellished as long as the relationship between means and ends in politics is thought to be a crucial and perennial problem in politics.

It is impossible to deny that political practice is littered with countless examples that testify to the widespread use of Machiavellian techniques. Politicians follow in Machiavelli’s footsteps when they sanction violence to extend their power positions; when they resort to fraud or force to eliminate opposition, when they manipulate the fears of their citizens, when they deceive through propaganda, exaggerations and half truths, when they justify these methods in the name of national security or the public good.

Though separated from our own world by half a millennium, Machiavelli would have no trouble recognizing the ideological rationale for the suspension of many cherished human rights in the war on terrorism. Since 9/11 Western governments have pursued a blatant end justifies the means policy. Political leaders have created a Machiavellian narrative which sacrifices fundamental human rights and basic freedoms to the imperatives of national security and counter terrorism.

Necessity justifications for checking liberties, weakening legal norms – the presumption of innocence, the right to a fair trial, sanctioning coercive interrogation, torture and extraordinary rendition fit into this narrative. By setting up a misleading and polarised choice between security and human rights, inevitably the violation of individual rights appears to be justified as the lesser evil.

Machiavelli’s enduring contribution to political thought, policy and practice is the remarkably resilient idea that politics involves or even requires the transcendence or violation of ordinary moral principles, that politics presents dilemmas of dirty hands.

We can agree that Machiavellian methods are depressingly familiar in the conduct of political affairs, without agreeing that they are enduringly valid, necessary or justified. As long as we retain the idea that there is something special and different about the political sphere that makes it difficult to apply conventional moral standards, the problem of Machiavelli will not be closed. In this sense Machiavellianism, if not Machiavelli himself will remain characteristic of our political practice.

Dr. Maureen Ramsay is a senior lecturer in political theory at the University of Leeds. She is particularly interested in the application of theory to practical issues in contemporary politics.