Politics,” said Otto von Bismarck, “is the art of the possible.”
Bismarck was the first Chancellor of a united Germany, and one of the great statesmen of post-reformation Europe. If you’re wondering about the difference between a politician and a statesman, a statesman is a politician who has been successful and effective long enough to survive into respectability.
Bismarck and the other political giants of post-Renaissance Europe (notably Charles Talleyrand, the French diplomat and Klemens von Metternich, his counterpart in the Habsburg Empire) were men for whom this idea served above all others as a guide. And its philosophical origin, if not Bismarck’s neat phrasing, lies within the Renaissance itself, and in the most famous work of a writer who lived at the heart of its political intrigue in 16th-century Florentine republic: Niccolò Machiavelli, and his short treatise, The Prince.
We remember Machiavelli’s name because it has become an adjective – “Machiavellian” – and a pejorative one at that. It conjures up an image of slithering amorality, cunning and deception. The Labour politician Peter Mandelson, portrayed on the satirical puppet show Spitting Image as a grotesque variation on The Jungle Book’s villainous Kaa the python, is probably the first person many of us think of when we hear it. But here’s something worth remembering about Peter Mandelson: when he was the éminence grise of the Labour Party, the Labour Party gained then held power for thirteen years
And that is what The Prince is all about: power. The common misapprehension concerning The Prince is that it is about winning and keeping power purely for its own sake, but it is not – any more than, say, The Highway Code is about driving purely for its own sake. Nowhere does Machiavelli say that the notional Prince whom his book seeks to guide should want, or use, power without a moral purpose. The purpose is not Machiavelli’s concern – it is the Prince’s, and the Prince may use his power for good and just ends as easily as for self-serving or malign ones. To blame Machiavelli for this makes no more sense than complaining that The Highway Code contains no route maps
In politics, the will to do good is futile without power, for only power gives you the means to exercise your will. What Machiavelli sets out to do is to show how such power may be attained. Were he to offer views on what, specifically, power should be used for, it would render his counsel worthless. “How we live is so different from how we ought to live,” he writes, “that he who studies what ought to be done rather than what is done, will learn the way to his downfall rather than to his preservation.”
This is a perfect example of how The Prince lends itself to misinterpretation. It sounds as if Machiavelli is proposing that his Prince should have no moral code, however he is pointing out the Prince who affixes the pursuit and maintenance of power to such a code will come a cropper, and all evidence suggests he is quite correct. He does not, however, suggest the Prince must use that power for immoral ends. On this, as ever, he offers no suggestion either way.
The Prince is effectively a self-help book, and some of its advice is perfectly applicable to ordinary life, for example: “There is no other way to guard yourself against flattery than by making men understand that telling you the truth will not offend you.” And here is a another timeless point: “A man who is used to acting in one way never changes; he must come to ruin when the times, in changing, no longer are in harmony with his ways.” Well, quite.
But its true significance lies in what we now would call Realpolitik, and here, before one damns something as “Machiavellian”, it is worth asking this question: if you hold a political viewpoint you ardently believe to be a right and moral one, would you not want the political leaders you support, and who share it, to be able to enact it? If so, you had best hope they are, in the true and original sense of the word, Machiavellian – because if not, there is precious little chance they ever will.
David Bennun revisits Niccolò Machiavelli’s The Prince and finds it’s still the ultimate story about power