Happy Birthday Maestro Machiavelli!

May 3, 1469 is the birthday of Niccolo Machiavelli, the political philosopher, whose book The Prince has come to be synonymous with the axiom that the end justifies the means.

Born in Florence, Machiavelli attempts in his most famous book, in the words of Bertrand Russell, to “discover, from history and from contemporary events, how principalities are won, how they are held and how they are lost.”

Any number of examples of success and failure were available in the Renaissance Italy of Machiavelli’s time.

Russell, in his A History of Western Philosophy, says that “such intellectual honesty about political dishonesty would have hardly been possible at any other time or any other country except perhaps in Greece among men who owed their theoretical education to the sophists and their practical training to the wars of petty states which, in classical Greece as in Renaissance Italy, were the political accompaniment of individual genius.”

Machiavelli, certainly in The Prince, offers a practical primer for political success that alternately seems cynical, amoral, perceptive and shockingly candid.

“It is much more secure to be feared than to be loved,” he writes.

“Men are so simple and so much inclined to obey immediate needs that a deceiver will never lack victims for his deceptions.”

The Prince holds that morality can be fatal to a ruler:

“A wise ruler ought never to keep faith when by doing so it would be against his interests,” Machiavelli says.

Still sound advice on judging a politician:

“The first method for estimating the intelligence of a ruler is to look at the men he has around him.”

Machiavelli’s Discourses is far less ruthlessly pragmatic.

As Russell notes, in it Machiavelli lays out the idea of political checks and balances. The ruler, the nobles and the people all should have a say in the constitution.

“Then these three powers will keep each other reciprocally in check,” Machiavelli writes.

But as someone involved in politics and thrown from power by its vagaries, Machiavelli’s bottom line is that if an end is determined to be desirable – and he lays out several like independence and security – then the means necessary to achieve the goal should be employed.

Anything less is futile.

“If there is a science of success, it can be studied just as well in the successes of the wicked as in those of the good – indeed better, since the examples of the successful sinners are more numerous than those of successful saints,” Russell writes.

But ultimately, today as it was more than 500 years ago, it comes down to audacity and power and wielding it to accomplish a political end.

“All courses of action are risky, so prudence is not in avoiding danger — it’s impossible — but calculating risk and acting decisively. Make mistakes of ambition and not mistakes of sloth. Develop the strength to do bold things, not the strength to suffer.”  


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