Machiavelli, Public Service, And The End Of Jon Stewart

04/01/2015 09:22 am ET | Updated Jun 01, 2015

"Public service" is not something that usually comes to mind when Machiavelli's name comes up. The thinker who established the notion that "the end" (the preservation of political power) justifies "the means" (a ruler, Machiavelli says, has to learn how "not to be good") has come to stand for cynicism, a politics ungrounded in any recognizable morality, and self-preservation at all costs.

And yet both his life and work offer something deeper, if considered in anything but the most superficial of ways. As important, some of what Machiavelli has to teach us harmonizes with a new desire among young people to think differently about government, service, and public institutions.

To take the last first: of all the reactions to Jon Stewart's impending departure from his sixteen-year tenure at The Daily Show, perhaps the most interesting came from Jamelle Bouie. He wrote recently that it was a good thing Stewart was stepping down. The reason? Not Stewart's left-leaning politics but rather his style overall: a breezy brilliance, skewering sarcasm, and, effectively, a cynicism toward all politics. This prospect worried Bouie (a self-described millennial liberal), because he believed that what was needed was political action, not just critique from the sidelines.

Closer to home I think of an undergraduate student I met recently at Johns Hopkins University, where I teach. Liam Haviv, who founded Idealvoters, hopes to stimulate political involvement by making sure that voters of all political stripes are informed, that they realize what a privilege it is to be able to vote, and that they gather to engage in "discussion without dissent." The basic idea is that there is a place for vigorous debate in a healthy society but that, after debate, both sides need to choose candidates. The better the debate, the more candidates will be chosen not based on extreme, sound-bite worthy positions but instead on their ability to get something done.

So how does all this relate to Machiavelli?

As to his life, before he began writing The Prince, Machiavelli was a diplomat and political figure in Florence. He went on over forty missions for Florence from 1498 to 1512, with memorable stops at the traveling court of Cesare Borgia. He was a civil servant who, throughout his whole, tumultuous life, never stopped believing that service to his government was important.

And his life was tumultuous. After a series of wars and violent changes in government, Machiavelli found himself falsely accused of conspiracy toward the newly installed government in 1512. He was arrested, imprisoned, and tortured to see what he knew. He had nothing to confess, and he languished in jail. A few months later he was released in a general amnesty. Sentenced to stay in Florentine territory, he repaired to a family property outside of Florence and began to write in earnest, beginning The Prince during this period.

You wouldn't know it from most standard accounts, but what he wrote most was letters -- to friends, acquaintances, and kin. The letters are unified by one overriding theme: Machiavelli's desire to re-enter public life. The course of his life, together with his thought, suggests one notion above all: public service is most important in having a healthy -- meaning a stable -- government.

As to his thought, scholars have focused too extensively on possible differences in aim between The Prince and his other writings. All of his work depends on one important rule: to have stability you need effective military power. As he wrote in The Prince, a "prince must have no other object, no other thought, and take nothing else as his own art outside the art of war."

Elsewhere in that work he says that to build a stable state, a prince must have good "foundations." Good foundations consist in good laws and strong military power (what he calls here and elsewhere "arms"). "And since there cannot be good laws where there are not good arms, and where there are good arms it makes sense to have good laws, I will leave behind discussion about laws and talk about arms." Meaning, it is not so much the form of government (the "laws") that matter, but rather the way they are supported by a strong military.

In another masterpiece, his Discourses on the First Decade of Livy, Machiavelli addresses "republics," states like Florence that did not have a tradition of princely rule but rather some degree of self-governance. There too, as Machiavelli examines Livy's account of Rome's rise from a small city to a dominant power, it is always the military triumphs that take pride of place.

Yet through it all there is the presence of public service. In The Prince, for the state to function the prince must have dedicated, savvy advisors -- public servants, in other words.

And in the Discourses, Machiavelli at one point comments on episodes in ancient Roman history where Rome seemed loud and unruly: "the people yelling at the Senate, the Senate doing the same in return, people running tumultuously through the streets, shops being closed down," and so on. He admits this can be unsettling to a reader, who might wonder how such a great society (for that was his assumption about the ancient Roman republic in its heyday) could have flourished amid such discord.

But his belief, in essence, is that noisy democracies are good democracies. People need chances to vent their frustrations, to complain, and to air grievances. The key is the presence of public institutions that can support this sort of thing. Machiavelli says: "the desires of free peoples are rarely harmful to liberty, since they stem either from being oppressed or from the belief that they have been oppressed."

He then suggests -- in his language, not ours -- that institutions, plus the right sorts of public servants, can address the people's concerns: "even if the people may be unlearned, they are capable of grasping the truth, provided a trustworthy man presents them with what is true." What he wants most is stability, and stability can be ensured only when there are governmental institutions and public servants that foster a reasonable amount of trust.

Machiavelli's career picked up a bit in the years that remained to him (he died in 1527), but it never reached the heights it had in his early years. Still, he kept believing that a viable politics could exist. What did it need above all? Participants.

Which brings us back to young people. Thinking of Machiavelli's long-ago experiences, I find myself hoping that there will be more people like Jamelle Bouie and Liam Haviv: digital natives savvy enough not to get caught up in the media noise and who are sincere enough about the present and the future to believe that politics and public service can still matter.

It is revealing that David Axelrod, President Obama's media guru, decided -- among what were certainly many different post-White House career possibilities -- to found an "Institute of Politics" based at the University of Chicago. Its primary purpose is to encourage young people to go into politics and public service.

Perhaps, with the right kind of Machiavellianism, Axelrod will succeed in attracting people like Bouie, Haviv, and so many other young people I see in the classroom, who want to believe. Those who embrace real Machiavellianism, a style of thought that takes into account all of Machiavelli's life and work, are realistic about how to get things done in a fallen world. But they are still hopeful that the institutions we have (rather than those we might imagine) can be made to work.

Christopher Celenza is the author of Machiavelli: A Portrait (Harvard University Press).