Machiavelli and the Rough Realities of Power Politics

04/06/2012 10:01 am ET | Updated Jun 06, 2012

It is a strange urge that some people have: to rule the fates of others, to play with events in order to change the course of history, to decide who receives and who surrenders, who prospers and who falls to ruin, indeed who shall live and who shall die. And all because of one word: power.

n this heated political season in which voters in France, the U.S. and elsewhere are set to choose their leaders, now is perhaps a good moment to think of Niccolò Machiavelli (1536 -1603), the author, diplomat and philosopher best known for writing what many consider the first real book of political science which examines power, The Prince (1513).

Although the word "Machiavellian" is, for many, synonymous with immorality, cunning and even evil, few realize that Machiavelli was a republican and part of a reform movement in Florence, Italy, which ousted the mighty Medici family from power. When they regained their position in 1494, Machiavelli was imprisoned and tortured.

Ironically, The Prince -- a metaphor for "leader" -- was written in honor of Lorenzo the Magnificent, a Medici. Some historians have wondered whether Machiavelli dedicated this treatise to him in order to gain a favored position at court. Yet thinkers such as Spinoza and Jean-Jacques Rousseau believed that The Prince was a satire on despots. Still others argue that the booklet is a diabolical work of cynicism. Most political scientists, on the other hand, would probably describe The Prince as an unadorned, direct and brutal analysis of the means and methods of gaining and keeping power. In this sense, the book is a type of guideline to 'realpolitik.'

In his dedication to Lorenzo, however, Machiavelli explains that the book reflects his reading of the actions and decisions of the "great men" of history, both ancient and modern. "I have not set off this little work," he writes, "with pompous phrases, nor filled it with high-sounding and magnificent words... for [it] should derive credit only from the truth of the matter." The truths Machiavelli writes about are raw, practical and electrifying in their frankness. Although we may cringe from his descriptions and prescriptions, somehow we realize that this is how politics is conducted, whether by managers jousting for power and position in the corporate world or politicians seeking office.

"Command fortune with audacity," Machiavelli instructs in hapter XXV, a phase that few successful decision-makers would rebuke. Below, I have summarized the main points from The Prince, updating some to exigencies of the business world. They are well worth pondering:

• Good leaders possess virtù: boldness, courage and skill.

• It is better to be feared (i.e., respected) than loved.

• Forget lofty ideals and moralistic or religious tenants as this could lead to your destruction by making you appear weak.

• A man will hate you and work against you if you take away his property (in business: position, staff, responsibilities), and/or his woman -- remember this is Renaissance Italy -- (in business: company car, parking space, office space: the visual signs of success and status). "People more quickly forget the death of their father," Machiavelli observes, "than the loss of their inheritance."

• To avoid being overthrown and removed from power, avoid being hated.

• Be generous to your troops (i.e., staff) but be miserly to others.

• Beware the virtues (generosity, mercy, honesty, etc) -- for they can make you seem weak and lead to your lost of power. If you are virtuous and your opponent isn't, you will loose. Thus, you must assume that he isn't virtuous.

• Use the vices (lying, miserliness, deceit, etc) as tactics and tools to maintain power. It is vital, however, that others never realize this.

• It is politically useful to appear to be virtuous.

• Be deceitful if you must, and only if it suits your purposes -- but nobody should ever discover that this is your tactic.

• If you must remove someone, do it quickly, decisively and limited in scope. Then move forward.

• Use any means of expediency to achieve your goals; expediency is something that promotes your own interests or purposes. In other words, the ends justify the means.

Whatever we think of Machiavelli and this writings -- honest, satanic, truthful or harsh -- deep in our hearts we know that he has chosen to openly describe the nasty realities of obtaining and keeping power, whether your goal is to become head of your Girl Scouts troop, master of the children's shoe department where you work, religious leader of your community, or general, Supreme Court judge or president of your country. This is the real world, Machiavelli tells us, not some dreamy vision of how it should be. We may not like it, we may even actively oppose it, but these are the rough realities of power politics.

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