Nicolo Machiavelli’s Prince and the Birth of Modern Political Science -by C. Ivan Spencer

Portrait_of_Niccolò_Machiavelli_by_Santi_di_Tito

A prudent Prince neither can nor ought to keep his word when to keep it is hurtful to him and the causes which led him to pledge it are removed. If all men were good, this would not be good advice, but since they are dishonest and do not keep faith with you, you in return, need not keep faith with them.[1]

In the history of politics, no book grips the mind of contemporary society more than Machiavelli’s Prince. His name itself means deviance, manipulation, and the quest of power for its own sake. Numerous contemporary adaptations of his nefarious book exist for achieving personal power through politics in a wide array of careers from CEOs to even a child’s version of the book. Machiavellianism now transforms and disorders our society. Instead of asking what is right, good, and virtuous, many now ask how can power be obtained. How should we engage in politics, whether on a national scale or down at the office?

Written in 1513 The Prince construes power to be a final value, yet power is amoral. The end of power justifies the means . . . or meanness. Machiavelli wrote it as a handbook of political wisdom for Lorenzo Medici, in hopes that Lorenzo would unify Italy into a true nation state and that he would hire Machiavelli as his advisor. Neither occurred. Machiavelli died forgotten, and Italy did not become a nation state for another three hundred years. The book spawned a life of its own and became a guide for power seekers. He never intended it to become a self-help guide for “average-Joe” trying to climb an organizational ladder. Alas it has, and every educated person should read it. As an open secret, it’s tactics, ruses, power plays, and Jedi mind-tricks should be understood so they can be recognized when everywhere deployed.

This image of Machiavelli and his infamous book, banned for centuries, needs balance. He longed for Italy to be unified and to return to its classical political origins: the Roman Republic. Medici’s Florence had been a tiny republic before he took it over in 1512. All around Machiavelli lay the ruins of a once glorious civilization, and like all Renaissance men of his day, he believed wisdom from the golden age would restore the world to a higher order. In early sixteenth century, monarchical nation states dominated the whole globe, and Italy missed the boat of imperial colonialism that afforded those nations power. Spain, France, England, and Portugal amassed power and wealth unparalleled in history. Spain’s gold from the New World caused inflation that impoverished both Italy and the Holy Roman Empire. Machiavelli, a savvy diplomat, knew no grand Roman style republic could arise without a consolidation of Italy’s scattered city states. His Discourses on Livy (1517), mostly forgotten, reveals his republican values. Thus, the absolutist power of the monarchical prince would precede the higher republican form of government. That never happened.

Since Machiavelli’s Prince unleashed political power from theology, politics remains divorced from the ethics and norms that guided it for an entire millennium before. This launches the modern age of politics. Amoral realpolitik, the way power really works, not how it should work, endures now as an end. Practical considerations, the ends and consequences of action leading to power, trump moral considerations of the means of action. Thus, many Christians feel queasy about politics because it ventures into an ocean of gray shades. Yet we live in a world where we choose our leaders, often leaders of ambiguous or murky character. This gives even more reason to study The Prince, the new bible of contemporary politics, so we won’t be deceived as those ignorant of the wiles of power. Let us “be wise as serpents and innocent as doves.” (Matt. 10:16)

[1] Niccolo Machiavelli, “The Prince,” in The Harvard Classics 36: Machiavelli, More, Luther, ed. Charles W. Eliot (New York: P. F. Collier & Son, 1917), 60.

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