Lessons from Machiavelli

This winter I'm taking part in a great course at Yale called Grand Strategy. We're reading strategic thought from Sun Tzu and Pericles straight through to Churchill and George F. Kennan. This week we read Machiavelli. Machiavelli is a tonic because he counteracts the sentiments of our age. We're awash in TV news segments celebrating the human spirit, but Machiavelli had a lower estimation of our worth.

The conventional view is that Machiavelli believed that since people are brutes then everything is permitted. Leaders should do anything they can to hold power. The ends justify the means. In fact, Machiavelli was a moralistic thinker. He barely goes a page without some appeal to honour and virtue. He just had a different concept of political virtue. It would be nice, he writes, if a political leader could practise the Christian virtues like charity, mercy and gentleness and still provide for his people. But, in the real world, that's usually not possible. In the real world, a great leader is called upon to create a civilised order for the city he serves. To create that order, to defeat the forces of anarchy and savagery, the virtuous leader is compelled to do hard things, to take, as it were, the sins of the situation upon himself. Sometimes bad acts produce good outcomes. Sometimes a leader has to love his country more than his soul. Since a leader is forced by circumstances to do morally suspect things, Machiavelli at least wants him to do them effectively. If you have to do something cruel, do it fast; if you get to do something generous, do it slowly. If you lead a country, you have more to fear from the scheming elites than the masses, so you should try to form an alliance with the people against the aristocracy.

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