From now until at least the midterm elections in November, we’ll be featuring essays from powerful cultural voices alongside one simple thing, chosen by the author, that you can do to take action against the paralyzing apoplexy of the daily news. Maybe it’ll be an organization that deserves your donation; maybe it’ll be an issue that deserves greater awareness. Whatever it is, our aim is to remind you, and ourselves, of the big and small things we can do to work toward justice and change.
Considering the Actions of Men
by Suzy Evans
It was 1513 in Florence, Italy, and it was the worst of times for Niccolò Machiavelli. In a swift and malicious reversal of fortune, he was dismissed from his position as a relatively high-ranking diplomat in the Florentine Republic, then unjustly imprisoned and tortured for his alleged role in a failed conspiracy to assassinate Cardinal Giuliano de’Medici and seize the government by force.
Upon his release, things only got worse for Machiavelli. Not only had the republic he had faithfully served for fourteen years fallen under the rule of tyrants, but he was now barred from government service (the only career he had ever known), banished from his beloved Florence (a city, he once confessed, that he “loved more than his own soul”), and exiled to the Tuscan countryside with his wife and six young kids.
Accustomed to matching wits with cardinals and dukes and other rulers who swayed the destinies of Europe, his life now resembled that of a peasant, and he found himself wasting his days engaging in petty quarrels with his neighbors, slumming in local taverns and bars, and playing drunken card games that “sparked a thousand squabbles and angry words.” But even as he wallowed in self-pity, Machiavelli began plotting his return to public life. Facing financial ruin, burning with unfulfilled ambition, and bored out of his gourd, he resolved to swallow his pride and write “a little primer on politics” in hopes of gaining favor among the Medicis and a new government job.
And so it was that out of Machiavelli’s moment of crisis came The Prince, the most revolutionary if widely maligned political tract of all time.
Some five hundred years after he wrote The Prince, critics still condemn Machiavelli for his political realism, for advocating the preservation of power at all costs, and for being the founding father of modern power politics. His name itself is synonymous with mendacity and treachery. Yet regardless of where the cold, hard logic of his pragmatic realism may lead, most close readers of Machiavelli know that for five hundred years he has gotten a bad rap.
For one thing, Machiavelli never wrote that infamous phrase, the ends justify the means, now casually bandied about in popular culture. What he wrote was: “In considering the actions of men, one must consider the final result.”
For another, at the height of the Italian Renaissance, when most of Europe was torn by war, Machiavelli explicitly claimed that he was not interested in talking about ideal republics or imaginary utopias, as many of his predecessors had done. “Many men have imagined republics and principalities that never really existed at all,” he writes, “yet the way men live is so far removed from the way they ought to live that anyone who abandons what is for what should be pursues his downfall rather than his preservation.”
This tough-minded realism, as well as the casual, matter-of-fact way in which he presents it, is at the heart of Machiavelli’s political philosophy, and it is also what has caused so much vitriol to spill from the lips of his critics. But the larger purpose of his realism is simply to warn us of the dangers of living as fuzzy-minded idealists. Instead, he urges us to live in the real world, where rulers like Cesare Borgia became great through their cunning and ruthless use of power.
If we want to fully understand The Prince, we must read it in its original historical context, that of an Italy where political and religious corruption were the order of the day. And if we want to understand how such an immoral, mendacious, malignantly narcissistic, “Machiavellian” candidate as Donald Trump was elected president, we should look not at the man himself—for he will not be around forever—but at the larger social, cultural, and historical context in which he remains in office: that of twenty-first-century America, where deep-seated racism, sexism, xenophobia, rampant political and financial corruption, and perhaps even conspiratorial acts of treason at the top levels of our government are the order of the day.
Nowhere is this more clearly reflected than in the turmoil surrounding embattled Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh, not to mention Trump’s own offensive sexist behavior and flippant remarks about it. When you’re a star, they let you do it. Grab ’em by the pussy. You can do anything. Shocking, yes, but not surprising. The fact that these men are nominated or elected to the highest offices in our government, despite clear and convincing evidence that they are morally and perhaps mentally unfit to do so—reveals much about the values we as a society hold most dear. At least that’s what Machiavelli would say.
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Suzy Evans is a lawyer, historian, and literary agent whose books include Machiavelli for Moms and Forgotten Crimes: The Holocaust and People with Disabilities.