Hence it is necessary to a prince, if he wants to maintain himself, to learn to be able not to be good.

~ Machiavelli


Cover of “The Prince”

Prologue: Machiavelli in the hood

Today’s column continues my review of Dr. Benjamin Wiker’s commendable opus, “10 Books that Screwed up the World and 5 Others that didn’t Help” (Regnery, 2008). My critique will be on the very prominent Italian philosopher Niccolò Machiavelli (1469-1527) and review his famous treatise on political statecraft, “The Prince” (1513).

One of my earliest memories of Machiavelli was almost 20 years ago, in 1989. I was a law clerk for Che Ali Karega, a famous criminal defense attorney in Michigan. I have never met a man like Che either before or since. He appeared otherworldly to me.

Although he came from the hard streets of Detroit like me, he was a real Renaissance man, a man of immense intellect, legal skill and cunning. Che is also very well-read. Within his home, amongst the medieval tapestries, stunning chandeliers, exquisite furniture, Persian rugs and priceless antiques, was perhaps one of the most substantive personal libraries I have ever encountered.

One of Che’s favorite books was Machiavelli’s “The Prince.” He even had an original Italian version, which he could translate at will. Che had committed to memory extended passages of Machiavelli’s text, which he often quoted to me as I sat in beguiling amazement. Che would tell me how reading Machiavelli’s “The Prince” helped him in the courtroom to make the odds better in his favor when he went up against the unlimited resources of the state in defense of his criminal clients. Most times he would win.

When I would balk, Che would quickly retort: “Ellis, if you were charged with a felony crime, wouldn’t you want your attorney to use every weapon in his arsenal in your defense?” I grudgingly said yes.

Machiavelli in modern times

Conventional psychology states that we are all in a profound manner shaped by our own early experiences. Machiavelli was no different. He came of age at the ascendancy of the Renaissance where Italy was a collection of disparate, warring city-states – but Italy also was also ground zero for new, bold and revelatory ideas.

Below is a summary Wiker gives of Machiavelli’s social and intellectual background:

  • Machiavelli witnessed the greatest hypocrisy in religion, including cardinals and popes who were nothing more than political wolves in shepherds’ clothing.
  • Suspected of treason, Machiavelli was jailed, and to elicit a “confession” he was given the punishment of the strappado – his wrists bound together behind his back, lifted up into the air and violently dropped to the ground, pulling his arms out of his sockets. This was done several times.
  • Other writers wrote of wicked leaders, but “what makes Machiavelli different is that he looked evil in the face and smiled. That friend smile and wink is ‘The Prince.'”
  • “Everyone understands that is it laudable … for a prince to keep faith, and to live with honesty. Are all rules good? Or does goodness, for a rule, merely mean being successful.” An early precursor to pragmatism and moral relativism, right?

In Chapter 7 of “The Prince,” Machiavelli cites the rise to power of a historical figure whom he knew, the ambitious Cesare Borgia. Borgia was a former cardinal who resigned so he could pursue political power and glory. He took over the province of Romagna, a “province … quite full of robberies, quarrels, and every other kind of insolence.”

To bring law and order to the renegade province of Romagna, Borgia sent out his strong man, Remirro de Orco, “a cruel and ready man, to whom he gave the fullest power. … If any cruelty had been committed, this had not come from him but from the harsh nature of his minister.” Borgia showed his duplicitous nature when the people complained of de Orco’s brutality.

Using Clintonian tactics of triangulation where you play both ends against the middle, later Borgia had Remirro cut into pieces to quell the fickle crowd. Machiavelli, throughout “The Prince,” praised Borgia’s vicious rule as a form of leadership to be emulated.

Christianity, said Wiker, was the religion that defined the culture Machiavelli was born into and the religion he rejected – it is never permissible to do evil in the service of good. Machiavelli’s singular statement that summarizes his entire worldview – The end justifies the means – meant “no act is so evil that some necessity or benefit cannot mitigate it.” This idea, Wiker says, has Machiavelli inextricably linked to atheism.

According to Wiker, Machiavelli believed “that it is not only permissible but also laudable to do evil so that good might come – one must reject God, the soul, and the afterlife. That is just what Machiavelli did, and that is the ultimate effect of his counsel.”

Wiker said, “Because Machiavelli discarded notions of good and evil in ‘The Prince,’ he could confidently call good evil and evil good. Don’t guide your life by what is good, but what is effective. …”

Wiker makes a profound connection of Machiavelli’s work to the ancients and presents an analysis of how Machiavelli’s ideas affect us in modern times. Writes Wiker:

Socrates argues that human beings must strive, above all to be good. Cicero’s “On the Republic,” argues much of the same as Plato [in his “Republic”]. Machiavelli’s most important rejection of republics real and imagined was the Christian notion of heaven. This idea is further developed in his “Discourse on Livy” where he argues that the prospect of heaven ruins our attempts to make this life – our only real life – better.

From the passage above, Wiker’s analysis of Machiavelli gets directly to the precursors of modern liberalism and their humanist, man-centered worldview, particularly the environmentalist movement. I always wondered why liberals put such a high premium on making this world the be-all and end-all for humanity. Their obsession with creating a utopia on earth has its intellectual roots in Machiavelli.

Epilogue

Wiker tells the reader that Machiavelli sets up the grand conflict between modern secularism and Christianity that mainly delineates the next 500 years of Western history. Machiavelli contended that belief in metaphysical entities is a waste of time because such pursuits focuses our energies on a fantasy kingdom in the sky and thus prevents humanity from establishing real world peace, making earth a comfortable, even reasonably satisfying home, yea, even a utopia.

What does this tell us? Liberals, progressives, socialists, intellectuals, academics and others adopting Machiavelli’s separation of morality from politics and the end justifies the means – both atheistic notions – have no other choice than to create a paradigm where metaphysical concerns are unconnected to public policy, and the only real and relevant heaven one needs to be concerned with is right here on earth.

We can thank Machiavelli for separating politics from morality, which turned the rule of law into tyranny – also for deifying cruel, perverse, unconscious leaders, denigrating heaven and transforming it into a utopia on earth … thus making earth a living hell.


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