Machiavelli for Our Times

For the past twelve years, I have this ritual in which every December I reread some work of Machiavelli. This year it was the Discourses. What struck me this time was how many ideas in the Discourses dominate my own way of thinking. I read it some twenty years ago, and it must have unconsciously seeped its way into my belief system. The book is so full of ideas that sparkle to life the more you think about them that I found myself transported back to my early twenties when reading a book like this could make my head spin for weeks. Here are the main themes that struck me this time:

Necessity governs the world. This is a thought that finds great expression in The Prince and is scattered throughout his work. At first glance it might seem rather obvious, but for Machiavelli it goes to the heart of everything. When you feel necessity biting at your heels, you are moved to respond in some way that is creative. It is either that or die. When you do not feel necessity, your actions lack purpose, your spirit wanders, you grow fat and dependent.

This can be seen in terms of your environment and how tight or loose it is. When your environment presses upon you with limitations, you feel it all of the time, and you are called to respond in some way. The tightness makes you hungry for more, to break beyond the limitations. This is what will afflict people who are poor, who start with nothing. And Machiavelli, like myself, is drawn to what he calls New Princes, those who rise to the top from the very bottom. Princes, those born to privilege, find themselves in an environment that is loose, that has few constrictions. Most Princes create nothing worthwhile in this world; they are good at squandering what others have accumulated.


This pressure from the environment does not have to be material poverty. It can be something psychological. You feel unhappy with the world around you and compelled to change something about it or yourself. This dissatisfaction is constant and it focuses your energy. I would fall into this category. I must constantly create challenges for myself, find some way of feeling limited and pressured, never resting on what I have done in the past. If I had settled for the success of my first book, it would be as if I were now the prince living off the inheritance of my father. Instead, I see myself as constantly starting with nothing, and compelled to outdo what I have done before.

Some people come to rely on others to give them what they want and need. They wait….and complain. Others learn early on that the only thing that is worthwhile is that which you get for yourself, that you make your own in some way. Such types don’t like the feeling of dependence or waiting for others to help them.

When I look at our country I see a lot of people who feel no necessity, who have lost the sense of limitations, of their days being numbered, of feeling compelled to move in a particular direction. Too many Princes, not enough New Princes. In countries like China and India, it is much different, and perhaps in 50 years America will no longer find itself in a preeminent position for that reason. All nations rise and fall in patterns, and to Machiavelli the fall of the Roman Empire came with its distance from its origins, from the necessity to create and expand. It became a nation of fat, privileged princes.

When I look at the Iraq War, I see one side compelled by necessity to adapt and be creative; it is either that or die. The other side does not feel such compulsion. To us, it is not a matter of life or death. As Napoleon says, the moral to the physical is three to one, and in that area, we are at a disadvantage.

How many times in sports do we see one side fall behind; this acts as an incredible spur to their morale, and they respond by ratcheting up their effort. This is particularly noticeable in football, a sport in which emotion plays a large part. Why is it that the Democrats finally had success while the Republicans went into free fall for several years? Necessity, born out of a lack of power.

If only this could be artificially maintained, this pressure from the environment. It was for that purpose that I wrote the chapter on the Death Ground in War, and for which the Law on never stepping into a great man’s shoes was written.

Return to the origins. This is related to the first idea: anything that is created out of necessity has a power and force. This could be a state like ancient Rome or the founding of America. The ideas and principles that stood at this origin turn into dead forms and conventions over time. People drift away from the beginning and lose a sense of why certain things were created. They become like zombies. A nation or individual must either find a way to return to their origins, to what sparked their creation, or start over and create a new order of things.

Out of power for many years and wandering in the wilderness, the Republican Party created a new ideology in the 1960s to hang their hats on and remained incredibly focused on this. Slowly they came to power and a position of political dominance. But growing soft with power, they moved away from this origin, lost their sense of original purpose and lost power. Will they return to the ideas that sparked their reformulation, or will they continue to wander, or will they create something new?

I find that in my own youth, I hit upon certain ideals and values that related to my individuality, to what separates me from others. Some of this was false rebellion, but some of it was very real and very related to my nature. When I return to those values, to that faith in my peculiarity, I have power. When I conform, when I go astray from that, I wander without purpose. As Diderot wrote, those ideas which we find ourselves returning to again and again in our lives are the ones that have the most truth. That is why I return to Machiavelli every year, and to other writers I loved in my teens and early 20s.

The origin of anything is like a root ball for a great tree. When those roots wither or rot, it can take years to notice, but the whole tree slowly dies.

Boldness and audacity contain their own rewards. Machiavelli has Renaissance notions of fate and destiny. In this way of looking at things, people’s lives are severely limited by the times they live in, the people they know, the parents who brought them up, the time they have to live, etc. But a person who takes risks has an ability to pass beyond these limits, to create his or her own destiny. This is not to be confused with recklessness. It is more a mental state than anything else.

For instance, when I enter a negotiating situation, I always make sure I feel that I can walk away from an offer. Let us say my bottom price for a book or a deal is $100,000. I am offered 90 or 80. I will refuse it, even though it might very well mean I end up with 0. I rationalize this by saying I will find someone else to pay my minimum, I will write something else, somehow I will be motivated to make even more money in another venture. It rarely gets to that point, because I have entered the negotiations with a firmness and boldness that others can sense. They understand I am willing to walk away. That power of mine to say “no” is purely psychological, and yet it will translate into a stronger position than if I had started out willing to accept anything, but hoping for more. This cannot be faked. You must be prepared to walk away.

Machiavelli is drawn to those who depend on their intelligence and energy, rather than their accumulated wealth. His heroes do not fear losing it all, because they will start back up. When you lose what you have through a bold move, you attract attention and sympathy, you have a feeling it will all come back. When you lose by being timid, you shrink even further down and create your own obstacles. Fortune rewards those who are bold; she is a woman.

Some want to rule, others to be ruled. This is a concept that is a kind of constant subtext in the work. Even in a republic, which the Discourses is about, the majority of people want someone to do the work for them, to lead them. They are willing to sign over the governing of their city or nation to someone, in exchange for being left alone. Their energies are tied to maintaining what they have.

This concept goes much further and in interesting directions. In Machiavelli’s world, people are not victims. When someone is conned out of their money, it is because they were stupid, because they did not possess the energy to be prudent, or to get what they had back. People want to be conned. On another level, those who suffer under some form of tyranny inevitably have gotten the kind of government they want or deserve. They are unconsciously implicated in the process. No one, in Machiavelli’s universe is some passive actor who is acted upon and injured. There is a degree of will involved.

This is a controversial aspect to his philosophy, but one I have long ascribed to. For instance, when many on the left critique America or the Reagan or Bush administrations, they begin from this position that the powers above are actively and consciously oppressing the majority of people. We are the victims of their injustice. These thinkers’ attention is focused on the corruption above–whether it is suspect foreign policy, coziness with corporate America, etc. In Machiavelli’s eyes, attention should equally be focused below, on those who turn their eye away from what is going on, who ask to be lead, who want economic abundance and do not care too deeply about how it occurs. The con artist and the conned are entwined, colluding partners.

I often turn this in another direction. Instead of crying about Karl Rove and the Republicans stealing this election, or duping the public, I look at the incredibly inept campaigns being run by Gore or Kerry, and the confusion among the Democratic leadership. The Democrats were not victims, but active participants in their own defeat, brought down by incompetence. This way of looking at things makes you active and alert; you are responsible for the bad that occurs to you, and so you can always turn it around. The ruled can want to rule instead. Nothing stays the same.

Religion is essential. The majority of people want to believe in something. That has been the function of religion for centuries. Machiavelli may have been an atheist, or maybe he wasn’t, but he felt that a nation or group without some form of religion holding it together could not possibly last. The word religion means tying together. When people do not have this belief system, this structure to focus on, they think of their own narrow self-interest instead, and chaos ensues. (Now, events in Iraq might seem to belie that, but he would argue that Iraq is in fact a fake nation, brought together by Western powers. That a country divided between its various belief systems, Sunni and Shiite in this case, would make more sense.)

It is not so much the particular god that matters, but that people are brought together by shared rituals and mythology. The Romans wisely used religion for this purpose. It is my contention that this has great relevance to modern America. People are dying to believe in something. They will direct this hunger in all kinds of narrow channels.

I am not talking here about how Christianity functions on a political level and its divisive power. It is not Christianity that will unite Americans in the 21st century, no matter what those on the right believe. I am talking about a shared mythology, something that unites people beyond their narrow interests, their community, their city. (That is how Machiavelli sees religion.) That is a kind of untapped political power that lies out there for someone to define for this new era. It is what JFK did in 1960, and his New Frontier. It is something I believe the Democratic Party can exploit to great effect. I refer readers to the Star chapter in the Seduction book.

Footnote: I have been rather busy this month helping prepare my publishers for audio versions of Power and War (Seduction already exists). That is why I have not been so productive blog-wise, unfortunately. This CD version should be available soon, and I will keep you posted.

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