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Philosophy Then

Would Machiavelli Vote For Donald Trump?

Peter Adamson reads a modern Renaissance political manual.

One of the many puzzles of our current political moment is the enthusiastic support that bad men receive from good people. Donald Trump is nobody’s idea of a good person, except for Donald Trump’s. His personality is made up largely from four of the seven deadly sins of Christian tradition: greed, wrath, pride, and lust. Yet many conservative Christians in America count themselves among his staunchest adherents. They would probably not leave him alone with their daughters, but they don’t mind putting the country in his hands.

What’s going on here? Some hypocrisy, no doubt; but perhaps also a genuine insight – namely that the traits we normally admire and look for in our friends and colleagues may not be paramount, and could even be counterproductive, in our political leaders.

The history of philosophy provides scant support for this view. Beginning with Plato – who thought that the state should be overseen by philosophers – it was a commonplace in Europe and beyond to insist that the perfect ruler is perfectly virtuous. This was a message repeated across the centuries in different cultures in so-called ‘mirrors for princes’ – texts of advice that were composed by such diverse authors as the Seljuk vizier Nizam al-Mulk; a Byzantine churchman named Agapetus; Thomas Aquinas’s student Giles of Rome; and the medieval proto-feminist Christine de Pizan. Such texts typically explain how the prince will benefit personally, and see his state and its people flourish, if he adheres to a rigorous ethical code, embodying justice, generosity, and mercy.

Yet the most famous contribution to this genre, Niccolò Machiavelli’s The Prince (1532), broke with that moralizing tradition. For Machiavelli a good ruler must often act like a bad person, and one of Machiavelli’s central claims is that conventionally good character traits can indeed be counterproductive for political leaders. The prince must ‘learn how not to be good’, making effective use of deception, cruelty, and self-interest in order to maintain his position. Famously, Machiavelli says that it is best for the ruler to be both loved and feared, but if he has to choose, it is better to be feared than loved. He adduces historical examples to show how excessive lenience or generosity brings rulers to grief, and how useful selective barbarity can be. There was, for instance, the cunning duke who appointed a minister to impose harsh policies, and once this had the intended effect, had the minister cut in half and put on public display to defuse the people’s resentment. When it comes to private conduct, too, Machiavelli departs from classical authors such as Cicero, who insisted that rulers must not indulge in sins of the flesh. Machiavelli is not really troubled about that, so long as the prince’s political ambitions are not undermined.

Occasionally Machiavelli can seem to be analyzing Trump’s political success five hundred years before the fact, as when he writes that “one who deceives will always find those who allow themselves to be deceived”, or advises the prince to act quickly and unpredictably, so as to “keep the subjects’ minds uncertain, and astonished, and occupied in watching the result.” Apart from the good diction, one could imagine Trump himself saying that “it is better to be impetuous than cautious, for fortune is a woman, and it is necessary, if you wish to master her, to conquer her by force.”

But in other respects Machiavelli would be less impressed by the current President of the USA. His behaviour might be called by us ‘Machiavellian’; but what we understand by the term is, as it turns out, an oversimplification of Machiavelli’s teaching. Machiavelli does not abandon the notion of ‘virtue’, but instead reframes it, understanding it not as adherence to conventional morality but rather as the ability to react to the tides of good and bad fortune so as to achieve glory, since he believed that the purpose of effective political leadership is the winning of glory for both the leader and the state. For the effective prince, ‘necessary evils’ are just that – necessary – and never to be chosen casually, or for their own sake. The prince is forced to do bad things because he is surrounded by bad people, who are ready to pounce on any weakness or concession. Wicked deeds are done well when done quickly and effectively, with the prince returning to more moral conduct as soon as possible. Thus Machiavelli writes about doing all one’s cruelties at once to get them out of the way. One reason for this is that the prince must never acquire a reputation for immorality, which would be in flagrant contradiction to the goal of achieving glory. He should instead act with ‘grandeur, spirit, gravity, and fortitude’. He should on no account surround himself with flatterers. It is also a sign of terrible leadership if the prince appoints advisors and then has to get rid of them, since this shows that he was being unwise in his initial choice.

Trump is starting to sound not so Machiavellian at this point, an impression confirmed when we consider the emphasis Machiavelli places on civic unity. One of the few goals that justifies cruelty in a ruler is the establishment of unity among the people. Machiavelli cites the great Carthaginian leader Hannibal as a paradigm case: his harsh treatment of his own soldiers, combined with his other virtues, ensured that his army remained loyal and committed to their cause. The wise prince sees to it that his whole people are behind him, or at least not against him. If it is better to be feared than loved, worst of all is to be hated. So Machiavelli’s prince would never foment or exploit division among his people, since this will inevitably breed enemies who will plot to bring him down. Which, I have to say, sounds familiar.

© Prof. Peter Adamson 2019

Peter Adamson is the author of A History of Philosophy Without Any Gaps, Vols 1-4, available from OUP. They’re based on his popular History of Philosophy podcast.

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