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  • From Shakespeare's plays to modern TV dramas,

  • the unscrupulous schemer for whom the ends always justify the means

  • has become a familiar character type we love to hate.

  • So familiar, in fact, that for centuries

  • we've had a single word to describe such characters: Machiavellian.

  • But is it possible that we've been using that word wrong this whole time?

  • The early 16th century statesman Niccoló Machiavelli

  • wrote many works of history, philosophy, and drama.

  • But his lasting notoriety comes from a brief political essay known as The Prince,

  • framed as advice to current and future monarchs.

  • Machiavelli wasn't the first to do this

  • in fact there was an entire tradition of works known asmirrors for princes

  • going back to antiquity.

  • But unlike his predecessors,

  • Machiavelli didn't try to describe an ideal government

  • or exhort his audience to rule justly and virtuously.

  • Instead, he focused on the question of power

  • how to acquire it, and how to keep it.

  • And in the decades after it was published,

  • The Prince gained a diabolical reputation.

  • During the European Wars of Religion,

  • both Catholics and Protestants blamed Machiavelli

  • for inspiring acts of violence and tyranny committed by their opponents.

  • By the end of the century,

  • Shakespeare was usingMachiavelto denote an amoral opportunist,

  • leading directly to our popular use ofMachiavellian

  • as a synonym for manipulative villainy.

  • At first glance,

  • The Prince's reputation as a manual for tyranny seems well-deserved.

  • Throughout, Machiavelli appears entirely unconcerned with morality,

  • except insofar as it's helpful or harmful to maintaining power.

  • For instance, princes are told to consider all the atrocities necessary

  • to seize power,

  • and to commit them in a single stroke

  • to ensure future stability.

  • Attacking neighboring territories and oppressing religious minorities

  • are mentioned as effective ways of occupying the public.

  • Regarding a prince's personal behavior,

  • Machiavelli advises keeping up the appearance of virtues

  • such as honesty or generosity,

  • but being ready to abandon them as soon as one's interests are threatened.

  • Most famously, he notes that for a ruler,

  • it is much safer to be feared than loved.”

  • The tract even ends with an appeal to Lorenzo de' Medici,

  • the recently installed ruler of Florence,

  • urging him to unite the fragmented city-states of Italy under his rule.

  • Many have justified Machiavelli as motivated by unsentimental realism

  • and a desire for peace in an Italy torn by internal and external conflict.

  • According to this view,

  • Machiavelli was the first to understand a difficult truth:

  • the greater good of political stability

  • is worth whatever unsavory tactics are needed to attain it.

  • The philosopher Isaiah Berlin suggested that rather than being amoral,

  • The Prince hearkens back to ancient Greek morality,

  • placing the glory of the state above the Christian ideal of individual salvation.

  • But what we know about Machiavelli might not fit this picture.

  • The author had served in his native Florence for 14 years as a diplomat,

  • staunchly defending its elected republican government

  • against would-be monarchs.

  • When the Medici family seized power,

  • he not only lost his position,

  • but was even tortured and banished.

  • With this in mind,

  • it's possible to read the pamphlet he wrote from exile

  • not as a defense of princely rule,

  • but a scathing description of how it operates.

  • Indeed, Enlightenment figures like Spinoza

  • saw it as warning free citizens

  • of the various ways in which they can be subjugated by aspiring rulers.

  • In fact, both readings might be true.

  • Machiavelli may have written a manual for tyrannical rulers,

  • but by sharing it, he also revealed the cards to those who would be ruled.

  • In doing so,

  • he revolutionized political philosophy,

  • laying the foundations for Hobbes and future thinkers

  • to study human affairs based on their concrete realities

  • rather than preconceived ideals.

  • Through his brutal and shocking honesty,

  • Machiavelli sought to shatter popular delusions about what power really entails.

  • And as he wrote to a friend shortly before his death,

  • he hoped that people wouldlearn the way to Hell in order to flee from it."

From Shakespeare's plays to modern TV dramas,

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What "Machiavellian" really means?

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    Raven Lin posted on 2019/05/29
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