The first came by way of the boyfriend who casually commented that my column seemed to reflect the energies I was throwing into my various projects. Stripped of tact, his analysis arguably is that I’ve lost my way with regard to focus. While there has always been an autobiographical element to my writing, I’ve slipped somewhat from using it as a means of illustrating a point I wish to make and begun to rely on my life as a topic. It’s sloppy and not what I intended when I swore I’d write 1,000 words a week.
The second came by way of a mention in a blog. Not only did it make me appreciate that people are reading my work but that good copy is quotable copy. Modesty aside, my description that ‘all this was gravy’ made me quotable and linkable. It hit home the importance of both finding my voice and writing in that style consistently.
The final piece of feedback came from the editor at the Gloucester Likal. I hadn’t given much thought to the relationship regarding the column but it came up during a conversation with him at work (yes, we’re rather incestuous in Gloucestershire. The other day I got off the phone from taking a group booking, phoned to order some stock only to find myself talking to the same person again. I have both a personal-professional relationship and a work-professional relationship with Ian. For good measure I’ll buy him a drink at the next tweet drinks). I realised that if there is to be overlap between readership and work relationships and various other things, then it’s important to think about what I want my column to say and not let it slip to the back of my mind only to be hashed out at the last minute without any research into the concepts behind the topic.
And so in what I hope is a return to form I am writing this at the weekend and have been reading. And reading proper books at that! In a recent conversation I revealed to someone that my academic subject was political science. ‘Ah’, my conversation partner responded, ‘I should have known given your Machiavellian stance the other day.’ I laughed but took his words as a compliment (as I believe they were intended). Yet when I relayed the incident to the boyfriend (if ever I omit to say long-suffering as a prefix to boyfriend it is simply as I assume that it is a given that you all add that sentiment!) his reaction suggested that for many, being described as Machiavellian is not something to be desired.
I was always interested in Marx’s assertion that he was not a Marxist and I think that if we took the common understanding of what Machiavellian behaviour entailed and were able to tell this to Machiavelli he’d argue that he did not condone Machiavellian behaviour in a prince (or manager or other kind of leader). The boyfriend is a perfect example of how concepts gain reputation as he has his ideas and yet has never made his way through what is a very short and readable book (The Prince is just 85 pages long*).
A wonderful illustration of Machiavelli’s recommendation of the ideal prince has been made by Terry Pratchett in his Patrician of Ankh-Morpork, Havelock Vetinari. However, it all too often seems to me that the genius of Pratchett’s sophisticated satire passes by many of his consumers. Pratchett is hugely readable (which is apparently something of a literary crime) meaning that you don’t need to know your philosophy to enjoy Small Gods nor love Phantom of the Opera to laugh your way through Maskerade. It adds to the pleasure I firmly believe, but it isn’t necessary (personally I think Pratchett’s eqalitarian writing style is to be applauded but then the last time I checked, nobody cared too much about my opinion when it comes to literature** and my absolute hatred of the almost fetishised Cloud Atlas means that is unlikely to change.)
So what is it to be Machiavellian, if not the simplistic understanding that it is to be cunning and devious? Well, it partly is to be cunning and devious (hence the confusion) but it is within a significant context. To lazily quote from my final year essay on whether the dictates of raison d’état and morality in international affairs were incompatible:
Machiavelli, writing during the Renaissance, made a move away from religion. Meinecke, said that he, ‘spoke out very forcibly on the subject of the indispensability of religion... at any rate, he was strongly in favour of a religion which would make men courageous and proud.’ Machiavelli, he says, ‘once named ‘religion, laws, military affairs’ together in one breath, as the three fundamental pillars of the State.’ But that ‘religion and morality fell from the status of intrinsic values, and became nothing more than a means towards the goal of a State animated by virtú. For Machiavelli, Divine Law serves only as a form of populace control with natural and human law disregarded.
Machiavelli’s understanding of law can be condensed into a theory of power; a theory that states that man by nature cannot be trusted, man by nature seeks power and personal profit and, therefore, man’s desire for power renders war inevitable. Power is limited and rarely given, so in many cases it will be seized as ‘men either seek to ‘subjugate’ a state or attacks for fear of being subjugated by it.’ It is also clear, that Machiavelli envisages no mutual profit with others. Every prince (and therefore, State) stands alone. Meinecke describes Machiavelli’s insight to raison d’état as thus:
Against the obscure and not particularly attractive background of his own naive and unscrupulous egoism, there came into being the new and masterly reflections on the relation between republic and monarchy, and about a new national mission of monarchy; it was in a context of all this that the whole essence of raison d’état, compounded of mingled ingredients both pure and unpure, both lofty and hateful, achieved a ruthless expression.
Machiavelli had started a new trend.
So Machiavelli shook up the religious establishment by separating out statecraft from religious values. What was good for the state needn’t be the same this as that which is good (according to the Bible). If anything will tar your reputation, it’s a flexible attitude to the great sky pixie of the Florantine 1500s!
What about the negative view of the nature of man? Well I’d argue that Machiavelli is simply being realistic (his work is littered with historical references supporting his ideas after all). My essay stated that when considering ‘How cities or principalities which lived under their own laws should be administered after being conquered’ Machiavelli concludes that the more sensible solution is to destroy the people or live in the conquered city or principality. Machiavelli makes no moral judgement, instead choosing the most true (but not morally repulsive) solution.
My general frustration with ideology is that it focuses on what ought to be rather than what is. Humanity is incredibly fond of saying what ought to happen or what our leaders ought to be like and too often takes the path of avoiding confronting what is often harsh reality. I’ve lost track of the number of conversations I’ve had with people that vote Labour rather than Tory for reasons that generally boil down to the fact that Labour are nice and Tory’s are heartless. Such is the criticism for Machiavelli. For having the audacity to recognise our feelings about power and the affect that power has on us, Machiavelli casts himself into the heartless camp. It becomes irrelevant that his advice is rational and sound, the focus of the sensitive is that his writing doesn’t opiate them in the way that the work of cosy woolly thinkers does.
It was with only a hint of humour that I feigned innocence and said ‘are you suggesting that The Prince isn’t a management guide?’ to the boyfriend this week. Re-reading it has struck me once again what a useful little book it is. I’ve found numerous pieces of sensible, practical advice and so below are a few of my favourite quotes in the hope that you will read (or re-read) The Prince. For anyone interested in the essay, I’ll publish it here shortly.
1. Being on the spot, one can detect trouble at the start and deal with it immediately; if one is absent, it is discerned only when it has grown serious, and then it is too late.
2. One must never allow disorder to continue so as to escape a war. Anyhow one does not escape: the war is merely postponed to one’s disadvantage.
3. It should be borne in mind that there is nothing more difficult to handle, more doubtful of success, and more dangerous to carry through than initiating changes in a state’s constitution.
4. The first way to lose your state is to neglect the art of war.
5. He [the prince] should appear to be compassionate, faithful to his word, kind, guileless, and devout. And indeed he should be so. But his disposition should be that, if he needs to be the opposite, he knows how. You must realise this: that a prince, and especially a new prince, cannot observe all those things which give men a reputation for virtue, because in order to maintain his state he is often forced to act in defiance of good faith, of charity, of kindness, of religion. And so he should have a flexible disposition, varying as fortune and circumstances dictate. As I said above, he should not deviate from what is good, if that is possible, but he should know how to do evil, if that is necessary.
6. A prince must... never lack advice. But he must take it when he wants to, not when others want him to; indeed, he must discourage everyone from tendering advice about anything unless it is asked for.
* The Discourses is a fantastic tract but in the name of realism of expectation I’ll limit my recommendation of Machiavelli’s work in this instance to The Prince.
** Although a few quotes of mine made it into a recent article of The Forester regarding Dennis Potter’s play, Blue Remembered Hills.