A New Look at a “Fallen Angel”
“A Prince should, therefore, understand how to use well both the man and the beast.” — The Prince, chapter XVII
Political philosopher Leo Strauss (1899–1973) considered Niccolò Machiavelli a “fallen angel” of realpolitik. “To recognize the diabolical character of Machiavelli’s thought,” Strauss wrote in his 1958 Thoughts on Machiavelli, “would mean to recognize it as a perverted nobility of a very high order.”
Machiavelli himself may have issued a preemptive rejoinder, noting in the final chapter of The Prince: “God will not do everything himself.” The philosopher extolled human agency, whether flawed or refined, as a matter of “free will” and a proper means of securing “such share of glory as belongs to us.” Although Machiavelli leaned safely on the religious vocabulary of his Renaissance era, it is no stretch to call him a humanist.
Since its posthumous publication in 1532, Machiavelli’s treatise on claiming and holding power has been synonymous with deception, ruthlessness, and even brutality. For centuries, “Machiavellian” has connoted cunning amorality. I have inveighed against recent popular works such as The 48 Laws of Power, which endorse morally neutral, sneaky, or manipulative methods of personal advancement.
How, then, can I justify reconsidering The Prince, a book considered the urtext of reptilian attainment?
A fresh look often reveals the unexpected. Machiavelli imbued The Prince with a greater sense of purpose and ethics than is commonly understood. Although Machiavelli unquestionably endorses absolutist and, at times, ultimate ways of dealing with adversaries, he repeatedly notes that these are last resorts when civic governance proves unworkable. He justifies deception or faithlessness only as a defense against the depravity of men, who shift alliances like the winds. This logic by no means approaches Christ’s dictum to be “wise as serpents and harmless as doves,” but it belies the general notion that Machiavelli was a one-note schemer.
Moreover, the philosopher emphasizes rewarding merit (not family, sycophants or hacks); leaving the public to its own devices as much as possible (the essential ingredient, he writes…