Great individuals associated with the Renaissance such as Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, Dante Aligheri and Galileo were Florentine citizens. The forces of debate, democracy, organised guilds, public interest feelings and the works of geniuses in the arts and culture which were unleashed, spread to all parts of Europe sowing the seeds of modern civilisation. One such personality of that time was Niccolo Machiavelli, considered as the father of modern political thought. Often misunderstood by people as they have only heard of Machiavelli’s selective quotes, his name has come to be an adjective in many languages associated with deceit, practical considerations, rejection of false moralism in political and diplomatic conduct, and for being cunning, unprincipled or ruthless if the permanent interests of the State and its rulers are met.
Niccolo had the moral courage to call a spade a spade, and he merely forewarned men in authority…
The great Italian political philosopher Niccolo Machiavelli was born in Florence in 1469 AD. Florence was then an independent Italian republic which had overthrown the dictatorial rule of the Duke of Medici who had monarchical trappings. There was a great flowering of talent in this rich republic, caused by the involvement of its people in governance and the resultant competitive forces which were unleashed based on dissent, respect for merit, culture, arts and achievements and the zeal for public good. The birth of the Renaissance which removed the cloak of ignorance, wanton cruelty, superstitions and poverty so prevalent in the Dark Ages took place here.
Great individuals associated with the Renaissance such as Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, Dante Aligheri and Galileo were Florentine citizens. The forces of debate, democracy, organised guilds, public interest feelings and the works of geniuses in the arts and culture which were unleashed, spread to all parts of Europe sowing the seeds of modern civilisation. One such personality of that time was Niccolo Machiavelli, considered as the father of modern political thought. Often misunderstood by people as they have only heard of Machiavelli’s selective quotes, his name has come to be an adjective in many languages associated with deceit, practical considerations, rejection of false moralism in political and diplomatic conduct, and for being cunning, unprincipled or ruthless if the permanent interests of the state and its rulers are met.
Though he is well known as the author of the book ‘The Prince’, his even greater works include ‘Discourses’ and ‘The Art of War’. Like Karl von Clausewitz later in the 19th century, Niccolo Machiavelli also died a little known person in his native Florence, till his seminal works got published several years later and his name gained celebrity status and immortality. His works got promptly proscribed by the Catholic Church but the translated versions gained immense popularity in other countries like Protestant England, where its rulers followed these maxims unhesitatingly on the way to become a world power.
Niccolo’s advice clearly contradicted the then-existing Christian philosophy and doctrine…
Such was the effect of his distilled study of history, and of his own experiences gained in diplomacy, politics, war strategy, economics, foreign trade, public governance, and deep observations on leadership that he put into his non-fiction works with the dispassionate mind of a true analyst and keen student of statecraft. What a generous entendre for a mere political philosopher who had taken to writing during his forced retirement period! This was because Niccolo had the moral courage to call a spade a spade, and he merely forewarned men in authority about the dangers associated when they attach ‘emotional’ or ‘lofty’ considerations to the survival requirements and prosperity needs of states.
Vignettes of Machiavelli’s Experiences which gave him Novel Insight
In 1500 AD, Niccolo Machiavelli was sent as a plenipotentiary of Florence to the court of King Louis XII of France to negotiate a military alliance. To the French, Florence’s governmental machinery appeared to be absurdly vacillating and weak, for it to deserve being counted as a military ally. Yet his native republic’s sense of its own importance seemed to be ludicrously out of line with the realities of its military position and wealth! The French were willing to humour only those who were well armed or were willing to pay or were ready to make political compromises. The French senior Minister Florimond Robertet made the contemptuous remark to Niccolo, “You are a Mr Nothing.” This remark rang through his ears for the rest of his lifetime. His writings were full of warnings to policymakers about the folly of procrastinating taking hard decisions, the dangers of appearing irresolute, and the need for rapid actions both in War and Peace alike. A modern parallel to this experience is India’s foolish courting of China during the 1950s.
In October 1503 AD, Niccolo was sent as a special emissary to Pope Julius II in Rome. The aspirant to the post of Captain General of the Papal Armies was none other than the ambitious Duke Cesare Borgia, whom he studied closely and made him the model for his future book “The Prince”. Pope Julius II undertook a successful campaign to rid Italy of foreign domination. After the job was done, he had Cesare Borgia imprisoned, instead of keeping his solemn promises. This made Niccolo observe that even written promises in statecraft are mere traps to buy time, and one should during diplomatic negotiations be on double guard to understand the deeper purposes of the other party, so as to not land up in grave jeopardy later.
The main foundations for a great state, according to him, were “Good Laws and Good Armies”.
Pope Julius II also showed his political acumen by tackling the might of France in 1511 AD
by roping in King Ferdinand of Spain into his Holy League thereby succeeding in expelling all French influence from Italy. Florence which had acted as an ally of France had to capitulate and Niccolo also lost his job. The Medici family regained their Dukedom in Florence with papal support. In the Indian context, the role of Duke Giuliano Medici can be compared with that of Mohammed Ali Jinnah. Against all odds and with the strategic covert support of the British, he was able to sway Muslim public opinion for a separate Dukedom of his fashion, even at the cost of dividing the powerful Muslim entity of the subcontinent into three non-potent groupings in the long run.
Analysis of Niccolo Machiavelli’s Writings
Written in 1513 AD, Niccolo clearly lays down in his book ‘The Prince’ that the state should constantly strive to attain “glory”, so that its citizens become motivated and are imbued with patriotism. This requires good and simple laws to stimulate economic activities, have uncompromising reliance on strong arms, constantly endeavour to ‘create’ reliable neighbouring states by diplomacy, engagements or otherwise; and most importantly – demand exemplary conduct by the ruling class always.
The main foundations for a great state, according to him, were “Good Laws and Good Armies”. Good armies are even more important than good laws because it is impossible to sustain a state having good laws if good armies are lacking, whereas in contrast if there are good armies, then good laws must also exist to ensure their perpetuity.
Niccolo lamented that since the prosperous Italian city states had not given due emphasis on having good armies, the entire peninsula had become a playground to be overrun by many Charles (Germans), plundered by Louis (French), ravaged by Ferdinands (Spanish) and treated with contempt by the Swiss. Niccolo insisted that the armies of the state should always be maintained in the highest degree of equipping and training, though their mass may vary according to the level of anticipated threats. Military leaders have to be groomed and steeped in ‘Virtue’ – meaning ingrained in Courage, Wisdom, Learning, Honesty, Temperance, Magnanimity and being expedient without becoming immoral.
Where Niccolo gained immortal notoriety was in his open advice to rulers to live up to their responsibilities to the State…
But where Niccolo gained immortal notoriety was in his open advice to rulers to live up to their responsibilities to the State by ignoring ‘humanistic’ and ‘moral’ practices, if these could gullibly lead to obvious and disastrous mistakes, which posterity will have to shoulder. This advice clearly contradicted the then-existing Christian philosophy and doctrine, even though in practice these were more observed in the breach. The Church’s strident propaganda machinery quickly over-reacted to his writings and termed these as the ‘Devil’s Gospel’. Niccolo, therefore, contributed immensely to making government policy in European states to be dictated by only practical and secular considerations.
He was emphatic that if a ruling leadership wished to reach its higher goals, it need not always be rational to be moral. On the other hand, impractical adherence to high principles in political and diplomatic matters will prove to be disastrous, and work to the advantage of the state’s unscrupulous opponents. In short, the state’s survival and prosperity considerations should not be burdened with moral ballast when faced with issues deemed important. A wise political leadership has to be guided by the dictates of ‘necessity’ alone on important matters in order to maintain a favourable situation. Such a political leadership should be guided by ‘good’ considerations in its dealings with other states under normal conditions, but if it becomes necessary, it must be prepared to act in the opposite way – be it in a treacherous or ruthless or inconsiderate fashion.
This was how Jinnah conducted the affairs of Pakistan after independence, thus winning for it a permanent say in the affairs of Jammu and Kashmir, and having the flexibility to carry out armed violations and transgressions there, whenever it wanted without being taken to task. It is wisely said that while winning, one should always continue to advance though keeping the pretence of negotiating, till the final objectives have been attained.
In statecraft, fortune favours the brave and cunning who take the initiative unless the opponent is also equally cunning and ruthless (like the Soviet Union under Stalin). The ruler has to imitate the fox as well as the lion, and keep his opponents perplexed and his countrymen amazed. While it is generally agreed that of all the gifts of fortune, the greatest are honour and glory, the aim to achieve long lasting peace should not be lost sight of in its pursuit.
In statecraft, fortune favours the brave and cunning who take the initiative unless the opponent is also equally cunning and ruthless…
Machiavelli’s Prescriptions for an Ideal State
In his lengthy book ‘Discourses’, Niccolo had made his most original contribution to the theory of government. Niccolo pondered over the reasons as to what made possible the dominant position of certain states over long stretches of time and what factors contributed to their unparalled greatness and power. According to Niccolo, experience and close study revealed that no state has ever increased in dominions and riches and held onto these except while its people have been at considerable degree of liberty.
According to him, the achievement of greatness by a state is never merely the outcome of merely good fortune; it is always the product of opportunity combined with the quality of conditioning of its people to endure misfortunes with equanimity – while at the same time building up strengths and overcoming weaknesses with a steely sense of purpose and deliberate efforts. Such a national character must be constantly strengthened without any lapses being tolerated, so that this builds up into a motivating force in times of crisis. Such collective ‘will’ leads to the attainment of civic glory and national greatness. Even if evil deeds get done which result in a constructive outcome, without compromising either destruction of ideals or communal harmony, the population will still readily accept and forgive.
Niccolo was firm in his opinion that whenever the question arises about the absolute safety of one’s country, it becomes the duty of every citizen to recognise that there must be no considerations of ‘just ’or ‘unjust’, of merciful or cruel, of praiseworthy or disgraceful; instead setting aside every scruple, one must follow to the utmost any plan that would defend her territory, the liberty of her people and other major interests. This is exactly the policy the state of Israel has been following to the letter. He states that once a state’s spirit and public virtue has declined due to corruption, slackness and permissiveness; only an exceptional messiah-like ruler can restore these values again, and re-establish the greatness of such a state.
The achievement of greatness by a state is never merely the outcome of merely good fortune…
As most men and women are more prone to evil than to good in their innate self, political power has to be shared amongst a legitimately elected and selected few, than be concentrated in the hands of a single person. There should be ‘checks and balances’ in the political system to ensure this effect. Niccolo was emphatic in his observation that the preservation of liberty is a necessary condition for a state’s greatness, but the growth of corruption in government and public domain is invariably fatal to liberty. All the finest examples of civic virtue are said to have their origin in ‘Good Education’, which in turn has its origin in Good Laws. In his view, dissenting voices and factions must not get stifled, for they aid to foresee mistakes.
Niccolo set the following cardinal rules for enlightened political discourse:
- Since men are never content to live off on their own resources, they are always inclined to subjugate and govern others. Therefore, the pursuit of dominions adjacent to a state which can be easily absorbed and assimilated is a precondition for liberty at home.
- A successful state needs to surround itself with reliable allies.
- If war is imposed on a state, the efforts of its rulers should be to make it ‘Short and Big’. War is a great opportunity to achieve long term goals of the state. Niccolo vehemently opposed the concept of ‘Limited War’ as this does not create lasting peace.
The best way to counter China’s deliberate policy of creating irritants along the border is to maintain maximum restraint…
- It is useless in times of war to rely permanently on ‘fortresses’ as the principal system of defence. The aim should be to create terror in the minds of one’s opponent by relentless offensive actions aimed to unbalance him, and complicate his offensive plans.
- It is the worst mistake of all to refuse to come to an agreement while dealing with a superior military opponent. At worst, this will help one to buy more time for bettering one’s preparations. Lack of an agreement will enable the superior attacker to seize whatever he wants and do further exploitation, if there is a meltdown of the opposition.
- War is waged with ‘steel’ and not with ‘gold’. Therefore, the economic prosperity of a state is no guarantee for its greatness or security. Its Armies have to be always kept in premium condition and the morale of its fighting personnel has to be maintained at a high.
- It is only by keeping alive the memory of great deeds that we can kindle in the hearts of the populace the kind of collective ambition to excel and match the standards attained by other nations. Where skills are lacking, immigration must be encouraged.