Nearly 500 years after Niccolo Machiavelli’s death, intense debate over him persists in small circles of chin-strokers but, otherwise, he is seldom contemplated in America, which has become, like “Seinfeld,” a show about nothing.
An Italian diplomat regarded as the father of political science, Machiavelli died in 1527 in Florence at the height of the Renaissance. His surname is commonly used in the adjectival form, such as to describe a Machiavellian empire, although Machiavelli himself never commanded an empire nor anything else, spare language, thought and knowledge of history.
To be Machiavellian is to emphasize political expediency above morality, to apply cunning and deception in the execution of authority. Stated more plainly: To be Machiavellian is to cheat, chisel and lie.
Such tactics, Machiavelli explained in his classic political treatise “The Prince,” are necessary to rule. “There are two methods of fighting,” he explained, “one with laws, the other with force; the first one is proper to man, the second to beasts; but because the first one often does not suffice, one has to have recourse to the second.”
Scholars are divided over whether his teachings constitute an astute observation of the objective reality of politics or a guidebook for tyrants. They were more than either of these. They represented insight into the human condition.
Failing to understand this, a salient point in Machiavelli’s work can be missed. The singular evil of those who rule is enabled and engendered by the collective evil of those who are ruled: “A man who wants to make a profession of goodness in everything is bound to come to ruin among so many who are not good.”
Both this country and state are betrayed by those elected to lead them at the highest levels of office, in the legislative halls and in the courts. As the corruptive rot in America and West Virginia deepens, the electorate is benumbed.
Stories about powerful people shafting workers and others fail to resonate. America has wandered into a place where, to borrow from Michael Corleone, the rulers and their subjects are “both part of the same hypocrisy.”
That hypocrisy justifies wrongs, so long as the wrongs are committed by one of identical ideological hue. So, a side that would not tolerate the other belittling someone’s military service applauds the act when committed by one of their own political stripe. A side that demands one pay his bills looks the other way when one of their own skips out on a debt. A side declares its allegiance to the working class, then helps send jobs overseas.
One side commonly declares that its own plays too nice, isn’t rough enough and so gets battered by the opposing side. “We need to get meaner,” they say. This hails from the school of Machiavelli: “A prince, therefore, must have no other object of thought ... except war and its rules and disciplines, for that is the only art that befits one who commands.”
All the relevant data indicate the United States and West Virginia are in decline. The richest, most powerful country in the world is middling and falling among developed nations in math, science and reading. America might be less than a decade from slipping behind China as the world’s largest economy. West Virginia ranks at the bottom nationally in education and the economy.
An easy explanation is that absent leadership sent us into our descent. It would be more precise to blame Machiavellian leadership, people who, in interest of growing and maintaining power, deceived the electorate, advancing themselves while doing little or nothing to advance the economic futures of the nation and state.
This explanation is still incomplete, for it neglects the essential component of Machiavelli’s theory, which is predicated on the fact of there being “so many who are not good.”
Fixing America and West Virginia doesn’t start with Joe Biden, Donald Trump, Jim Justice or Joe Manchin. It starts with each of us. It starts with us aligning not with sides, partisan or ideological, but with the simple force of doing the right thing and expecting those who’ve sought the public’s trust to do the same.
It starts with hearing other views and considering them through the prism of facts and logic, rather than rejecting them out of hand and applying the same to one’s own views before blindly accepting them.
The American empire is illustrating what Machiavelli did not, that to be Machiavellian is to be Pyrrhic, to gain temporarily at the price of ultimate destruction.