Machiavelli and Social Governance
The individual, as we saw at the end of the last chapter, is the key to humanity, even as the atom is the key to the material universe. In anatomy class, medical students are given one cadaver to dissect, not a thousand of them, to help them understand the way the body works. With human nature, similarly, it is enough to know one person deeply. Every human being contains within himself the essence of all humanity, with its potential for ignorance and wisdom, hatred and love, misery and happiness, self-deception and clarity. The counsel of ages has always been: “Know thyself.” Who, indeed, can ever know us as deeply as we can know ourselves?
In the past, people saw no need to probe beneath appearances. The study of anatomy wasn’t even included in medical training until relatively recently. Doctors prior to 1628 and the publication of William Harvey’s Essay on the Motion of the Heart and the Blood had no clear understanding of the way blood circulates in the body. Artists prior to Michelangelo had only a dim notion of the inner structure of the body. They depicted people as though the skin covered only smooth flesh. Man’s understanding of the universe, equally, was based on casual observation. Sun, moon, and the other heavenly bodies appeared to revolve around the earth; therefore, that was what they did. The earth looked flat: therefore, it was so. (One wonders what the mariner made of ships, approaching from a distance, as they rose out of a seemingly flat sea!) As things appeared to be, so by common agreement they were.
There were great works of literature, certainly, and great paintings and sculptures, that evidenced deep insight into human nature. Those exceptions, however, only proved the rule: It was self-knowledge that gave their creators a clear perception of the subtleties of the human mind.
Social philosophy, too, was focused on society as a whole, not on individuals. Treatises dealt with the classes of society, while paying slight heed to human beings. Governance was understood as a means of controlling the populace, not of benefiting them or of alleviating their miseries.
A society, however, is made up of individuals. They are not mere statistics: They are flesh and blood. People cannot be understood merely from their social status. Rather, society can be rightly understood only in terms of its citizens, and of their particular needs and interests.
Important as the individual is, however, it must always be kept in mind that systems are important, too. What is being proposed in this book, then, is not some newly disguised form of anarchy, but only a shift in emphasis — away from people en masse to people as individuals.
The universe itself is systematic, not random. Planets move in regular orbit around their stars; stars revolve around their galactic centers. In public affairs, similarly, some sort of system is necessary. (Imagine the modern freeway as a free-for-all!) People are thinking beings, and cannot but have differences of opinion on countless subjects. They may express their differences amicably, or do so with heated passion. They may relinquish their own opinions for the sake of over-all harmony. But to expect everyone to agree, or to resolve differences voluntarily, would be unrealistic. Every group needs a leader: someone to inspire it, to arbitrate disagreements and, when necessary, to decide issues. Otherwise, the best that can be hoped for is half-hearted compromise with few positive results.
A certain amount of eccentricity is, for all that, essential to progress — unless, indeed, “progress” is defined as mere forward motion like the trundling of a streetcar. Eccentricity too, however, requires coordination in any group effort. Otherwise it can cause confusion.
An example of eccentricity is the typical artist, who generally works alone and seeks his inspiration within himself. Even in centuries when great art flourished,(1) however, there was perceived a need to make concessions to broader realities. The flowering of great art often coincided with times when the rules governing artistic expression were not only definite but, sometimes, even rigid. An example of extreme rigidity occurred under Islam, which completely forbade artists to imitate anything in nature. As Muslims, they had to content themselves with creating intricate geometric patterns and designs. This, however, they did with amazing versatility, beauty, and grace.
Nature, so far as I am aware, gives us no model of successful anarchy. As life evolved to the level of intelligent interaction, the need emerged for leadership. In any group, some guidance is necessary. A leader needn’t have any other talent: All that he or she needs is a gift for coordinating and inspiring others. Leadership is a skill, simply, like painting or music composition or an aptitude for business. Part of the skill of leadership lies in knowing how to present an idea so that people will nod their heads instead of shaking them — and shaking their fists as well! Often, leadership skill depends on recognizing that there is truth on more than one side of an issue. It lies also in seeing that what everyone really wants may essentially be the same thing. The skill, in such cases, lies in being able to define an issue in such a way as to be acceptable to all.
Leadership, then, is obviously essential in cooperative communities. If experiments in this direction have failed, it is largely due to some inadequacy in leadership. It takes a good leader to steer people to a harmonious conclusion. Groups that insist on spontaneous consensus achieve only low-energy decisions — arrived at, usually, after endless discussion. People are so exhausted in the end that they’ll agree to almost anything, simply to get the talking over and done with.
How to explain what I mean by adequacy in leadership? The first thing a leader needs is to respect others as individuals. If he fails in this regard, it probably means he hasn’t much respect for himself, either. His leadership style gets caught, consequently, in a tangle of self-consciousness, self-doubt, and compensatory bluster. Any attempt to help him out of this maze soon reveals to what extent leadership is a gift, not merely a position. It is a skill also, however, and as such can be learned in time, provided people are interested in self-correction.
Effective leadership is magnetic. The magnetism, however, should be of the right kind. For people can be guided foolishly as well as wisely. A leader may overwhelm others by the sheer force of his own opinions. He may intimidate others with his excessive confidence, feeling his own position to be unassailable. Or, again, he may seek to include others, and expect the best of them. This last type of leadership is suitable for cooperative communities, in which people come together for a life of inner freedom, harmony, and happiness.
Many of the ideas expressed below appear also in a book of mine, The Art of Supportive Leadership(2). This book has been bought in quantity by several major corporations in America including Kellogg, Mitsubishi, and AT&T for distribution to their managers. It sells well, for the principles it presents have been tested and developed in actual practice. In this chapter I will suggest a number of new principles also.
First, it may aid understanding if I contrast this approach to the worst counsel that I know for rulers of nations, and for group leaders. That advice was written by Nicolò Machiavelli in his book, The Prince. Machiavelli’s name has become synonymous with utter lack of scruples in the quest for power. I should mention at the outset that his advice has never, in the long term, been validated. Whatever success it has inspired has been temporary. Meanwhile, however, his teachings have inflicted untold misery.
The greatest flaw in Machiavelli’s theories, however, is not even the misery they’ve inflicted. It is that they’ve encouraged rulers to go against their own nature, as human beings. Thus, they’ve created misery for the rulers themselves. In other words, his counsel has proved a disaster for the very people he was trying to help. With Machiavelli to guide them, they needn’t have worried about hell after death: He showed them how to create hell right here on earth. Whatever benefit may be derived from his teachings — I don’t suggest that anyone bother to familiarize himself with them! — is that, by contrast, they show what is needed in a good leader.
Machiavelli (1469-1527) lived during the height of the Italian Renaissance. His books were written for rulers, not for commoners. According to him, the ordinary canons of morality, applicable to lesser human beings, are not valid for heads of state, whose goal should be to gain and hold absolute power.
In The Prince (Il Principe), written in 1513, Machiavelli attempted to justify every possible villainy — including treachery, torture, and murder — with the cold-blooded explanation that a ruler must do what is necessary to maintain his position. Modern businessmen, too, if they aren’t overburdened with a conscience, seek similar justification. After bankrupting their competitors, they explain that action dismissively with the statement, “Business is business.” Other people, too, use similarly specious arguments to excuse deeds they know instinctively to be wrong. And so it is that, for a certain kind of person, Machiavelli’s book has been for centuries a veritable “bible” of success.
A number of writers, wanting to be fair, defend Machiavelli with the claim that he wasn’t really evil; that he was a republican at heart, and dreamed of living to see Italy united. It doesn’t really matter what the fellow was like, personally. He may have had better intentions than his writings indicate. On the other hand, he may have been, as many believe, a devil. Machiavelli the man isn’t at issue here. It is his teachings we are dealing with. In that context, Machiavelli is only a footnote.
The issue before us is this: Can human values legitimately be suspended in the case of rulers? Obviously, for starters, a prince doesn’t have a different anatomical structure from lesser citizens. Nor has he a different mental or spiritual make-up. His tastes, appetites, and emotional needs require fulfillment like the rest of us.
The ancient Greeks and Romans invented myths in which gods and goddesses behaved as though they were above ordinary morality. One suspects those myths were allegories, created to accommodate the understanding of ordinary human beings, with the hope that in time they would find deeper meaning in them as the stories were told and retold many times. In any case, human beings are not gods, even if rulers have been known to order their subjects to treat them as such. Moral principles apply as much to kings as to beggars. Indeed, sometimes they apply even more so, for a beggar may be unaware of subtleties that ought to be obvious to a king.
Are certain actions, then, justified in a ruler that would not be so in his subjects? Can the rightness of an act be divorced from the well-being of him who acts, and from the well-being of those for whom he acts? Only its benefit to human beings can truly justify human behavior. And if well-being is accepted as a guideline, is it not as much so for the subjects as for the ruler? Is there any act that might, in itself, be justified in a ruler that would not be justifiable for ordinary citizens?
An example springs to mind: warfare. Sometimes war is necessary. In that sense, it is right. Defensive war, for example, may be the only way to protect a nation. Murder, however, is an act committed by individuals and can virtually never be justified. The decision to go to war must be made by rulers, not by common citizens. Even here, however, exceptions are imaginable. What if a madman enters a village and begins shooting everyone in sight? Wouldn’t the villagers be morally right even to shoot him, if necessary, to save the entire village from becoming slaughtered?
Mahatma Gandhi, the renowned champion of non-violence, skirted this issue once when the question was put to him. “I would offer myself to be killed first,” he replied. A beautiful answer, of course, but it wasn’t properly responsive to the question. For what if that madman, after killing Gandhi, had continued on his rampage through the village? Wouldn’t Gandhi’s sacrifice in that case have seemed irresponsible — even a little bit foolish? In real life, bad choices must sometimes be made in preference to even worse ones. Moral issues cannot be determined absolutely. Everything in this world is, necessarily, relative.
An action is effective that accomplishes its objective. If, however, what it accomplishes is self-defeating and leads only to disappointment in the end, it cannot be termed a genuine success. Repeated disappointments in life persuade one at last that the long-range goal of all striving is not mere pleasure, acquisition, and worldly power, but things intangible: happiness, inner peace, and wisdom. If, indeed — as seems obvious — everyone’s goal is his own fulfillment, we must ask ourselves also, when contemplating a course of action, Will it give me what I really want? Is it, from that standpoint, meritorious? that is, will it promote my own true well-being, and that of others? And can such well-being actually be purchased at the price of anyone else’s?
Truth is truth. Honor is honor. There may be mitigating factors too subtle for most rulers to understand, but at every crossroads in life one can only be guided by one’s own best understanding. A safe rule is this: Be true to what you feel in your heart to be the right course. Even so, you should keep yourself open to the possibility of a new direction, should one seem preferable in time. If the facts so indicate, one shouldn’t hesitate to accept the change. Nor should one be concerned lest others see him as having lost face. It is no shame in a leader to accept the truth, whatever it may be, once recognition of the need for it dawns as events unfold. Truth alone, always, should be our guide.
It is sometimes good to have a “worst-case scenario.” Let us ask ourselves, How much would we be willing to sacrifice for a clear conscience? One ought to be ready to give even life itself for a principle. Unless and until one is inwardly confident that he can embrace this choice, he will never be completely at peace inwardly. The fear of death, if of nothing else, will always loom over him like a dark cloud.
The following story is for those who face crucial decisions of conscience:
In a concentration camp during World War II, a number of Jews were brought to the camp commandant’s office. He showed them the view through the glass window of his office door. “You see that gate across the courtyard from here?” he asked. “It is your gateway to freedom. I ask of you only this: As the condition for your release, you must renounce your Jewish faith.”
With but one exception, every Jew in the room accepted his condition. They may have told themselves that, under such circumstances, apostasy would be no sin, and that their words of denial could be retracted later anyway, as having been made under duress. The commandant opened the door, and they hurried out toward the gate. As they were crossing the yard, they were all machine-gunned to death.
The sadistic commandant then turned to the one remaining Jew. “They were trash anyway,” he remarked dismissively. “Of what good are people if they can’t be faithful to a commitment of conscience?”
There are almost as many kinds of leadership as there are human beings. No sweeping system should be, or even could be, suggested for all. Forced efforts are unnatural, and can lead to disastrous results. Let us rather consider those who lead discriminating individuals, people whose conscience is free, who aren’t concerned with the opinions of others, and who are willing honestly to seek a better way of life.
The only one suitable to lead people who are free in this way is one who respects them as individuals. No leader will meet this qualification if he tries to persuade others against their will, even if he is convinced that he desires only their well-being. Since he, like each of them, is an individual, he must respect above all their right to form their own judgment, even if he considers it to be wrong.
A leader should lead others, not drive them. He should inspire them to want to behave rightly. Indeed, a motto for enlightened leaders should be, “People are more important than things.”
The ideas here presented are for this kind of leader. They will help everyone, however, because all men find themselves, occasionally, in a position of having to make decisions for others. I present them generally, therefore, and don’t plan to raise the bar so high that few can jump over it.
Here, to start with, is an essential guide: Before making a decision, don’t ask only, “Will this plan advance the project?” Ask also, “Will it help me and all of us toward our fulfillment as human beings? Is there a danger that it may hinder that fulfillment?” Ask also, “Will it help us to develop character?” For character, it should be emphasized, is essential to genuine well-being.
It sometimes happens, for example, that sternness suggests itself as necessary for handling a situation. Ask yourself in this case, “How would it affect me, personally, to be stern? Could I act that way without losing my inner peace? Would I be able, in spite of being stern, to retain my friendship for them? Would I be able to remain sensitive to their needs? Or would I become caught in the grip of my own displeasure?” When ends are sought by the expression of harmful attitudes such as anger, one loses sight of the end in dust clouds of disharmony that are kicked up in the process. Sometimes the sacrifice must be made, but in this case one should do his best at least to be impersonal. He should expand his sense of self-identity, to reduce his ego’s involvement.
This principle holds true in every situation. What determines the rightness of an action, ultimately, is its effect on the one committing it, and not only (as might be expected) on those toward whom the action is directed. No action, moreover, is an incident dangling in empty space, so to speak. It represents a commitment of energy, which becomes then a direction of movement. Consonant with Newton’s first law of motion, energy wrongly directed can only be redirected, or blocked by a new and differently directed energy. Otherwise it will continue, reinforced by the will. In the normal course of events, sternness hardens to harshness, then to self-righteousness, and then to arrogance — unless from the beginning the ego is disengaged, or else is engaged from motives of kindness and good will, not of anger. The first question a leader should ask himself before every act ought to be, “What effect will this action have on me?” If it is likely to damage him, it is certain in some way to mar the deed itself.
Leaders would be wise to reflect on what a child I knew declared once after running a race. “Did you win?” he was asked. “No,” he replied, “but I won against myself!” The best victories are those, always, which bring us greater clarity and inner strength.
Leadership is simply a job, in this respect neither more nor less important than any other. One person may be a tailor, another a merchant, a third a mountain guide. Skill at one’s métier — in this case, leadership — is essential. Nevertheless, skill is nothing but a question of technique. To paint skillfully is not, in itself, to ensure that the work will be great. Infinitely more important is inspiration. Inspiration too, then, is important for good leadership. Moreover (returning to Machiavelli), there is no inspiration in cruelty, cunning, and ruthless oppression.
Again, whereas the pigment employed in portraying a human being can only suggest outwardly the nuances of his thinking, it is not in itself conscious. A ruler’s subjects, on the other hand, are conscious. Whatever joy or suffering he imposes on them will return to him consciously also, and will either give him greater happiness or become a ball and chain on his conscience.
Rulers of nations and all leaders of groups must realize that their job is different, in this respect, from painting, or tailoring, or even playing chess. Leadership is not the manipulation of inanimate pawns, which all look alike, function alike, and have the same value in the game. Human beings are each, in some way, unique. They have names, personalities, facial features, bodily shapes, needs, likes and dislikes. Each of them, as a human being, deserves the respect of his social superiors that they give to their social equals. Wise is that leader who sees his job as a service to others, not as an opportunity to receive service from them.
Pride of position is an ugly defect in a leader. Humility, on the other hand, is an ornament. Humility does not mean self-deprecation, which paralyzes the will. Humility means self-forgetfulness in concentration on the greater issues. Humility, in this sense, is the surest key to success in all things. Pettiness, on the other hand — the habit, for example, of losing one’s temper, or of hurting others out of spite — costs more in the long run than any consequent gain.
The effects of action can seldom be predicted with certainty. Who knows what unexpected obstacles may arise? The one sure guide to right action, therefore, is to consider its probable effect on oneself, and on others, too, as individuals. Never look upon anyone as a mere cog in the wheel of progress, as though he had no individuality of his own.
Does a proposal promise significant inner gains? Does it offer increased self-assurance, strength, understanding, happiness, wisdom, inner peace? These results cannot easily be determined in advance. Often they can be perceived, however, by simply thinking an act through to its probable conclusion. In this sluggish material world, it takes time to see tangible results. The probable results of a course of action, however, can be perceived immediately, simply by imagining the feeling that is likely to accompany, or to ensue from, the proposed action. Is that feeling expansive, or contractive? If it is expansive, and if it conveys a sense of inner freedom, and, to others, a sense of sympathy, the proposal is likely to be good. It promises fulfillment. But if the feeling is contractive and causes one to withdraw one’s sympathy from others, or to harden the consciousness of one’s own importance, it presages disappointment. A contractive reaction in the contemplation of a course of action creates ripples of inner uneasiness. An expansive reaction, on the other hand, brings inner calmness. Be guided by these subtle indicators.
A ruler may occasionally have to make serious decisions that others will never face on their own. He should be guided always by these same considerations. Courage is more admirable than excessive caution, whether in one person or in many. And bullies usually respect courage, whereas they’ll take full advantage of the coward. Pragmatic wisdom in leadership — a recognition, for example, of the need to compromise, occasionally; to bide one’s time before making decisions that involve the well-being of many; to form occasional alliances of convenience: These things cannot always be avoided. Differences do exist, obviously, between the decisions one must make on behalf of others and those one might make for oneself.
A leader may be willing to renounce something personally, for example, that he would never surrender on behalf of other people: benefits, perhaps, that to him would be meaningless, but that to others might be vitally important. Every human reality has its own inherent needs and challenges. Football players require a different set of responses from those required in a statesman. Nevertheless, if a ruler, or a leader of others, is true to himself and to the highest expectations he holds of himself, he will be better guided than he ever would be by following the advice of cynics like Nicolò Machiavelli.
Whether Machiavelli was evil must be dismissed as more his business than our own. What is central to this discussion is whether his teachings work. Have they ever done so? His best-known book, The Prince, was the favorite reading of some of history’s greatest villains. Oliver Cromwell, we are told, applied those principles to the Commonwealth government in England. Henry II and Henry IV of France were carrying copies of The Prince when they were murdered. (Might their interest in that book suggest the reason they met that fate?) An annotated copy of The Prince was found in Napoleon Bonaparte’s coach at Waterloo. Adolf Hitler kept a copy of it by his bedside. And Benito Mussolini stated, “I believe The Prince, by Machiavelli, to be the statesman’s supreme guide.” Robert B. Downs, in Books That Changed the World, wrote, “Later, Mussolini changed his mind, for in 1939, on the list of authors, ancient and modern, placed on the Fascist index of books which Roman librarians must not circulate appeared the name Machiavelli.” Surely Downs was being naive! If Mussolini decided he didn’t want anyone reading that book after all, isn’t it more likely he didn’t want people to discover his own secrets?
The strongest case against Machiavelli is that his methods simply haven’t shown themselves, in the long run, to work. A ruler may succeed in holding people in bondage for years by following Machiavelli’s advice. He may, as The Prince recommends, make himself more feared than loved. When people’s fear turns to hatred, however, they’ll discount even the risks of taking revenge.
Machiavelli’s teaching is self-annihilating, not self-exalting. Cromwell, Napoleon, Hitler, Mussolini, and other disciples of his won no laurels of victory in the end, but only the blunt, heavy ax of defeat.
The real benefit to be derived from reading Machiavelli is that he gives such clear lessons in what a ruler ought not to do if he aspires to rule well. When it is understood that true fulfillment lies within, not in outward achievements, it is understood also, by projection, where fulfillment lies for the body politic: not in trumpeted victories, but in the well-being of everyone, whether individually or in the millions.
The value of democracy, as opposed to government by kings and princes, is that democracy at least is designed on the principle of self-rule. Though it can be manipulative in practice, its accepted goal is the well-being of all. Citizens in a democracy are encouraged not to compete over how much of the pie each can grab for himself.
Truth, which should be the guiding principle for everyone, and therefore for every government, should be especially so in a democracy. Truth seldom springs, however, from hastily formed opinions. On this point democracies, especially, can fail, for they tend to be influenced by emotions of the moment, to the detriment of wisdom.
A leader should keep his heart’s feelings unaffected by the shouts, plaudits, and hisses of the crowd. He should seek guidance calmly within himself and in consultation with those he considers wise rather than only politically savvy. He should never act under the influence of emotion, but should seek guidance in a broader vision. He should ask himself, “Toward what does our national conscience really aspire?” On the other hand, he cannot afford to outdistance by too far the values of the people he governs.
If the representative of a democratic people cannot stand by his own perception of the truth; or if he tells himself, “Who am I, after all? Just one voter, among so many!” he is not a true representative, and is not fit to rule. His duty is to condense in himself the conscience of those whom he has been called to serve.
True democracy is not achieved by mere ballot. It requires subtle recognition of the deeper, long-term will of the people, and a sensitive response to that will. Opinion polls rarely disclose that deeper impulse; the questions they ask are necessarily simplistic. Few people are able to verbalize their ideas clearly. Few even recognize what their ideas really are, until someone gives clear expression to them. A good leader listens calmly, and never tries to coerce anyone into accepting his ideas. He may, however, and indeed ought to, do his best to present his ideas persuasively. Certainly he should never resort to cunning in order to win people. He should not, for example, when proposing a project, withhold information that he knows might prejudice people against it. And he should not tell only that side of a story which he thinks will win people. He might succeed in getting away with tactics like these for a time, but people eventually will see what he is doing, and will cease to trust him. In short, he should not on any account use the methods Machiavelli recommended as necessary for a ruler.
Intelligence need not imply guilefulness. If, however, people oppose you cunningly, when all you want is the general good, don’t flinch from opposing them with similar skill. To do so may mean using what one might call “kindly cunning,” but it will spring only from a recognition that, in this world of relativities, one must accept the realities of others for what they are. Moreover, you should not parade your intentions too openly before those who are cunning, out of your own fondness for candor. Whereas it is good to be simple-hearted, don’t be a simpleton!
This caution is especially important when dealing with an enemy power. As, when dueling with a sword, different techniques are required from those employed in boxing or, for that matter, in friendly conversation, so do the realities of confrontation with an enemy differ from those of communication with a friendly power, and of cooperation with it. If skillful tactics can be used honorably in dealing with a bully nation, it would be naive not to use them, for in such cases one has no choice but to meet their fire with fire of one’s own. If, however, it is your enemy’s way to fight frankly and openly, then meet him in a kindred spirit. Only when an enemy fights underhandedly should his methods be turned against him. For example, if you learn that he is secretly inciting people against you, telling them that you have been skirting certain important issues, bring those issues immediately out into the open. Announce publicly, “These are serious problems. What shall we all do about them?” In this way, you’ll take the wind out of their sails, and place the responsibility for solving the issues on everybody’s shoulders, including those of your detractors.
Never, in any event, resort to underhanded methods yourself. An unscrupulous enemy will not think you capable of anything but deceit anyway. Let him deceive himself, if he so chooses. Don’t be untruthful, but if he chooses to think you guileful, let him be hoist by his own petard. Above all, be honest with yourself. If you find it necessary to equivocate — for instance, if you send the message, “The winters in our country are mild,” when in fact this particular winter happens to be unusually harsh, but favorable to your country’s impending struggle against an invader — be satisfied within yourself that, still, you have told the truth.
A rule for lasting success may be stated as follows: Adherence to high principles gives the only certainty there is of final victory.
An intelligent leader works with people as they are, not as he may wish they were or think they ought to be. An intelligent, good leader seeks the highest good for all — for his foes as well, if his heart is broad enough to include them, too, in his sympathies. An intelligent but bad leader, however, seeks only personal gain.
Ask yourself, Cui bono—Who stands to gain: the leader, or the people he leads? If he seeks nothing for himself (be grateful that such people do exist), don’t be surprised if he is hated by people with small minds and desiccated hearts.
The above principles, rather than any mere sampling of public opinion, define that kind of democracy in which the people are guided by honor, not by guile. For if a leader gives people merely what they are asking for, or what he thinks they want, or even what they themselves are shouting vociferously that they want but will be disposed, later on, to reject in disappointment, his own is the true failure. He has failed in his duty, first of all, to himself. And he has failed in his duty to those whom he should be guiding. His job is to honor the deeper, not the transient, “will of the people.” If necessary, his duty is to save them from plunging off a cliff they haven’t seen.
Machiavelli verbalized — -and at least he did so with more ruthless honesty than many — a philosophy of government that has, in fact, prevailed secretly for unnumbered centuries. In history there have been many Hitlers, Stalins, and Mao Tse-tungs on scales both large and small. We may hope that people nowadays understand these things better than they used to. Given the alternative between self-fulfillment and universal misery, few today — so one hopes — would opt for misery.
Of course, a nation gets the kind of ruler it deserves. In any hope for utopia, one can realistically expect nothing better than a compromise between the ideal and the actual human reality.
Reflecting on Machiavelli’s teaching, anyone who would create a better society must realize that the goal of leadership cannot be other than the well-being of all — of others too, that is, as extensions of one’s own self. The goal must not be power for its own sake. People’s happiness, and their will to achieve it each one in his own way, should be the goal of every leader, whether of small groups or of a government.
It is unlikely that society will ever achieve perfection. There is a hope, however, that a few societies, at least, may be channeled in a better direction, and inspired to seek a truer fulfillment. With this improvement for a beginning, who knows how far the zephyrs of healing may not blow?
If there is one rule for the creation of a better society, it is that which I’ve stated already: People are more important than things. The “things” implied here include systems, projects of all kinds, and occasionally, even, time-worn rules and traditions. For there are times when tradition, even when cherished, must be ignored. A leader must consider every situation in itself. He must not say, “Well, in situations like this, here is what we are accustomed to doing.” If necessary, he must be ready to depart from solutions that have worked before.
Human beings cannot be forced into ideational straitjackets. In the ancient Greek story of Theseus, the villain Procrustes, whom Theseus slew, offered a special bed to his guests. Pretending to offer them a good night’s rest, he would ask them to lie down, then strap them forcibly onto the bed. If their legs were too long, he lopped them off, leaving them to bleed to death. If their legs were too short, he stretched their bodies to make them fit, laughing as they died in agony.
Machiavelli proposed no utopian system, certainly, but the means he proposed for manipulating people have tempted many rulers to behave like Procrustes. Following Machiavelli’s advice, or simply drinking from the same polluted stream he did, they have embraced the time-dishonored doctrine, “The end justifies the means.”
In the last analysis — how strange it is to contemplate it! — his system reflected a delusion not so very different from one that utopian writers have proposed: that mere systems are capable of regulating human existence.
Love alone is the power that people will accept wholeheartedly. Not force, and not mathematically precise planning. Love, or at least sincere respect, is the secret of true success in a leader. Love alone can lead to a better life on earth. I don’t mean personal love, which practices favoritism and encourages toadyism, but love above all for truth, and especially for the truth that resides in all beings. Love is a force that few social philosophers have ever taken into consideration. In Machiavelli’s unsentimental disdain for fellow-feeling he failed to appreciate this far superior power. His own heart was a desert where no wildflowers of love bloomed.
Life, according to accepted theory nowadays, is a product of random material interactions. Consciousness also — again, according to accepted theory — is the product of the mere movement of energy in a circuit of brain cells. Mechanisms are believed to explain everything.
As we proceed in the following pages, however, we shall see that life and consciousness are no mere consequence, but are the subtle cause of everything man can ever know.