In Defence of Machiavelli

I like to amuse myself by identifying the strange parallels between Machiavelli’s life and my own, almost exactly five hundred years later. 

by Jonathan Powell 

Niccolò Machiavelli is much misunderstood. Even in his own lifetime his views were caricatured, and ‘Machiavellian’ became a term of abuse not long after his death. In fact, Machiavelli wasn’t at all Machiavellian. He was the son of a Florentine lawyer born under Medici rule who became secretary to the Second Chancery in 1498 and later secretary to the Ten of War, two of the key bodies governing the republic after the Medici had been thrown out and the radical friar Savonarola, who succeeded them, had been deposed. He served in these posts for fourteen years, playing the role of a civil servant and a diplomat, dabbling in administration, politics and military matters. Machiavelli’s Florence was at the centre of the Renaissance and he rubbed shoulders with thinkers and artists like Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci, and on his diplomatic missions he met the great leaders of the age including King Louis XII of France, the Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian, and Cesare Borgia, the son of Pope Alexander VI, and observed their triumphs and failings. For most of his time in office he served under the gonfaloniere (first minister) for life, Piero Soderini, but it is clear from his later writings that he had little respect for the indecisive Soderini, and most of Machiavelli’s diplomatic missions were failures. When the Medici were restored to their former domain by the Pope in 1512, Machiavelli lost his job and was thrown into a sort of internal political exile. He took on occasional negotiating missions for Florentine businessmen to neighbouring states and retired to his farm at San Casciano to write The Prince.

I like to amuse myself by identifying the strange parallels between Machiavelli’s life and my own, almost exactly five hundred years later. I served as a civil servant and diplomat for sixteen years around the turn of a century and carried out a series of negotiating missions for the British government, including the return of Hong Kong to the Chinese, the ‘two-plus-four’ talks on German unification, and negotiations with the Soviet Union on arms control and on human rights. I met many of the great figures of the time from Reagan and Thatcher to Gorbachev and Yeltsin, and closely observed their characters and actions. I was sent to the British Embassy in Washington in 1991 and attached myself to Bill Clinton, a long-shot candidate in the presidential race, because he had been at my college at Oxford. As a diplomat I joined the press pack accompanying him on his first campaigning visit to New Hampshire that same year, where we all travelled around in a little minibus, and I stayed on his campaign until his eventual triumph in November 1992. Having been a voyeur of American politics, I aspired to leave diplomacy and become a practitioner in British politics and had ambitions to become a Labour MP. I watched Neil Kinnock’s defeat with despair on television in the large rotunda at the British Embassy in May 1992. It was clear that Gordon Brown and Tony Blair were the two big hopes for dragging the Labour Party back to the centre and making it electable, and I chaperoned Gordon Brown round the Democratic Convention in New York as his Embassy minder in the summer of that year.

Gordon and Tony visited Washington six months later, and I was able to introduce them to the team around Bill Clinton that had helped win him the presidency. I kept in touch with Tony thereafter and was surprised when I got a call from Peter Mandelson after Tony’s victory in the Labour Party leadership election in 1994, asking if I would like to come and work for Tony. I said I would, as long as the job was a big one like chief of staff. I was invited to London for an interview, although I had to pay for my own plane ticket, and had a rather desultory conversation with Tony in the bare and soulless office of the Leader of the Opposition in the House of Commons. I was then sent to the grandeur of the House of Lords to see the terrifying figure of Derry Irvine, the Shadow Lord Chancellor, for a rather more rigorous grilling. Derry told me that I spoke too fast for the ‘brothers’ to understand, but he recommended me and I was chosen over other more obvious candidates even though I did not know Tony well and had not been brought up in the bosom of the Labour Party. Tony wanted to have someone in the job who was not a traditional political hack but had experience of government in order to demonstrate that he was serious about getting to Number 10, even if that meant he was taking on someone who was naive about Labour Party politics.

Three years later I created the job of chief of staff in 10 Downing Street and filled it from May 1997 until Tony left government in June 2007 and the job was abolished by Gordon Brown. Some half a millennium after Machiavelli, I followed the same trajectory as he had at the centre of government, dealing with administration and politics, diplomacy and war, and when my leader was deposed I too went into a sort of internal political exile and in that exile I wrote this book.

I studied Machiavelli’s The Prince as a student, and in Number 10 I often felt the need of a modern handbook to power and how to wield it. There are many excellent guides to the principles of the British state, from Anthony Sampson to Vernon Bogdanor and Peter Hennessy, but they tell you how the system is supposed to operate rather than how it operates in practice. What I wanted was something that told me what previous practitioners had discovered by experience, and to learn lessons from their triumphs and failures. No such guide existed.

For a book of less than a hundred pages written in a few months between July 1513 and January 1514, The Prince has had a remarkable influence on subsequent political thinking. From then on political philosophers, and rulers who fancied themselves as philosophers, have attacked or praised it, but what they have not been able to do is to ignore it. Francis Bacon wrote in 1605 that ‘we are much beholden to Machiavelli and others, that write what men do and not what they ought to do’. The English Republican James Harrington’s 1656 work The Commonwealth of Oceana was inspired by Machiavelli. Frederick the Great of Prussia wrote a ‘Refutation du Prince de Machiavel’ in 1739, in part to convince his people that he himself was not at all Machiavellian. Rousseau described The Prince as a ‘book of republicans’. Napoleon reportedly said that ‘The Prince is the only book worth reading’ and was reputed to keep a copy under his pillow. For Hegel, he was a man of genius who saw the need to unite a chaotic collection of feeble principalities into a coherent whole. The historian Thomas Macaulay thought he was a liberal pragmatist. Karl Marx tried to appropriate his ideas, and Engels described him as ‘free from the petit bourgeois outlook’. The philosopher Bertrand Russell dismissed The Prince ‘as a handbook for gangsters’. Mussolini called it a ‘vade mecum for statesmen’, and Antonio Gramsci, the Italian Communist leader whom Mussolini imprisoned, suggested that The Prince predicted the coming dictatorship of the proletariat and, rather improbably, described Machiavelli as the pre-incarnation of Lenin. The philosopher Isaiah Berlin has pointed out how extraordinary it is that such a short and clear book should have so many different interpretations. In an essay in 1972, he counted more than twenty, depicting Machiavelli as everything from the Antichrist to a humanist.

Machiavelli was misunderstood exactly because he was so original. He was the first to escape from the straitjacket of the Augustinian universe that had imprisoned writers before him, and the first to consider a world where the natural order was not set down by God but dominated by unchanging human nature. Machiavelli did not contest the rules that had bound those who went before him; he simply ignored them. He was not an atheist; but God and religion were irrelevant to what he was writing about, except as a tool of social control. He was the first writer to consider power and how it should be used and retained in a utilitarian rather than a utopian way.

There is no evidence that Machiavelli knew about Martin Luther and the Reformation, but it is striking that he was writing at the time of the ‘the monks’ quarrel’. Certainly his works were considered dangerous by the Catholic Church and were banned by the Pope in 1559.

He was particularly misunderstood in Britain, in part because of the way his works were introduced here. It is possible that British thinkers in the sixteenth century first learned of his ideas not from The Prince itself but from Innocent Gentillet’s ‘Anti-Machiavell’. Gentillet was an exiled Huguenot who caricatured The Prince as a glorification of amorality. The word ‘Machiavellian’ first appeared in an English dictionary in 1569, defined as ‘practising duplicity in statecraft and general conduct’, and there it has been stuck ever since, despite occasional attempts by historians and philosophers to persuade people to take a fresh look at his ideas. ‘Machiavell’ was a pantomime figure representing calculating evil or hypocrisy in the plays of Christopher Marlowe and William Shakespeare, and Machiavelli’s name is still synonymous with scheming, manipulation and a lack of principle. Even today, if the media want to insult politicians or advisers they will describe them as ‘Machiavellian’.

In fact, what Machiavelli wanted to do in The Prince was to advise a ruler on how to acquire a princedom and hang on to it. He described the different sorts of princedoms and the best ways to govern them. He listed the qualities required of a prince and offered advice on how to exercise power. As Isaiah Berlin put it, Machiavelli believed that there was such a thing as the art of government and that it was indispensable to achieving the goals men seek and to getting things done. The Prince is full of useful maxims, precepts, practical hints, historical parallels and general laws for a ruler: you may excite fear but not hatred, for hatred will destroy you in the end; when you confer benefits do it yourself, but leave the dirty work to others so they get the blame; do what you have to do anyway, but try to represent it as a special favour to the people; if you have to do something tough, do not advertise it in advance or your enemies will destroy you before you destroy them; if you have to do something dramatic, do it in one fell swoop, not in agonising stages; a wise leader needs both courage and guile; and so on.

Machiavelli set out his guiding principle very clearly in Chapter 15 of The Prince:

It now remains for us to consider what ought to be the conduct and bearing of a Prince in relation to his subjects and friends. And since I know that many have written on this subject, I fear it may be thought presumptuous in me to write of it also; the more so, because in my treatment of it I depart from the views others have taken. But since it is my object to write what shall be useful to whosoever understands it, it seems to me better to follow the real truth of things than an imaginary view of them. For many republics and princedoms have been imagined that were never known to exist in reality. And the manner in which we live, and that in which we ought to live, are things so wide asunder, that he who quits the one to betake himself of the other is more likely to destroy than to save himself.

It is this stark realism that makes Machiavelli so interesting still. Even now we are inclined to live by myths; but, if you try and govern by myths, you will certainly fail in whatever you undertake. In Number 10, I used to be deeply irritated by the myths propagated about Cabinet government versus ‘sofa government’, about the supposed lack of parliamentary accountability and about the role of ‘spin’. If those myths are believed and acted on, future governments will fail. Part of the aim of this book is to impose a dose of realism and honesty on those who describe a system of government that was ‘never known to exist in reality’.

Machiavelli was focused on human nature, and his writings capture eternal verities in the same way that Shakespeare’s plays do, and he draws general lessons by combining observation of his contemporary world with parallels of similar instances drawn from the past. To quote Isaiah Berlin again, Machiavelli thought ‘the best source of information is a shrewd observation of contemporary reality together with whatever wisdom may be gleaned from the best observers of the past, in particular the great minds of antiquity’.

Machiavelli’s was an empirical approach and he loved to generalise from his reading and personal experience. He would set out a general rule for some aspect of the exercise of power and endeavoured to prove it by quoting examples from fifteenth-and sixteenth-century Italy or from his reading of classical antiquity. The book is full of anecdotes of contemporary events he had experienced or heard about, and he was prolific in assembling them. In a letter to his friend Francesco Vettori he wrote: ‘This study of mine, were it to be read, it would be evident that during the fifteen years I have been studying the art of the state I have neither slept nor fooled around’. He thought his experience gave him an insight into human nature and the way it affected both those wielding power and those on the receiving end. As he wrote to Giovan Battista Soderini, the nephew of the gonfaloniere, ‘My fate has shown me so many and such varied things that I am forced rarely to be surprised or to admit that I have not savoured – either through reading or through experience – the actions of men and their ways of doing things.’ And he was often quite indiscreet in passing on the anecdotes he had learned in his official role. He quotes, for example, Father Luke, the royal confessor in the court of Emperor Maximilian, who had been quite frank in his private criticisms of his own ruler and almost certainly never expected to see those criticisms in print.

Machiavelli was particularly fascinated by the Roman Republic and its historians, the subject of The Discourses, and he thought the study of the past held important lessons: ‘whoever wishes to foretell the future must consider the past, for human events ever resemble those of preceding times’. In a letter about the writing of The Prince, he described himself ‘stepping inside the courts of the ancients’ to ask them questions about their experiences and then recording their answers. Machiavelli thought that history could provide the key to understanding the present and the future: ‘if the present be compared with the remote past, it is easily seen that in all cities and in all people there are the same desires and the same passions as there always were. So that, if one examines with diligence the past, it is easy to foresee the future of any commonwealth, and to apply those remedies which were used of old; or, if one does not find that remedies were used, to devise new ones owing to the similarity between events. But, since such studies are neglected and what is read is not understood, or if it be understood, is not applied in practice by those who rule, the consequence is that similar troubles occur all the time.’

He dedicated his book to Lorenzo de’ Medici, the new ruler of Florence and grandson of Lorenzo The Magnificent, in a not very subtle and entirely unsuccessful job application, saying that he had looked for a token to present, and ‘I have found among my possessions none that I so much prize and esteem as a knowledge of the actions of great men, acquired in the course of a long experience of modern affairs and a continual study of antiquity, which knowledge most carefully and patiently pondered over and sifted by me, and now reduced into this little book, I send to your Magnificence’.

Machiavelli’s realism came with a cost: his disregard for the conventional pieties led to his reputation for amorality. He did not think that the rules of personal morality could be applied to governing a country precisely because men in general are not good. A wise prince should not just focus on being good, ‘Since anyone who would act up to a perfect standard of goodness in everything, must be ruined among so many who are not good. It is essential, therefore, for a Prince who desires to maintain his position, to have learned how to be other than good, and to use or not to use his goodness as necessity requires.’ He took a Hobbesian view of human nature long before Hobbes and advises princes that since men are naturally weak and evil, they have to learn to manipulate those weaknesses to stay in power: ‘men are so simple, and governed by their present needs, that he who wishes to deceive will never fail in finding willing dupes’. It is this attitude that led to his fascination with Cesare Borgia, the bloodthirsty and mercurial ruler of Romagna, exactly because – unlike Machiavelli’s old boss Soderini – he was decisive, had no regard for morality, and was clever enough to play on other men’s weaknesses to stay in power and extend his territories.

Many commentators take this attitude to mean that Machiavelli himself was immoral. But even his critics concede that Machiavelli never called evil good or good evil, nor did he positively encourage princes to be bad. A wise prince ‘ought not to quit good courses if he can help it, but should know how to follow evil courses if he must’. In his view the end justified the means, and the end was stable government because only with stable government can laws be respected and life enjoyed. Public morality was different from private morality. He gives it as ‘a sound maxim that, when an action is reprehensible, the result may excuse it, and, when the result is good, always excuses it’. He argues that a few acts of cruelty may be better than weak rule for the majority in a state, and a prince ‘should therefore disregard the reproach of being thought cruel where it enables him to keep his subjects united and obedient. For he who quells disorder by a very few signal examples will in the end be more merciful than he who from too great leniency permits things to take their course and so result in rapine and bloodshed; for these hurt the whole State, whereas the severities of the Prince injure individuals only.’

A prince then has to be ruthless when the occasion requires it if his power is to be maintained, but Machiavelli was not a cynical manipulator or a shallow defender of power politics in favour of cruelty for its own sake. He had a clear end in mind. Cruelty might be ‘well employed’ if ‘done once for all under the necessity of self-preservation and . . . not afterwards persisted in’. As he says in The Discourses, ‘when the very safety of the country depends upon the resolution to be taken, no considerations of justice or injustice, humanity or cruelty, not of glory or of infamy, should be allowed to prevail. But putting all other considerations aside the only question should be: “What course will save the life and liberty of the country?”

Machiavelli’s approach shocked his contemporaries and continues to shock later generations. He was not, however, as neutral on the outcomes as The Prince would suggest. The saying ‘What do you know of Machiavelli, who only The Prince have read?’ is absolutely right. The Prince is short and well known while The Discourses on the First Ten Books of Titus Livy is long and less well known, but in the latter Machiavelli makes clear his strong views on what is right and what is wrong. He favoured republics over monarchies; he thought that the intrinsic virtue of the Roman people led to a virtuous state; and he believed in the unification of Italy more than three centuries before it happened.

Machiavelli was not therefore morally neutral. In The Prince he was merely trying to be honest about what he saw rather than describe the world he wanted to live in. It was not Machiavelli who corrupted the rulers of Europe or the Church. Machiavelli was just being frank in observing the corruption around him and in advising a prince on how to survive in such a world. Isaiah Berlin summed up his argument :‘a man must choose . . . one can save one’s soul, or one can found or maintain or serve a great and glorious state; but not always both at once’. As I discovered in government, leaders are repeatedly faced with the choice between the lesser of two evils. Not only is ideal virtue frequently not an option, its naive pursuit will bring disaster to prince and people alike.

Much of The Prince is, of course, no longer relevant. The issue of whether a state should use condottori (mercenaries) or its own army to defend itself – a particular bugbear of Machiavelli’s, given his experience in charge of the Florentine army – is of little practical use to modern leaders, and the way to go about lifting sieges has been overtaken by technology. Society and politics today face very different and more complex challenges. In addition, like all handbooks, The Prince is far from perfect. In places Machiavelli contradicts himself in disconcerting ways and, like the Bible, his works can be quoted selectively and taken out of context to prove any point you want.

But there are many reasons why The Prince is still read: its capacity to transcend the period in which it was written, its radicalism and starkness make the book seem modern. In the dedication Machiavelli writes: ‘I have not adorned or amplified with rotund periods, swelling and high-flown language . . . it is my desire that it should either pass wholly unhonoured, or that the truth of its matter and the importance of its subject should alone recommend it.’ The Prince is almost all black and white; there are seldom shades of grey. He writes in The Discourses of the Romans that ‘they always avoided a middle course, and preferred the extremes’ – and so does he. He thought that Florence had made a mistake in trying to follow a via media in dealing with the revolt in Arezzo in 1502 with leniency; they should have razed the area to the ground to prevent future trouble, but the Florentine leadership didn’t want to, because it wouldn’t look good. Machiavelli couldn’t stand ‘such arguments . . . based on appearances, not on the truth’. In his view, ‘cities which are powerful and accustomed to a life of freedom, either they should be eliminated or they should be caressed. Any other decision is futile. At all costs should the middle course be avoided.’ Francesco Guicciardini’s criticism of his friend Machiavelli was as ‘the writer who always greatly delights in extraordinary and violent remedies’. But that was the point: Machiavelli was trying to be sweeping and radical.

Although ‘Fortuna’ plays an important part in his writings, Machiavelli did not believe that free will could be wholly set aside, and he was an anti-determinist, a utilitarian and a pragmatist. In his dedication to The Discourses, he argues we ‘should admire those who know how to govern a kingdom, not those who, without knowing how, actually govern one’. What interested him was not what was right or wrong, but what worked. That is the real reason why The Prince is still interesting and relevant and why it remains for all its bleak view of human nature the best practical guide on how to wield power that has yet been written.

In this book I have sought to establish whether Machiavelli’s morality of tough choices still applies in modern politics. I have tested his maxims against my experience of Tony Blair’s time in government and my personal knowledge of the Clinton and Bush administrations. The world has changed dramatically in the intervening five hundred years since Machiavelli, but many of the qualities required of leaders and the methods of governing for good or ill are remarkably similar. Above all, Machiavelli is right to point out the dangers of governing on the basis of myths rather than reality, and what a modern practitioner needs is a guide that helps him distinguish between the two and to learn how to wield power on the basis of the experience of his predecessors. As well as attempting to prove Machiavelli’s generalisations against a new generation of statecraft, I have also tried to derive some lessons from my own experiences which may be useful for future practitioners. These lessons apply every bit as much to leaders in business, sports, the military and other fields as they do to political leaders.

I have focused entirely on the ‘how’ rather than the ‘what’ and ‘why’ of government. The substance of policy and the ideology of politics are, of course, of greater significance, but there is also an art of government and it deserves to be contemplated more carefully than it has been. I have considered only what Walter Bagehot called the ‘efficient parts’ of the constitution and not the ‘dignified parts’ like the monarchy. And I have tried to do it in a light and humorous way, more in the style of Yes, Prime Minster or Gerald Kaufman’s wonderful book How to be a Minister than of a traditional constitutional textbook.

In undertaking this exercise, I have been guided by the words of Machiavelli in his dedication to The Prince: ‘Nor would I have it thought presumption that a person of very mean and humble station should venture to discourse and lay down rules concerning the government of Princes. For as those who make maps of countries place themselves low down in the plains to study the character of mountains and elevated lands, and place themselves high up on the mountains to get a better view of the plains, so in like manner to understand the People a man should be a Prince, and to have a clear notion of Princes he should belong to the People.’ Tony Blair certainly understood the people. I have made it my business to try to understand princes.


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After studying history at Oxford and the University of Pennsylvania, Jonathan Powell worked for the BBC and Granada TV before joining the Foreign Office in 1979. In 1994 Mr Blair, then Leader of the Opposition, poached him to join his `kitchen cabinet' as his Chief of Staff. When Labour achieved its landslide victory in 1997 Powell was at the heart of the Downing Street machine. He was the only senior member of staff to remain at Blair's side throughout his time at the top of British politics. He has always maintained a low profile and has never before told his story.

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