How to Choose a (Machiavellian?) Leader

Machiavelli's name has long been synonymous with political skulduggery, but Maurizio Viroli offers us a kinder, gentler Machiavelli -- someone who kept the common good in mind in ways greatly lacking in this election year, writes Scott McLemee.

July 13, 2016
Princeton University Press

For most people the word “Machiavellian” carries no connotation of virtue, and it’s never meant as praise. A stock theatrical character of the Elizabethan era was the Machiavel, who “delights in his own villainy and gloats over his successes in lengthy soliloquies,” as one literary historian puts it, with Shakespeare’s Iago and Richard III being prime examples. A Newsweek article from last year characterizes Tony Blair as “a Machiavel with a Messiah complex,” surely one of the more inventive insults in recent memory.

Otherwise it is the adjectival form of the Italian statesman’s name that turns up most often -- usually in a political context, though also in articles about Game of Thrones, reality television and (this seems odd) professional soccer. I notice that one of the major American presidential candidates seems to be described as Machiavellian more often than the other. That doesn’t necessarily imply greater concern about moral turpitude; it could just be that her opponent lacks the impulse control required of a true Machiavel.

Be that as it may, Maurizio Viroli’s How to Choose a Leader: Machiavelli’s Advice to Citizens (Princeton University Press) challenges the longstanding tendency to make the Renaissance author’s name synonymous with the art of political skulduggery. Viroli (a professor of government at the University of Texas at Austin and professor emeritus of politics at Princeton University) offers us a kinder, gentler Machiavelli -- one notably free from cynicism, with nothing but the common good in mind.

Counterintuitive though his perspective may sound, Viroli’s presentation of Machiavelli reflects an understanding of the Florentine thinker that has become well established, if not incontrovertible, over the past 40 years or so. (On which more anon.) The element of novelty comes, rather, from how Viroli has put that interpretation to work. He builds an election-year handbook around 20 pithy quotations from Machiavelli which he then glosses and expands upon through references to American history and longer extracts from Machiavelli’s work (chiefly the Discourses on Livy). No mention of the current campaign cycle is made, as such; the manuscript was undoubtedly turned in well before the primaries started. All the more striking, then, that How to Choose a Leader occasionally offers pointed criticisms of people and developments in the news. The effect is particularly impressive when the remark in question was made 500 hundred years ago.

A couple of passages from Machiavelli epitomize his thinking on civic virtue. Neither of them squares at all with his familiar, sinister reputation.

The first we might call, however anachronistically, a statement of populist confidence:

“As for prudence and stability of purpose, I affirm that a people is more prudent, more stable and of better judgment than a prince. Nor is it without reason that the voice of the people has been likened to the voice of God; for we see that widespread beliefs fulfill themselves. … As to the justice of their opinions on public affairs, [they] seldom find that after hearing two speakers of equal ability urging them in opposite directions, they do not adopt the sounder view, or are unable to decide on the truth of what they hear.”

Viroli likes this passage so much that he quotes it twice within a few pages. Machiavelli’s other crucial idea concerns endurance, corruption and renewal. “All the things of this world,” Machiavelli writes, making clear that he has republics, in mind, “have a limit to their existence.” The institutions that survive longest and most perfectly “possess the intrinsic means of frequently renewing themselves” by returning to the principles and virtues “by means of which they obtain their first growth and reputation.” Return and renewal are necessary because an institution’s excellence or defining quality “in the process of time … becomes corrupted [and] will of necessity destroy the body unless something intervenes to bring it back to its normal condition.”

This outlook may sound deeply conservative, although Hannah Arendt, as Viroli notes, called Machiavelli “the spiritual father of revolution in the modern sense.” His influence on John Adams and Alexander Hamilton has been taken up in the scholarship. One might also note that the Italian communist Antonio Gramsci took him as a guide to thinking through political strategy. No interpretation can exhaust him; he is a large thinker, containing multitudes.

Still, we can be reasonably certain that possible applications to electoral politics in a nation of more than 300 million people never crossed Machiavelli’s mind. But Viroli understands the voting process as, in principle, an opportunity for renewal and revitalization. And perhaps especially such a opportunity in an election year -- at least, in general. (This time, maybe not so much.)

“Poverty never was allowed to stand in the way of the achievement of any rank or honor,” writes Machiavelli apropos the Roman republic, “and virtue and merit were sought for under whatever roof they dwelt ….” So what is the contemporary application?

“A president of the United States of America,” writes Viroli, “therefore must be wholeheartedly committed to the principle that the republic must offer all its citizens the same opportunities to be rewarded according to their merit and virtue.” Viroli offers the G.I. Bill of Rights as an example of egalitarian and meritocratic policy à la Machiavelli, who warns that “corruption and incapacity to maintain free institutions result from a great inequality.”

Furthermore, a worthy leader will be characterized by having a close knowledge of history: “As regards the exercise of the mind, [the leader] should read history, and therein study the actions of eminent men,” writes Machiavelli, in order to “examine the causes of their victories and defeats, so that he may imitate the former and avoid the latter.”

The past also provides models of deportment: “Great men and powerful republics preserve an equal dignity and courage in prosperity and adversity.”

Viroli glosses this as: “We must have at the helm of the republic a person who is not so inebriated by success as to become abject in the face of defeat.”

But it’s a longish passage on terrible leaders from the Discourses on Livy that should earn Machiavelli a spot as cable news pundit of the week: “Made vain and intoxicated by good fortune, they attribute their success to merits which they do not possess, and this makes them odious and insupportable to all around them. And when they have afterwards to meet a reverse of fortune, they quickly fall into the other extreme, and become abject and vile.”

Machiavelli also warns of the dangers of an old boys’ club, which are unlikely to be mitigated when a few girls join it: “Prolonged commands brought Rome to servitude.”

The reference here is to how prolonged military commands led to cronyism, but Viroli takes it as having other implications: “Politicians who remain in power for a long time tend to form networks of private allegiances. Through favors and contacts, they often manage to attain the support of many citizens who regard them, not the republic, as the principle object of their loyalty.”

Whether or not How to Choose a Leader is, as the saying goes, “the right book at the right time,” it’s certainly an odd book for an odd time. Presenting itself as a guide to democratic decision making, it reads instead like a roundabout exposé of how badly eroded any meaningful sense of the common good has become -- something the politicians can barely even gesture toward, much less pursue.


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