Machiavelli’s Relevance

I always enjoyed teaching a graduate course in business ethics which was required for the M.B.A. our university offered. It was usually filled with people who were “out there” in the “real” world working hard to better themselves; they were hoping the M.B.A. would give them a leg up. These were older, experienced students who drew on multiple experiences and were sure to have important and interesting things to say. One of the things I did each semester was to require that each student pick a book from a list, read and critique it, and present their results to the class as a whole. One of the books was Machiavelli’s The Prince. Strange choice, some would say. But, aside from the obvious parallels with today’s politics, the students were amazed at the relevance of that book to the world they were becoming increasingly familiar with, the world of business.

Accordingly, I thought it might be worth putting down here a few of the more pithy comments Machiavelli wrote and ask the reader whether or not he or she agrees that Machiavelli, like any great thinker, had things to say that are still pertinent today. First, a comment from Machiavelli’s Discourses on Titus Livius to set the tone:

“I believe it to be most true that it seldom happens that men rise from low condition to high rank without employing either force or fraud., unless that rank should be attained either by gift or inheritance.”

Now, from the more popular Prince:

“. . .there is such a great difference between the way we really live and the way we ought to live that the man who neglects the real to study the ideal will learn to accomplish his ruin, not his salvation. Any man who tries to be good all the time is bound to come to ruin among the great number who are not good.”

” . . .to be feared is much safer than to be loved. For it is a good general rule about men, that they are ungrateful, fickle, liars, and deceivers, fearful of danger and greedy for gain.  . . . since men love at their own inclination but can be made to fear at the inclination of the prince, a shrewd prince will lay his foundations on what is under his own control, not on what is controlled by others.”

“. . .those princes have accomplished most who paid little heed to keeping their promises, but who knew how to manipulate the minds of men craftily. In the end they won out over those who tried to act honestly.”

“. . .you must be great liar and hypocrite. Men are so simple of mind, and so much dominated by their immediate needs, that a deceitful man will always find plenty who are ready to be deceived.”

“Nothing is more necessary than to seem to have . . .  virtue. Men in general judge more by the sense of sight than by the sense of touch, because everyone can see but few can test by feeling. Everyone sees what you seem to be, but few know what you really are . . .  I will venture to say that when you have [the virtues] and exercise them all the time, they are harmful to you; when you seem to have them, they are useful. It is good to appear merciful, truthful, humane, sincere, and religious; it is good to be so in reality. But you must keep your mind so disposed that, in case of need, you can turn to the exact contrary.”

“There are three sorts of brains: one understands on its own, another understands what others tell it, and the third understands neither itself nor other people. The first sort is superb, the second sort is very good, the third sort useless.”

Was Machiavelli serious, or was he being satirical? Scholars still disagree.


5 thoughts on “Machiavelli’s Relevance

  1. Professor Hugh, thanks for sharing very pertinent quotes. Machiavelli paints people with a darker side of gray, but that does not necessarily make him wrong. I like to put things in context. In his time, there were fewer leaders, so it was indeed a pyramid structure, which lent itself to people stepping on others through fraud or force to get ahead.

    Today, at least in the western world, there are many more leaders in business. Leaders need to be more forthright to the public. Plus, people with more options have the ability to leave a leader and move to another one for employment. It should be noted, people with fewer options tend to get screwed. I often use the 80/20 rule to describe leaders as well, in that only about 20% of leaders are truly effective. People will not want to work too long for a leader who is seen to be committing fraud. With that said, we have laws for a reason, as there are leaders who are more than ineffective. They perfume a pig each quarter, they cut corners, they collude, they do insider trading, they interlock board and they cheat.

    As for political leaders, I think the show “House of Cards” exaggerates, but only somewhat for theatrics. Today it is easier to bend the truth and lie to more people. Colbert’s word “truthiness” would be loved by Machiavelli. With so much money to get elected, even altruistic leaders are beholden to funders. That is one reason Trump has some appeal as he is not beholden to funders – what many do not realize, Trump is one of the funders, so he is just cutting out the middle man.

    Thanks for making us think on a Saturday morning, Keith

    • I must admit that Trump was one of the men who passed through my mind both as a “successful” business man who had a head start (echoing Machiavelli) and as a wannabe politician who lies through his teeth in order to get what he wants.

      • What people do not realize about Trump is the developers’ modus operandi. Noting this is a generalization, but most developers want to get in, make their money, get out and leave the problems for someone else. I often say Trump exploits people for money. Either everyone makes money, the money train is less lucrative and Trump gets paid go away money, or the money train stops and he files for bankruptcy. Trump makes money in all three scenarios, but in the last two everyone else gets screwed.

  2. Machiavelli may have been satirical or even simply cataloging what he’d seen be successful. Either way, unfortunately, too many “leaders” over the years have taken “The Prince” as a straightforward playbook for management and leadership. Yeesh!

    One line in what you quoted reminded me of one of the many harsh management techniques of a business founder who features in the book I am writing .Periodically, he would walk into the big production facility of his business, single out a line worker at random and, in front of everyone else, fire the person on the spot. His reasoning: it kept everyone else on their toes, kept them in line. “to be feared is much safer than to be lo loveTd,” says Machiavelli. Safe to say, the man I write about was not loved by his employees and when he died young — a heart attack — not too many grieved his death. He made a lot of money, sold a lot of his products in just two decades, but within three or four years after his death, the business closed. That’s not the kind of leadership that builds something that endures or serves a larger good. It’s ego-driven and money-driven.

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