Small World: Reading Machiavelli in Bridgton

Henry Precht

Henry Precht

By Henry Precht

BN Columnist

In all likelihood, The New York Times has never scooped The Bridgton News. Not even once. The other day, however, I was scooped by The Times columnist David Brooks.

He wrote about how, according to Machiavelli, a good ruler must sometimes take evil measures for the greater good of his community. His purpose was to defend Obama’s use of drones — and the occasional killing of children in doing so — in order to prevent worse acts by the targeted terrorists.

Scooped I was because I had been reading the 16th century Florentine philosopher in order to prepare an article. Re-reading actually. I first read Machiavelli back in Armstrong Junior College in Mr. Killoran’s history class. We did the Great Books, not lists of kings and dates. Machiavelli’s practical insights about how a ruler could get and hold power contrasted with the more transparent and virtuous texts of Plato, Aristotle and St. Thomas. The Renaissance thinker was to introduce us to ends justifying means, covert actions and heaps of cynicism, brutality and guile.

Actually, I had President Obama in mind when I picked Machiavelli for my Kindle (cost = $0). The President has had four years of trusting his opponents to do the right thing, coaxing them toward cooperating and elevating the higher good of the nation over narrow partisan goals. The results have been meager. Four more years of the same soft stuff would certainly lead the country on the path to ruin — much as many of those weakly led Italian states faced 500 years ago. How would Machiavelli advise him?

Picking up where Brooks’ scoop left off, here follow a few Machiavellian maxims that might be helpful in a new strategy for our president.

On the question of whether a prince in his governance ought to favor the nobles (wealthy 1% and members of Congress) or the people, M. comes down on the side of the latter: “A wise prince ought to adopt such a course that his citizens will always … have need of the state and of him, and then he will always find them faithful.” A true, if cynical, liberal manifesto.

What should a prince concentrate on in his preparation for rule? “War and its rules and discipline… When princes have thought more of ease than of arms they have lost their state.” Against his natural inclination, an inexperienced Obama, I suspect, was cowed in his first term by the campaign of pressure levied by the Pentagon and CIA for a heavier engagement in Afghanistan and the expanded use of drones to kill terrorists. If he had had the background of an Eisenhower — or even a smidgen of military/security science, he might have faced them down and adhered closer to his liberal instincts.

What about the use of mercenaries (contractors) in warfare? M. contends they are unreliable and a prince should depend on an army of his own subjects. For Obama that would mean a return to the draft. That sounds like a conservative prescription. Yet, if he tried calling up today’s youth (male and female, of course) to serve, there would undoubtedly be massive protests against fighting in unpopular wars. That might mean no more Iraq-style ventures, and probably no Afghanistans that stretch on and on.

Is it better for a prince to be loved or feared? Both, naturally, M. answers. However, because it is difficult “to unite them in one person it is much safer to be feared. Men, in general, are ungrateful, fickle, false, cowardly, covetous, and as long as you succeed they are yours entirely.” But, as to their loyalty, “in times of need, they cannot be relied on.” Better to be feared, therefore — taking care not to be hated. Cruelty, if necessary, but not too much of it.

I could go on, for the little book is rich in provocative guidance — e.g., the role of fortune (the “arbiter of one-half of our actions.”) Men who do not make provisions for an unforeseen change in good fortune today “will be ruined tomorrow.” I leave it to Obama himself to read of the dangers of flattery, the importance of expert, loyal staff and how to avoid being despised and hated.

Henry Precht is a summer Bridgtonian.

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