Machiavelli - a man for his times

Does the end justify the means?

This is an old philosophical question that never seems to go out of style. It's such an intriguing question because it applies to the dilemmas of the modern world, just as it did to the dilemmas of the ancient one.

Are there moments in someone's life when doing something unethical is acceptable in the pursuit of a nobler goal? Is a leader better off feared or loved? When should a government declare war on another country? Is it acceptable to torture terrorism suspects to prevent a bombing?

These are not easy questions to answer.

The man who made the case most eloquently (and controversially) for acting boldly to achieve a goal was Niccolo' Machiavelli, pictured above. The writer of the influential book The Prince (c.1513), a kind of political guide for Renaissance rulers, has been much maligned and perhaps misunderstood. In essence, Machiavelli argued that the success of an organization or state is determined largely by the active character or skill of its leaders. These leaders must be prepared to do what is unpleasant to accomplish a desired outcome. Nothing matters more if one hopes to remain a ruler.

His ideas, in one form or another, have permeated our culture every since. A distant echo, perhaps, could be heard in football coach Vince Lombardi's famous quip: "Winning isn't everything; it's the only thing."

But to get a real sense of Machiavelli and his ideas, it's important to understand the context of his life and times. When historians assess the impact of a figure, they must remove the cultural mindsets of the present and immerse themselves in the culture of the period in question.

In reviewing Machiavelli's works, the New Yorker's Claudia Roth Pierpont does that very well. It's fascinating to learn, for example, that the man who advocated tough leadership was himself the victim of torture. Despite the experience, Machiavelli went on to advocate the necessity of such methods.

Pierpont picks up the story and explains more in her article. See The Florentine: The man who taught rulers how to to rule.

Photo: Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain.
Artist: Santi di Tito, 16th Century.
Palazzo Vecchio, Florence.
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