Machiavelli’s realpolitik of good governance


Machiavelli’s The Prince is synonymous with ruthless politics entirely detached from ethics, but Phillip Bobbit shows that rather than a license for rulers to do as they pleased, The Prince is actually a guide for governance.

The Garments of Court and Palace: Machiavelli and the world that he made by Philip Bobbitt (Atlantic Books)

-  Reviewed by Chris Patten

Visiting Tehran as a European Commissioner in the early 2000s, I met the then president, Mohammad Khatami, scholar and Shia theologian. While we talked informally before the meeting started, he mentioned that he had just been reading Machiavelli. He was immediately aware of the exchange of glances between his European interlocutors. ‘Not The Prince,’ he explained; ‘The Discourses.’  

How many European leaders, I wondered, would be familiar with Machiavelli’s less-well-known commentary on Livy? Yet it also occurred to me that the idea of the Iranian leader reading The Prince would have confirmed suspicions about Iranian treachery and deceit.

Machiavelli has been characterised as the Prince of Darkness, the Mephistophelian apologist for brutal realpolitik, almost from the start. Thomas Cromwell is reputed to have slipped a copy of The Prince to Henry VIII to help him justify the break with Rome. Today, psychologists use the term ‘Machiavellianism’ to describe the ability to detach oneself from conventional morality, manipulating others without pangs of conscience. Thus is a great political thinker traduced.

Some censoriousness may be justified, especially if you believe that government and ethics should be one and the same. But at the risk of shocking readers, I have never found The Prince particularly outrageous. It reflects the sort of conversation political practitioners have always had with one another.

Cynicism about politics abounds as much as ever, and is as true of the politics of institutions as it is of states. (Whether Pope Francis said to a Vatican official ‘The carnival is over’ or not, we felt a jolt of recognition when we heard the words.) When I asked an Australian friend what he made of the call by the returned Labour Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd, for a kinder and gentler politics, he responded with a fruity Australian demotic.

There is nothing fruity about Philip Bobbitt’s thoughtful study of Machiavelli. Bobbitt’s previous works, The Shield of Achilles and Terror and Consent, drew plaudits for their majestic surveys of diplomatic history and constitutional theory. The Garments of Court and Palace is a short, graceful defence of The Prince, arguing that it is not a ‘mirror book’ – a manual of advice for rulers – but a constitutional treatise, describing the sort of princely state that Machiavelli wished to emerge and survive as the feudal world was morphing into an era of competing states.

Machiavelli’s own career was shaped by the struggle between the Medicis, with their sham republicanism, and the partisans of real self-government in Florence. He believed that strong princely States were necessary to provide stability when mercenaries were being routed by professional armies, of which the French King Charles VIII’s was the most threatening example.

Europe was on the cusp of the creation of States whose identity and survival would be largely determined by changes in military technology, the organisation of recognisable armies, trade, the levying of tax and the development of banking. In this context, the key issue for a leader was to maintain a State which would provide security for its citizens; this constituted the essence of a common interest.

To do this, a prince needed a set of qualities that constituted virtu, enabling him (or her) to manage his luck, make the most of his opportunities, avoid getting into trouble, and earn glory through doing great things.

What exactly were these qualities? For those steeped in the works of the classical world, the answer was clear. Cicero had distinguished between the ‘manly virtues’ and the behaviour of beasts.

A ruler should be generous, show clemency and be a defender of justice, always keeping his word. For Machiavelli, as Quentin Skinner, the intellectual historian, has pointed out, this was well-meaning showboating...

- Christopher Francis Patten, Baron Patten of Barnes, CH, PC (born 12 May 1944) is a British public servant. He is currently chairman of the BBC Trust and Chancellor of the University of Oxford.

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