How Machiavelli Really Thought We Should Use Power: Two Animated Videos Provide an Introduction

Nice guys, so they say, fin­ish last. Many of us might instinc­tive­ly label such a world­view “Machi­avel­lian,” par­tial­ly for good rea­son and par­tial­ly not. It stands as a tes­ta­ment to the insights of the Renais­sance-era Flo­ren­tine polit­i­cal philoso­pher Nic­colò Machi­avel­li, expressed with great clar­i­ty and suc­cinct­ness in his books The Prince and the Dis­cours­es on Livy, not just that his name became an adjec­tive, but that it became one that remains in wide use near­ly 500 years after his death. But like oth­er such terms — “Kafkaesque” and “Orwellian” come to mind — its mod­ern usage tends to come detached from its name­sake writer’s orig­i­nal ideas.

So what did Machi­avel­li actu­al­ly have to say to human­i­ty? “Machi­avel­li’s Advice for Nice Guys,” a new ani­mat­ed video from Alain de Bot­ton’s School of Life, high­lights the core insight of his work: “that the wicked tend to win. And they do so because they have a huge advan­tage over the good: they are will­ing to act with the dark­est inge­nu­ity and cun­ning to fur­ther their cause. They are not held back by those rigid oppo­nents of change: prin­ci­ples.

They will be pre­pared to out­right lie, twist facts, threat­en or get vio­lent. They will also – when the sit­u­a­tion demands it – know how to seduc­tive­ly deceive, use charm and hon­eyed words, bedaz­zle and dis­tract. And in this way, they con­quer the world.”

This line of think­ing, put in such stark terms, can make Machi­avel­li seem like an off­putting­ly harsh (if quite intel­li­gent) char­ac­ter. But his writ­ing is more nuanced: he advo­cates not using flat-out lies and vio­lence to achieve one’s ends, but indeed to be nice — just “nev­er to be over­ly devot­ed to act­ing nice­ly,” an atti­tude he thought the West­’s pop­u­lar read­ings of the sto­ry of Jesus of Nazareth too often advo­cat­ed —  while always know­ing “how to bor­row – when need be – every sin­gle trick employed by the most cyn­i­cal, das­tard­ly, unscrupu­lous and nas­ti­est peo­ple who have ever lived.” Nice guys, in short, have no choice but to learn from their ene­mies.

You can learn more about the some­times har­row­ing expe­ri­ences that taught Machi­avel­li all this in the School of Life’s intro­duc­tion to his polit­i­cal the­o­ry just above. He reck­oned, more mem­o­rably than any oth­er, “the price of deal­ing with the world as it is, and not as we feel it should be. The world has con­tin­ued to love and hate Machi­avel­li in equal mea­sure for insist­ing on this uncom­fort­able truth.” Machi­avel­li, as Salman Rushdie put it in a clip we fea­tured a few years ago, lived in a time when Italy’s rul­ing fam­i­lies behaved “in the most ruth­less way, and he wrote this lit­tle trea­tise about not what he would like things to be like, but how pow­er actu­al­ly works, which he observed.” Rushdie calls the neg­a­tive asso­ci­a­tions with the philoso­pher’s name “a clas­sic case of shoot­ing the mes­sen­ger” — some­thing, alas, even the most good-inten­tioned ruler may find him­self forced to do once in a while.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Salman Rushdie: Machiavelli’s Bad Rap

Intro­duc­tion to Polit­i­cal Phi­los­o­phy: A Free Yale Course

Allan Bloom’s Lec­tures on Machi­avel­li (Boston Col­lege, 1983)

6 Polit­i­cal The­o­rists Intro­duced in Ani­mat­ed “School of Life” Videos: Marx, Smith, Rawls & More

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities and cul­ture. He’s at work on a book about Los Ange­les, A Los Ange­les Primer, the video series The City in Cin­e­ma, the crowd­fund­ed jour­nal­ism project Where Is the City of the Future?, and the Los Ange­les Review of Books’ Korea Blog. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.


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