I am of the view that if we thought it was human nature to lie, to take short-cuts and look out only for our own interests, we would have different criteria for choosing leaders. Equally, if we thought it was human nature to keep our word, to mean what we say, to practice honesty and integrity, respect one another’s life and property, we would also have different criteria for selecting those who govern our society and institutions. To help us reflect on whether politics has morality I have chosen to premise my sharing on the teachings of the Italian philosopher known as Niccolo Machiavelli, a famous political commentator and teacher of all times.

The second Zambian President, Frederick Chiluba, once referred to Machiavelli as “That great Italian philosopher.” That Machiavelli is famous is clearly indisputatable. Great? Many people would be very hesitant to say so. In the subsequent paragraphs, I will try to demonstrate why the Italian philosopher is certainly famous, but not great. Many politicians in Africa and elsewhere in the world are suspected to have deeply schooled themselves in the teachings of Machiavelli. It is also true that numerous business executives and other leaders have found Machiavelli’s ‘wisdom’ useful in climbing and maintaining themselves at the helm of corporate or organisational ladder.

I invite you to judge for yourselves.

Machiavelli was born in Florence, Italy, on May 3, 1469. Very few people born such long time ago would equal his influence on today’s political thought and practice. In his time, Machiavelli was counsellor and adviser to many Rulers and principalities.

Among the things that make Machiavelli relevant today are his definition of human nature and his advice to people aspiring for or already in political office. One of his many pieces of writing is the popular essay called The Prince. In this essay, which was posthumously published in 1532, he speaks bluntly about how to get power and keep it. Some commentators have said Machiavelli wrote The Prince in order to win the favours of the Ruler of his time, thereby dragging himself out of the poverty he had sank into. Others have argued that there is enough evidence to suggest that Machiavelli gained whatever favours and appointments he got because he truly knew and believed in what he taught and wrote about.

Machiavelli argued that his thoughts and writings were based on observable reality rather than the wishful thinking that he presumed many of his colleagues based their discourses on. He was of the view that Rulers must base their decisions on the world as it was and worked rather than on the world they wished existed. He thought that many leaders were doomed to failure because they refused to work with the brutal reality of the human condition and instead aspired for power or governed on the basis of a fantasy or imaginary picture of who people were and how they behaved.

I have based my reflections on the most recent translated text of The Prince by Peter Bondanella published and reissued by the Oxford University Press in 2008.

Machiavelli’s Teachings

On Human Nature:

Niccolo Machiavelli believed that Rulers would only know how to work with human beings and human society if they truly understood human nature: Who is a human being? How does he or she function? What drives or determines people’s thoughts and actions?

Machiavelli, who prided himself in being a good reader of individuals and societies, said that human beings “…are ungrateful, fickle, simulators, and deceivers, avoiders of danger, and greedy for gain.” He further stated, “Man is born naked and [miserable]. Alone among the animals, he is capable of astonishing cruelty against his fellow human beings. Yet no other creature has such an enormous desire to live and such a thirst for – and need of – the eternal and the infinite.”

For Machiavelli, therefore, the good Ruler must not fool himself with the thoughts, John Locke – an English Philosopher – later asserted, that human nature is essentially good and that people will voluntarily choose good rather than evil.  Based on his perspective of human nature, Machiavelli proceeded to give the following advice to current and future Rulers.

On the morality of Rulers:

For Machiavelli, the Ruler must concern himself with only one ‘moral value’: How to acquire power and maintain it. Consequently, what defines right and wrong actions for the Ruler or for someone aspiring for power is whether the action he takes will help him acquire and maintain power. The Ruler, “therefore, must not have any other object nor any other thought, nor must he adopt anything as his art but war, its institutions, and its discipline; because that is the only art befitting one who commands.” In other words, any action that helps a leader consolidate his hold on power must be deemed ‘morally right’ and any action that makes a Ruler less secure in his position must be considered ‘morally wrong’.

Machiavelli recognised the need for peace and order in a state. He said peace and order must be acquired and fostered, as a matter of first preference, through non-violent means. He, however, advised that in case the non-violent means did not work, the Ruler should not shy away from killing in order to bring about peace and order. He emphasised that violence as a means towards order and peace worked only if the Ruler made sure he harmed people as swiftly and with as few a number as possible.

On whether a Ruler must be generous, loved or feared:

Machiavelli said that a ‘good’ Ruler must, for as along as it helps him to maintain power, practice generosity. The aim of generosity for a Ruler is to build a good reputation for himself. Being generous would include not having a tax system that takes away too much money from the citizens. If this happened, the citizens might be angry and begin working against him. The Ruler, however, must tax people enough so that he can get sufficient resources to dispense favours that would make the citizens depend on and feel safe with him.

As much as possible, the Ruler must do those things that help him to be both loved and feared, Machiavelli said. Since being loved and being feared do not often go together, he advised Rulers to choose being feared instead of being loved. To be feared must be preferred to being loved, he thought, because people “…are less hesitant about injuring someone who makes himself loved than one who makes himself feared, …love is held together by a chain of obligations that, since men are a wretched lot, is broken on every occasion for their own self-interest; but fear is sustained by a dread of punishment that will never abandon you.”

He advised Rulers to ensure that they are feared in such a way that they are not hated. When a Ruler is hated people develop a strong urge to work against him. To achieve a position where he is feared but not hated, the Ruler must “…abstain from the property of his citizens and subjects, and from their women. If he must spill someone’s blood, he should do this when there is proper justification and manifest cause,” Machiavelli taught.

On whether the Ruler must keep his word:

It is praiseworthy to have a Ruler who keeps his word to his people. This will make him come across as a leader of integrity. “Nevertheless,” Machiavelli taught, “one sees from experience in our times that the [Rulers] who have accomplished great deeds are those who have thought little about keeping faith and who have known how cunningly to manipulate men’s minds; and in the end they have surpassed those who laid their foundation upon sincerity.” Machiavelli emphasised, a “…wise ruler, therefore, cannot and should not keep his word when such an observance would be to his disadvantage…”

His reason for advising the Ruler not to keep his word is that the citizens are a wicked lot who do not keep their word. However, he cautioned the Ruler not to blatantly and without justification abandon what promises he made to his people. The Ruler must “…know how to colour over his nature effectively, and to be a great pretender and dissembler. Men are so simple-minded and so controlled by their immediate needs that he who deceives will always find someone who will let himself be deceived.”

On how the Ruler should acquire respect or esteem:

Machiavelli said that for a Ruler to acquire respect or esteem, he must appear to have certain qualities. Key among such qualities must be mercy, faithfulness, humanity, trustworthiness, and religious. He, nevertheless, warned the Ruler not to sincerely believe in any of these qualities. He said what was important was for the Ruler to merely appear to believe in these qualities. He wrote, “I shall dare to assert this: that having them and always observing them is harmful, but appearing to observe them is useful: for instance, to appear merciful, faithful, humane, trustworthy, religious, and to be so; but with his mind disposed in such a way that, should it become necessary not to be so, he will be able and know how to change to the opposite.” Machiavelli adds that the Ruler “…should know how to enter into evil when forced by necessity.

Other things that create respect and esteem for the Ruler, according to Machiavelli, include ensuring that the Ruler’s name is associated with big projects and seemingly important national debates. The Ruler should sometimes create false but believable crises that will refocus and draw the attention of the citizens. When this happens, the citizens will be compelled to focus on the debate or ‘crisis’ instead of thinking of and plotting how to wrestle power from him. The Ruler must ensure that those that helped him to get to power are either too close to him to organise a rebellion or have been assigned to represent the country in foreign lands. Others should be locally assigned high sounding jobs but with little or no meaningful power. The citizens will quickly forget about all rivals to the Ruler and think of him as the only one capable of running the affairs of the state.

The Ruler must make sure that his name is associated only with good things. For instance, the Ruler himself must directly reward citizens who have done soothing good. He must never deputise when there is good news for the citizens. However, the Ruler must send his lieutenants if it is time to punish someone or announce some policy initiative that will somehow impact the citizens negatively. What happens in the long run is that citizens associate bad things with the Ruler’s lieutenants and good things with the Ruler himself. Such a situation guarantees the Ruler’s position and consolidates his power.

On how the Ruler can avoid flatterers

Machiavelli observed that the Ruler is always surrounded by people who are eager to tell him only the nice things that he would like to hear, regardless of how far removed from truth those things are. He advised the Ruler to ensure that he communicated to the people that they would not harm him by telling him the truth. Machiavelli, in his usual style, quickly added a rider to his counsel, “But when anyone can tell you the truth, you lose respect.”

He enjoined the Ruler to select a few wise men who would be the only ones permitted to speak truthfully to him, and they must do so only on the things he asked their advice. He said, “Apart from these, he should refuse to listen to anyone else, pursue his goals directly, and be obstinate in the decisions he has taken. Any [Ruler] who does otherwise either comes to ruin because of the flatterers, or keeps changing his mind in the face of different opinions; resulting in a low estimation of his worth… Therefore, a [Ruler] should always seek advice, but when he wants to, and not when others wish it.”

Conclusion: Politics must have morality

Human beings are by nature good:

As I conclude this article, I would like to say that while Machiavelli’s teachings have been and are being used by some Rulers, there is something that is not right about the society that Machiavelli paints in The Prince.

First, Machiavelli’s assertion that human nature is essentially evil and flawed is simply not correct. There is sufficient evidence that human beings are by nature good and well meaning. How else then do we explain the kindness we see in the world? Voluntary gestures of people looking out for one another. For instance, for most people saving a drowning child or helping an elderly person or flagging up some lost property is as natural as breathing. More often than not, human beings do not need rules to do good. Undeniably, there are people for whom defrauding another person or causing harm comes almost naturally. By and large, these cases are rare, few and far between, and they are usually symptoms of something we are not doing well as a society.

There are values Rulers should hold sacred come what may:

Machiavelli argues that the only morality for a Ruler is to maintain himself in power. Surely, there are values that we, as human beings, hold so sacred that even if it cost us our lives we would not abandon them. For instance, keeping promises, being honest and kind, and respecting other people’s right to life are some such values. If Machiavelli’s teachings were followed by societies – and we have seen what happens when societies are unfortunate to have such leaders – we would end up with the rule of the jungle. As the Ruler wantonly imposes his will and cunning ways on society, a spirit of survival of the fittest sets in. We would live in a society where life would be, in Thomas Hobbes’ words, “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” And some society are, unfortunately, going through this as we speak.

The responsibility of running society is too important to be left to one or a few individuals with the state’s powers of coercion. Rulers are supposed to run state affairs in trust of the people. It is the kind of authority that should make sense only because it is derived from the will of the people rather than the dictates and vagaries of one or a few Rulers.

Power is not the end in itself:

Machiavelli presents power as if it is an end in itself. Power and authority are a means to an end – a society where everyone can realise his or her potentials.

If there is any praise that is due to Machiavelli it must be given on the basis that his writing exposed the thoughts and attitudes of some people who aspire or are already in power and yet are totally unsuitable to hold high office. He gave us the language to name the elephant in the room.

If there are African heads of state (and many leaders elsewhere) who think there can be politics without morality, may be they should think twice before enlisting themselves as students of Machiavelli.