Whether you view political power as an aphrodisiac, a corrupting influence, or merely a means to an end, there is no doubt that exercising it is never an easy task. Staying on top of the political game is tricky at the best of times. Harold Macmillan, who was British prime minister in 1957-63, in response to a question as to what the main hazards of political power, laconically replied ‘events, dear boy, events.’ Two important political figures who died on this day, long before Macmillan, would have concurred had they been contemporaries of his.
Mention the name Machiavelli, and you immediately think of ultra-cynicism when it comes to wielding power. Niccoló Machiavelli, who died on 21 June 1527, at the age of 58, appeared to countenance just about every excess in this field. His best-known treatise, The Prince (Il Principe), reads like a manual for tyrants at times:
A prudent ruler ought not to keep faith when doing so would be against his interests
Every prince must desire to be considered merciful and not cruel. He must, however, take care not to misuse this mercifulness… A prince, therefore, must not mind incurring the charge of cruelty for the purpose of keeping his subjects united and confident
The British philosopher Bertrand Russell once dubbed the book “a handbook for gangsters” – but perhaps another way of looking at The Prince is to see it is a challenge to the liberal- and idealistic-minded when it comes to meeting the challenges of government. Other philosophers such as Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Baruch Spinoza seemed to interpret it that way: Rousseau saw the treatise as revealing kings and princes for what they really were, beneath the trappings of dignity and ceremony (Machiavelli himself was, after all, a republican and a libertarian). Looked at that way, The Prince could be read as a cautionary tale for would-be republican figures, and a wake-up call to those who imagine that government is easy.
Machiavelli, like all writers and commentators, was very much a product of his time. Born in Florence, he worked as a civil servant in the city, flourishing with the expulsion of the powerful Medici family by a French invasion in 1494. While there he witnessed the power-political actions, and became an admirer, of Cesare Borgia (1476-1507), the Duke of Valentinois. Borgia was ruthless in his methods of conquest, and took full advantage for having his father, Rodrigo, as the then Pope (Alexander VI) in his domination of central Italy in the first decade of the 16th Century. Italy in the late 15th century was a patchwork-quilt of independent and semi-independent city states, republics and principalities, all of them vulnerable to intrigues and interventions from external powers such as France, Spain and the Holy Roman Empire. Like Giuseppe Garibaldi after him, Machiavelli was a patriot as well as a republican. He saw in the Borgia family the perfect candidates to unite the peninsula and protect it from foreign domination, and such an ideal would require a pretty cynical world-view when it came to perfecting statecraft.
The fortunes of neither man couldn’t last: Cesare Borgia died of wounds sustained in battle during a campaign in Spain in March 1507. As for his fan Machiavelli, he lost his civil-servant job in 1512 after the Medici family returned to Florence, putting an end to its short-lived republican government. Not only that, but Machiavelli was also tortured before being released from captivity in 1513, and in the same year he wrote his most famous work of philosophy – though The Prince was never published in his lifetime.
Living as he did in the dark and violent 14th Century, Edward III of England knew all about power and politics. A man whose father was overthrown and later murdered on the orders of his mother and her lover, he could perhaps have been forgiven for having a cynical outlook on life as a prince. Surprisingly, however, he turned out to be a very successful monarch who rarely had to make any ethically dubious decisions, in spite of the environment in which he had grown up. Assuming full power three years after his accession, the King’s opening proclamation is anything but Machiavellian in its tone:
[The King] wills that all men shall know that he will henceforth govern his people according to right and reason, as befits his royal dignity, and that the affairs that concern him and the estate of his realm shall be directed by the common counsel of the magnates of his realm and in no other wise.
Edward III is perhaps best remembered for the string of military successes over which he presided in his long reign – leading the country to success against Scotland in the Battle of Neville’s Cross in 1346 (in which King David II was captured) and against France in the early years of the Hundred Years’ War, recording decisive victories at Crécy (1346) and Poitiers (1356) against France. His reign was, however, also one in which the country became more “Englished” (to cite a term coined by the historian Norman Davies): in 1362, for example, amid the upsurge in patriotism, the English language was ordered to be used in law courts, in place of French, and the year later Parliament was opened in English for the first time. Also, the Order of the Garter was set up at this time, establishing the country’s honours system, and it was a time in which the Palestinian Christian martyr St George – a hero of the King’s – was adopted as the national patron saint. This reign was also the first one in which a proper relationship between Crown and Parliament evolved – with the 1376 “Good Parliament” being the first in which the monarch’s legislators could get away with conditionally agreeing to his demand for taxes. Edward’s death from a stroke on 21 June 1377, at the age of 64, was greeted with considerable dismay: his eldest surviving heir, his grandson Richard, was the new monarch at the tender age of ten, with few observers expecting him to be able to match, much less exceed, his grandfather’s achievements.
Exactly what Machiavelli made of the life and career of arguably England’s most influential monarch remains unknown, but both Edward III and Machiavelli shared an understanding of the power game and exactly what was necessary to keep a state and national community going in difficult times. Unfortunately, given the times in which we live, it seems likely that Machiavelli’s view of statecraft is likely to be followed more assiduously by modern rulers than that of Edward. The writer Tim Parks, in the Introduction to his translation of Machiavelli’s most famous book, puts it starkly:
Reading The Prince, it is impossible not to engage with the notion that politics cannot be governed by the ethical codes that most of us seek to observe in our ordinary lives. And however we react to this idea, once we have closed the book it will be very hard to go on thinking of our own leaders in quite the same way as we did before.