Last week, as every fall for the past seven years, I gave a lecture to an unusual group of students. They come from community centres, churches and homeless shelters around Toronto and are part of a program called Humanities for Humanity. Most have never been inside a university building before enrolling in this program. Every week, they gather over dinner, listen to a lecture about some assigned reading, then break into lively, heated, sometimes hilarious discussion.
My lecture for this program is on Niccolo Machiavelli’s The Prince, that classic manual of harsh political wisdom. The Florentine intellectual’s defence of deceit, cruelty and fear in the pursuit of political power, his merciless advice to potential rulers about hiring mercenaries and dispensing favours, have made “Machiavellian” a handy shorthand for realpolitik.
The students love what everyone loves about Machiavelli’s story: the early ambition and connections to crazy Florentine politics, the tangles with the mad monk Savonarola and the suave Medicis, his eventual torture and exile. The famous letter in which Machiavelli describes donning his robes of court before entering his study (“Fitted out appropriately, I step inside the venerable courts of the ancients, where I am unashamed to converse with them”) offers an unforgettable image of a political thinker whose fame and influence have far outstripped that of the men who defeated him.
But what fascinates them most is something few people emphasize when they talk about Machiavelli and politics. Even in The Prince, which is already a self-consciously pragmatic counterpoint to his thoughtful Discourses on Livy, Machiavelli is not finally Machiavellian, if that means pursuing power for its own sake and at any cost.
Not only does Machiavelli vividly describe the contingencies of politics, using the figure of Fortuna and her fickle wheel. Many politicos and pundits like to cite the idea, as if losing an election were equivalent to being slain on the battlefield, burned at the stake or punished with the shoulder-tearing torture known as the strappado, all proximate realities in Machiavelli’s time. In addition, and despite all his apparent cynicism, Machiavelli has a clear idea about why political power is worth seeking in the first place.
The answer, he says, is glory – but not the merely personal kind. The successful prince is not some incumbency-shadowing hack, hanging on to this privileges and influence as a matter of entitlement or arrogance. Nor is he willing to use any means at all to gain victory: “By such methods one may win dominion but not glory,” Machiavelli notes. The great leader is a servant of history, using the sharp-edged tools of the political trade to carve out a legacy – in this case, a glorious Florence, whose culture, art, architecture and lasting presence will inspire generations to come. Glory is a gift, and it alone justifies and motivates the true prince.
It’s not surprising that contemporary seekers of office, using softer weapons like attack ads and money, overlook this teleological account of power. A prime minister who blandly abuses position – the muzzling of MPs, the casual prorogues of our only house of representation – is, if nothing else, nicely calibrated to widespread citizen indifference and a culture of trivial distractions. I’m willing to bet that the idea of glory will not dominate this week’s Speech from the Throne, that Memo from the Manager.
What is perhaps surprising is that the rest of us put up with it. My students, almost all of them with little financial power and even less social standing, reflect the usual combination of anger and depression at the state of political affairs in Canada. But they’re also strangely positive. It’s all too easy to become misanthropic about politics, or anyway about politicians – they are, after all, not the same thing, despite what most commentary assumes. But ultimately, that is the easy way out. It leaves everything to the truly cynical, the expense-account tricksters and squabbling ministers-without-vision.
Machiavelli knew better; he was, finally, a humanist. And if he could still believe in the idea of glory after torture and disgrace – no soft return to Bay Street or Harvard for him – then surely the rest of us can exercise our citizenly spirit a bit more. Can we not demand a more glorious Canada, and leaders who will work to realize it? Bonus: We could even keep the words to O Canada – except it’s all of us, not God, who should do the heavy lifting.
Mark Kingwell teaches philosophy at the University of Toronto. His most recent book is the essay collection Unruly Voices.