The Machiavellians


Machiavellians are rulers who implement the principles expounded by a 16th century Italian philosopher called Niccolo Machiavelli. He was born in the city of Florence in 1469 and died in 1527. A recent biographer’s book is titled Machiavelli in Hell because of the nature of his teaching conveyed in the book The Prince.

George Ball, the translator of the edition I am using, says The Prince is a classic because of its shrewd psychological insight, its prophetic equality and its hard vehement prose and because it has never lost the power to shock.

The word Prince as used in this book means ruler. Machiavelli addressed his Letter to the Magnificent Lorenzo de Medici, whose civil service he wanted to enter as an adviser, on how to acquire power and keep it. His methods have been adopted by such historical figures or Hitler, Mussolini, Idi Amin and many others who may not have read The Prince.


He was unrivalled in observation of rulers using both historical and psychological insights. We will cite a few samples from his book.

He taught that successful rulers use any method of acquiring and retaining power. They use flattery when it works or else brutality. If you seize power of another ruler, see that you do not just kill that ruler but also destroy members of his family in case later they are used as rulers in a rebellion against you.

He noted that a tyrant does not shrink from robbing the wealthy of their people or despoiling women of their virtue. A prince or ruler who wants to retain power should avoid doing this but must employ any tactics so long they are effective. Machiavelli’s philosophy was the embodiment of the techniques which states that the end justifies the means.


Men must be either pampered or crushed because they can get revenge. Whoever becomes the master of a city accustomed to freedom and does not destroy it may expect to be destroyed himself because when there is rebellion, such a city justifies itself by calling on the name of liberty and its ancient institutions.

Princes who achieved great things have been those who have given their word slightly, who known how to trick men and who in the end have overcome those abiding by honest principles.

A ruler must in certain circumstances adopt the cunning of a fox in order to recognise people’s traps and of a lion to frighten off the wolves.

How should a ruler honour his or her word? Machiavelli says: “Because men are wretched creatures who would keep their word to you, you need not keep your word to them. Those who have known how to imitate the fox have come best. But one must know how to colour one’s action and to be a great liar and deceiver. Men are so simple and so much creatures of circumstances that the deceiver will always find someone ready to be deceived. A prince or ruler needs to have all the good qualities expected of him. It is enough that he appears to have them.

He should appear to be compassionate, faithful to his word, kind, guiltless and devout. But his disposition should be such that he needs to be the opposite, he knows how. He cannot observe all those things which give men a reputation for virtue because in order to maintain his stay, he is often forced to act in defiance of good faith, charity, kindness and religion. He should have a varying disposition as fortune and circumstance dictate. To those seeing and hearing him, he should appear a man of compassion, a man of good faith, a man of integrity, a kind and religious man even if he is none of these.”

The same Machiavelli, who seems to be devilish adviser, says, under a heading “Those who come to power by crime”: “Yet it cannot be called prowess to kill fellow citizens, to betray friends; to be treacherous, pitiless irreligious. These ways can win a prince power but not glory.”

Cesare Borgia, also known as Valentino the son of Pope Alexander (Popes used to have children those days), was cruel and brutal prince.

One day, he was heard praying: “God protect me from my friends. I can defend myself against my enemies.”

Why should a ruler who obtain power either through cunning or brutality be transformed into a state of apparent helplessness? This is because cunning comes to an end. As an old Greek sage observed, there are other cunning people apart from Odysseus. You may, through cunning, outwit some of the people as Malawi’s ruling party did with the Public Affairs Committee recently over demonstrations and reforms but over the same show of defiance, civil society organisations have proved untrickable.

As for use of force, the saying the earth is a transformer seems valid under many circumstances. Those who live by the sword die by the sword. Many tyrants have ended miserably, among them Shaka, Napoleon, Mussolini, Hitler, Idi Amin and Muamar Gaddafi.

Shocking to read though, The Prince has insightful epigrams. He observed that some men would sooner forgive the murderer of their father rather than one who deprives them of their patrimony (inheritance).

A ruler who oppresses a weak minority should be careful; should a stronger power invade his country, the oppressed people will welcome the invader. This is what happened with the colonisation of Africa in the 19th century. Those tribes who had been subjugated by others welcomed European empire builders and accepted employment as mercenaries in the conquest of the stronger tribes.

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