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Machiavelli knew that pandemics were a metaphor for life under a corrupt political class

The writer Niccolò Machiavelli, says Simon Heffer, identified fundamental flaws in human nature
The writer Niccolò Machiavelli, says Simon Heffer, identified fundamental flaws in human nature

For Niccolò Machiavelli, plague and disease were metaphors for what happens in a body politic when misrule and corruption are allowed to prevail: a conceit, perhaps, strikingly relevant in our own unusual times. He wrote in his most famous work, The Prince, that ‘what physicians say about consumptive illness is applicable here: that at the beginning, such an illness is easy to cure but difficult to diagnose; but as time passes, not having been recognised or treated at the outset, it becomes easy to diagnose but difficult to cure.’

Machiavelli has got an undeservedly bad name; but his is a name that still fascinates, almost 500 years after his death in 1527. A fine new biography of him, Machiavelli: His Life and Times, by Alexander Lee of the University of Warwick, makes at length the point that his infamy is undeserved. So, too, does a much shorter book dedicated solely to exculpating him from his alleged sins, Machiavelli, by Patrick Boucheron, a French historian. Boucheron says that ‘it was Machiavelli’s luck to be disappointed by every statesman he encountered’, and that was why he wrote The Prince.

Sophisticated people read this description of how rulers behave as a satire, and it is certainly that. And, like all satires, it is a warning to its readers of the abuses in society of which they need to be aware. However, poor old Niccolò’s appraisal of human nature was actually somewhat higher than he himself thought it to be. He imagined when people read his savage comments on the immoral, or amoral, behaviour of the despots with which Renaissance Italy was blessed, that they would share his revulsion.

Niccolo Machiavelli Credit: GETTY

What he did not realise was that generations of politicians and rulers for centuries to come would read his disparaging account of the nature of governance, take him at his word, and make it a template (never admitted, of course) for how they would conduct their own rule.

Machiavelli was more than just a cynic. He grew up in a family reduced to penury, was raped by a schoolmaster, was promiscuously bisexual and also, as befits a Renaissance man, an accomplished writer and scholar. Above all, he made himself into a leading political philosopher thanks to what he witnessed in his service to Florence’s Medici family.

His message, in a nutshell, appeared to be this: that in order to cling on to power, rulers should not hesitate to lie and cheat or in other ways behave abominably. The minute you start to play by the rules, you lose the game. Jean-Jacques Rousseau was the first commentator to see this as a warning to the ruled about their rulers; but by then it was too late.

How readily today is Machiavelli’s example followed? It is hard to say, because so many politicians who lie and cheat are only doing what comes naturally, rather than acting on lessons from a master. It that sense, Machiavelli was simply recording and codifying human nature. But there is no doubt that much behaviour in the political world today is Machiavellian, even if Niccoló himself cannot always take credit for it.

The advent of democracy – unknown in the late 15th and early 16th centuries when Machiavelli operated – does not really seemed to have changed things. What the ruler, despotic or democratic, seeks is continuance in power. In the civilised world he or she may be removed by an electorate; in the uncivilised by a coup d’état (the European Union, with a leadership that no European citizen has any direct hand in choosing or removing, lies somewhere in the middle). So in the civilised world the torrent of lies and evasions will come throughout a parliamentary or presidential term; in the uncivilised, it will come when the pressure is applied by ambitious colleagues.

The Nazi propagandist Joseph Goebbels (l) was one of the most successful Machiavellian operators in modern politics Credit: AP

Machiavelli’s disappointment with the statesmen whose actions he experienced was caused by weaknesses common to those we have today – an inability to take a decision swiftly and correctly, something of which the present political leadership has been accused during the coronavirus outbreak. To try to cover up that age-old failing, the spin-doctor was invented: the first really world-famous one (because it is usually a facet of the trade to keep out of the story and therefore out of the news) was Dr Goebbels, who had imbibed his Machiavelli neat.

Because most of our statesmen retain the failings Machiavelli identified in their forebears, an army of men and women exist across the globe to explain idiotic decisions in a way that attempts to make them palatable, or even flatly to contradict them while pretending to do nothing of the sort. Thereby the problem has spread, and for every politician who tells a lie or makes a mistake, there is now that very army of functionaries to try to repair the damage.

In despotisms, the effect of Machiavelli’s teaching is somewhat different, though to the same end. In recent days – largely unnoticed in the West because of our focus on the coronavirus epidemic – Vladimir Putin has made himself effectively president of Russia for life. He did this by unilaterally changing the rules and defying anyone else to make an issue of it; nobody of any consequence did.

Tony Blair (pictured during his tenure as PM) never recovered, says Simon Heffer, from the Iraq debacle Credit: PA

Thus it was in Nazi Germany, when Dr Goebbels’s employer suspended the very democratic system that had put him into power into 1933, and Hitler ended up with total control, reinforced as the Medicis had done by the threat of savage punishment for anyone who raised an eyebrow.

In a free society with a free press, the effects of telling lies – deliberately or accidentally – can be personally catastrophic. Tony Blair’s reputation has never recovered from the ‘sexed up’ nature of the ‘dodgy dossier’ that made the case for Britain to become involved in the second Iraq war.

There is already talk of Donald Trump, viewed until a week or two ago as a shoo-in for a second term as president of the United States, losing to Joe Biden because of his bombast about what he does or does not understand about the coronavirus. A free press, if it does its job properly, will usually find out those in authority who try to deceive in order to cling on to power.

But also in a democracy, where voters have a choice, Machiavellian immorality is often not the worse thing with which the public can be confronted. Last December, the public faced a choice between a party leader who has often been branded a liar, and who has never sued anyone who has so labelled him, and a party leader whose record of incompetence was staggering and who had acquired a reputation for being anti-Semitic and anti-democratic. They chose the former, by a massive margin.

Machiavelli might recognise the stereotypes if he were still with us, but he would note that the warnings he intended now, here and abroad, fall on deaf ears.

Machiavelli: His Life and Times (Picador) and Machiavelli (Other Press) are available now