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Our Corner | What's so funny about work, honesty and integrity? | Daniel Nash

Portrait of Niccolo Machiavelli - Santi di Tito
Portrait of Niccolo Machiavelli
— image credit: Santi di Tito

Does Niccolo Machiavelli roll in his grave every time someone uses his name to describe acts of deceit and blind self-interest?

The Italian lawyer and statesman's most famous work is, of course, "The Prince," a guide to consolidating and keeping power under a monarchy. It was an amoral treatise that shouted out loud, "It is better to be feared than loved." Many a world history teacher has pointed to this pamphlet as an example of the repellant and cruel nature of Italian city-state politics; Niccolo's simpering resume to the freshly politically empowered Lorenzo II de Medici.

The problem is "The Prince" wasn't much of a resume at all, in historical context. Outside of that book, almost every entry in Machiavelli's bibliography dealt with the construction and management of republican governments—notably, his books "Discourses on Livy" and "Art of War"—and Machiavelli was himself an avid participant in the republic sandwiched between Medici dynasties.

When the Medici retook power of Florence, Machiavelli was arrested, tortured, and exiled, never to return home until after his death. "The Prince" was written mere months after his banishment, and circulated privately among friends—indeed, Machiavelli's only work to see publication in his lifetime was his "Art of War."

How likely is it, really, that a republican advocate whose arms had been dislocated just months prior on the orders of an autocrat, would write a book full of morally questionable advice, dedicate it to said autocrat, and mean it sincerely? Isn't it more likely that Machiavelli attached Medici's name to repellant subject matter to make Medici repellant by association?

The interpretation of the book as satire—or deceit—enjoyed popularity among 18th century Enlightenment scholars, before receding into a staunch minority. Today, the book is taught sincerely in schools, read sincerely by some who aspire to power, and emulated or referenced sincerely by writers like Robert Greene, the author of instructional guides to amorality like "The 48 Laws of Power" and "The 33 Strategies of War." Why?

Three reasons:

Tone has a way of losing itself in writing. If I can be baffled by the subtext of an email I received five minutes ago, it's a sure bet I'll miss subtext in a book separated by five centuries and a language.

If Machiavelli's goal was, in fact, satire, he sure sells it. The voice of the book is dead serious and if there is humor hidden in there, it would have to be hidden deep in the context. For example, Machiavelli advises princes to arm the common people, but in Medici's case, the common Florentines were the formerly happy residents of a former republic. Competing theories are that the book was either intentionally bad advice (a scenario that would seem to require Looney Tunes levels of naivete and ego), or a sneaky way to provide the common people with advice to overthrow the principality (like a computer hacker learning his craft from a computer security book).

It takes two to tango, meaning people read "The Prince" seriously because they want that to be the case. If read sincerely, it's one of the earliest self-help books in Western literature about achieving and maintaining upward mobility. Ignoring that the self-help in question is for tyrants, it's actually very tuned in to the American Dream.

Every ambitious person wants to be boss in at least one realm of his life, but not everyone is. To someone who feels powerless, it's seductive to believe that manipulation is the secret key to success.

On the one hand, he might think if he could only master this shadow art, he would have riches and power beyond his wildest dreams. Strangers will be charmed by his graces, coworkers will be cowed by his power, women will fall at his feet, and they will all be puppets on the strings of his words. And those words will be law.

On the other hand, his faith in manipulation also acts as a shield protecting him from his own failures. He might look at a successful man and scoff, "Well, he clearly had to lie and cheat to get where he is. At least I have my morals!" If he's entrenched enough in his beliefs, it will never occur to him that the man may have achieved his station through hard work, honesty, prudence and a welcome dose of luck.

I believe, given the choice, the majority of people will associate and do repeat business with people who regularly demonstrate those qualities.

None of which is to say that manipulation never works, or that it's entirely unnatural. Probably every toddler experiments with lying to get their way; I once convinced my kindergarten teacher I was allergic to every food but peanut butter sandwiches.

But it's one thing to tell a lie, and quite another to build a lifestyle around deceit.

That's because the human brain is built for truth. It has to be. We rely on our brain to process reality as it unfolds, and it does that most efficiently when it accepts all sensory information as the truth by default. If your hand touches a hot stove, you don't stop to ponder what it means. Rooting out lies is a conscious effort; a single act of lying can cause your brain to stumble over itself; chronic dishonesty can result in a constant feedback loop of stomachaches, anxiety and guilt as your brain desperately tries to tell you "No, that's not right. No, that's not right."

The best liars, sociopaths/psychopaths, are able to do it because something in their brain is broken. They don't have empathy for other people and they don't anticipate consequence. They can be very attractive and charismatic—especially to youth or those otherwise inexperienced with liars—because their words seem to offer a perfect world free from pain and frustration. (A close cousin of the liar, the self-promoter, can't quite be considered a sociopath. He's just annoying).

But these people aren't meant to be admired, they're meant to be pitied and kept at arm's length. Robert Hare, the foremost expert on psychopathy and architect of the Hare Psychopathy Checklist-Revised, estimates 1 percent of the population suffers from psychopathy. When a colleague of Hare's was hired by seven companies to assess employees promotional potential, he applied the PCL-R and discovered 25 of the 203 subjects could be classified as psychopaths. For prison populations, the estimate jumps to one in five.

It's one of the reasons law enforcement officers are trained to root out inconsistencies in subject statements, a skill most journalists have to learn on the job. It wouldn't surprise me if chronic exposure to liars was a major factor in both careers' high burnout rate.

But enough unpleasantness.

Repeat after me: Most people are good, most people are honest. And that guy holding "The Prince" and trying to kiss up can shove it.

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