NICCOLÓ MACHIAVELLI AND THE SCIENCE OF POWER
by Theo Berigsen
2012 is the 543rd anniversary of the birth of the Italian scholar and diplomat Niccoló Machiavelli (1469-1527). He is a celebrated Renaissance intellect and analyst of political realities. He was the first thinker in Europe to describe things as they really were and not in the euphemistic terms thought of as desirable for the acceptance of the prevailing order. For that he has since been denigrated and misrepresented even to this day. His thinking was preceded, however, by Chinese scholars around 1,800 years previous, men referred to as the so-called “Legalists.” They were active during an era of great thinkers in other cultures around the world, but the circumstances then in China were very different from the Renaissance in Italy. Yet we will see that the insights of Machiavelli paralleled much earlier thought giving us a clue to the authenticity of his concepts which have stood the test of time.
The most outstanding legalist in China, pre-dating Machiavelli by 1,800 years, was Lord Shang (Shang Yang), c 338 B.C. Shang was a radical opponent of Confucianism in Chinese history. He believed that the average man desired profit and fame and was afraid of pain and death. In foreign affairs Lord Shang recommended deception (see The Book of Lord Shang).
Other leading legalists besides Lord Shang were: (1) Hsun Tzu (298-238 B.C.) a Confucian philosopher influenced by Lord Shan; (2) Han Fei (c 208 B.C.), a disciple of Lord Shang, and (3) Li Szu (c 208 B.C.) also a disciple of Shang, who developed the teachings of Lord Shang both theoretically and practically.
Power Politics in a Nutshell
Machiavelli’s chief, practical goal was the national unification of Italy. His principal innovation to support that aim was to develop a modus operandi in which to “divorce politics from ethics” in a method of science applied directly to politics.
From the study of Machiavelli we can deduced the following. 1) All politics is concerned with the struggle for power among individuals and groups. 2)Genuine political analysis involves the correlating of facts and the formulating of hypotheses.
In this system of analysis, there is a distinction between the ”formal” and the ”real” meaning of political rhetoric, the latter of which can only be discovered by analysing the rhetoric in the context of the “actual world” of time, space, and history.
In this “actual world,” the man employing politics is viewed primarily as a “non-logical” actor driven by “instinct, impulse and self-interest.” Thus, rulers and political elites are primarily concerned with maintaining and expanding their power and privileges.
Therefore, it should be understood that these same rulers and elites, to obtain, hold, and wield power, may resort to “force and fraud.” Equally clear is that all governments are sustained by “political formulas” or myths [ideologies]. And consequently, as a result of the above, societies are divided into a ”ruling class” and the “ruled.” In all societies, the “structure and composition” of the ruling classes may change over time.
Machiavelli has, wrote non-communist legal expert John C.H. Wu* in 1970, been of tremendous influence in modern politics and geopolitics. No nation [or political sub-group] can afford to ignore the fact that his doctrines are very much alive in the world today. Machiavelli described his contribution more concretely and candidly, saying that in the realm of acquiring power and practicing politics, “One must be a fox to recognize the traps, and a lion to frighten [the] wolves.” No one can afford not to heed his salutary advice. A statesman operating in the “actual world” is even morally bound to recognize the traps set by others and to save his nation from falling into them. There are so many virtual wolves in the world today that a statesman or anyone practicing politics must be a virtual lion to discourage, dissuade, frighten and prevent them from preying upon their states and the citizens therein.
*John C.H. Wu, “Machiavelli and the Legalists of Ancient China,” Review of National Literatures. “Issue “Italy: Machiavelli ‘500,’ ” 1, no. 1 (Spring 1970). A renowned jurist, prominent also in the United States, Wu was for three years Envoy Extraordinary and Minister Plenipotentiary of the Republic of China (Taiwan) to the Holy See. In 1970, he was a member of the Permanent Court of Arbitration at The Hague, The Netherlands.Wu was the author of the Constitution of the Republic of China.
Copyright © 2012 Theo Berigsen
Theo Berigsen is an esteemed Swedish scholar and analyst.
Machiavelli like his fellow Italian jurist Giambattista Vico (1668-1744) believed in the idea of ricorsi which is one of the foundation stones of the perennial wisdom. Machiavelli understood the role of Providence is the eternal tug-of-war between fate, fortune, and good versus evil. He chose to cast his insights into the pragmatism of political power. Unsavoury to some this aspect of life none-the-less falls under the eternal symbol of “struggle” an undeniable aspect of human history. -ed-