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by Nicolo Machiavelli
comments by Maarten Maartensz

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Concerning New Principalities Which Are Acquired By One's Own Arms And Ability

Note 1: Machiavelli believed one can learn from history, also in the sense that one can better understand and predict one's own future by reference to what did happen, and he believed there are large differences between individual men, such as make one men capable of leading a large state, and most others at best capable of following others.

In these democratic times, the accepted public ideology - the cant of our time and age - denies this, and many men and women like to insist that they are, and that everyone else is "equal": as good or as bad, as able or unable as others, as learned or ignorant as others, as strong or weak as others, as intelligent or stupid as others, and so on.

In fact, this notion of universal "equality" is a kind of willful confusion no one who is not insane really believes:

Every man knows there are very many human abilities of which no man has more than a few in excess, and few have any in excess.

And indeed every man and woman base their likes and dislikes of others on such discrimination of their abilities and of other properties, and never believe each and all men are equally lovable, equally beautiful, equally intelligent, equally courageous, equally strong etc., just as they don't believe all have the same face or age.

Finally, the confusion is this: Because there are so very many quite diverse talents and weaknesses men may have, of which no one has all, or all in excess, and each has some, it is in everyone's interest that everyone has equal rights, and is judged in similar ways by similar principles for similar acts.

The cultural, moral and human need for equal rights is based on the many actual inequalities between men, not only as regards talents, look, character and learning, but also as regards interests and concerns : If all men were "equal" in any interesting factual sense, there would be no need for them to have equal rights also, since it would make no difference anyway.    Back.

Note 2: Here Machiavelli comes out strongly on the side of ability. And indeed, one good reason for this preference is Voltaire's "If we believe absurdities, we shall commit atrocities." One may have very noble ends and values, but if what one desires and beliefs is not based on a cool appreciation and understanding of the real facts, it is likely that one creates havoc when acting, for to act on the basis of false beliefs generally leads to problems, for the same reason as one cannot find one's way in a territory when one uses a false map for it, that does not represent the territory as it is.   Back.

Note 3: What is noteworthy here is mainly Machiavelli's irony concerning Moses, who - in Machiavelli's eyes - attained his purposes as leader of the Israeli nation by deception.

Incidentally, Machiavelli is somewhat wavering and rhetorical in his use of the concept of fortune. It would seem to me that fortune, which is related to incalculable coincidences, still plays a much larger role in human affairs than men like to think. (I myself, for example, who is quite ambitious and talented, was felled by a rare disease.)   Back.

Note 4: What is noteworthy here is especially:

"And it ought to be remembered that there is nothing more difficult to take in hand, more perilous to conduct, or more uncertain in its success, than to take the lead in the introduction of a new order of things."

This is true, and it is also noteworthy that such introductions of new orders generally happen in times where the old order was tottering already. In such cases one or a few individuals may seize power and introduce a new order.

Modern readers should cast their minds back to the 20th Century, and contemplate the rise of Lenin, Stalin, Hitler, Mao and quite a few other dictators (Amin, Pot, Duvalier). Incidentally, since I have mentioned these characters, it would seem to me (although this is an anachronistic judgment) that Machiavelli would have had a low opinion of these dictators of the 20th Century.

In any case, those of pronounced egalitarian and democratic sentiments should try to explain why also in the supposedly enlightened twentieth century so many more or less well-educated people supported and did the bidding of atrocious dictators of no evident personal excellence.

Briefly, my own explanation is that also well-educated people normally lack the force of character, the courage, and the intellectual acumen to see through the pretensions of their leaders, or to set up themselves as leaders. Most men are born as followers, and know this, having learned their own relative standing compared to others in puberty or earlier, even though in so-called democracies they don't like to admit this in so many words, indeed also if one sees the same supposed "equals" lick ass in major ways in party conferences.   

Besides, apart from the illusions this generates this is not necessarily bad at all: If there were more ambitious capable strong men, there would be more social unrest, while also most civil wars and political conquests, though they may make the fortunes of a few ambitious characters, wreck far more human lives and products of culture and civilization than they save or help create. By and large it is much better for talented men to try to become good doctors, scholars or artists than to try to become successful political or religious leaders.    Back.

Note 5: Here the main points are three.

(1) "all armed prophets have conquered, and the unarmed ones have been destroyed"

This refers especially to Machiavelli's experiences with Savonarola in Florence, but may be taken in a general sense: Without military force, merely by persuasion, states are neither overthrown nor maintained, and if such a thing seems to happen (as with Savonarola or Mahatma Gandhi) this is appearance only. The main reason Machiavelli gives himself:

(2) "the nature of the people is variable, and whilst it is easy to persuade them, it is difficult to fix them in that persuasion".

This seems as true as Machiavelli's last remark in the passage, which deserves to be quoted:

(3) "And thus it is necessary to take such measures that, when they believe no longer, it may be possible to make them believe by force."

This is noteworthy as a cynical and realist expression of what nearly everyone accepts and expects anyway from the law, which indeed consists of a number of threats of punishments for those who digress from it.    Back.

Note 6: Here Machiavelli's cynical realism is noteworthy again:

"yet with ability they will overcome them; but when these are overcome, and those who envied them their success are exterminated, they will begin to be respected, and they will continue afterwards powerful, secure, honored, and happy."

Such is the normal and true course of events and behavior and beliefs of men: Most serve and love whoever is in power, from self-interest and lack of vision, and all that is necessary for those in power to remain in power is to exterminate any individual of great courage and great talents. And this indeed did happen on a major scale under fascism, socialism and communism in the 20th century - where in communist China or fascist Germany one might be killed or locked up in a concentration camp simply for seeming to be an intellectual (i.e. a thinking individual). In both countries people have been killed for wearing glasses, and thereby seeming to be intellectuals.   Back.

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