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The definition of Machiavellian is generally considered to be any form of deception, manipulation, or cunning employed to get ahead in one’s business or gain leadership, originally applied to the royalty of Machiavelli’s time. The implications of the term today are widespread and can often be seen exhibited in the leaders we choose for our country. In examining the nature of scandals like the Enron travesty, we see that the nature of politics today is truly in keeping with the tenets of The Prince; leaders favor tactics such as the creation of a public façade and maintaining power through lies and manipulation over honor and respect for the people.
Use of virtue
Machiavelli’s use of virtue extends beyond the conventional association with purity and morality. Virtue in The Prince entails the qualities which a prince or heir must possess to achieve their princely goals. This distinction is important because it represents the very opposite of the definition we are used to. Virtue is key to a prince who seeks success monetarily and in war and is identified by the author as characteristic of an ambitious man who knows how to get what he wants and make the changes he wants.
Going further, Machiavelli seems to define virtue as the ability to be completely self-centered, to better focus on one’s goals and not the plight of the people. He says that a true prince will be able to assume goodness only when it benefits him and to avoid it when it does not. “…It is necessary to a prince if he wants to maintain himself, to learn to be able not to be good, and to use this and not use it according to necessity” (Machiavelli 351). Machiavelli believes that a strong prince will not allow the petty needs of the masses to impede his progress towards glory. A prince that attempts to do good all the time will find that he sacrifices his ambition for money or power. In the case of fortune, Machiavelli’s conceptualization is multi-faceted. He seems to describe the notion of fortune as a type of luck and alludes to the temporary nature of it. When the state experiences fortune, the prince must know how to adjust their reign to accommodate. Machiavelli also portrays the need for a powerful man to attempt to control fortune.
He says that it is a force in life that we can not as easily control, perhaps because he believed that fortune and misfortune were predestined. He sees it as a large part of life, failure, and success, implying that bad fortune can get in anywhere that people are not guarded against it. One example Machiavelli lays out is in comparing fortune to a woman that, if one so desires, can be subdued by force to satisfy the one with the power. He alludes to the fact that fortune can not be controlled, like fate, and in an attempt to harness it, anything can be justifiably done to achieve one’s goals. He also compares fortune to a fierce river that can not be controlled at its most forceful, but at times of calm can allow the people to build defenses against it.
Because The Prince is dedicated to the new Medici prince, it can be assumed that Machiavelli had immediate intentions to influence the budding head of state. By setting forth ideas that were stronger and less politically correct, Machiavelli may have wanted to see those in a position of power become more ambitious and confident. He saw a serious necessity for a healthy empire that functions efficiently and achieves victory in war. I think today the political landscape of the contemporary world draws inspiration from Machiavelli’s The Prince in a way that is more corrupt than the author may originally have intended. It is true that political corruption is not an invention of this century, and that even during Machiavelli’s time leaders may have borrowed from his ideas for more selfish reasons than the protection and glorification of the state.
Also, many of the ideas Machiavelli sets forth carry an inherent threat of corruption because those employing it at any time can easily employ them to achieve means unrelated to the needs of the state. Though Machiavelli states that one should not interfere in people’s matters without justification, justification can easily be provided by a prince who is to be regarded as the all-knowing authority of their empire. Today we see a lot of political moves that depend on this concept of the ends justifying the means, which Machiavelli gives ultimate credence to in the belief that the leader should is deserving of loyalty and has almost god-given wisdom. We are always seeing stories about politicians who support corrupt organizations like Enron because it leads to a monetary or political payoff. The author of The Prince expresses his belief that a prince must not be foolishly optimistic. If a prince is focusing on what he would like to see at the cost of being aware of the state of the present, he will lose his control and power which is largely connected to his knowledge of the state of his empire, good or bad. The motivation to “change things for the better” can bring a leader down; instead, he should focus on pursuing goals that are directly related to his success and gaining power and control.
The infamous Enron scandal can be seen as a wayward product of Machiavellian politics. In 2001 the previously celebrated energy company was on the brink of bankruptcy.
The multi-million-dollar corporation had been revealed to have orchestrated massive acts of accounting fraud to present an image of wealth and economic success. When they were outed, along with their accounting firm Arthur Andersen, as having withheld information about their finances, the ensuing scandal led to the complete downfall of the Enron organization and thousands of employees found themselves out of work. Not only that but Arthur Andersen which was until then one of the biggest firms in the country dissolved. In the months approaching the Enron fallout, Bethany Mclean of Fortune magazine wrote an expose article that barely scratched the surface. In it, she mentioned that “for all the attention that’s lavished on Enron, the company remains largely impenetrable to outsiders, as even some of its admirers are quick to admit” (McLean para. 3). But this now famously ominous article could not have predicted such consequences—by the end, Enron stock had dropped to below 50 cents each. One Machiavellian concept that the Enron scandal connects with is the concept of knowing the people closest to you in your administration.
“A prince must have the discernment to recognize the good or bad in what another says or does even though he has no acumen himself” (Machiavelli 211). By this Machiavelli means that a prince should be aware of the true nature of those he surrounds himself with, to be, in a sense, a step ahead of everyone else. This immediately relates to the topic at hand because it concerns those that Bush kept closest to him, even offering cabinet positions to some. If Bush was searching for the best way to protect the people, he would have failed this tenet of The Prince by being unable to identify the greed of his staff and close colleagues. However, Bush and the company were out for their gain.
Regardless, this concept applies well to the Enron ordeal because Bush does have no ability himself to assess the good and bad. When Machiavelli states “I say that one ascends to this principality either with the support of the people or with the support of the great,” (Machiavelli ch. 19). it seems a direct connection to the Enron scandal. At the center of the scandal, from the perspective of the public, was George W. Bush who, in true Machiavellian fashion, had risen to power not with the overwhelming support of the people but with the powerful and rich people he knew. Enron was known for having contributed a substantial amount of money to George W. Bush’s campaign for the presidency. This relationship shows us that, in true Machiavellian fashion, George W. Bush climbed the steps to the presidency, not with the support of the people but the support of the great—those with the most money and the most influence and power.
The power of Machiavelli’s work still lives on today. We can not underestimate the amount of change that The Prince has inspired, both in its own time and in the centuries that have followed.
Along with other canonical works such as The Art of War, Machiavelli’s The Prince stands in literary history as a guidebook for aspiring royalty. However, unlike other manuals for the pursuit of leadership, this work advocates any means necessary to reach the top, whether they must expend the welfare of the people or not. Though we can surely find truly virtuous meaning in the rather unfeeling methods of Machiavelli, his concepts are too often utilized by wannabe leaders who give in to corruption and lies because it is a faster way to reach the position they desire.
Machiavelli, Niccolo. The Prince.1910 Edition. P.F. Collier and Sons: London.
McLean, Bethany. “Is Enron Overpriced?” Fortune Magazine. 2001. Web.