Imagine these events: You go back to work tomorrow and find out you have a new manager. He calls you into his office and says, "You were an excellent, supportive employee under the old management. Because of this, you are an enemy of the new management team." Two large assistants escort you out, and show you your new cubicle:
You are held in the new cubicle for three weeks, tortured six times, then fired, with no severance package. Now you have some time to consider your next move. Do you:
A. Flee the district, and pretend your old life never happened?
B. Plot against the new management and try to revenge yourself? Or . . .
C. Write a long letter to the new Chief Executive Officer, praise his excellent abilities, recommend that he run for governor of your state, and humbly offer your assistance to him?
These events did happen to Niccolo Machiavelli, and he chose Action C.
Niccolo sounds like a very flexible, forgiving employee, doesn't he? His was a triumph of intellect over emotion.
Niccolo wrote about how a prince could get control of a city-state, and how he could keep it. In my opinion, he was the first—and perhaps the last—scientific philosopher. Other philosophers cooked up ideas of how the world ought to be. Niccolo studied how people acted, without projecting his own ideals on them. His guiding attitude was, "Let's find out." He drew on his own experiences as a diplomat. He also studied Titus Livy's history of the Roman Empire. In every historical event, he looked for patterns of behavior. For example, when unarmed people give orders to an army, they tend to be disobeyed.
Machiavelli helps me think clearly about difficult decisions. One decision I've struggled with is when to fight and when to abstain from fighting. Toward the end of The Discourses, Niccolo weighs this question and concludes:
Skirmishes are, as a rule, to be avoided, and only to be allowed where you fight to great advantage and with a certainty of victory. In like manner, no attempt should be made to defend the passes leading into your country unless your whole army can co-operate; nor are any towns to be defended save those whose loss necessarily involves your ruin.
Abraham Lincoln employed a similar strategy, during his career as a trial lawyer. Michael Burlingame writes that Lincoln often opened his case by agreeing, point by point, with his opposition. In this way, Lincoln disarmed his opponent and impressed the jury as a reasonable man. But Lincoln had determined in advance the one or two key issues that would decide the case. When he got to those, he conceded nothing. Having listened to him give over so much, the jury often trusted him on these pivotal points, and ruled in favor of Lincoln's client.
We're often tempted to threaten our enemies with retaliation. Machiavelli advises us to keep silent. Action can help our cause, but words will only hurt it:
I hold it to be a proof of great prudence for men to abstain from threats and insulting words towards any one, for neither the one or the other in any way diminishes the strength of the enemy; but the one makes him more cautious, and the other increases his hatred of you, and makes him more persevering in his efforts to injure you.
In his book, The Way of the World, Ron Suskind quotes Benazir Bhutto, recommending a similar strategy in disarming her enemies. Toward the end of her struggle, Bhutto wanted the American government to freeze her enemies' bank accounts in their country. She said: The key is 'no warning,' which the Americans are always doing too much of, always threatening this and that. People will hide their money! Freeze it, and say it will be unfrozen, if certain things happen.
Reading Machiavelli is especially profitable today, because many people think they know him, but never read him. His work is hidden behind the bland adjective, "Machiavellian," which has devolved into a high-sounding synonym for "mean." Ultimately, his value is not in a set of rules, but in his spirit. Through disappointment and deprivation he maintained his playful curiosity. After his unfortunate dismissal, Niccolo was not allowed to return to his cherished career as a diplomat, but through his writing, he achieved far greater influence.
It is not unknown to me how many men have had, and still have, the opinion that the affairs of the world are in such wise governed by fortune and by God that men with their wisdom cannot direct them and that no one can even help them; and because of this they would have us believe that it is not necessary to labour much in affairs, but to let chance govern them. This opinion has been more credited in our times because of the great changes in affairs which have been seen, and may still be seen, every day, beyond all human conjecture. Sometimes pondering over this, I am in some degree inclined to their opinion. Nevertheless, not to extinguish our free will, I hold it to be true that Fortune is the arbiter of one-half of our actions, but that she still leaves us to direct the other half, or perhaps a little less.