Daily Archives: January 9, 2013

More Machiavellian Misquotes


Face palmMachiavelli today is known to many by sayings that aren’t actually his; pseudo-quotations or mis-attributed sayings that appear on slovenly, un-moderated, un-verified websites that do an enormous disservice to everyone by their very existence.

These sites seem to feed one another, because find one misquote on one of them and you’re sure to find it parroted without even the slightest effort to verify it, on all the rest. Since these sites are predominantly about ad revenue, it';s little wonder they are so poor.

Most people are unable to discern the wheat from the chaff ion these sites in great part because few can actually lay claim to actually having read him (The Prince, let alone The Discourses or his other works). And from that stems several misconceptions about what he said and didn’t say (and the same goes to every other author and philosopher so frequently misquoted on these sites).

Machiavelli did not write, for example, ‘the end justifies the means.’ It is a modern condensation – and a considerable simplification – of an idea expressed in The Prince. However memorable it is, he had a lot more to say about politics and the behaviour of rulers than that one line.

Machiavelli was just being a realist. He certainly was not a hedonist like Aleister Crowley who wrote,

“Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the law.”

These so-called quotation databases are rife with errors, mis-attributions, mis-spellings, grammatical and punctuation errors.

Machiavelli wrote that the effect of a ruler’s actions mattered more than the deeds themselves, as long as the end was good for the state. That has been boiled down, in modern times, into “the end justifies the means.” But this shorthand removes it from the all-important context that makes sense of his words (taking things out of context and using them for your own, bizarre ends is quite common on the internet).

Nor did Machiavelli write, ‘Never to attempt to win by force what can be won by deception,’ in The Prince. That may be paraphrased from The Discourses, Book III: 40, or Book II: 13. It is more likely to derive from an entirely different source: The Art of War by Sun-Tzu. This misquote is popular on those faux-quote sites, but it isn’t one of his maxims. I wrote about that mis-quote last year. It still irks me to see it online today.

In the comment following that previous post, I wrote about another popular – and very wrong – internet meme attributed to Machiavelli: “I’m not interested in preserving the status quo; I want to overthrow it.”

That line was actually said by US Republican Newt Gringrich, and is taken from a 1991 interview printed in the LA Times:

Such jabs don’t faze Gingrich. “I’m not interested in preserving the status quo; I want to overthrow it,” he says. “Of course people are going to resent that.”

Other things Machiavelli did NOT say include the following pseudo-quotes taken from various, inaccurate, un-moderated and never verified, quotation sites online. I spent a couple of hours yesterday poring over my texts to search for them, just to be sure. It’s tricky because there are so many translations available, but anyone who has actually read any of them will recognize fairly easily what is and is not his style:

  • “Politics have no relation to morals.”
  • “It is double pleasure to deceive the deceiver.”
  • “Entrepreneurs are simply those who understand that there is little difference between obstacle and opportunity and are able to turn both to their advantage.”
  • “It is not titles that honor men, but men that honor titles.”
  • “The wise man does at once what the fool does finally.”
  • “Before all else, be armed.”
  • “The more sand has escaped from the hourglass of our life, the clearer we should see through it.”
  • “History is written by the victors.”
  • “One should never fall in the belief that you can find someone to pick you up.”
  • “God creates men, but they choose each other.”
  • “Princes and governments are far more dangerous than other elements within society.”
  • “A prince is also esteemed when he is a true friend and a true enemy.”
  • “He who blinded by ambition, raises himself to a position whence he cannot mount higher, must thereafter fall with the greatest loss.”
  • “War is just when it is necessary; arms are permissible when there is no hope except in arms.”
  • “Keep your friends close, and your enemies closer.”

Got that? Machiavelli NEVER SAID any of those things, yet all appear on many online quotation database pages. They cause me a face-palm moment to even read them (more on my Machiavelli book site and learn what he really said: ianchadwick.com/machiavelli/addenda/appendix-b-machiavellian-misquotes/)

Unfortunately, there are many who will get fooled into thinking these are real quotations from Machiavelli and other authors. But these so-called quotation databases are rife with errors, mis-attributions, mis-spellings, grammatical and punctuation errors; enough that even a casual read should give anyone pause to doubt the veracity. These sites are as reliable to literature as creationism is to science, without being as funny.

These egregious errors exacerbate the bad education people get from the internet; they also speak volumes to the increasing gullibility of web users who will accept clearly mis-attributed lines with the same ease they will believe magnets cure arthritis, crystals are magi, flu vaccinations cause autism and other quackery.