Chapter 6: New Ideas Make Enemies

Chapter VI: Concerning New Principalities Which are Acquired by One’s Own Arms and Ability, opens with a comment that for most people of modest ability, it’s tough to achieve the success of glorious predecessors by merely imitating their acts. The average person is, Machiavelli writes,

“…unable to keep entirely to the ways of others or attain to the power of those they imitate.”

Prudent rulers, however, are different. In a typically Machiavellian maxim, he tells rulers to look to others who have shown greatness and, if you can’t be like them, pretend to be like them so that, if you can’t be like them, you at least get the scent of their greatness about you:

“A wise man ought always to follow the paths beaten by great men, and to imitate those who have been supreme, so that if his ability does not equal theirs, at least it will savour of it.”

Or as Quintus Tullius Cicero advised his brother five hundred years earlier,

“If nature has denied you some quality, resolve to assume it, so as to appear to be acting naturally. Although nature has great force, yet in a business lasting only a few months it seems probable that the artificial may be the more effective.”
Quintus Tullius Cicero: Commentariolum Petitionis

Of course, you can’t simply imitate others and expect that to make you a better leader. Nor can you imitate their past actions and expect that will make your current situation better. Personalities and circumstances are different. But you can imitate some of their behaviour and their actions to at least give you some semblance of their greatness. Appearances matter.

Aim Higher Than Your Reach

When you aim to be great, aim higher than you can reach, Machiavelli said; much higher than your actual target:

“Act like the skilled archers who, designing to hit the mark which yet appears too far distant, and knowing the limits to which the strength of their bow attains, take aim much higher than the mark, not to reach by their strength or arrow to so great a height, but to be able with the aid of so high an aim to hit the mark they wish to reach.”

There’s subtle cunning here. It’s like bargaining for something in a flea market: the vendor asks for a lot more than the item is worth. You bid a lot less. After several rounds of back-and-forth offers, you arrive at a price that you both agree on. Had either of you offered it initially, that offer would have been rejected.

You want a new outdoor ice rink? Push for a whole new multi-use facility, something in the mega-multi-million-dollar range. Other members of council will fight it on the basis of cost or need, but to keep you happy will likely approve a mere outdoor rink. They think they have won the battle. You, on the other hand, get what you really wanted all along.

Machiavelli divided successful politicians into two groups: those who succeeded by fortune and those who succeeded by ability. The politician who succeeds by ability is much better off:

“Becoming a prince … presupposes either ability or fortune, it is clear that one or other of these two things will mitigate in some degree many difficulties. Nevertheless, he who has relied least on fortune has the best chance of keeping it.”

Ability wins over fortune, all the time. Fortune, as Machiavelli had experienced firsthand, could be an accident of birth: being born in a patrician family garnered rewards that often far outstripped the talent or ability of the recipient.

Fate is not entirely ruled out. Things happen outside our control, although those events do not control us. Machiavelli has praise for those who take the best advantage of opportunities fortune presented:

“One cannot see that they owed anything to fortune beyond opportunity, which brought them the material to mold into the form which suited them best. Without that opportunity their skills would have been extinguished, and without those abilities, the opportunity would have come in vain.”

Carpe diem. Wake up and take action.

“Come, fill the Cup, and in the Fire of Spring
The Winter Garment of Repentance fling:
The Bird of Time has but a little way
To fly–and lo! the Bird is on the Wing.”
Edward FitzGerald: The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, VII

It is the politician who makes bold moves, who seizes the day and acts when opportunity arises, on whom fortune smiles:

“Those men, with their great ability, seized the opportunity, and thus ennobled their country and made it prosperous. Those who become princes by their ability… acquire a principality with difficulty, but they keep it with ease.”

In other words, bold moves make it easier to be a ruler. People respect and admire leaders who take chances and act decisively. They turn against those who dither. Machiavelli believed the middle path meant getting the worst of both sides:

“Men, however, not knowing how to be wholly good or wholly bad, choose for themselves certain middle ways, which of all others are the most pernicious…”
The Discourses: I, 26

But when a politician treads new paths and takes a municipality down into unknown regions outside the realm of the comfortable status quo, it can cause dissent and challenges from both council and staff:

“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.”

Thinking “outside of the box” may cause your more conservative allies to question your judgment, and maybe your sanity. Innovative ideas give your opponents ammunition to attack you with.

Others see the introduction of new ideas and plans give you too much attention and public visibility. They worry that supporting your idea will put them in a lesser, even subservient role, letting you shine even more. Staff can view new ideas with suspicion and hostility:

“The permanent bureaucracy…is dedicated to a single mission: To change nothing…They are neither liberal nor conservative. They are in favour of things as they are. In pursuit of that mission they are canny, shrewd, ruthless, and conspiratorial. They infiltrate the ranks of those who want change with the goal of destroying them. They use delay and details to overwhelm new ideas and to force a continuation of the status quo.”
Dick Morris: The New Prince, Chapter 15.

Staff’s role is, in part, to preserve municipal stability. They are not the engineers of new ideas or the innovators: that is the role of council. New ideas can be dangerous and when these threaten the status quo, staff can become defensive and uncooperative.

Fear of change, protectiveness, jealousy over the attention they bring you – they all encourage resistance among your colleagues and among staff. These they will band together against your initiatives:

“Because the innovator makes enemies of all those who have done well under the old conditions, and lukewarm defenders of those who may do well under the new. This coolness arises partly from fear of the opponents, who have the laws on their side, and partly from the incredulity of men. Men do not readily believe in new things until they have had a long experience of them.”

Strong opposition to new ideas from your opponents will also make your allies less supportive of your initiatives. They can threaten to sink your proposals to avoid the confrontation.

“Thus it happens that whenever those who are hostile have the opportunity to attack they do wholeheartedly, whilst the others defend lukewarmly, in such wise that the prince is endangered along with them. It is necessary… to inquire whether these innovators can act alone or must depend on others: that is to say, whether, to consummate their enterprise, have they to seek help, or can they use force?”

Be an Armed Prophet

You’ve seen significant issues derailed at the council table by mild protestations from your colleagues. You’ve had the frustrating experience of a moot question being used to defer an issue, of seeing your initiative moved to the back burner while council awaits a staff report or answers to irrelevant questions.

Machiavelli suggests that these tactics are not as effective as using force:

“If they rely on help they always fail, and never accomplish anything. But when they can rely on their own ability, and can use force, then they are rarely endangered. Hence it is that all armed prophets have conquered, and the unarmed prophets have been destroyed.”

Others see the introduction of new ideas and plans give you too much attention and public visibility. They worry that supporting your idea will put them in a lesser, even subservient role, letting you shine even more. Staff can view new ideas with suspicion and hostility:

A prophet isn’t necessarily a biblical figure: it can be anyone with a vision. A visionary needs to be armed with more than just words. Carry a big stick, Machiavelli says.

Force can come in the form of lobbying, block voting, threats to compromise your other initiatives if you promote this new one, using points of order or conflict of interest to derail your efforts, criticism in the media, and whisper campaigns. You should use these tactics before your opponents use them on you.

Machiavelli says do it fast, get them onside before anyone has time to consider:

“…when a prince would obtain something from another, he ought, if the occasion allow, to leave him no time to deliberate, but should so contrive that the other may see the need of resolving at once; as he will, if he perceive that refusal or delay in complying with what is asked of him, will draw upon him a sudden and dangerous resentment.”
The Discourses: III, 44

If you are bullied into supporting your opponents, make sure you fight it; your opponents must know your support was not given willingly, because they will try to wring even more concessions from you. By conceding easily, your allies will desert you because you appear weak.

“A prince … if he would have credit, should never make any concession voluntarily. For almost always when matters have come to such a pass that you cannot give way with credit, it is better that a thing be taken from you by force than yielded through fear of force.”
The Discourses: II, 14

By resisting, Machiavelli adds, you make both your opponent and your friends respect you more, and supporters may even rally to your side in your defence. Even when you know you must concede, do it reluctantly, unwillingly, and only after resisting.

“If you yield through fear and to escape war, the chances are that you do not escape it; since he to whom, out of manifest cowardice you make this concession, will not rest content, but will endeavour to wring further concessions from you, and making less account of you, will only be the more kindled against you. At the same time you will find your friends less zealous on your behalf, since to them you will appear either weak or cowardly. But if, so soon as the designs of your enemy are disclosed, you at once prepare to resist though your strength be inferior to his, he will begin to think more of you, other neighbouring princes will think more; and many will be willing to assist you, on seeing you take up arms, who, had you relinquished hope and abandoned yourself to despair, would never have stirred a finger to save you.”
The Discourses: II, 14

Force can also come as forceful ad hominem counterattacks from opponents, always a good tactic for turning the spotlight away from the idea to the presenter. When someone attacks your personal credibility, that discredit equally tars your ideas and proposals. Your already lukewarm supporters will waiver:

“…as happened in our time to Fra Girolamo Savonarola, who was ruined with his new order of things. Immediately the multitude lost faith in him, and he had no means of keeping steadfast those who believed or of making the unbelievers to believe.”

Savonarola was a Dominican friar who rose to power in 1494 as the leader of the Florentine republic by promoting a new state founded on a stricter morality, his “Christian and Religious Republic.” Like today’s Taliban, he had no tolerance for anyone or anything outside his strict moral and religious beliefs. He created new laws to punish what he considered immoral behaviour. His strict morality initially appealed to citizens tired of the Medici corruption.

Also like the Taliban, Savonarola burned books (his “Bonfire of the Vanities” in which objects considered to contribute to sin were publicly burned), destroyed what he called “immoral” art, and preached vehemently against the corruption of the clergy.

The friar’s opposition to trading and making money fostered a political and economic downturn. Florentines quickly tired of him. A Franciscan preacher challenged him to a trial by fire in the city centre, but Savonarola declined, and this ad hominem attack damaged his credibility. His following dissipated.

In early 1497, Savonarola was excommunicated. Bands of youths rioted against him, and it turned to a revolt. Since he had no one to protect him, the crowd took Savonarola prisoner, along with two supporters.

All three were declared “heretics and schismatics,” and tortured. They signed confessions, and were hanged in the same manner Savonarola had used when executing criminals during his own reign.

He had no army, no band of loyal supporters to fight for him. He depended solely on his own words to win people over and change society. Machiavelli saw Savonarola was doomed to fail. He was the “unarmed prophet” mentioned above, whom Machiavelli said would be destroyed. And he was. Four years after he took control of the city’s leadership, he was executed by the very people who elevated him to that role.

You need force, Machiavelli warned, to back up your reforms, and become the armed prophet he says will succeed. Words alone won’t protect you or save your ideas when others challenge them. Make sure you are not unarmed when you meet your opponents, because you can be sure they will use their force against you and your new ideas.

Machiavelli says that in order to get your plans back on track after an attack or serious challenge, and to restore your credibility, you have to fight force with force:

“The nature of the people is variable, and whilst it is easy to persuade them, it is difficult to fix them in that persuasion. 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.”

Without backing your arguments by force – lobbying, arm-twisting, credibility challenges, special interest pressures, forceful arguments backed by unassailable data, backroom negotiations – you will not only not achieve your goal, but you will be discredited along the way and lose political face, maybe even your office.

Ever present a great idea at the table, only to have it shot down before it was given a chance, before you could explore its possibilities? Like the unarmed prophet, Savonarola, without force, without allies, and armed with only words, you will be destroyed.

Presenting new ideas is an uphill battle and it requires fortitude, skill and cunning to achieve your goals. Yes, politicians have other ends than mere power, but you need that power to achieve them. Without power, your efforts are mere exercises in futility.

When you do win, however, it will in turn add to your reputation while discrediting and neutralizing your opponents:

“All their dangers are in the ascent, yet with ability they will overcome them. When these are overcome, and those who resented their success are exterminated, they will gain respect, and they will continue afterwards to be powerful, secure, honoured, and happy.”

Machiavelli says that your accomplishments, once secured, will bring you more than respect: they will bring you happiness as well. And we all want to be happy, don’t we?
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