Why did you win the election? Good luck? Or your opponents’ bad luck? A serendipitous conjunction of Mars and Jupiter? Fate? Divine intervention? Or was it the hard work and effort of yourself (and your campaign team, if you were fortunate enough to have one)? Elections are not, after all, lotteries, they are job applications and popularity contests.
Today most of us on council credit our own effort, but, as in Machiavelli’s day, many still believe in fate and luck. That can affect how they perform in the political arena. Sure, things happen outside our control, but throughout The Prince, Machiavelli exhorted rulers not to bow to chance, nor to depend on it. Instead, use events to your own advantage.
In Chapter XXV: What Fortune Can Effect in Human Affairs, and How to Withstand Her, Machiavelli wrote that,
“Many men believe that the affairs of the world are governed by luck and by God; that even wise men cannot control them, nor can anyone even improve things. They would have us believe that it is not necessary to toil and sweat much over things, but to let chance govern them.”
Don’t sweat the small stuff is the motto of those who believe many little things are in the hands of fate, not free will. Machiavelli was inclined to believe we still had free will, even if he believed fortune played a significant part:
“Fortune may be the arbiter of one half of our actions, but she still leaves us the other half, or perhaps a little less, to our free will.”
Fate, fortune, kismet, karma, whatever you call it; he recognizes it has an impact, it affects us, but it doesn’t control us entirely, and we can’t gamble on it. Machiavelli compared chance to a,
“…raging river, which floods the plains, sweeping away trees and buildings, bearing away the soil; everyone flees before it; all yield to its violence, and no one can resist it…”
He then railed on against people who, in quiet times, knowing that such a flood was coming, still did not prepare for the rising waters, and did not,
“…make provision, constructing both defences and barriers, so when they rose again, the waters would pass by safely in a canal, and their force be neither so wild nor so dangerous.”
Precaution, he counselled, is the path of political prudence. Be like a chess player and always plan two or three moves ahead.
A bold and farsighted ruler can change the course of his or her political life with skillful engineering and design. Like with that river, you can create the course that it will follow when it rages. Or you can ruin it by not planning:
“A prince may be seen prosperous today and ruined tomorrow without having made any changes to his character.”
A ruler who relies solely on luck and coasts along without planning is headed for ruin when that luck runs out:
“The prince who relies entirely upon fortune is lost when his luck changes…”
But, Machiavelli adds, you can succeed if you are flexible in your behaviour and are able to change your behaviour when circumstances themselves change:
“He who successfully adapts his actions according to the nature of the times will be successful, while he whose actions clash with the times will not be successful.”
In other words, you do what you must, when it needs to be done. There are no ironclad, foolproof rules for success, just to be able to change and to bend your behaviour according to the necessities that arise:
“Every man achieves results by various methods; one with caution, another recklessly; one by force, another by skill; one by patience, another by haste. Each one succeeds in reaching his goal by a different approach. One can also see with two cautious men, that one will attain his goal, but the other will fail. Similarly, a cautious man and an impetuous man will prove equally successful in reaching their goals. The reason for these results is nothing more than whether or not these men adapt their methods to what is best suited to the spirit of the times.”
You can’t predict the outcome of any event nor always have success with measures that worked in the past. Be prepared and act when the opportunity arises.
“If my worst enemy was given the job of writin’ my epitaph when I’m gone, he couldn’t do more than write: “George W. Plunkitt. He Seen His Opportunities, and He Took ‘Em.”
George Washington Plunkitt: A Series of Very Plain Talks on Very Practical Politics, 1905
Learn to Change When Necessary
Machiavelli warns that, even though a ruler,
“…governs himself with caution and patience…”
and enjoys a successful administration, if the times change and a different approach is necessary, he or she will be ruined if,
“…he does not change his course of action.”
Few of us, however, have the skill to react and adapt to these changes. Inertia keeps us going along our path. We hope, or we expect things to work out if we just stick to doing what we’ve always done in the past:
“A man is seldom sufficiently shrewd to know how to adapt to change, both because he cannot deviate from his own nature, and also because he always prospered by acting in one way, so he can’t be persuaded that it is wise to change. A cautious man, when it is time to be adventurous, does not know how to behave, so he is ruined.”
Machiavelli’s lesson is simple: don’t be fixed in your ways. Be bold or cautious, cruel or generous as the times and the situation demand. Luck isn’t the problem: it’s your inflexibility.
“The sage does not try to… abide by a fixed standard, but examines the affairs of the age and takes what precautions are necessary.”
Han Fei Tzu: Sec. 49: The Five Vermin
It’s a very Darwinian lesson: adapt to circumstances in order to survive, or else you’ll fail.
Paleontologists may tell you how successful the dinosaurs were for millions of years. Doesn’t matter, because they’re extinct today. That’s all that counts. If you don’t want to be relegated to the museum of political fossils, learn to adapt.
“When fortune changes and men continue to be steadfast in their ways, while the two are in agreement, men will prosper. But men will be unsuccessful when these clash.”
Machiavelli also addressed this in The Discourses, particularly in Chapter IX: To Enjoy Constant Good Fortune, We Must Change with the Times:
“Good or bad fortune of men depends on whether their methods of acting accord with the character of the times… some men act impulsively, others warily and with caution… He, however, will make fewest mistakes, and may expect to prosper most, who, while following the course to which nature inclines him, finds, as I have said, his method of acting in accordance with the times in which he lives.”
The Discourses: III, 9
Even so, Machiavelli concludes in The Prince, you have a better chance of success by being bold than cautious, and sometimes you just have to take control of the situation:
“It is better to be adventurous than cautious, because fortune is a woman who… allows herself to be mastered by the adventurous rather than by those who go to work more cautiously.”
As Tim Parks so elegantly translates this:
“Fortune varies, but men go on, regardless.”
Previous Chapter – Next Chapter
- Machiavelli and Sejanus - October 14, 2022
- A Meeting of the Minds? - July 3, 2021
- Machiavelli’s Prince as satire - June 8, 2017
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