Chapter 26: The Forest and the Trees

Machiavelli’s last chapter in The Prince, Chapter XXVI: An Exhortation to Liberate Italy From the Barbarians, was a call to Lorenzo de Medici, Florence’s contemporary, but inept, ruler, to throw the foreign invaders out of the peninsula and unite Italy. He wanted Lorenzo to establish a “new order” in the land, and send the French, Spanish, Swiss and German troops who ravaged the country, packing.

And, as usual, Machiavelli included considerable advice for the ruler to ponder along with this patriotic screed: conflict is sometimes inevitable. That’s our main lesson in this chapter.

Machiavelli felt that sometimes hardships were necessary conditions in which great rulers could rise to the occasion. Call it political compost for strong, new growth to emerge. In his view, a good ruler could rise above adversity, while a weak one could not. When the opportunity presents itself, the strong leader strikes, and thus shows his or her greatness.

“(Castruccio) was accustomed to say that men ought to attempt everything and fear nothing; that God is a lover of strong men, because one always sees that the weak are chastised by the strong.”
The Life Of Castruccio Castracani Of Lucca

Machiavelli presented the idea of the just war – bellum justum – a necessary conflict one must embark on because of circumstances:

“There is great justice with our cause, because when it is a necessary war, that war is just; and weapons are hallowed when there is no other hope but in those weapons.”

You fight when you have to, when you have been left no choice, not because you want to. Whatever weapons you use, your weapons are good because they those necessary to win.

All councils, all municipal politicians get embroiled in battles like Machiavelli’s ‘just wars.’ We get taken to court or some provincial agency by developers, by special interest groups, by former staff, by advocates and their opponents. You permit a wind farm and some group takes you to court over it. You refuse it, and another groups hauls you into court.

“…whenever men are not obliged to fight from necessity, they fight from ambition; which is so powerful in human breasts, that it never leaves them no matter to what rank they rise.”
The Discourses: I, 37

But the end result of this war should not be merely a military victory over the invaders. Learn from the battles you have fought, plan ahead for future fights. Machiavelli expected the leader to establish a new state from the rubble, not simply rest on his or her laurels:

“In so many campaigns, it has always appeared as if military ability was exhausted. This is because the old institutions were not good, and none of us have known how to establish a new one. When a new prince rises to power, nothing honours him more than to establish sound new laws and create new institutions.”

Establish a new order in your municipality. Make your mark, don’t meekly follow the old ways. Mediocre rulers, Machiavelli complained, couldn’t see the forest for the trees. Or rather, couldn’t see the army for the soldiers in his metaphor:

“Look closely at the duels and the hand-to-hand combats, how superior the Italians are in strength, dexterity, and subtlety. But when it comes to armies they cannot compare, and this is entirely the fault of the weakness of the leaders…”

Those other leaders, he wrote, spent too much time trying to gain glory for themselves rather than uniting to defeat the common foe. They saw to the little details – the one-on-one duels – but ignored the grand strategy. That is like a council with its members all competing to prove themselves, or like senior staff, working in silos against one another:

“Those who are capable are not obeyed, and each one seems to consider himself competent and want to go his own way. None is so distinguished, either by talent or by fortune, he can dominate the rest.”

Study Your Opponents

Machiavelli encouraged his ruler to study opponents carefully, so he or she knew what they were capable of, to know where and when they planned to move, and to be able to anticipate their actions.

“Know Your Enemy: The Intelligence Strategy. Know your opponent’s moves and do not let your motives be known. Understand their way of thinking.”
Robert Greene: The 33 Strategies of War, No. 13

Once you understand the barbarians – your opponents – make your tactics and strategies fit the nature of their behaviour, rather than trying to make them fit yours. Learn to avoid their strengths, while taking advantage of their weaknesses with your own troops:

“It is possible, therefore, knowing the defects of both these armies, to invent a new kind, which will resist cavalry and not be afraid of infantry; this need not create a new order of arms, but a variation upon the old. This will bring a new prince greatness and prestige.”

In his Art of War, Machiavelli gave more detailed advice:

“Whoever is more vigilant in observing the designs of the enemy in war, and endures much hardship in training his army, will incur fewer dangers, and can have greater hope for victory.”
The Art of War: Book VII

When you’re faced with a multitude of opponents arrayed together, Machiavelli suggests the old divide-and-conquer rule (“divide et impera”). In the third book of The Art of War, Machiavelli says that a military leader should try to divide the forces of the enemy into weaker parts, primarily by making him suspicious of the men he trusted. Suspicion erodes unity.

Machiavelli knew from his reading of Livy that the Romans used this technique to create their empire. For decades after World War II, the Soviets successfully used a similar tactic to divide Western nations from potential or lukewarm allies, by creating suspicion as to their intentions.

Napoleon used divide-and-conquer successfully in many battles: he divided the enemy troops so no portion was stronger than his own army; he disrupted their communications so they couldn’t coordinate their attacks, and he separated the leader from the troops. His enemy crumbled.

“Defeat Them in Detail: The Divide and Conquer Strategy. Look at the parts and determine how to control the individual parts, create dissension and leverage it.”
Robert Greene: The 33 Strategies of War, No. 17

Find a way to drive a wedge between your opponents; play one off against the other; side with one, then another so they can’t pin you down. Make them suspicious of the motives of their group leader. Soon they’ll fall to bickering among themselves and offer no united front against you.

“When many powerful persons are united against one, who, although no match for the others collectively, is also powerful, the chances are more in favour of this single and less powerful person, than of the many who together are much stronger… it will always happen that, by exercising a little dexterity, the one will be able to divide the many, and weaken the force which was strong while it was united.”
The Discourses: III, 11

Chasing the ‘barbarian’ invaders away – eradicating the evidence of a former council, solidifying your new council, bringing order to staff, making your mark – brings the ruler great honour and affection from everyone, especially if the former council or mayor was unpopular at the end of the last term:

“Nor can one express the love with which he would be received in all those provinces which have suffered so much from these foreign humiliations… What door would be closed to him?”

Great deeds bring a ruler great rewards and great reputation. Just make sure that everyone knows that you deserve the credit for them.

“Let, therefore, your illustrious house take up this task with that courage and hope with which all just enterprises are undertaken, so that under its standard our municipality may be ennobled…”

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