Machiavelli knew full well that politicians could and did rise to power using dirty tricks. He considered deception a fair tool in war. He would have understood all too well today’s political “attack ads” as weapons in the arsenal of a determined political challenger or party:
“One ascends to the principality by some wicked or nefarious ways…”
It was from Machiavelli’s Chapter VIII: Concerning Those Who Have Obtained a Principality by Wickedness, as well as from The Discourses, that the concept of ‘the end justifies the means’ was derived.
“For although the act condemns the doer, the end may justify him…”
The Discourses: I, 9
Mansfield translates this as, “When the act accuses, the result excuses.”
Two Lessons in Management
Machiavelli gives two very similar examples to illustrate his idea, one ancient, one contemporary, of individuals who took control of a city by cunning and crime – “wickedness.” In both cases, the would-be rulers murdered the city’s leaders and took command for themselves. But the end was different for each, and that created the moral.
“In judging policies, we should consider the results that have been achieved through them, rather than the means by which they have been executed.”
Machiavelli: undated letter to Piero Soderini
His first example was Agathocles, an ancient Sicilian, son of a potter, but a man with a brilliant mind. He devoted himself to the military profession and he rose to the rank of Praetor – a magistrate – of Syracuse.
During this time, the Carthaginian army was fighting to conquer Sicily. Agathocles made a deal with its general to halt his attacks against Syracuse while Agathocles took control of the city from inside. The general thought he was gaining an ally to help him overthrow the city.
Agathocles first made a bold move by tricking the people of Syracuse:
“One morning he assembled the people and senate of Syracuse, as if to discuss with them things relating to the Republic. At a given signal, the soldiers killed all the senators and the richest men in the city. Once they were dead, he seized and held the princedom of that city without any civil commotion.”
Despite his blatantly immoral act, Agathocles, in Machiavelli’s eyes, redeemed himself by not surrendering Syracuse to the Carthaginians, but instead fighting back. He routed them in battle twice, and successfully defended the city against their siege. While besieged, Agathocles took part of his force and attacked the Carthaginian cities in North Africa which forced the enemy army to retreat.
“The Carthaginians… were compelled to come to terms with Agathocles, and, leaving Sicily to him, had to be content with the possession of Africa.”
So in the end, the state was saved; its enemy forced to leave. Syracuse prospered as a result.
Agathocles did not rely on luck, but on his own talents and cunning, to achieve his success and Machiavelli always appreciated men with talent:
“He attained pre-eminence… not by the favour of any one, but step by step… gained with a thousand troubles and perils, and were afterwards boldly held by him with many hazards and dangers… if the courage of Agathocles in entering into and extricating himself from dangers be considered, together with his greatness of mind in enduring overcoming hardships, it cannot be seen why he should be esteemed less than the most notable captain.”
Machiavelli then criticizes Agathocles for deceiving, then murdering, the citizens; not because it was a wicked act per se, but because it stained his reputation:
“It cannot be called skill to slay fellow-citizens, to betray friends, to be without faith, without mercy, without moral obligation. Such methods may gain empire, but not glory… his barbarous cruelty and inhumanity… do not permit him to be celebrated among the most excellent men.”
In other words, despite his successes, his reputation was forever discredited and he was condemned as a villain in history. But even so, Machiavelli admires him for his boldness, courage and skill. His methods worked, and that’s what counts.
His second example was a contemporary of Machiavelli’s: Oliverotto da Fermo, who was also trained in the military profession. He had
“…wit and a vigorous body and mind, he became a commander in his profession.”
He also had great ambition to become much more than just a soldier, however.
Oliverotto conspired with some citizens of the city of Fermo for him to take control of it and become its ruler. They thought he would reward them, later. He entered the city with one hundred horsemen, plus his friends and retainers, under pretense of needing an honour guard to show off his patrimony. He convinced his uncle, Giovanni, to allow him in and to tell the citizens his large and armed group was not a threat to the city.
The gullible Giovanni even lodged Oliverotto in his own house, where Oliverotto hosted a banquet to which he invited the governing politicians and well-to-do citizens of Fermo.
“Despise the free lunch. What is offered for free is dangerous – it usually involves a trick or a hidden obligation.”
Robert Greene, 48 Laws of Power: 40
There are good and bad ways to be cruel, he tells us. You sometimes need to use force or violence to secure your position, but once that’s achieved, you have to stop and let things heal.
“After these murders Oliverotto, mounted on horseback, rode up and down the town and besieged the chief magistrate in the palace. In fear the people were forced – obey him, and to form a government, with himself as prince.”
In The Discourses, Machiavelli warns you to beware of what seem to be your enemy’s mistakes, because they make be hiding a cunning trap:
“The captain of an army ought not to build on what seems a manifest blunder on the part of an enemy; for as men are unlikely to act with conspicuous want of caution, it will commonly be found that this blunder is cover to a fraud. And yet, so blinded are men’s minds by their eagerness for victory, that they look only to what appears on the surface.”
The Discourses: III, 48
And in this case, it was a trap that Giovanni and the rest fell into.
Machiavelli admired skillful cunning, too, not just talent or a skillful use of force:
“The art of deception, an art always necessary for those who would mount to great heights from low beginnings; and which is the less to be condemned when… it is skillfully concealed. …the only inference to be drawn… is that the prince who would accomplish great things must have learned how to deceive.”
The Discourses: II, 13
Over the weeks and months that followed, Oliverotto continued his reign of terror. He rounded up and,
“…killed all the malcontents who were able to injure him, and strengthened himself with new civil and military ordinances, in such a way that, in the year during which he held the principality, not only was he secure in the city of Fermo, but all his neighbours feared him.”
Unlike Agathocles of the first example, because of his continued atrocities, Oliverotto did not have the support of the people. He was not able to hold his city when Cesare Borgia later attacked it because the people wouldn’t help him. Oliverotto and his lieutenant Vitellozzo, were captured and executed by Borgia when the city fell.
So what was the difference Machiavelli was trying to highlight in these two similar tales?
“I believe that this follows from whether cruelty is being badly or well used. Those may be called properly used… that are applied at one blow out of necessity to secure one’s power, and that are not persisted in afterwards, unless they can be turned to the advantage of the subjects.”
A well-used cruelty? Cruelty as a tool for political ends? What a concept!
Machiavelli breaks away from the traditional fixed morality of Aristotle and the church with this comment. No one before had ever suggested cruelty could be used in a creative way for the greater good. This concept evolved into today’s “raison d’etat” – putting the national interest – the goals and needs of the state – over the personal.
There are good and bad ways to be cruel, he tells us. You sometimes need to use force or violence to secure your position, but once that’s achieved, you have to stop and let things heal:
“The badly employed are those which, even if initially limited, multiply with time rather than decrease. Those who practice the first system are able… to maintain their rule, as Agathocles did. It is impossible for those who follow the other method to survive.”
In other words, if the ruler takes control by force, but does not continue to use force to maintain his rule, then the use of that force may be justified if the state is saved. But if, like Oliverotto, the ruler continues to use force and is unable to save the state against opposition, then it was not justified.
“Power and violence are opposites; where the one rules absolutely, the other is absent. Violence appears where power is in jeopardy, but left to its own course it ends in power’s disappearance… Violence can destroy power; it is utterly incapable of creating it.”
Hannah Arendt, New York Review of Books, Feb. 27, 1969
For Machiavelli, the long-term security and prosperity of the state was always the overriding concern. Even though they used similar methods to gain power, Agathocles saved his state, Oliverotto did not.
Machiavelli suggests that the populace supported Agathocles because his use of force ended quickly, and their support helped save the state against attackers. Fermo’s people did not support Oliverotto because of his continued cruelty, and did not defend the city against its attackers.
“In seizing a state, the usurper ought to examine closely into all those injuries which it is necessary for him to inflict, and to do them all at one stroke, so as not to have to repeat them daily. Thus by not unsettling men he will be able to reassure them, and win them to himself through subsequent benefits.”
Do what you need to secure yourself, and do it at once. Then stop. If you continue to inflict injury on the people, they will never support you.
If you fail to act decisively, and quickly, Machiavelli warned, you will never have peace because someone will be plotting against you. You’ll always have to be on your guard and armed against opponents:
“He who does otherwise, either from timidity or evil advice, is always compelled to keep the knife in his hand. He cannot rely on his subjects, nor can they feel secure under him, owing to his continued and repeated wrongs.”
If you keep enemies alive – or allow them to stay on staff – who can harm you, they will do so when the opportunity arises. They will always be looking for ways to bring you down, always be trying to win your allies to their side.
Deal with your enemies all at once. Be decisive, don’t procrastinate. A swift stroke is more effective and less painful than a thousand little cuts:
“Injuries ought to be done all at one time, so that, being tasted less, they offend less; benefits ought to be given little by little, so that the flavour of them may last longer.”
In the History of Florence, Machiavelli puts it this way:
“When many suffer, few seek vengeance; for general evils are endured more patiently than private ones. To increase the number of misdeeds will, therefore, make forgiveness more easily attainable, and will open the way to secure what we require for our own liberty.”
History of Florence, Book III, 3
Benefits, on the other hand, are best doled out in small amounts over time. Don’t give out too much all at once. People will only expect more later, as he says in Chapter 16.
Stick close to your power base and pay attention to your staff and advisors, watching for any signs of trouble or dissent. That way you can see trouble coming before it becomes unmanageable.
“Above all things, a prince ought to live amongst his people in such a way that no unexpected circumstances, whether of good or evil, shall make him change his course.”
People like predictable, constant rulers. When rulers are unpredictable or change their minds too often, the people will be ‘toothing’ for change, as Machiavelli wrote in Chapter 2.
If trouble later arises from failing to act decisively, you will not be able to control it. It will be too late for harsh measures to fix problems, and mild measures will not generate the fear and respect necessary for you to rule:
“If the necessity for this comes in troubled times, you are too late for harsh measures; and mild ones will not help you, for they will be considered as forced from you, and no one will be under any obligation to you for them.”
Agathocles’ eventual goal was the greater good of the state. Oliverotto’s goal was his own betterment. Only in the first example, in Machiavelli’s mind, could the end justify the means.
If you have board or staff members you feel are acting contrary to council’s wishes, who are going in a direction contrary to council’s strategic goals, who are making comments in the media, to residents or to other staff, that are critical of council’s decisions, or who are challenging the mayor’s or council’s authority, is it justifiable to dismiss them?
Yes, says Machiavelli, if the end is better for your town, better for the people, better for council and helps preserve your power. But not if you find it doesn’t fix the problem, and you have to keep dismissing people or punishing them in other ways.
“(Castruccio) having put to death a citizen of Lucca who had been instrumental in raising him to power, and being told that he had done wrong to kill one of his old friends, he answered that people deceived themselves; he had only killed a new enemy.”
The Life Of Castruccio Castracani Of Lucca
In 1913, as the world lurched inexorably towards the first World War, Helmuth von Moltke, the German Chief of the General Staff who was urging German militarism and a direct attack against France, spoke another variation of the ‘end justifies the means’ adage:
“We must put aside all commonplaces as to the responsibility of the aggressor… Success alone justifies war.”
Quoted in The Guns of August, by Barbara Tuchman.
Of course, determining whether the goal was noble really depends on which side of the means you received. Make sure you’re on the winning side.
“History is written by the winners.”
George Orwell: As I Please, 4 February 1944
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