Sometimes you win an election because you were lucky: you happened to be in the right place at the right time. A few years ago, when the federal Conservative and Reform parties were independent and competing, they both often ran candidates in one riding. The result was a split vote on the right that let a third party’s candidate effortlessly win the seat. Lucky win for many of them.
In Chapter VII: Concerning New Principalities Which are Acquired Either by the Arms of Others or by Good Fortune, Machiavelli wrote that those who effortlessly won an election through luck faced a lot more problems when they took power:
“Those who solely by good fortune become princes from being private citizens have little trouble in rising, but much in keeping atop; they have not any difficulties on the way up, because they fly, but they have many when they reach the summit.”
It’s entirely possible to win your seat by other means than ability. Sometimes you win because you have a powerful ally already in power, whose support convinces others to vote for you. This, too, is dangerous, because your rise and fall now depends on the reputation and goodwill of your benefactor. You can control neither:
“Such stand simply upon the goodwill and the fortune of him who has elevated them – two most inconstant and unstable things.”
Weak men may forget, and even forgive, but stronger ones have long memories. On your way up the ladder of power, beware of who you hurt because they won’t forget, and they will repay those hurts when they can.
Mediocrity in newcomers who got into office by luck is common, which, coupled with inexperience, can be a potent recipe for failure.
Machiavelli writes that not much can be expected of these new rulers who rose through chance or on the coattails of more powerful allies, rather than on their own ability:
“Neither have they the knowledge requisite for the position; because, unless they are men of great knowledge and ability, it is not reasonable to expect that a mere private citizen should know how to command, besides, they cannot hold it because they have not loyal forces which they can keep friendly and faithful.”
They don’t have experience. They never led a group before.No one will follow them.
“…if you would be obeyed you must know how to command, and that they alone have this knowledge who have measured their power to enforce, with the willingness of others to yield obedience; and who issue their orders when they find these conditions combining, but, otherwise, abstain.”
The Discourses, III, 22
They don’t have the necessary networks of allies and supporters to undertake great deeds. They collapse or dither at the first crisis. They are easy prey for stronger, more experienced politicians and staff who seek to bend them to their own designs.
“Cases, moreover, arise in which those who have little experience of affairs are sure to be misled, from the matters with which they have to deal being attended by many deceptive appearances such as lead men to believe whatsoever they are minded to believe.”
The Discourses: II, 22
New councils are bound to fall into disarray unless they have capable members or a leader of extraordinary ability who can rise to the challenge of management. Otherwise, the individual members who rose by luck can’t build a cohesive, effective council, even though they have precedents to fall back on:
“Those who unexpectedly become princes are men of so much ability that they know they have to be prepared at once to hold that which fortune has thrown into their laps, and that those foundations, which others have laid before they became princes, they must quickly lay afterwards… but they will be laid with trouble to the architect and danger to the building.”
The Lesson of Cesare Borgia
Machiavelli goes on to advise new rulers to follow the examples of more accomplished leaders, and learn from their mistakes and their successes, in particular that of Cesare Borgia:
“I do not know what better precepts to give a new prince than the example of his actions.”
In a lengthy example, which I condense here, Machiavelli described how Pope Alexander VI wanted to elevate his son, Cesare Borgia – Duke Valentino – as ruler of one of Italy’s small states. But he couldn’t make him master of any state that was not a state of the Church; and if he offered Cesare a Church-controlled principality, other Italian states would protest and even go to war against such a move.
Instead, the Pope used political maneuvering to weaken his opponents in those other states:
“It behooved him, therefore, to disrupt this state of affairs and create turmoil among the powers, so as to gain control for himself and securely master part of their states.”
The Pope dissolved the unhappy marriage of King Louis XII of France, which made the king obligated to the Pope for the political favour. When French armies entered Italy as allies of the Venetians, the King loaned the Pope soldiers for his son Cesare’s campaign in the Romagna region. Cesare won as a result.
However, Cesare was prevented from advancing further. He didn’t trust the loyalty of his auxiliary troops on loan from the Orsini family. He feared they would turn on him and take over what he had won for their own family. He also didn’t want to appear a threat to King Louis, who warned Cesare to desist in any more advances. He was stalemated by the actions of his allies. Machiavelli wrote that Cesare,
“…decided to depend no more upon the arms and the goodwill of others.”
With friends like these, Cesare didn’t need enemies. He recognized he couldn’t depend on troops lent to him by other leaders. He needed his own troops, his own base of loyal supporters, to succeed.
Cesare left the field to fight elsewhere. He went back to Rome and won over all the allies of the Orsini and the Colonna families. He took these new allies into his service, with good pay, gave them titles,
“…honouring them with government positions and army commands in such a way that in a few months all attachment to their former factions was destroyed and they turned entirely to the duke.”
Bribery and flattery worked. When the Orsini saw their support drained away, they rebelled against Cesare. So he turned to treachery. Machiavelli believed fraud and treachery were fair in war:
“Although in all other affairs it be hateful to use fraud, in the operations of war it is praiseworthy and glorious; so that he who gets the better of his enemy by fraud, is as much extolled as he who prevails by force.”
The Discourses: III, 40
By conning one of their elders, Cesare convinced the family he meant no harm, and asked their leaders to meet with him. The Orsini leaders foolishly believed he was sincere, and agreed to meet. When they gathered, however, he took them prisoner and had them killed.
“By exterminating the leaders, and turning their allies into his friends, the duke had laid sufficiently good foundations to his power…”
When Cesare returned to the battlefield and occupied the Romagna, he found it in sad shape. The Orsini had plundered it for years and it was in turmoil:
“…under the rule of weak masters, who would rather plunder their subjects than rule them, causing dissension rather than unity. The country was rampant with robbery, quarrels, and every kind of violence.”
To establish peace and discipline, he appointed the abrasive Ramiro de Lorqua (aka Remirro de Orco) as governor, a “swift and cruel man” who soon restored order by force.
Similarly, if you find a department or board in disarray, you need to appoint a strongman (or woman) to whip it into shape; someone who can put a bit of stick about and restore law and order. Chaos is the enemy of a well-run state.
But de Lorqua’s harsh rule was too strict; it created more unrest and resentment, and that reflected poorly on Borgia himself. Borgia recognized that his own reputation and honour was being stained by his ruthless governor.
Cesare needed to show the people that it was not he, Borgia, who was to blame, but rather the fault lay entirely with his cruel lieutenant. So he killed off his employee in a particularly gruesome manner: de Lorqua was cut in half and his body dumped in the town square, with the knife used in the deed.
It was a brilliantly-played performance that showed everyone he had absolute control not only over the situation, but over the very bodies of his staff:
“To clear himself in the minds of the people, and win them over to himself, he desired to show that, if any cruelty had been practised, it had not originated with him, but in the cruel nature of his minister. Under this pretence he took Ramiro, and one morning had him executed, and left on the piazza at Cesena with the block and a bloody knife at his side. The barbarity of this spectacle caused the people to be at once satisfied and dismayed.”
Borgia used the execution to both satisfy the people’s complaints, and to send a warning to troublemakers that they might be next if they displeased Cesare. It worked. The Romagna calmed down. Machiavelli cites this as an example of Cesare’s ‘virtu’ in handling a tricky situation.
“Among all the qualities there is none of greater force in gaining fame and reputation with a people than to listen to the complaints and supplications of the poor, and avenge their injuries.”
Bishop Stephen Gardiner, 1555 quoted in A Machiavellian Treatise
(One wonders if Cesare was aware of the story of Henry III and Simon de Montfort. When de Montfort crossed Henry, Henry merely banished his former friend, letting him live in France with his wife, Henry’s sister Eleanor. But de Montforte would return, first as a friend then as an opponent, and be a thorn in Henry’s side for the remainder of his years, even kidnapping him towards the end. de Montfort’s efforts to reduce the power of the king and manage the country eventually brought about the most important changes in the nature of royalty and government through the Oxford Provisions – which bound Henry and his heirs far more tightly than Magna Carta. In Machiavellian terms, Henry III was a weak, indecisive prince.)
Mediocrity in newcomers who got into office by luck is common, which, coupled with inexperience, can be a potent recipe for failure.
Ever see those nature films where a lion stalks a herd of gazelles? The gazelles panic and run until the lion brings down one of them. Then they grow calm again and return to grazing, because they know the lion won’t be hunting again for some time. Be the lion.
Cesare was now the ruler of his newly pacified state. He had done everything right, according to Machiavelli. He had exterminated the families of his enemies. He had won over all this enemies’ former allies in Rome, and gained control over much of the College of Cardinals. All he needed to do was consolidate his authority before his father, the Pope died, so that a new Pope would not be able to take it from him.
He almost did it. Unfortunately for Cesare, the Pope – his father – died while Borgia’s armies were in still the field.
When Alexander IV died, Borgia himself was sick, bedridden and close to death. He didn’t have enough allies among the cardinals to get his favourite cardinal elected as the next Pope, so he threw his support behind another to block the choice of his enemies. Pope Julius II was elected.
Bad choice. Julius had been bitter rivals with the Borgia family for years and despised Cesare’s father, the late Pope. But he pretended he had forgotten the old injuries the Borgia pope had done him, at least until after he was elected.
Julius proved an unswerving opponent of Cesare from the moment he was elected. Borgia was arrested and all of his lands were confiscated by the Pope. Borgia escaped, only to be recaptured and exiled to Spain, where he died. Julius was just following another basic rule in The Prince: crush your enemies. Machiavelli was probably taking notes when he did.
Simple bad luck – what Machiavelli called ‘fortune’ – frustrated Borgia’s plans. He had done everything Machiavelli considered necessary for victory. He had planned for everything, except the Pope’s death and his own illness. Machiavelli praised his “lofty spirit and far-reaching aims,” but the duke failed anyway.
And, of course, he made one really bad mistake in backing the wrong guy for the papacy.
Nonetheless, Machiavelli still held him up as an example for others to follow. It wasn’t Cesare’s crimes that affected his success as much as his mistakes. Machiavelli’s flawed hero gets A for effort in The Prince:
“He who considers it necessary to secure himself against enemies in his new principality, to win friends, to overcome either by force or fraud, to make himself beloved and feared by the people, to be followed and revered by the soldiers, to exterminate those who have power or reason to hurt him, to change the old order of things for new, to be severe and gracious, magnanimous and liberal, to destroy a disloyal soldiery and to create new, to maintain friendship with kings and princes in such a way that they must help him with zeal and offend with caution, cannot find a better example than the actions of this man.”
Machiavelli ends his tale with a warning about old wounds; the wounds Julius never forgot:
“He who believes that providing new benefits will make great men forget old injuries is deceived.”
Weak men may forget, and even forgive, but stronger ones have long memories. On your way up the ladder of power, beware of who you hurt because they won’t forget, and they will repay those hurts when they can:
“…men injure either from fear or hatred.”
So don’t leave injured or fearful enemies in place to hurt you later, and certainly don’t give them the power to hurt you. Crush them before they crush you, just like Julius did to Cesare Borgia.
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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