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The Chanakya of Florence: Machiavelli and ‘The Prince’

Unscrupulous? A 16th-century portrait of Niccolò Machiavelli by Santi di Tito.

Unscrupulous? A 16th-century portrait of Niccolò Machiavelli by Santi di Tito.   | Photo Credit: Wiki Commons

Is morality a necessary part of politics? No, said Machiavelli, thereby starting an argument that rages to this day

Niccolò Machiavelli is to Europe what Chanakya is to India. He stripped governance of morality and looked at it purely from the point of view of strategy. Victory in politics and warfare was not about good and evil, not even about right and wrong. It was about how to win, and if winning means backstabbing and deceit, well, that’s just the way the world is.

Viewers of Game of Thrones would be familiar with characters who would hold such views. Of course, for us in the modern world, what Machiavelli is saying is hardly scandalous. But he was the first to articulate this clearly in Europe. In 1513, Machiavelli wrote The Prince, which was addressed to a prince of the Medici clan in Florence. It’s his most famous work but not the only one. There is another called the Discourses, which is also didactic for rulers.

Lessons in amorality

Whether The Prince is still relevant today is dependent on whether or not we concede that morality is not a necessary part of politics. We want to think that morality is needed, and no ruler will say otherwise. However, without amorality there is no politics. This is an eternal truth and the reason why Machiavelli is relevant and read even today.

Machiavelli says alliances are between allies, not friends. The adversary is an opponent, not an enemy. Statecraft must be approached as by chess players and not as actors in saas-bahu serials. “It is not a wise course,” he says, “to make an alliance with a ruler whose reputation is greater than his strength.” This brings a name but no protection. He asks, and this is a relevant question today, “whether it is better, when threatened with attack, to assume the offensive or await the outbreak of war.”

Having asked the question, Machiavelli assesses the merits of both sides of the argument. He looks at the history of such things from Hannibal (who invaded Rome in the second century BC) to Charles VIII, King of France, who died only a few years after the work was written.

He admits there are advantages and disadvantages to both sides. His conclusion is that a nation well-armed and equipped for war should wait at home for the enemy. However, if the nation is weaker than the other and unused or unprepared, it is better to engage the enemy at a distance, away from the nation.

Unemotional theory

Machiavelli was widely read in the classics of Europe and could reach to examples from the history of ancient Greece and Rome to illustrate his point. This makes him attractive to read, and in many ways (not in the content, of course), his style reminds me of that of Michel de Montaigne, who was Machiavelli’s contemporary in France.

I said Machiavelli is like Chanakya but one thing that separates them is time. Chanakya came 1,500 years before Machiavelli. He was talking about the same things, stripping morality from statecraft and looking at it purely from the point of view of outcomes and how to achieve them, but he was doing so at a time before the Church.

The question is why India was fertile ground for such an unemotional theory so long before Machiavelli, who was writing close to the modern age, at a time when the scientific temper was almost fully in place. The answer must have something to do with the people of India and the nature of its rulers.

Machiavelli and his theory shocked Europe so much that we still use the word ‘machiavellian’ in a negative way. The dictionary describes it as being “cunning, scheming and unscrupulous, especially in politics.” I don’t think Machiavelli would disagree with the definition. He would be rather amused with the moral emotion loaded into it.

And Chanakya would agree with him in full.

Aakar Patel is a columnist and translator of Urdu and Gujarati non-fiction works.

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Printable version | Jul 13, 2020 1:23:48 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/books/the-chanakya-of-florence-machiavelli-and-the-prince/article31921650.ece

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