TTYL: Machiavelli today

In her bi-weekly column, Text to your life (TTYL), Sonnet Xu examines classics from years past that are timely in their messages to this day. Maybe the classics still have something to say.

“Politics have no relation to morals.”

Controversial since its publication, Niccoló Machiavelli’s “The Prince” has had a significant impact on political philosophy. But beyond the political sphere, Machiavelli’s blunt advice and ideas offer timeless insights into how to face ethical dilemmas and consider complex trade-offs, fostering critical thinking skills that are central to decision making today.

Stanford students are faced with a wealth of choices and endless things to prioritize. Especially with the summer rolling around, thinking even about a public service fellowship or a high-paying consulting job could be paramount. In a seemingly endless race to the top, for wealth, power and influence, how do we get where we want? How do we stay?

Championing pragmatism over morality, emphasizing reality over idealism, and unabashedly giving controversial advice, “The Prince” contradicted the prevailing Christian ethics held by traditional European leaders when it was first released in 16th century Italy. Machiavelli, who himself was a diplomat and military leader, wrote the book as a guide for ambitious rulers, specifically the Medicis, seeking to obtain and maintain power in tumultuous times – often through manipulation, pragmatism and the pursuit of self-interest. As Machiavelli wrote, “It is necessary for a prince wishing to hold his own to know how to do wrong, and to make use of it or not according to necessity.” 

This piece cemented Machiavelli’s role as one of the founders of modern political philosophy. Machiavellian principles and actions are all around us today, both in contemporary politics and within Stanford as an institution. 

Some of America’s most notorious leaders have (mis)used Machiavelli’s teachings to their advantage. Richard Nixon, a champion of Machiavellian pragmatism, used it heavily during his presidential career. From campaigning with shrewd use of the “Southern strategy” and garnering votes by exploiting racial tension, to emphasizing geopolitical interests over ideology by opening the door to China, Nixon left a legacy that was decorated, but contested. 

“The Prince” views ethics in politics as distinct from those governing the rest of society. Machiavelli does not discourage immoral acts, rather, he recommends careful consideration when employing them. Machiavelli is willing to compromise honesty to further state interests and promotes deceit to maintain political power, claiming it as necessary for the greater good. 

Machiavelli’s pragmatic approach to power politics seems to have more applications to the modern world than he might have ever anticipated, as current leaders readily repurpose his advice for their own use cases. The path to the presidency is readily Machiavellian. As he said, “The promise given was a necessity of the past: the word broken is a necessity of the present.” 

During her 2016 presidential campaign, Hillary Clinton was heavily scrutinized because she made the controversial statement that politicians needed “a public and a private position.” She defended her statement by referencing Abraham Lincoln’s pragmatic maneuvers to get congressional approval of the 13th amendment and pointing out its necessity. George H.W. Bush ran on the slogan, “Read my lips: no new taxes,” only to sign new ones into law two years later. Some argue it was a necessary step toward addressing the growing budget deficit and the rising national debt, but the decision to raise taxes faced significant backlash.

The modern day influence of “The Prince” appears in foreign policy. While claiming to be defenders of democracy, the U.S. continues to support authoritarian regimes in the middle east like Saudi Arabia, which brought “a $6.4 billion goods-and-services trade surplus” in 2021. The industries and workers who benefit from these trade relations might agree with the Machiavellian idea that “the end justifies the means,” even if that means sweeping human rights abuses under the rug.

As aptly observed by Machiavelli centuries ago, it seems state pursuits have moral costs. Through reading The Prince, we can consider the relationship between public deeds and private morality, and evaluate whether these tradeoffs are really “necessary” for those trying to maintain authority. 

Sublimation of moral values in trying to reach an ends is seen beyond just politics. This pragmatism is seen in industry, and even at places like Stanford. The Doerr School of Sustainability uses money from “big oil” companies to fund its groundbreaking research and student programs. What are the ethics behind taking fossil fuel dollars while marketing a sustainable future?

Stanford has a societal mission plastered across its home page stating, “Stanford was founded almost 150 years ago on a bedrock of societal purpose. Our mission is to contribute to the world by educating students for lives of leadership and contribution with integrity; advancing fundamental knowledge and cultivating creativity; leading in pioneering research for effective clinical therapies; and accelerating solutions and amplifying their impact.” But as a hotspot for trading firms to do recruitment and high-paying banking companies to find their next generation of interns, how much are students really giving back? (And how honest were those application essays?) Are our lives of leadership today going towards societal improvement or personal advancement? 

Dishonesty and talking without action extends beyond just the student body. In foreign affairs, the government isn’t always entirely transparent about their motives. While claiming to be defenders of democracy, the U.S. continues to be in support of authoritarian regimes in the middle east like Saudi Arabia, which brought “a $6.4 billion goods-and-services trade surplus with Saudi Arabia, and U.S. exports to Saudi Arabia supported over 165,000 American jobs” in 2021. For the families and industries that this props up, they might agree with the Machiavellian idea that “the end justifies the means,” sweeping the human rights abuses championed by these countries under the rug. As aptly observed by Machiavelli centuries ago, it seems state pursuits have moral costs. The acquisition of power in the present day may be markedly distinct from that of the renaissance, yet the relationship between public deeds and private morality is no less “necessary” for those trying to maintain authority. 

Flourishing in the Western European landscape was no easy task, but it doesn’t mean that there weren’t alternatives. Closely related to the values of Confucianism, Eastern Political Philosophy juxtaposes the harsh landscape of Machiavelli, with an emphasis on moral authority and a firm belief that the well-being of society was closely tied to the ethical conduct of its leaders. Leaning on a form of meritocracy, where individuals are appointed to positions of power based on their moral character, education and ability to serve the common good, rather than a cutthroat competition, ancient Eastern civilizations flourished for many generations. 

Undoubtedly, the different historical and societal contexts in which America has developed make supplanting these ideas quite difficult. But with the 2024 election coming up, a bit of moral leadership doesn’t sound so bad. Especially when we have a lot of criminality on the ballot.

Beyond its literary significance and relevance to contemporary politics, “The Prince” offers an opportunity to engage with a pragmatic perspective through which students can approach life and decision making as a whole. Reading the different scenarios Machiavelli poses, the historical situations Machiavelli references, and the logical justifications provided for his recommendations, people can interrogate their own values and belief system, exploring how morality, power, and leadership interacted in the past, and how those lessons can be applied or changed for the present.