AN ITALIAN Renaissance political thinker who died almost 500 years ago suddenly became the talk of the town. Thanks to the question of Professor Dr. Clarita Carlos to Mr. Bongbong Marcos during the SMNI presidential interview: Are you Machiavellian?
I am not interested in Mr. Marcos’ answer. What interests me is the sudden surge of Machiavelli’s popularity. What interests me, all the more, is the sudden increase in commentators, annotators, and experts in Machiavelli (in particular) and political theory (in general).
I taught Political Theory years ago. It was not a secret that the subject was not liked by many students. In fact, there were more who abhorred the readings of the course. Especially among my students who majored in Political Science and who planned to take up law, the likes of Machiavelli were considered irrelevant vis-à-vis the mere interest of getting a college diploma. I must add, parenthetically, that if Machiavelli’s works were not viewed with so much interest by those who would prefer to read simplified codal works, there was “greater” distaste for the likes of Rousseau, Hegel, and Marx.
Precisely, why I find it ironic when all of a sudden people here and there have become Machiavellians, speaking as if they’re Machiavelli’s close friends or childhood playmates.
Quite unfortunate though that still the political thinker’s views are read like a glass of water: half-filled and half-empty. People repeat caricatures of Machiavelli, underscoring the often-oversimplified notion that his philosophy is obsessed with power, immoral (or amoral), and selfish. There’s a grain of truth in these, but any serious student of political science and political philosophy knows that like any theorist or thinker, Machiavelli simply did his part in trying to interpret political life the best way he could during his time.
It would not be incorrect to say that Machiavelli is not so accurately read if we limit our focus on themes of deception and cruelty in his work, especially The Prince. While Machiavelli may have been associated with practical politics, that is, the "is" of politics rather than the "ought"; nevertheless, it is not entirely true that he is the archetype of diabolical rule or governance without morality.
One must read Machiavelli, especially The Prince, in context. Moreover, one has to read the other writings of the Italian political thinker in order to get the fulsome landscape of his views. Apparently, Machiavelli is not like Aristotle who is explicit in his view on the link between ethics and politics. More so he is not the same with Christian thinkers who see politics as part of God’s plan. There’s truth in this, but there is also a valid reason why. It will make our reading of him circumspect if we pay attention to the situation of Renaissance Italy. If we do this, it cannot easily be said that there is no moral element in Machiavelli’s thoughts. It is not the case that Machiavelli is ordinarily and without any qualification supportive of any naked reduction of politics to power.
Because we do not have enough space to elaborate the above mentioned points, let me recommend a few reliable commentaries. You may consider Sebastian de Grazia’s Machiavelli in Hell, a work described by the Journal of Modern History as vivid and credible. Also check Giovanni Giorgini’s “Machiavelli on Good and Evil: The Problem of Dirty Hands Revisited”, a chapter in the book Machiavelli on Liberty and Conflict. Another work by the same author is “Cicero and Machiavelli: Two Visions of Statesmanship and Two Educational Projects Compared.” This discusses Machiavelli’s political philosophy as a vision of statesmanship and, thus, an educational project for rulers.
Professor Carlos’ question is timely. Whether Bongbong Marcos is Machiavellian, is something that remains to be seen. Setting aside our partisan differences, my advice is for us to read and read the appropriate sources before we make unnecessary and pretentious remarks about something we know little.