A central problem of politics is how to obtain and hold onto power. The Christian contemporary belief was that true power comes from those who are merciful, peaceful, generous, and tolerant; in other words, a good politician is a good Christian. In contrast, Machiavelli argued that an effective ruler needs to know how to be ruthless. This essay will investigate the power of fear in politics and its contemporary application.
Machiavelli was very skeptical of human nature and believed that humans were fundamentally malevolent. Throughout his life, Machiavelli experienced both the positive and negative sides of politics, acting as an important Florentine diplomat and army general before being classified as an enemy of the state. Unlike many philosophers, Machiavelli relied on experience and examples instead of logical analysis in his books, the Prince being his most infamous work. An inspiration for Machiavelli’s cynical political theory was the case of Girolamo Savonarola.
Savonarola was a friar and preacher who wanted to rule Florence according to traditional Christian (or morally correct) values. In 1494, he rose to power; however, Savonarola became incapable of fighting off his adversaries (Pope Alexander VI). As a result, the friar was hung and burnt alive in front of the people of Florence. “Men in general: they are ungrateful, fickle, deceptive, cowardly and greedy” To Machiavelli, this was a prime example of the innate human wickedness and presented the weakness of always being a good person. Savonarola was loved for his serenity and democratic rule but was not feared.
Machiavelli believed that if Savonarola had been brave enough to punish or execute the Pope for his corruption, he would not have been taken advantage of. Fear keeps the dissidents in check and hesitant to question and attack those in authority. Machiavelli believed that humans were generally not submissive and constantly needed someone to assert superiority over them, or else they would be inclined to revolt.
The correct application of the Machiavellian mindset or “criminal virtue” is imperative to stay relevant and important on the individual level. According to Machiavelli, “criminal virtue” is the necessary evil of good leaders. Today, the 500-year-old Machiavellian ideology is dominant throughout politics which is surprising considering that not even its dedicated reader bothered to read it, Lorenzo de Medici. The revolutionary part of Machiavelli’s work was how he freed politics by detaching it from ethics. There are many things to be learned from the Prince: never take the people’s love, and trust for granted— be willing to use power to keep people in
check. [The “prince decides whom they will fear, and a wise prince will lay his foundations on what he controls, not what others control.”] Machiavelli is steadfast in destroying anything that is underpinned by the trust and control of others. This belief is important in politics but also essential on a person-to-person basis. To always wholeheartedly trust the word of others would be foolish and would accompany betrayal, this is because trust or love presents a
weakness, a reliance on others, which will be taken advantage of in moments of struggle. To be a powerful and steadfast person, it is important to possess the force to act cruelly but not use it senselessly. This fosters a secure and closer friendship, as the other party knows there are boundaries. They know that betrayal will result in being ousted from the group.
Take a look at the example of Vladimir Putin, a vicious despot who is the architect behind the brutal Russo-Ukrainian war. Since 1999, Putin has managed to stay in power thanks to exhibiting the traits of a “lion” and a “fox” as Machiavelli coined it. The “fox” is cautious and adaptive when recognizing traps, while the “lion” frightens off the wolves. Putin acted as a wolf when he changed the constitution to allow him to run for reelection. However, out of prudency and to not anger the population, he gave the presidency to the former prime minister for four years.
At the same time, Putin is more notoriously known as a “lion”. He has instilled fear among Eastern European states who try to join NATO (Ukraine, Georgia), used the threat of an energy crisis to subdue Germany, and fostered an environment where the media and independent politicians are kept in check; political dissidents tend to die in mysterious circumstances. Fear reigns over all in countries centered around machismo, like Russia. In the less hardened West, it is more expedient to be a “fox” than a “lion” (e.g. Russia will eventually pay a heavy price for its belligerence).