The Toxic Legacy of Machiavelli’s The Prince (2/2)
by Philip Jonkers
“Knowing your own darkness is the best method for dealing with the darknesses of other people.” Carl Jung
The Legacy’s Sinister Roots
In his intriguing little discourse, Machiavelli admittedly showcases an impressive arsenal of insights into the human psyche; but they nevertheless are observations of an invariably devious, manipulative and degenerate human nature. Machiavelli promotes an, in retrospect, universally burlesque view of the human being — a humanoid creature that is at all times fraught with alarming character defects and possesses an insufferable baseness of heart and mind. Arguably deserving more infamy than renown, the scholar of old advances a worldview in which the ruler, while feigning to be noble and honorable, is exhorted to adopt as cunning and ruthless a personality as needed in order to deal with depraved and dangerous subjects as well as menacing rival rulers itching to usurp his realm. Machiavelli’s understanding of the world paints a toxic worldview which works to seduce the real world into shaping and molding itself in accordance with the distorted and disturbing recommendations suggested in The Prince; where the severity of this corruption, the extent to which the real world is made to approximate the Machiavellian worldview, depends on the quantity and quality of all those ambitious and unscrupulous students of power finding themselves unable to resist the lure of the Machiavellian lore and choose to model their mores after it.
That is, in summary, Machiavelli’s legacy.
In the function of being an instruction-manual for rule, The Prince promotes a sinister form of idolatry. In effect, Machiavelli instructs the Prince to embrace a self-image in which he poses as the very embodiment of goodness while recognizing evil and blameworthiness in potentially everyone but himself. The ruler is expected to idolize a mirage featuring himself in the role of the untouchable exalted ruler, divinely-guided and fully-militarized, heroically fighting evil rival rulers wherever they crop up and either form a threat to be dealt with or an opportunity to be preyed upon; while, simultaneously, ruling with an eternally righteous iron fist over flocks of unruly subjects, barely deserving to be called human.
And by so doing, as he seeks to destroy evil by seeking to destroy all those human beings who, in his warped view, commit or represent evil, thereby completely negating the existence of his own profoundly sinister psychic shadow, if he was not so already, basically volunteers to at least partially become morally insane as he stunts or even freezes his conscience and sense of empathy. Therefore, as a model to be imitated, together with his responsibility-denying and fear-exploiting rule, the Prince thus helps to further corrupt society by (unconsciously) encouraging its members to likewise become Machiavellianly insane.
In particular, Machiavelli champions a doctrine which capitalizes on the Prince’s incapability to own up to the unavoidable shame and guilt that is native to the imperfection of his personality and defects of character; the untouchability of the Prince is regarded an unshakable axiom. Apart from repenting and seeking forgiveness with God and making amends with any possibly involved injured parties, the way to deal with shame and guilt in a healthy manner ultimately requires application of self-compassion and self-forgiveness. When instead resorting to blatant denial or projection, the toxic effects of shame and guilt on the psyche are, at best, merely temporarily mitigated while their psychic roots remain intact. By being able to forgive yourself, by admitting and accepting past mistakes, by humbling yourself through admitting and accepting your own fallibility, you put yourself in a position where those noxious roots may be pulled out, as it were; and you may then move on the morally wiser. Effectively you come to peace with yourself when admitting a past mistake and become able to prevent making that same mistake again in the future; and by having learned to make one mistake less, you get to climb one rung up the ladder of personal moral progress.
Unfortunately, since the Prince is bound to worship(*) his pristine and unassailable image of the valiant warlord, by being thwarted from recognizing his own shadow, he is denied the means to morally mature. Although in informal private circles he may perhaps be permitted more leeway and somewhat relax his commitment to idolatry, in the presence of the prying eyes of the public, including and especially aristocratic fellows, he can never afford admitting to having made a mistake as he would jeopardize loss of face, fear losing public confidence, fear some rival ruler may exploit the exposition of his weakness and thus fear inviting ruin. As a result, courtesy of his dependency to a toxic form of idolatry, his moral development being impeded, in a worst case scenario, he may very well be stuck in a state of moral infancy.
It is interesting to note that Machiavelli precisely advices the Prince to shun burdens of responsibility. In Chapter XIX he broaches a then contemporary issue on how the French King commissioned a third party arbitrator, parliament, to have as aim to relieve the King of suffering reproach from the nobles upon favoring the commoners and, vice versa, suffering reproach from the commoners upon favoring the nobles. Teaches Machiavelli:
“And hence we may draw another notable lesson, namely, that Princes should devolve on others those matters that entail responsibility, and reserve to themselves those that relate to grace and favour. And again I say that a Prince should esteem the great, but must not make himself odious to the people.”
To admit to having chinks in his armor is something the Prince has learned, likely from an early age onward already, to avoid like the plague. But the price is to say farewell to effective means of relief of suffering and the means to morally mature. To further shed light on the psychology that gives rise to this pathology, the book The Betrayal of the Self by psychoanalyst Arno Gruen is very instructive. Although it is not devoted in particular to describe the psychopathology of budding potentates, its scope is nonetheless general enough to be relevant and applicable for that purpose. Gruen writes that exposing a child to a flooding of environmental high-intensity stimuli is destructive to its developing psyche, and the child responds to being overwhelmed with a state of helplessness. It seems to me that such a state of helplessness may however also be induced when subjecting the child to a strict code of conduct, a narrow range of permissible behavior suitable for a young ruler in the making. When the child has no choice but to rigidly submit to what the parents–and all the child’s court nannies, tutors and governesses–regard as desirable and becoming behavior, when thereby the child is robbed of the possibility to develop autonomy, it seems reasonable to presume that it, at some stage, may also fall victim to a state of profound frustration and helplessness. If this indeed were to take place, Gruen then proposes two ways for the child to respond: it may either succumb and become psychologically crippled or it may repress its defenselessness and split it off from the growing self:
“If the latter occurs, children will block out everything reminiscent of the situation in which they experienced these feelings, thus reducing their capacity for empathy and, consequently, their humanness. In this manner, entire parts of their developing self will be split off from consciousness. For the split to be sustained, helplessness must become an object of rejection and hatred. Helplessness is what seems threatening and not the situation which brought it about. As a result, people will continue to seek revenge on everything that might recall their own helplessness. That is why they scorn it in others. Scorn and contempt conceal their fear and at the same time encourage a general attitude of contempt for helplessness and the need for a compensatory ideology of power and domination. In this way, victims join the ranks of their oppressors in order to find new victims–an endless process by which human beings become dehumanized.” (p.9)
In other words, the child’s response reads as: if I cannot profess my, in actual fact, inalienable right to become a sovereign master of my own internal world, if I may not cultivate my own autonomy and authentic individuality, I will try to become a sovereign master of my external world through seeking power; if I cannot control my own person, I will seek compensation by trying to control other persons; instead of truly living on the inside, however, I now am being lived by outside influences; instead of developing into a freely acting individual, I now have degenerated into a slave of power and appearance; I act not so much because I want to, but because I have to. And as I cut myself off from my sentient and independent inner core of being, I sacrifice my capacity to have empathy because I have sabotaged my ability to sentiently register the suffering of other people by way of psychic mirroring, as it were–or, put more simply, I have become unable to suffer along with other people in a way that is sympathetic and free from interfering judgment and prejudice.
In terms of idolatry: my autonomy, my independence, my mastery over my own authentic and individual being is replaced by a dependency to the worship of a prescribed idol befitting to one who is being groomed for rule. In practice, this means that I accept to learn to play an externally-imposed predetermined role of an upcoming ruler, filled to the brim with mandatory behavioral protocols and etiquettes; and as I pour all my attention and energy into playing that part, there is none left for me to tend to my spontaneous and unrehearsed, autonomous and independent genuine feelings; ultimately, by completely having surrendered myself to idolatry, I have starved my sentient inner-most self and by so doing I have starved my responsiveness to the sentient selves of others–who, from my vantage point, as do I myself, now have come to resemble self-animating humanoid dolls more than living breathing autonomous human beings having more than just a pulse.
And therefore as I have thoroughly immersed myself in the role forced upon me, I find myself having difficulty to suspend my disbelief when others enter my presence in a state of emotional distress or turmoil; and I often tend to think that their tears are but crocodile tears, aimed to manipulate and deceive me. And so I rarely have more than little patience or comfort for them. In fact, depending on the prevailing circumstances, I may just prefer to scorn or even persecute them for their insolence and audacity. You see, because I have become a permanent actor myself, I tend to prejudice that the people around me have embraced the same fate. In fact, to me, human life has now become one big play and I have become an arch-skeptic or even cynic of human emotion.
Gruen further clarifies the effects of the willful withering away of the capacity for compassion and empathy:
“When we are confronted with the helplessness of another person but turn our back on it because we repudiate it in ourselves, that person arouses our self-hatred. Faced with helplessness, our fear is transformed into anger at the victim for serving as a mirror of our own hated self. What we are doing is making the victim responsible for our own “weakness.” This is the revenge we take for our own repressed humiliation, a mechanism with a long history of development. Here we find the underlying reason for our identification with violence … the actual source of our cruelty and callousness lies in the rejection of our own suffering. The more inhumanly we behave, the more we repudiate our suffering and betray that human self we were never permitted to have.” (p.38)
So here we see a confirmation in the notion that the child’s focal point of where the causes which inspire its behavior shifts from internal to external. As it seeks to dissociate from its own painful inner core of being, it naturally looks to base its actions on a reactivity to external impulses coming from other people rather than being directed from within his own inner being. When the child happens to witness a helpless person (or “weak” person), it refuses to lay the responsibility within his own troubled psyche for the anger and pain that this observation provokes in him. The unpleasant sensory pangs the child experiences when the helpless person enters the child’s field of perception are blamed instead on the helpless person themselves. Therefore, ultimately the child’s pathological response originates in a misattribution, an unjustified externalization, of the cause of his suffering. And as the child refuses to own up to the responsibility for his own feelings, he will see himself vindicated to strike in retaliation to what he perceives as the culprit for his suffering. Generally speaking, the child thus learns to deny and evade self-responsibility for his own harmful actions by shifting it unto external agents. Hence he may always walk away from the fruits of his own cruel hand with a relatively clear conscience.
So this pathological mindset may serve as a basis, a psychological rationale, for the child to learn to seek power over people who squarely deserve to be exposed to mistreatment in the form of exploitation and domination, augmented with cruelty where needed…. after all, the child is led to believe, by being the miserable beings that they are, they never cease to having the gall to make him feel miserable too by committing the “crime” of entering his presence; and so to exercise power over them, it is suggested, is perfectly justified and works to fulfill two desires of the child: payback and pain management.
What this means for the Prince, when his character has suffered such an alienation of the self, is that he will have a natural commitment to persecuting and exploiting the weaknesses of his subjects, concerning internal rule, as well as his aristocratic rivals concerning external rule; and by his efforts of power in so doing, by seeking to subdue his subjects and rivals he tries to gain a sense of superiority and righteousness. With respect to internal rule (see the Cyclically-Reinforced Toxic Influence section), this means that initiating measures of persecution and surveillance will come natural to the Prince, in the sense of being in perfect harmony with his toxic disposition; it also means that the Prince sees himself justified to exploit the masses, as he rationalizes his ruthless domination of them by placing the blame squarely with their own weaknesses. Concerning external rule, any perception of weakness in a rival ruler the Prince may eagerly use as an excuse to step up hostilities aimed at such an easy prey and blame the prey’s possible demise on its own weakness; if, on the other hand, the Prince perceives a rival ruler to be both menacing and powerful, the fear that now he might become a prey must trigger self-hatred which quickly is to be transmuted into hatred for the threatening rival, provoking again the Prince to step up exaggerated preemptive hostilities. Hence it shows that the Prince’s self-alienated character is perfectly consistent with the paranoid and megalomaniacal worldview of Machiavelli; or, rephrased, courtesy of his toxic nature, the self-alienated Prince works to make sure that the Machiavellian prophecies come true in a self-fulfilling way.
It is also interesting to note that the infant Prince’s decision to seal off the “weak” part of his psyche, is paradoxically itself an act of weakness. The young Prince simply could not handle being in a state of helplessness, he failed to muster the strength to process the experience of his weakness, and rather than having the strength to admit to being weak and in need of help, he chose to altogether distance himself from his own insufferable weakness in a state of utter self-disgust and self-contempt. It is of course entirely possible that the Prince was raised in such a decidedly cold and unaffectionate royal environment in which the prospect of being granted help when he was helpless was out-of-the-question to begin with, perhaps precisely because his parents were also of a weakness-despising toxic disposition and were therefore committed to raising the Prince dispassionately. In addition, the parents may have regarded it to be matter of virtue for the child to learn to fiercely despise helplessness and as such be able to look toward becoming a more effective (read: resolute and ruthless) future ruler; and so they intentionally let the child suffer in solitude and as such force it to brand itself with the mark of psychic toxicity, as it were, disguised as the mark of suitability for rule.
Since he despises weakness lock, stock and barrel, the Prince may be expected to in general be unable to forgive those who in some way have wronged him but who, in some point in time, have a change of heart and, in a state of remorse, proceed to humbly request his pardon; a patent gesture of weakness, in the eyes of the Prince. The only possible exception I can think of for the Prince to welcome offers of regret, however, is if his acts of absolution put him in a favorable and therefore exploitable public light; this could happen, for example, when such generous exercises of amnesty are accompanied by all the magnificence and pomp the Prince can bring to bear to make certain that everyone under his rule is reinforced in the impression that they have the special fortune of serving a most benevolent and magnanimous ruler. Since the main object is to impress his people, however, one cannot help but place doubt in the sincerity of the Prince when he extends his grace and mercy in such spectacular and self-profiting fashion.
Being therefore, on the whole, fiercely hostile to compassion, the Prince automatically forgoes on the unconditional expectation of himself receiving gentle approaches from those who can afford to not having to stoop to grovel at his feet upon entering his presence, those dignitaries who have the luxury of being able to face the Prince more-or-less as a peer. Together with Machiavelli’s heavily advertised need to devote himself virtually exclusively to the art of war, and therefore wholly embrace a sincerely belligerent attitude, the Prince is sure to move in a very harsh and unforgiving political climate and will likely never quite be a stranger to abundances of psychic stress and tension. As long as he clings to his images, as long as he is idolatry-dependent, as long as he remains on the road of rule and commits himself to don the mask of power, he will never be denied freedom from psychic suffering.
And so it is that the Prince is bound to keep on suffering, although he must choose to stay oblivious to the real cause of his suffering for fear of having to recognize his own weaknesses and defectiveness of character, his kryptonite. Grounded in his inability to reconcile himself with his unavoidably shame-burdened and guilt-ridden shadow, the inner core of his being that he abandoned as a child in hatred and contempt, the Prince seeks, ultimately in vain, to relieve himself of his stressful, fear-based suffering by seeking to make his minions, subjects and, most favorably: enemies suffer. By virtue of his power, the psychic toxicity that issues from the Prince may affect not just his whole realm but may resonate, in principle, across the world.
Love is Nothing, Fear is Everything
With so much toxicity radiating out from the warlike Machiavellian Prince of Darkness and the reasonable expectation that a good deal will be returned to him, it is obvious that his underlying attitude is not what one would expect were he to be an adept at professing effective self-love. Notwithstanding the possibility that he may have an affectionate regard for his self-image, which at any rate is only an intangible mental abstraction, he may be considered to be all but a complete stranger to both love for his fellow human being and love for his own person. And this notion is perfectly consistent with the teachings contained in The Prince when Machiavelli encourages the Prince to place little stock in love (Ch.XVII), whether it concerns the love his subjects have for him or the love he has for his subjects. Machiavelli in fact glorifies rule by fear while he distrusts and rejects love for being too fragile to rely on as tool of power.
He blatantly ignores the possibility that man is more than a purely selfish and socially-isolated creature who has bonds with no-one when he writes in Chapter III:
“And let it here be noted that men are either to be kindly treated, or utterly crushed, since they can revenge lighter injuries, but not graver. Wherefore the injury we do to a man should be of a sort to leave no fear of reprisals.”
In the real world, however, every person normally is thoroughly meshed in a social network of loved ones, friends and other people who care for them. And by killing a person, or even by slaughtering an entire family or tribe, one may still expect a desire for revenge from all those who were not killed but were connected to the slain ones by affective bonds of one kind or another; especially in modern times, facilitated by telecommunication systems enabling people to become instantly connected with each-other in combination with the globally distributed do-it-yourself media facility known as the Internet, the expectation of no reprisals is too unrealistic to ever deserve guarantee.
Indeed, the blow-back from the heinous American drone bombing campaigns perfectly serve to illustrate this point. As these unmanned remote-controlled spewers of death and destruction send shock-waves of terror across the middle- and far east, it is precisely such campaigns which function as indirect yet fertile recruitment grounds, cynically enough, for the one thing they on paper are supposed to combat: terrorism. Those who henceforth choose to become “terrorists” may be driven to do so not so much out of purely religiously inspired motives, although that is possible, but simply rather as a way of fighting back–to protect their besieged lands against an overwhelming external enemy as well as avenge slain loved ones. Admissions such as, “Drones have replaced Guantánamo as the recruiting tool of choice for militants”, reported in an article by the New York Times in 2012, come hence as no surprise.
Rather than being based on general observations of the society the Prince resides in, perhaps the lack of trust in love evident in The Prince is due to the writer himself being a stranger to love. When in Chapter XXV discussing whether it is better for the Prince to be impetuous or cautious, Machiavelli claims to be “well persuaded, that it is better to be impetuous than cautious. For Fortune is a woman who to be kept under must be beaten and roughly handled; and we see that she suffers herself to be more readily mastered by those who so treat her than by those who are more timid in their approaches. And always, like a woman, she favours the young, because they are less scrupulous and fiercer, and command her with greater audacity.” Do we sense here that to Machiavelli a relationship between man and woman, entails the former being licensed to brutally subdue the latter by way of violence? If so, and although the times of emancipation of the woman were still far off, any kind of love that the woman may have for her man under such appalling misogynist circumstances must indeed be of a rather unreliable and insincere quality; on the whole, she is much more likely to be driven by fear than love; after all, how well may love survive when it stands to be drowned out by the eternal fear of punishment from a husband who has rather loose hands? If in this kind of relationship between adult people, where love may have a chance to rise to have an exceptionally strong quality, it turns out that even here love also is inferior, then how can it fare any better in other kinds of relationship between adult people? It is thus no grand mystery for Machiavelli to altogether abandon hope in love as an asset for rule.
Machiavelli’s idea of love seems to come in two basic flavors. The first is the kind akin to bribery, where you give someone something valuable and in return that person enters into a state of commitment, a tacit understanding, an unspoken promise to return the favor when you show to be in want of help. Since there is is a compulsory sense of commitment here, it is questionable however whether it is real love driving that person’s desire to payback what they owe. It would seem to me, after all, that a sense of compulsion tends to squeeze out feelings of love. The other kind of love applies to the love the subjects have for their Prince. But this kind is really a one-way street, the subjects are to love their ruler but the ruler is not expected to reciprocate. Indeed, upon Machiavelli’s advice, the Prince is to base his rule on fear rather than bank on the love his subjects may have for him; and it can therefore be presumed that the Prince is not too keen to return the insincere love of his subjects; except perhaps in a broad impersonal way when–during grand public spectacles, where he shows up and waves his hand to the crowd every once in a while–the Prince’s reputation as a benevolent, generous ruler of the people and for the people stands to benefit. Which brings me to the point I’m trying to make. The subjects are not really loving their Prince the way a person loves another person in a direct, personal and intimate way. It is more accurate to state that the people are more engaged in worship, and not of the Prince as a human being either, but rather an embodiment of an idealized abstract semblance of a Prince who is present yet distant and impersonal. In terms of idolatry, the people are to worship a perfected image of the Prince, undeservedly augmented with all manner of flattering features while cleansed of any incriminating flaws and insulting blemishes–an idol expressly made suitable for consumption by a naive and gullible public yearning for a heroic savior and protector. So what the people “love” is in essence merely a propagandized mental abstraction, a promoted figment of the imagination, rather than a tangible and accessible human being. And worship is not real love either since it is, on the one hand, motivated by the hope of gaining favors and, on the other hand, the fear of being punished for failing to live up to the idol’s suggested expectations and demands. Functionally speaking, worship is what a poor beggar professes in order to make a few of his many roving masters cough up a few pennies so to be able to make it through the day–unlike love, the spirit of worship is manipulation the aim of which is to gain favors and merciful recognition for the self.
Machiavellian love therefore seems to be an instrumental kind of love, an impostor kind of love (the stuff of bribes and begging), more than genuine love: which is freely given and is free from coercion and a sense of obligation. It’s a conclusion that does not come out of the blue when one considers the harsh prison-like conditions of medieval communities in which love is expected to thrive in. Poetically put, the rugged lands of the Machiavellian principality lend themselves poorly to be hospitable to the flowering of love.
The great tragedy is that The Prince its barren and cold reception of humanity is perpetuated when it serves in the capacity of being a model for rule. In the Machiavellian worldview love means nothing whereas fear, as the source of political power, means everything…. and so fear is what the world will know.
To some unknown degree, the world is a callous and perilous place precisely because its inherently toxic and morally retarded Machiavellian rulers, big and small, so consider it and actively either so shape it or so keep it by the ruthless, myopic and self-aggrandizing ways in which they wield their power and influence.
Used English translation: http://www.bartleby.com/36/1/
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*) With a person engaging in worship, in the context relevant here, is understood the gathering of that person’s attention (commitment of time and directed mental energy) together with that person’s means to morally develop and sacrifice both personal assets to an idol/image which is perceived to be without flaws and beyond criticism.