Prophylactic Power

This article is part of a series entitled Machiavelli in Society. See also:

  1. Sex: Machiavelli on Seduction
  2. Empathy: Calculated Empathy
  3. Society: Prophylactic Power

“For men commit injuries either through fear or through hate.” — The Prince, Ch. VII

Niccolò Machiavelli, in the blunt words of scholar Max Lerner, “taught the world to think in terms of cold political power” [1]. To the fifteenth-century Florentine’s credit, much of his political writing – including the famous political manual The Prince, as well as the longer, more thorough treatise The Discourses – explores merely esoteric matters, from “The events that caused the creation of tribunes in Rome” to “How the Samnites resorted to religion as an extreme remedy for their desperate condition.” One chapter is titled simply “How easily men may be corrupted.” [1]

Machiavelli did, though, also instruct in the ways of pure power (see, for example, certain portions of The Prince), and Lerner’s statement rings true. Machavelli’s lessons in power – and, more broadly, the philosophical paradigm introduced by his cold, realist realpolitik – have contributed most of all to the writer’s fame.

Power-chasing reminds us of dangerous things: of Raskolnikov’s infatuation with the Men of Bronze, and his subsequent torment; of Nietzsche’s eerie overman and Zarathustra’s flight to the mountains; or of, according to certain readings of Christianity, the devil himself. In Mere Christianity, C. S. Lewis writes, “Pride… has been the chief cause of misery in every nation and every family since the world began. … It comes direct from Hell” [2].

But the study of social competency can also promote equality. Even the most trampled among us, indeed, can, and should, use Machiavelli’s tools: to climb from their painful position; to attain a station of equality for the first time; to become capable, finally, of sharing in the emotional gifts of the world. Equality – and not power – is the proper final stage of Machiavelli’s project.

Here, moreover, his role ends.

Part 1: Defense

Certain goals we can all agree upon

Before I demarcate and outline where Machiavelli’s thinking can help us – and where it cannot – I must begin with some common ground. I’ll put forth a handful of goals universally worthy of our attention and diligence; these goals will serve to measure the efficacy of proposed philosophical projects. These goals include:

  • having diverse, meaningful interests, and pursuing them in a passionate and rewarding way;
  • having strong, healthy, emotional relationships with others, which feature reciprocal contribution; and
  • being mentally healthy, and having a positive, profound outlook on the universe and one’s place in it.

These goals will act as our yardsticks.

Healthy social interaction is necessary for the attainment of these goals

I’ll begin discussing the role of Machiavelli’s philosophy in attaining these goals. Its role will be a limited and precise one.

First, we must realize that the attainment of the above goals typically relies on robust, healthy social support networks. “Man is an animal naturally formed for society,” Aristotle famously wrote [3]. More precisely, our goals are often attained through the help of a peer group – a group of likeminded peers with common values, interests, and ambitions. Work and school environments, as well as sports teams, religious organizations, and interest groups make good examples. The fulfillment of our goals depends on these groups in obvious ways. Emotional connection is at the heart of it.

Unfortunately, peer groups sometimes feature power discrepancies between members. Individuals can be disrespected, bullied, or marginalized by others (especially, it seems, at work or at school). People can be cruel.

These “social failures” corrupt, among other things, the process by which social peer groups conduce towards interpersonal fulfillment (in all members, but especially in the victims). Victims of this peer group oppression can become depressed and withdrawn. The social medium through which they – and all of us – find emotional support is cut off. This state is harmful, and it should be repaired.

To pursue meaningful interests, to hold emotional relationships, and to respect oneself – these certainly do not require power over others. But they do require equality with others. Equality and respect underlie all healthy social interactions. Machiavelli’s tools can help us get there. They can be used prophylactically.

Finding tools for equality in Machiavelli’s work

Situations of marginalization can occur when more powerful members exploit other members’ social weakness. These perpetrators perhaps shouldn’t be despised – as C. S. Lewis would surely remind us, pride is a terrible and tempting sin.

But their actions may be forestalled.

In particular, the following lessons, drawn from Machiavelli’s The Prince and The Discourses, might help the weakest among us.

First, one must begin to understand the environment:

  1. Power exists. This first realization is important. If members of a peer group exploit a weaker member, it’s often because they possess one of a number of fairly trivial advantages – ranging from physical strength to social influence – which, most importantly, don’t reflect underlying merit and might well have fallen into different hands. The differences between the “strong” and “weak” are usually quite trivial. The stronger are not “better” in any meaningful way.
  2. Power can be studied. The advantages possessed by the stronger – which can cause such extensive pain – are not remote and inaccessible, but rather amenable to study and comprehension. Awareness of this fact can remove a sense of arbitrariness and helplessness, and induce a sense of agency. It can be supporting.
  3. Abuse of power should be recognized. Awareness of the underpinnings of power permits one to recognize its abuse. This recognition, in turn, serves to protect one from the psychological distress natural in situations of inferiority. This “inferiority”, after all, is of an arbitrary and artificial kind.

Next, we can learn a few specific strategies:

  1. The most basic strategy is to refuse to tolerate abuse. This is an effective starting point.
    And therefore no prince should ever forego his rank, nor should he ever voluntarily give up anything (wishing to do so honorably) unless he is able or believes himself able to hold it. … For if he yields it from fear, it is for the purpose of avoiding war, and he will rarely escape from that; for he to whom he has from cowardice conceded the one thing will not be satisfied, but will want to take other things from him, and his arrogance will increase as his esteem for the prince is lessened. And, on the other hand, the zeal of the prince’s friends will be chilled on seeing him appear feeble or cowardly. But if, so soon as he discerns his adversary’s intention, he prepares his forces, even though they be inferior, the enemy will begin to respect him, and the other neighboring princes will appreciate him the more; and seeing him armed for defence, those even will come to his aid who, seeing him give up himself, would never have assisted him.” (The Discourses, Book 2, Chapter XIV) [1]
  2. Hold a robust reserve of self-assurance. Confidence and respect for one’s self are of utmost importance.
    A prince becomes despised when he incurs by his acts the reputation of being variable, inconstant, effeminate, pusillanimous, and irresolute; he should therefore guard against this as against a dangerous rock, and should strive to display in all his actions grandeur, courage, gravity, and determination. And in judging the private causes of his subjects, his decisions should be irrevocable. Thus will he maintain himself in such esteem that no one will think of deceiving or betraying him. The prince, who by his habitual conduct gives cause for such an opinion of himself, will acquire so great a reputation that it will be difficult to conspire against him, or to attack him; provided that it be generally known that he is truly excellent, and revered by his subjects. (The Prince, Chapter XIX) [1]
  3. Cultivate relationships with others. Creating positive relationships will be one’s primary mechanism for reintroduction into social peer groups.
    Any one, therefore, who has become a prince by the favor of the people, must endeavor to preserve their good will, which will be easy for him, as they will ask of him no more than that he shall not oppress them. But he who, contrary to the will of the people, has become prince by the favor of the nobles, should at once and before everything else strive to win the good will of the people, which will be easy for him, by taking them under his protection. And as men, when they receive benefits from one of whom they expected only ill treatment, will attach themselves readily to such a benefactor, so the people will become more kindly disposed to such a one than if he had been made prince by their favor. … I will merely conclude by saying that it is essential for a prince to possess the good will and affection of his people, otherwise he will be utterly without support in time of adversity. (The Prince, Chapter IX) [1]

Finally, apply these tools.

  1. Equality can then be attained. This is the final step.
    [T]hose republics which have thus preserved their political existence uncorrupted do not permit any of their citizens to be or to live in the manner of gentlemen, but rather maintain amongst them a perfect equality… Such men are pernicious to any country or republic… The only way to establish any kind of order there is to found a monarchical government; for where the body of the people is so thoroughly corrupt that the laws are powerless for restraint, it becomes necessary to establish some superior power which, with a royal hand, and with full and absolute powers, may put a curb upon the excessive ambition and corruption of the powerful. (The Discourses, Book 1, Chapter LV, p. 255) [1]

Proceeding in this manner, one may regain opportunities to take on positive emotional roles.

Whom is Machiavelli for?

I do not argue here that these tools should be used by those facing systemic or political oppression. Their difficulties are much greater, and should be addressed by mass organized movements for political change. We must not expect one individual – particularly not a victim of such abuses – to single-handedly change the system.

I likewise don’t argue that these tools should be used by those saintly figures – ranging from Ghandi and Jesus, to the least-known among that class – who are ostensibly despised and oppressed and also hold profound spiritual depth. In none of these situations are these people prevented, by social factors, from attaining fulfillment; on the contrary, they’ve achieved it beyond all measure.

These tools could, on the other hand, be used by those members of social groups who are so cruelly rebuked that they have not yet become capable of forming coherent interests, healthy relationships, or stable self-esteem. These resources might permit them, once again, to become part of these social peer groups upon which we all so extensively depend.

Indeed, Machiavelli’s tools, against all odds or expectation, are tools of charity – ways by which the socially suffering can improve their condition.

Machiavelli’s philosophy is not useful for much more.

Part 2: Resolution

What lies past equality?

Once equality has been achieved, Machiavelli’s role is finished.

What happens if we keep going?

Preliminarily, we must understand the origins of the desire for further power. There are a few. In one possible situation, one understands himself or herself especially capable of undertaking responsibility, and of leading others towards good; this person would like to be placed in such a position for the benefits it would bring to all. Another possible motivation stems from the impulse present in certain people to climb above others.

The first motivation is benign; the second is not. Behavior of the first type leads to good in obvious ways. Behavior of the second type is patently pernicious. Thinkers such as C. S. Lewis have written plenty about the earthly (and otherwise) consequences of Pride. From Mere Christianity:

Now what you want to get clear is that Pride is essentially competitive—is competitive by its very nature—while the other vices are competitive only, so to speak, by accident. Pride gets no pleasure out of having something, only out of having more of it than the next man. … It is the comparison that makes you proud: the pleasure of being above the rest. Once the element of competition has gone, pride has gone. That is why I say that pride is essentially competitive in a way the other vices are not.

Pride always means enmity—it is enmity. And not only enmity between man and man, but enmity to God. [2]

Lewis – and our common sense, among yet other things – confirms our suspicion that the blind pursuit of power over others is despicable. This desire seems rooted in humanity’s most evil impulses. It’s no wonder that some of Machiavelli’s writing (not cited here) can make one’s stomach turn.

Why we shouldn’t pursue any power past equality

We must resist applying Machiavellian principles further – not just towards the second kind of power, but to both kinds.

The first reason is a practical one: The two opposing motivations can be hard to distinguish in practice, even within ourselves, and by permitting either, we risk falling into the latter. The possible danger at the hands of Pride, in this case – as well as the beauty of the relinquished state of equality – are sufficient to make the associated risk simply not worth it.

The second reason is more technical: Leadership of the former type really doesn’t require Machiavellian reasoning at all. Leaders of the first type (within peer groups, I must stress, and not necessarily in political systems and especially not in corrupt ones) typically rise to positions of authority through the warm and natural encouragement of their peers. This mechanism departs from the more deliberate thinking styles characteristic of the initial rise to equality. Thus we can safely condemn the pursuit of power past equality without risking restricting the rise of effective and natural leaders.

We’ll see soon that this should be nothing of a disappointment.

Why we shouldn’t want to

We should have little reason to desire more.

The concern for power is for the weak. Those who most regularly feel the pain of oppression desire, rightly, to overcome it. This desire is natural. But the circumstances of this desire should be overcome.

The next steps are wonderful. Power dissolves from the picture. And here is when the greatest victory has been achieved.

Once we achieve equal standing with our peers, we become capable of enriching ourselves with pursuits much greater than power – with music, art, science, literature, other people and other joys. To gather interests and passions, we must be mentally eager and enthusiastic. To share emotional bonds with others one must be emotionally healthy and capable. One needs others to love himself or herself.

C. S. Lewis also offers, as another alternative to aspirations to power, the path of Christian humility. From Mere Christianity:

The natural life in each of us is something self-centred, something that wants to be petted and admired, to take advantage of other lives, to exploit the whole universe. …

if you really get into any kind of touch with Him you will, in fact, be humble – delightedly humble, feeling the infinite relief of having for once got rid of all the silly nonsense about your own dignity which has made you restless and unhappy all your life. [2]

Even Lewis, I should add, stresses the importance of the peer group; in this case, the church:

Men are mirrors, or “carriers” of Christ to other men. Sometimes unconscious carriers. This “good infection” can be carried by those who have not got it themselves. People who were not Christians themselves helped me to Christianity. But usually it is those who know Him that bring Him to others. That is why the Church, the whole body of Christians showing Him to one another, is so important. [2]

Final Thoughts

It’s not power that’s bad, but discrepancies in power. And whether we like it or not, this “currency” of power is one in which we’ll all probably, someday, have to deal.

Social interaction is the vehicle through which our purest contributions may be realized. This conduit – this distribution mechanism for our gifts – must be functioning and well-oiled for us to succeed. Machiavelli’s thoughts can help us step forth into this world we’re prepared to devote ourselves to. Machiavelli’s project, in this sense, is highly social.

Then his project ends. It’s up to us to take care of the rest – to use these newfound positions of equality to enter into harmonious, fruitful and joyful relationships with others.

The pursuit of power as an end in itself, on the other hand, departs so starkly from this first goal that it seems, now, entirely distinct. This latter pursuit should be forsaken.

The truest revelation of all, in the end, is that perhaps Machiavelli himself understood this distinction best of all – that he, most of all, only wished to make his contribution known.


  1. The Prince and The Discourses, Machiavelli; introduced by Max Lerner. (I’ve linked to a slightly different edition.)
  2. Mere Christianity, by C. S. Lewis.
  3. Aristotle, Politics.

3 comments on “Prophylactic Power

  1. Josh says:

    We should distinguish between Machiavellian knowledge and Machiavellian techniques. The latter constitutes the application of the former. In other words, one with Machiavellian knowledge may or may not practice Machiavellian techniques.

    You seem to argue that one should practice Machiavellian techniques until he has reached equality, and then cease to practice them. This reasoning begins to appear flawed, though.

    Consider a village of 100 people. Each villager might then be assigned his own “power rank,” between 1 and 100. At which point has a villager reached equality? When his rank hits 50? When he finds himself within a standard deviation of the mean? This concept of equality seems ill-defined. And when he then ceases to practice Machiavellian techniques, ought he to worry about his rank starting to slip again? Should he start again at 49, and then cease at 51? You describe a Machiavellian utopia, where everyone is equal, but on closer examination, it seems that no one is.

    I have an better solution. Gain Machiavellian knowledge as needed, but refuse to use Machiavellian techniques, on principle. Instead, use your knowledge to identify which of the other villagers use Machiavellian techniques, and which of the villagers abstain. Then, strive to spend time only with those like-minded villagers that similarly abstain from Machiavellian techniques.

    Here, true equality is achieved. You don’t have to worry about cruelty and exclusion, since you don’t surround yourself with those who are motivated to exclude. The playing field is truly level, because here, the competition hasn’t finished, or paused. It never began.

    Of course, one might find himself in situations where he is required to work with those who practice Machiavellian techinques. Still, I believe that he will find himself liked and respected by said villagers. They will note that the villager has enough self respect to choose not to participate in the power contest. Thus, they will realize that his self-esteem exists apart from his power rank. Further, practitioners of Machiavellian techniques have little reason to put asunder a fellow villager who doesn’t attempt to threaten his power rank.

    Finally, my philosophy is extremely consistent. The villager does not behave one way until a certain goal is achieved, and then start behaving another way. Instead, he behaves the same way all the time, and behaves according to internally-derived principles, as opposed to externally-measured parameters.

    And, by ceasing to measure these parameters entirely, and instead living in such a way that he will never have to, the villager achieves a true and stable contentedness.

    • Ben says:

      Looking at rank alone is misleading, because surely, in our village, the sizes of the disparities between members could shrink, even as the members’ ranks remained, say, exactly the same. This would constitute a victory not visible through ranks alone.

      More broadly, though, your framework of “rank” could be disputed. Some relationships feature power discrepancies. Many relationships, though, are ones of equality. All true friendships work this way, for example. The type of these relationships is simply different.

      The goal of an individual using “mild Machiavellianism” should not be to climb through the ranks until he’s better than exactly half of his peers and worse than the rest. Rather, his goal should be to transform as many of his relationships as he can into ones of equality.

      Now, a broader objection is to be had: can Machiavellian techniques effect these transformations in the first place? Or should we, as you suggest, abandon the project altogether? This is hard to say.

      You might contend that “equal” relationships attained by Machiavellian maneuvering are really no such thing, but rather competitive relationships which have stabilized under a mask of legitimacy. This equilibrium, of course, is an unstable one. (I’m reminded of the early stages of the “friendship” between Pechorin and Grushnitsky, in Lermontov’s Hero of our Time.) I’m somewhat sympathetic to this argument, but its claim is an empirical one, which must be verified “in the field”. This would be somewhat of a challenge.

      The other side of this argument is that the kind of people taking part in these power relationships are not of the sort of people amenable to true equal relationships at all. In other words, they’re incapable, and should be forsaken. Though this might have some truth, — especially for a few really bad apples — it’s not a position particularly charitable to those folks, and in any case, I think you might be pleasantly surprised.

      If all of this fails, though, then yes, I think, we should be willing to let ourselves step out of the shark tank for good. But that step is maybe a last step, rather than a first step.

  2. Josh says:

    Blessed is the one
    who does not walk in step with the wicked
    or stand in the way that sinners take
    or sit in the company of mockers,
    but whose delight is in the law of the Lord,
    and who meditates on his law day and night.

    Psalm 1:1-2

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