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Last Updated: Monday, 31 July 2006, 13:07 GMT 14:07 UK
The duffer's guide to Machiavelli
By Finlo Rohrer
BBC News Magazine

Machiavelli's the Prince can be read as a job application

There were blank faces all round in the Big Brother house at the weekend when one contestant was accused of being Machiavellian. So how did a 16th Century Italian philosopher come to be synonymous with back-stabbing?

Machiavellian, defined by the Concise Oxford Dictionary as "elaborately cunning; scheming; unscrupulous", has been in use since the 16th Century. As the OED notes, it is "usually derogatory".

Journalists like the term. The word conjures up Byzantine plots and conspiracies, whispered in smoky, darkened rooms. Over the years it has often been applied to the Labour politician Peter Mandelson.

Machiavellian is also an adjective that fits easily with the world of gangsters, although TV mafia boss Tony Soprano claimed to prefer Sun Tzu's Art of War to the Italian philosopher.

The term Machiavellian is not all bad. To have it applied to one implies a certain degree of intelligence. Anyone Machiavellian is a leader, one of those pulling the strings.

Be feared rather than loved
Sacrifice unpopular minions
Inflict pain now, rather than more pain later
Loss of land can rankle more than loss of life

Machiavelli's best-known work was The Prince, written in 1513 but not published until later. The work was a monarch's guide to keeping power where the ends justify the means.

The Prince is full of praise for Cesare Borgia, the son of Pope Alexander VI, and overlord of the Romagna region of Italy.

One episode sums up why Machiavelli is not bracketed with Gandhi in the textbooks. Borgia commissioned a lieutenant, Remirro de Orco, to carry out a ruthless pacification of the Romagna. He was immensely unpopular and one day, with order restored to the province, Remirro was found cut in two in a town square next to a bloody block and knife.

This has been described as the quintessential Machiavellian lesson. The people of the Romagna were appeased, and at the same time left to extrapolate from the treatment of a trusted lieutenant. It would probably be a step too far for the Big Brother house, but similar acts are common in politics. If an unpopular but necessary policy is in the offing choose a minion to be the public face of it, then sack them afterwards.

Kevin Keegan
Tony Soprano
Dalai Lama

Another infamous question tackled by Machiavelli is whether it is better to be loved (Big Brother's Pete) or feared (Aisleyne). The philosopher argues in a straight choice it is better to be feared, but it is certainly bad to be loathed. But Machiavelli was speaking to a prince, who did not rely on the text message votes of his audience.

A third major lesson of The Prince is summed up in the maxim "men forget the death of a father more quickly than the loss of a patrimony". Machiavelli believed killing is more easily forgotten than the theft of land. Within the Big Brother house, it could be suggested that the loss of property, such as Shahbaz's antics with the housemates' food, far exceeds the pain caused by harsh words or physical assaults.

And the most important thing to remember is that Machiavelli may not have been a Machiavellian himself. He enjoyed high office under the republic of Florence, and most of his work seems more suited to a republican government.

When the Medici were restored to power in Florence in 1512, Machiavelli was suspected of plotting, imprisoned and tortured. The timing of the writing of The Prince suggests it was an effort to get back in with the Medici and get some work. But the occupants of the Big Brother house would know all about sycophancy themselves.

Add your comments on this story, using the form below.

Surely anyone who has ever enjoyed Terry Pratchett's wonderful Discworld books must recognise the source of Lord Vetinari, the Patrician of Ankh-Morpork?
Sarah, London

Nick, we don't "feel" superior. We "are" superior. You just keep right on watching the morons in the haunted fishtank.
Huge, Bedford, UK

On a course, I once took part in a "test" of Machiavellian characteristics. The man who finished top was really preening himself until the psychiatrist running the test said, "Of course, a true Machiavellian would deliberately finish bottom to hide himself!".
Lionel Townsend, Staffordshire, UK

Get a life. It's not the be all and end all is it? I read the article and don't have a clue what it was all about. I'm not going to lose sleep over it. Can't wait for BB later.
James, Bristol

Machiavellian intelligence is referred to in an animal behaviour context, and could be considered quite a human characteristic. It is in primates that we first start to see "machiavellian" behaviour, where weaker members of the group are able to succeed (e.g. steal food, or mate with females) by being sneaky!
Richard, Hammersmith, London

Your quote is from the French politician and philosopher Voltaire Darrell, and is as true now as it was when he said it. Take heed Tony Blair and George W Bush!
John B H, Dublin

Could I have a Big Machiavelli and fries please?
Paul Fillingham, Nottingham

I loaned my personally-annotated copy of "The Prince" to an acquaintance some thirty-five years ago. He returned it in a couple of months, saying he had "found it very helpful". Whether for that reason or innate merit I do not know, but he is now a senior judge in a Canadian province... Peter Wood
Peter Wood, Vancouver, Canada

Machiavelli is much maligned. He did not really propose that the "ends justified the means" but recognised that, in real life, sometimes unpalatable decisions have to be made. More a question of Realpolitik in fact. "Il Principe" needs to be read bearing in mind the context in which it was written: sixteenth century Italy. Strong government as advocated by Machiavelli was greatly preferable to the chaos of weak government.
Huw Pritchard, Chislehurst UK

Cue a shedload of derisory comments bemoaning the lack of education amongst BB contestants. I suspect that even those who profess to hate Big Brother love the fact that it lets them feel superior.
Nick, Edinburgh

What, there are people in the world who don't know what Machiavellian means? Shock! Horror! Honestly, I hate it when people make judgements on others based on vocabulary, or how versed they are in cultural affairs. Just because you didn't go to university, or don't read widely, doesn't mean you're stupid. The trick is in reckonising a machiavellian, not an obsure reference.
Shane Kelly, London

Surely Big Brother is the machiavellian one, Aisleyene is simply Remirro de Orco.
Nat Hill, London

I should think that most heart surgeons can explain the offside rule.
SE, Oxford

Maybe we need a new word, for new times? I tease one of my friends, a master of manipulation as being "Mandelsonian".
Nick Beaugie, London, UK

Machiavelli has been vilified to this day for being the first to analyse empirically what keeps people in power - at a time when the church and state preached that kings and queens were put in their place by God. He showed, in a disinterested, very modern, scientific way how worldly schemes and strategies allowed you to usurp and retain power - without taking sides or moral judgment. No wonder the Catholic church tried to equate him with the devil and burned his books.
WB, Bath, UK

To be honest Fi of Coventry, I can't believe you were even watching Big Brother...
Jon Humphreys, London, UK

It is a pity your description of Machiavelli does not mention his most famous work - Discourses on Livy - nor the fact that he was considered by many (including Paine) to be one of the earliest 'democratic' writers. Sadly, as is all too common, your article simply ignores his greatest work and in effect rewrites his entire political philosophy based on a book written in desperation. Written at a time when he was hoping that anybody, but anybody, would save Italy from the constant warfare from which it was then suffering.
Bill, Glasgow

The people on BB are there to satisfy viewers' taste in voyeuristic, car-crash television. Since when did that require historical knowledge? Complaining about the lack of intelligence of BB inmates is like complaining that a heart surgeon can't explain the off-side rule.
Keith, Cardiff, Wales

Even Big Brother couldn't pronounce it.
Richard , Hudds

Another classic example of what type of person the producers pick for BB - Emotional (all of them), nice to look at (some of them), opinionated (but with no reason as to why or how to back them up) and vocal (most of them like the sound of their own voices or shouting)...but some level of intelligence or common sense? That would just make for boring TV wouldn't it?
Simon, London

I share Fi's bewilderment on this one and I think the standard of education in this country is woeful. I received an email the other day from a 23-year-old friend, a post graduate currently working for the NHS. Now, spelling mistakes don't usually bother me too much but she wrote the word regime as 'raysheme'. How wrong can you be? And I know for a fact that she would not have had a clue who Machiavelli was.
stuart wilson, wigan

Although Machiavelli has come to be synonymous with back stabbing and double dealing, this is a serious misrepresentation of his writings. The Prince, a highly readable book, gives advice to the absolute ruler based on the mistakes of those who have gone before. While his most famous maxim might be ┐it is better to be feared than loved┐ Machiavelli also counsels against inconsistency in a ruler and trusting too much to the love of friends. However, Machiavelli┐s true political opinions can be read in his subsequent book ┐Discourses on Livy┐
Angela Barratt, London UK

I couldn't believe what I was seeing on Big brother; 8 people, two of whom are over 30 and several who claim to have been or plan to go to University, and not one of them could even pronounce machiavellian, never mind know what it means. Even the tabloid newspapers in which they are destined to appear frequently use the term. Don't any of them read?
Fi, Coventry

I like the following. I also like to attribute it to Machiavelli, only because it seems so machiavellian.

"Lord, protect me from my friends, I'll handle my enemies myself."

Can anybody shed any light on this phrase?
Darrell, Moro, Oregon USA

It is hinted at heavily in the Prince that Remirro overstepped the mark and that Cesare needed to not only "smack down" a usurper but also extablish his credentials as the prince. The finding of the decapitated body in the street not only showed the people that Cesare was not a man to be messed with but also no one was immune if they stepped out of line.

It is from this act that Machiavelli gives one of his most opportune pieces of advice. If action is required it should be a single act, short, swift and if necessary very violent. He argues it is best to have one act of ultra violence than to abuse power by continual small acts.
Ian Harris, Birmingham

The irony of the term Machiavellian is that anyone of whom it can be used has in fact failed to follow the guidlines set out in the Prince. Machiavelli clearly differentiates between the Prince who achieves Grandezza (greatness) and the Prince who achieves Gloria (glory).

The former's methods are obvious and he will never attain the highest honours. The latter, however, is so downright sneaky that no one ever even suspects that he might be a Machiavellian in the first place. So, like the perfect criminal, he can only exist in theory.
Posden, London

I've always found a quandary with Machiavelli... the term 'machiavellian' is used to imply an evil puppetmaster figure such as Blofeld from James Bond, yet it also has proved politically effective time and time again. Does this mean politicians ought to be like supervillains if they are to do their job properly?
Elaine O'Neill, Englefield Green, Surrey

"But the occupants of the Big Brother house would know all about sycophancy themselves." ...although they may not know what it means...
Ryan, Bridgend

Machiavelli also coined the phrase "The end justifies the means".
Cate, London via NZ

"Be feared rather than loved; Sacrifice unpopular minions; Inflict pain now, rather than more pain later; Loss of land can rankle more than loss of life." Sounds like a quote from the Tony Blair "Guide to being Prime Minister"
Peter Dobson, London, UK

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