it is unnecessary for a prince to have all the good qualities I have enumerated, but it is very necessary to appear to have them. And I shall dare to say this also, that to have them and always to observe them is injurious, and that to appear to have them is useful; to appear merciful, faithful, humane, religious, upright, and to be so, but with a mind so framed that should you require not to be so, you may be able and know how to change to the opposite. – The Prince, Machiavelli
Here Machiavelli’s advice is to break character if it is to your advantage.
In fiction, the ideals of good and evil are portrayed in such stark contrast to each other that even children can tell the difference. But when these children grow older, they see the ambiguous side of morality. Would you steal medicine to save your dying wife, if you had no other choice? Would you kill a man to save five others?
The values that we think of as honorable take a back seat very quickly when it comes to things that are more important. Sure, lying is bad, but would you lie to save your best friend’s life?
Never mind saving their life, you would probably lie to save your best friend their blushes. Sirus, the great Persian king was a very clever and pragmatic ruler. But his grandson, Xerxes, corrupted by wealth and opulence lived a different life to his grandfather. Just to get an idea of how much a big deal Sirus was – the ideal of handsomeness in Persian society was based on King Sirus himself. You can imagine that being Sirus’s grandson, Xerxes would attract the love and admiration of many without lifting a finger.
His grandfather had done all the hard work, he built one of the greatest empires in history, and now it was all his. But despite his conquests and his exaggerated self-esteem, Xerxes refrained from doing things that would anger the gods – that would put him at a disadvantage. This superstition interfered with his effectiveness. Xerxes was constrained by rules.
Should you have no limits then? Should everything: piety, honesty, loyalty, faith all be sacrificed in the name of power? Such is the lure of power that it is able to stack up against all the human virtues. It is worth remembering two things. If you do not believe in God, you still believe an abstraction that is equivalent to believing in God.
That is, if power is your greatest goal, then power itself is your God. You may not have daily conversations with power, but you certainly work for it every day, and are willing to sacrifice many things that are valuable to you to have more of it. It is important to see the limitations of Machiavelli’s advice. There is something to be said about listening to your conscience, even at the expense of self-interest.
Voltaire tells us the story of Candide: a young, innocent, and impressionable young man who believes that we live in “the best of all possible worlds” and has faith in the good nature of people. Candide has a tutor, Pangloss, who teaches instills in him all these Greek virtues. And based on what he says, you get the idea that Candide is really a good spirit, that he intends to harm no one.
Yet Candide – somewhat comically – develops into a serial killer, because circumstances forced him to be so. He loves a young woman, Cunégonde, and is willing to do anything for her. And here Voltaire brilliantly shows us the folly of human nature. Candide’s verbal pronouncements of virtue go out the window the second anyone threatens his relationship with the object of his desire. Candide murders highly influential men without hesitation because of his love for Cunégonde.
Cunégonde for many people represents power, greed, and lust. Many self-proclaimed pious individuals would sacrifice their piety in a heartbeat if the right opportunity presents itself. Nietzsche makes this point in his writings about man’s basic will to power, and so does Voltaire but in a more light hearted, satirical spirit.
There is an eternal war between ‘what-is’ and ‘what-ought-to-be’. There is no question that people have a natural proclivity for evil, and the sooner they come to accept this, the safer it will be for them and for the rest of us. There is nothing more dangerous than a person who thinks themselves pious, and unconsciously obliges to his sinister motivations when people least expect it.
Machiavelli tells us that constraints, no matter what they are, can be ignored when the situation calls for it. But what’s more realistic to say is this: constraints, no matter what they are, are ignored when the situation calls for it. In other words, Machiavelli isn’t telling the prince how he should act, but rather, that everyone else acts this way, and if he didn’t act that way too, he’d be in big trouble.
In poker, you adjust your strategy depending on who you are playing against. If you are playing against a player who is very aggressive, and plays many hands, then your best strategy would be to trap him, by being passive and using his aggression against him – getting him to over invest chips into a pot that he thinks he’s going to win, but where you have him beat. And when you play a passive player, you do the opposite.
In life, if people around you are deceptive, and willing to sacrifice their moral values when the situation calls for it, you would be at a major disadvantage. Why? Because unlike the example above, this no longer becomes a game of strategy, but a game of cheating. This is the equivalent of your poker opponent hiding an extra ace in his sleeves.
Every game has rules. Everyone plays according to these rules. When someone violates the rules, they are cheating. Aggression and passivity are tactics that are within the rules in both poker and real life. But who defines the rules of life? Unlike poker, there isn’t a dealer or a referee who will make sure that everyone is abiding by the rules.
Take honesty, an unwritten rule in life that people often presume that others are following. But game-theoretically, if everyone is following that rule, and you break it, then you have a big edge! That’s why people will always lie.
And so, what Machiavelli is saying describes the nature of reality. People do behave in this way because they are motivated to do so, either to win back their beloved Cunégonde, or climb the ladder of power or wealth or success.
How do you counteract this? Should you then become a pathological liar and make sure you get ’em before they get you?
Behaving that way is not to your advantage. If you cheat and lie and steal all the time, you will either be put in prison, or you will be completely isolated, and no one will trust you. It takes great skill to violate the rules of the game without losing the meta game – taking part in other games later on.
“Everybody steals in commerce and industry. I’ve stolen a lot myself. But I know how to steal.” – Thomas Edison
Thomas Edison stole from Tesla, as I described in the previous post: Trust. But very few people know how to steal. That is, very few people know how to steal legally. Edison didn’t physically steal money from Tesla, he made him a promise that he didn’t keep. But in making that promise, he made himself rich.
A shrewd man knows that others when they seek him do not seek him, but their advantage in him and by him. – Baltasar Gracian
The lesson here isn’t to exploit others, but to learn how not to be exploited. Don’t take people’s words at face value, because they will violate their promises if it serves their advantage to do so. Predators will look for people who are ripe for exploitation, they will take the credit for your work, and they will make you pay for playing by the rules- the way Edison did to Tesla.
You are, of course, not innocent, and you may have exploited others too, but my rule is this: Exploit those who exploit others, but don’t exploit the innocent. And this rule gives you license to adapt as Machiavelli recommends the prince should do. People who are not vultures are not a danger to you – there is no reason to throw away your virtues when dealing with them. But when dealing with vultures, you have to be ready to shift your paradigm rather abruptly.
In poker, there is a saying. “If you don’t know who the sucker is at the table, it’s probably you.”
Therefore it is necessary for him to have a mind ready to turn itself accordingly as the winds and variations of fortune force it, yet, as I have said above, not to diverge from the good if he can avoid doing so, but, if compelled, then to know how to set about it. – The Prince, Machiavelli