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Judge by the hands, not by the eyes

24 June 2016

Books | Maurizio Viroli wants us to take a fresh look at the political philosophy of Niccolò Machiavelli, writes Brett Evans

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Active citizen: detail from a sixteenth-century portrait of Machiavelli by Santi di Tito. Wikimedia

Active citizen: detail from a sixteenth-century portrait of Machiavelli by Santi di Tito. Wikimedia

How to Choose a Leader: Machiavelli’s Advice to Citizens
By Maurizio Viroli | Princeton University Press | $34.95


The Renaissance made great strides in many areas of human endeavour: the visual arts, literature, science, architecture – and the infliction of pain.

The strappado is an ingenious form of Renaissance torture. The victim’s hands were bound behind his back; a second rope was tied to his wrists; then a block and tackle lifted him far off the floor. There he dangled, with the taut rope creaking, and the joints of his arms and shoulders straining under the weight of his own body.

It already sounds excruciating, but the strappado’s repertoire of torment was far from exhausted. With an awful suddenness, the torturer would drop the victim a couple of feet, halting his descent with a sudden jerk on the rope. Now that’s torture – the building sense of dread while waiting for the drop would be enough to get me naming names.

In Florence in 1512, one of history’s greatest writers on politics was dragged in by his enemies and subjected to this treatment. Somehow, just a year later Niccolò Machiavelli finished his greatest work, The Prince. For over 500 years it has been the world’s best-known guide to the dark arts of capturing and staying in power.

How Machiavelli managed to pick up a pen after enduring the strappado, let alone find the courage to express his opinions in a police state run by the Medici family, is beyond me. By this stage, he had been exiled to his farm in San Casciano, south of Florence. From this vantage point he could just see the buildings of his beloved city-state and imagine himself back in the imposing Palazzo Vecchio, where he had once occupied the equally imposing office of second chancellor.

Machiavelli spent his days in San Casciano thinking and writing. In a famous letter to his friend Vettori, he explained how every night he put aside his work clothes, changed into the fine apparel he wore when in power, sat down to his desk and re-read the ancient writers of Rome and Greece. From these late-night ruminations came The Prince.

When he completed his short treatise, Machiavelli sent it to the Medici family’s capo dei capi, Lorenzo di Piero de’ Medici, as a sort of job application (or maybe as an oath of loyalty to the family’s deadly political machine). He never received a reply. Copies of The Prince circulated during Machiavelli’s life, but it was not formally published until five years after his death.

The common conception of Machiavelli’s thinking is based almost entirely on that one book. Popular culture views him as a sort of Hannibal Lecter of political theory: a silver-tongued advocate of violence; a peddler of immorality. In some parts of the Academy, his reputation is not much different. The conservative political philosopher Leo Strauss, for example, famously called him a “teacher of evil.” He’s the man, after all, who is credited with having said that the ends justify the means.

If we followed that particular advice, we might be tempted to choose leaders more like Don Corleone than Abraham Lincoln. But as the British political scientist Bernard Crick has written, “What do [they] know of Machiavelli who only The Prince have read?”


Italian-born Maurizio Viroli is professor emeritus of politics at Princeton and the author of many books on political theory and Italian politics. He has freely criticised the egregious Silvio Berlusconi and advised some of Italy’s leading anti-corruption politicians, and he thinks Machiavelli has much to teach the informed citizen of a modern liberal democracy.

How to Choose a Leader: Machiavelli’s Advice to Citizens has two clear aims: to encourage modern-day voters to cherish their role in the democratic process and – just as importantly – to overturn the clichéd view of Machiavelli’s political ideas.

Viroli wants us to know that Machiavelli wrote many things besides The Prince – poetry, diplomatic dispatches, letters, plays, histories and his other great work on politics, The Discourses on Livy. Taken together, these works are more interested in describing and defending the idea of republicanism than justifying political absolutism backed by violence.

Though Machiavelli lived before the advent of the universal franchise, written constitutions and the concept of universal human rights, Viroli says he has a lot to say to modern voters, if they’re willing to listen.

Machiavelli was honest – he died a relatively poor man. He often spoke truth to power – at a time when power could torture you. He introduced reason into the study of politics – at a time when the Church was the State. Machiavelli thought glory in life should be attained by public service, not by private favours. And he wisely warned that “the few always judge in favour of the few.”

Through his writings, but especially in the Discourses, Machiavelli vigorously supported an active role for citizens in politics – not just by voting, but also through engaging in civic society. A disengaged citizenry, he believed, is an invitation to tyranny.

Machiavelli exhorted voters to “judge by the hands, not by the eyes” when choosing a leader. By this he meant that citizens must learn to look beyond the appearance of their potential leaders; find out who their advisers are; and always remember that to do their work, politicians must dissimulate. “Won’t get fooled again,” declared that well-known political scientist Pete Townshend. But don’t be surprised when it does happen.

Good leaders, said Machiavelli, are not too bold in their plans, are eager to learn from history, and are as unaffected by success as they are by failure. Good leaders can deliver a speech that changes the political atmosphere; good leaders care about their reputation in the history books.

Machiavelli also counselled that you should love your state more than the state of your soul. By this he meant that a good leader would be willing to act immorally in defence of his or her state – even if it meant risking Catholicism’s promise of eternal life. Machiavelli was in favour of stability and security above all other values.

Of course, you still might argue that Machiavelli wrote at a time when political opponents got the strappado and leaders, more often than not, were self-appointed rulers. Even the type of republican city-state beloved of Machiavelli was ruled by a body elected from a very small pool of aristocrats. A wise prince knew it was necessary to appease the passions of the ordinary people or subdue them with fear, but he never had to get them to vote for him.

But is how we choose leaders so different today? In the United States, money buys access to power; in Australia, factional chieftains stand at the front doors of our main political parties like bouncers in Zegna suits. Just as in Renaissance Italy, a lot of the choosing goes on behind the scenes.


Australians have been watching the US primaries from afar with slack-jawed fascination. And now we are looking on in bemusement and relief at the long-awaited implosion of Donald Trump’s bizarre campaign.

At home, meanwhile, we’ve been stupefied by our own long-winded electoral contest, with many voters seemingly incapable of deciding who they trust the least.

The main tension in our federal election campaign appears to be between those voters tempted by the Greens or an independent, perhaps hoping for another hung parliament, and those toying with the notion of tossing out a first-term government altogether. In the end, enough voters will probably decide that despatching yet another prime minister barely settled into the job would make them no better than the politicians who’ve spent the last few federal parliaments doing just that. Yes, it’s the worst possible system except for all the others, but sometimes democracy can be a little hard to appreciate.

How to Choose a Leader was obviously written for an American audience in the Age of Trump. But it will probably never go out of date – at least for as long as we continue to misinterpret Machiavelli, and as long as we are forced to choose the lesser of two evils whenever we’re dragged kicking and screaming into one of those cardboard voting booths. •

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