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What “Machiavellian” really means? Ted ed Transcript text

What “Machiavellian” really means? Ted ed Transcript text? From Shakespeare’s plays to modern TV dramas, the unscrupulous schemer for whom the ends always justify the means has become a familiar character type we love to hate.

So familiar, in fact, that for centuries we’ve had a single word to describe such characters: Machiavellian. But is it possible that we’ve been using that word wrong this whole time? The early 16th century statesman Niccoló Machiavelli wrote many works of history, philosophy, and drama.

But his lasting notoriety comes from a brief political essay known as The Prince, framed as advice to current and future monarchs. Machiavelli wasn’t the first to do this– in fact there was an entire tradition of works known as “mirrors for princes” going back to antiquity. But unlike his predecessors, Machiavelli didn’t try to describe an ideal government or exhort his audience to rule justly and virtuously. Instead, he focused on the question of power– how to acquire it, and how to keep it.

And in the decades after it was published, The Prince gained a diabolical reputation. During the European Wars of Religion, both Catholics and Protestants blamed Machiavelli for inspiring acts of violence and tyranny committed by their opponents. By the end of the century, Shakespeare was using “Machiavel” to denote an amoral opportunist, leading directly to our popular use of “Machiavellian” as a synonym for manipulative villainy.

At first glance, The Prince’s reputation as a manual for tyranny seems well-deserved. Throughout, Machiavelli appears entirely unconcerned with morality, except insofar as it’s helpful or harmful to maintaining power. For instance, princes are told to consider all the atrocities necessary to seize power, and to commit them in a single stroke to ensure future stability.

Attacking neighboring territories and oppressing religious minorities are mentioned as effective ways of occupying the public. Regarding a prince’s personal behavior, Machiavelli advises keeping up the appearance of virtues such as honesty or generosity, but being ready to abandon them as soon as one’s interests are threatened.

Most famously, he notes that for a ruler, “it is much safer to be feared than loved.” The tract even ends with an appeal to Lorenzo de’ Medici, the recently installed ruler of Florence, urging him to unite the fragmented city-states of Italy under his rule. Many have justified Machiavelli as motivated by unsentimental realism and a desire for peace in an Italy torn by internal and external conflict.

According to this view, Machiavelli was the first to understand a difficult truth: the greater good of political stability is worth whatever unsavory tactics are needed to attain it. The philosopher Isaiah Berlin suggested that rather than being amoral, The Prince hearkens back to ancient Greek morality, placing the glory of the state above the Christian ideal of individual salvation.

But what we know about Machiavelli might not fit this picture. The author had served in his native Florence for 14 years as a diplomat, staunchly defending its elected republican government against would-be monarchs. When the Medici family seized power, he not only lost his position, but was even tortured and banished.

With this in mind, it’s possible to read the pamphlet he wrote from exile not as a defense of princely rule, but a scathing description of how it operates. Indeed, Enlightenment figures like Spinoza saw it as warning free citizens of the various ways in which they can be subjugated by aspiring rulers. In fact, both readings might be true.

Machiavelli may have written a manual for tyrannical rulers, but by sharing it, he also revealed the cards to those who would be ruled. In doing so, he revolutionized political philosophy, laying the foundations for Hobbes and future thinkers to study human affairs based on their concrete realities rather than preconceived ideals.

Through his brutal and shocking honesty, Machiavelli sought to shatter popular delusions about what power really entails. And as he wrote to a friend shortly before his death, he hoped that people would “learn the way to Hell in order to flee from it.”

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Pazit Cahlon and Alex Gendler
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Credit: Ted ed – Pazit Cahlon and Alex Gendler

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