I was in Columbia the other day and I bought a book called 10 Books That Screwed Up The World: And 5 Others That Didn’t Help. Benjamin Wiker, the author, examines 15 foundational books that persuasively justify bad ideas. Mr. Wiker suggests that the best way to inoculate one’s self from these ideologically diseased works is to read them. In case you’re unpersuaded that this is necessary, Wiker explores the arguments of each of the books and alerts the reader to their trendy current mutation. The chapters are long enough to give you serious food for thought, but short enough to reach a wide audience. Mr. Wiker is a good stylist and he deftly distills abstract thoughts into concrete sentences. His first chapter is a punchy take on Niccolo Machiavelli’s infamous book The Prince. I liked what he said so much that I did this painting.
The Prince is both controversial and strangely popular. It is controversial because it rationalizes the separation of power from ethics and popular because many folks want this rationalization. Wiker writes, “Machiavelli knew evil. But then, so did many others, in many other times and places … What makes Machiavelli different is that he looked evil in the face and smiled. That friendly smile and a wink is The Prince.”
Here’s how the worship of power seems to unfold. Power seduces because we prefer “what is mine” to “what is right.” The more personalized our moral code, the harder it is to do wrong. Since we think highly of our personal virtue, we give our desires little scrutiny. Soon, we focus our energies to acquire power so we can do what we want i.e. “good.” In the end, our attempts at Utopia kill 6 million Jews, or 100 million dissenters, or we fly a plane full of innocents into a building full of innocents. Such actions get the thumbs up from Machiavelli. Wiker says, “Machiavelli convinces the reader that great evils, unspeakable crimes, foul deeds are not only excusable but praiseworthy if they are done in the service of some good. Since this advice occurs in the context of atheism, then there are no limits on the kind of evil one can do if he thinks he is somehow benefitting humanity.”‘
Machiavelli is a devil because he repeats the old lie that the ends justify the means. It’s not new.
“Again, the devil took him [Jesus] to a high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their glory. And he said to him, ‘All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.'”
Here is Wiker’s succinct take on Machiavelli:
“His great classic The Prince is a monument of wicked counsel, meant for rulers who had shed all moral and religious scruples and were therefore daring enough to believe that evil–deep, dark, and almost unthinkable evil–is often more effective than good.”
In conclusion Mr. Wiker contends that Machiavelli lit the fuse that runs through Rousseau, and Marx, and Nietzsche, and that ultimately set off the powder keg of the 20th century. He fathered the lie in political science that was first told by the father of lies: “It is best to exchange personal goodness for personal power.” Thumbs down for Machiavelli.
Work in Progress shot:
EDIT: A Machiavellian word from Saul Alinsky’s Rules for Radicals
“It is a world not of angels but of angles, where men speak of moral principles but act on power principles; a world where we are always moral and our enemies always immoral; a world where ‘reconciliation’ means that when one side gets the power and the other side gets reconciled to it, then we have reconciliation.”