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Talking Policy: Maurizio Viroli on Machiavelli and Choosing Great Leaders

Niccolò Machiavelli, an Italian Renaissance diplomat and writer, is considered one of the founders of modern political science. His insight into what makes a great leader and a successful republic have been analyzed countless times in the context of modern governance. Maurizio Viroli, author and professor emeritus of politics at Princeton University, has spent much of his career examining Machiavelli’s ideas and their application in contemporary politics. World Policy Journal spoke with Viroli to discuss his perspective on how Machiavelli’s advice can foster great leaders and successful nations.

WORLD POLICY JOURNAL: Why do you think Machiavelli’s advice from five centuries ago is still relevant to choosing a leader today?

MAURIZIO VIROLI: Machiavelli has all the virtues of a very good adviser. First of all, he was an expert and a really competent person on real political lives. Second, he can be very useful for our times because since he has been dead for at least 500 years, he is totally neutral—he doesn’t have personal interests to support or sustain. Lastly, he is particularly appropriated as an adviser for American citizens because Machiavelli would have loved the U.S. All his life, he dreamed of seeing Italy as a powerful and free republic, and the United States, from a historical point of view, is the most powerful and free republic that we have ever seen. Therefore, Machiavelli is the perfect adviser for our times—he’s confident, he doesn’t have personal interest, and he would love the United States. What more can you ask for?

WPJ: In your opinion, what are the most important aspects to consider when choosing a leader?

MV: The answer that Machiavelli would give to this question is that you should look at what the leader has done in his or her life. More than words, actions matter. Machiavelli explained this by saying that in choosing a leader, one must judge by the ends—that is to say, we must judge as if we were able to touch the person to see what kind of person the leader is, without considering appearances. You must be able to get to the substance and see the real person.

WPJ: Do you think that there are any world leaders who really exemplify what Machiavelli would have seen as a great leader?

MV: In our own times I think Machiavelli would have admired people like Nelson Mandela, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, or Abraham Lincoln. For Machiavelli, a great political leader must be a redeemer, one who is capable of redeeming social groups or nations from discrimination, from oppression, from colonialism. Unfortunately Machiavelli lived in a time when no such leader appeared in Italy, but had he lived longer, he would have been very pleased by these examples I mentioned.

WPJ: What about foreign leaders currently in power? Are there any that Machiavelli would have been particularly impressed by?

MV: These days I think Machiavelli would have been rather disappointed. He had very high standards. For him a true political leader must be someone who at least tries to accomplish what he calls great politics—that is to say to accomplish something that gives true glory to the person. These days, unfortunately, we are living in times in which politics are characterized by mediocrity. That’s why we have so many problems, both in the United States and in Europe.

WPJ: What are the common misconceptions about Machiavelli’s ideals?

MV: I think the greatest misconception about Machiavelli’s ideals is that he was a supporter of tyranny and a supporter of immoral political actions. In fact what he has written is something rather different. First of all, he detested tyranny—he believed it to be the worst possible kind of corruption in society.

WPJ: In one of the chapters of your book, How to Choose a Leader, you examine Machiavelli’s advice, “Judge by the hands, not by the eyes.” Why is this important, and are there any leaders who exemplify this quote?

MV: Those words are so important because political leaders all over the world are masters of simulation. And they are very good at wearing masks and changing those masks rather frequently. Therefore, it is difficult to know what kind of person you are putting into power. That’s why you have to be able to see beyond appearances and beyond the masks, and this is why Machiavelli’s suggestion is particularly precious. In our times we have television—we can see the cases politicians make, we can see their eyes—but remember that even on television political leaders can be extremely good at simulating.

WPJ: From Machiavelli’s perspective, how does morality affect leadership?

MV: Morality has to be the guiding principle—and morality means political morality. That is to say, the goal of a political leader in a republic must be to pursue the common good. It means justice—above all, the possibility of the highest honor for all citizens in a republic is that he or she is virtuous. Machiavelli very frequently uses the word “good.” Technically he wanted a good person in power because he knows that a bad person in power can be extremely damaging. A good person can be momentarily, or even for a while, capable of doing bad, but he never said that he wants someone who is altogether a bad person.

WPJ: Do you think that it’s possible to differentiate between public and private morality in politics and in leadership?

MV: I think that the difference between public and private moralities is simply that a leader is more frequently in situations in which he or she has the opportunity to cheat, lie, or simulate a persona—or even perpetrate cruelty. But even great leaders will not always have perfect morality. For instance, Abraham Lincoln would not have been able to convince Congress to pass the 13th amendment had he not almost bribed and certainly lied in the weeks that preceded the vote. But who can blame a leader who lies if the purpose is as noble and grand as introducing an amendment to the constitution that permanently abolishes slavery?

WPJ: What would Machiavelli have thought about the morality of this election and a Donald Trump administration?

MV: What we have is a person who shows exactly who he is—he is very bad at simulating. So the Donald Trump that we see is very likely the real Donald Trump. And I am very worried that the weaknesses of the person Donald Trump is will inevitably have consequences once he is president. Machiavelli has a very fine line about this: Human beings have some vices, and they are difficult to radically change. In my opinion, Donald Trump has shown a remarkable degree of excessive self-confidence, of arrogance, of self-importance, and how can a person of this type, at that age, change just because he is now the president?

WPJ: Machiavelli said, “It is the common good which makes great republics.” Which countries do you think exemplify this quote and how do you think they achieved that goal?

MV: Well, comparatively speaking, I think that the countries that exemplify that quote are the ones that have done better in pursuing the common good of their citizens—in guaranteeing their citizens basic political and human rights, social rights, health care, education, environmental protection, and urban planning. The countries that have secured the common good by offering citizens a sense of hope are still the European countries with social democratic traditions. Social democracy is now old-fashioned. If you go to a high school, university, or hospital in a European city, you can see that the quality of life is very high and the leaders have done a pretty good job of securing the common good. As an American citizen I would really like to see American schools and suburbs become dignified places where people can reach their intellectual and moral potentials. But certainly in history there have been countries that have done a good job of pursuing the common good. They have achieved these important goals because they have had great political leaders who practice Machiavelli’s wisdom.

WPJ: What is one piece of advice would Machiavelli give the world?

MV: His advice would be, “Keep your hands on the republic.” Citizens must participate. They must spend some time learning and reading. They must not be passive. If they do not keep their hand on the republic, to control their leaders and be sure that they do not abuse their power, they will regret their indifference, because in any country, at any time, there are arrogant people who want to become the owners of the republic. If these arrogant people do not face opposition from strong, wise, and courageous citizens, it will become a tyranny, and if you are under tyranny then you are not free.

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This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Visit the Talking Policy archive page for more World Policy interviews!

[Photo courtesy of Stato e Potenza]

[Interview conducted by Kirsi Goldynia]

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