One mean Renaissance man

As Machiavelli becomes the poster prince for a new kind of power-hungry self-help genre, scholars are using the 16th century political philosopher as a litmus test for human behavior.

Topics: Academia, College, Books,

No doubt about it — this writer is hot. His works inspire countless knockoffs and imitations. His imprimatur gilds the covers of other authors’ books like Oprah’s golden O. His name has even entered the language as an adjective. But you won’t see him signing books at Barnes & Noble or trying to talk over Charlie Rose. No doubt he’d relish the attention, but he’s been dead for almost 500 years.

These days, Niccolo Machiavelli is generating a volume of buzz Tina Brown would envy. In the past couple of years, he’s been the subject of more than 20 books, including Dick Morris’ “The New Prince: Machiavelli Updated for the Twenty-First Century,” “The New Machiavelli: The Art of Politics in Business” and “Machiavelli on Modern Leadership: Why Machiavelli’s Iron Rules Are as Timely and Important Today as Five Centuries Ago.” For the fairer (but no less devious) sex, there’s “The Princessa: Machiavelli for Women” and for those mischievous little tykes, “A Child’s Machiavelli: A Primer on Power.”

Of course, the buzz around Machiavelli has never really died down. Since his guide to getting and keeping power, “The Prince,” was published in 1532, Machiavelli’s matter-of-fact instruction that rulers must be prepared to lie, cheat and steal to hang on to their thrones — all the while acting the part of the benevolent leader — has not lost its razor edge. Even in this era of cynicism, Machiavelli’s view of humanity as greedy and self-seeking or stupid and easily tricked still seems remarkably dark — and to some, remarkably relevant. The little Italian excites so much passion because his works divide readers into two hostile camps: those who admire his clear-sighted pragmatism and those who are repelled by his casual amorality.

His polarizing presence isn’t limited to light reading, either. Now Machiavelli is making an appearance in a loftier realm: the speculations of sociobiology. In “Machiavellian Intelligence: Social Expertise and the Evolution of Intellect in Monkeys, Apes, and Humans” (Oxford University Press, 1988) and “Machiavellian Intelligence II: Extensions and Evaluations” (Cambridge University Press, 1997), two scientists make a startling claim: Machiavellian behavior helped our early ancestors survive, and even drove the evolution of their brains. In other words, it made us human.



Andrew Whiten and Richard Byrne, both professors of biology at Scotland’s St. Andrews University, apply the word “Machiavellian” to artful manipulation that serves one’s own interests. In the communal living situations of our early forbears, they explain, those who could make the biggest grab for resources without getting kicked out of the group altogether — that is, those who were most effectively underhanded and guileful — were the ones who lived to pass on their (Machiavellian) genes. The competition to be the craftiest of them all created an “evolutionary arms race,” write Whiten and Byrne, “leading to spiraling increases in intelligence.”

Their supposition grows out of what’s known as the “social intelligence hypothesis”: the idea that it’s not the world of objects that demands superior smarts, but our complicated and nuanced web of relationships. Sounds sensible enough — but earlier theories had tied the development of human intelligence to the use of tools and weapons. (That dealing with relationships is the more cognitively complex activity will surprise no one who’s seen modern-day man prefer a session with his power tools to a long talk with his wife.)

Machiavelli’s survival-of-the-shrewdest philosophy has obvious parallels to evolutionary theory (were he writing today, he might thank, fawningly of course, Charles Darwin and Richard Dawkins in his acknowledgements), and the researchers have embraced him as a sage. “Machiavelli seems to me to have been a realist, who accepted that self-interest was ultimately what drove people, and emphasized that the best way to achieve one’s personal ends was usually through social, cooperative and generous behavior — provided that the costs are never allowed to outweigh the ultimate benefits to oneself,” says Byrne. Though the biologists’ work doesn’t draw directly on Machiavelli’s texts, his steel-fisted, velvet-gloved approach provides the perfect model for the behavior they describe.

Evolutionary biology isn’t the only academic discipline to borrow from Machiavelli: Psychology got there first. Almost 50 years ago, a Stanford psychologist named Richard Christie set out to ascertain just how many modern-day adherents Machiavelli had, and how they differed from those who disavow his ideas. Christie created a personality test based on statements taken from “The Prince”: “Most people forget more easily the death of their parents than the loss of their property,” for example, and “The biggest difference between most criminals and other people is that the criminals are stupid enough to get caught.” Test-takers were asked to rate how strongly they agreed with Machiavelli’s acid observations. Those who endorsed Machiavelli’s opinions Christie dubbed high Machs; those who rejected them out of hand were low Machs. Most people fall somewhere in the middle, but there’s a significant minority at either extreme.

The unusual origins of Christie’s test set it apart from the carefully constructed instruments psychologists ordinarily use. The survey itself measures only one thing — whether the test-taker subscribes to the ideas of a 16th century Italian political philosopher. But here’s the rub: In subsequent experiments in his lab, Christie found that our reactions to Machiavelli act as a kind of litmus test, delineating differences in temperament that he confirmed with more traditional personality inventories. High Machs, he determined, constitute a distinct type: charming, confident and glib, but also arrogant, calculating and cynical, prone to manipulate and exploit. (Think Rupert Murdoch, or if your politics permit it, Bill Clinton.)

Christie and his collaborator, Florence Geis, had deeply mixed feelings about high Machs, especially after watching them trounce other players in games the psychologists set up and observed in their lab. “Initially, our image of the high Mach was a negative one, associated with shadowy and unsavory manipulations,” they wrote in their 1970 classic, “Studies in Machiavellianism” (Academic Press). “However, after watching subjects in laboratory experiments, we found ourselves having a perverse admiration for the high Mach’s ability to outdo others in experimental situations.” Almost against their will, they were impressed by the high Machs: “Their greater willingness to admit socially undesirable traits compared to low Machs hinted at a possibly greater insight into and honesty about themselves.”

One of the many psychologists who have contributed to the now-substantial literature on Machiavellianism is John McHoskey, of Eastern Michigan University. In a major paper published last year in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, he made the case that Machiavellianism is, in fact, a mild form of mental illness. The tendency to exploit and manipulate others, he says, can be placed on a continuum that runs from Mother Teresa to Ted Bundy. “People who are way out on the far end are the crazed Hannibal Lecter psychopaths,” he explains. “But in the middle, there’s still a lot of room for differences, and the people who score on the high end you can think of as Machiavellian.” (Of course, do-gooders like Mother Teresa might actually be engaging in a less blatant and therefore more sophisticated form of Machiavellianism. As Byrne notes, the ultimate Machiavellian bargain may be the one made with God.)

McHoskey’s article argued that high Machs possess, to a greater or lesser degree, the qualities associated with classic psychopaths: a lack of remorse, pathological lying, glibness and superficial charm, a grandiose sense of self-worth. Even so, he refuses to denounce Machiavellians outright, however, cautioning that it all depends on context. We want our spies and sometimes our diplomats to be devious in the nation’s service. Elected officials and other administrators must be at least a little Machiavellian to get anything done. A degree of impersonality toward human life is essential in a doctor performing bypass surgery, or a soldier engaged in warfare. Plus, McHoskey points out, true low Machs are kind of sucky. “They’re the extreme opposite of someone who’s Machiavellian: dependent, submissive, socially inept, shy,” he says. In other words, be sure to invite a high Mach or two to your next dinner party.

Psychologists’ emphasis on these individual differences in Machiavellianism sits uneasily alongside Byrne and Whiten’s focus on the universal processes of selection and adaptation. According to the biologists’ theory, every human is the end result of evolution’s preference for the sly and cunning. (Byrne and Whiten don’t make distinctions between good and bad intentions but instead focus on the means we use to achieve them.) Does that mean we’re all Machiavellians? “Well, yes, to some degree,” Whiten says. “For example, young children, from the ages of about 3 to 4, have been observed to attempt deceptions and to manipulate social situations to their own benefit. This seems natural to humans, and begins early.”

Yet such universal theories on the mercenary motivations of human behavior create a kind of circular reasoning. It’s impossible to disprove that we’re all Machiavellian because any successful human endeavor — whether it’s feeding the poor or taking care of a loved one — can be reinterpreted through the lens of selfishness.

After decades circling around this point, some sociobiologists are beginning to form other evolutionary theories that concur with the psychological vision that individual personalities engage in varying levels of selfishness and altruism and use a variety of methods to achieve their ends. David Sloan Wilson, of SUNY-Binghamton, believes that Machiavellianism is just one wrench in the tactical toolbox that humans have evolved over the eons — and not one that all of us choose to use. “There’s more than one way to succeed in social life,” he notes. “There are exploitative ways, and there are cooperative ways.”

In a 1996 Psychological Bulletin paper, Wilson proposed his “multiple-niche” theory which didn’t exactly refute his colleagues’ work on Machiavellian behavior but refused to allow it to claim credit for all human success. Some people do get ahead by being slick, Wilson suggested, but others prosper using more straightforward or altruistic approaches. (Wilson is also the co-author of a recent book on altruism, “Unto Others: The Evolution and Psychology of Unselfish Behavior” (Harvard University Press, 1998)).

“There are wolves,” says Wilson grimly, “and there are sheep.” He doesn’t hide his visceral reaction to the former. “It’s kind of scary when you appreciate that human life is like a predator-prey relationship, in which both are members of the same species,” he says. Wilson describes the unsettling feeling of looking out over a class to whom he has administered Christie’s test of Machiavellianism, knowing that a certain number of his students are hard-core manipulators. “We grow up thinking that we have to have this presumption of niceness” about other people, he muses, “and there’s something startling about the fact that that’s just not true.”

But Wilson’s message is ultimately an optimistic one: cooperative strategies can work as well as, and sometimes better than, exploitative ones. After all, Machiavellianism sometimes backfires: Its proponents may scheme and manipulate even when a show of submissiveness or an offer to share might more easily get them what they want, and they always run the risk of being found out and then sanctioned or expelled by their communities. As McHoskey notes, Machiavellians therefore do best in highly mobile societies, in which individuals are free to make their own fortunes and the expression of greed or self-interest is encouraged or at least accepted.

Sound familiar? Forget 16th century Italian city states — 20th century America is a land of would-be Princes, a place where the grifter, the con man and the wheeler-dealer are both celebrated archetypes and real-life heroes. Perhaps that’s why now, as the gospel of global capitalism spreads unhindered by other philosophies and Americans reflexively interpret politicians’ words and deeds as motivated solely by strategic self-interest, Machiavelli is experiencing a popular revival. Whatever timeless truths he may have to offer, his message is perfectly pitched to this high-flying, high-rolling cultural moment, when image means everything and power is purchased at any cost.

Were he on the scene today, Machiavelli would no doubt revel in his continuing popularity, though he would likely have little use for the academic debates he inspires (students of literature and political science still argue if his advice to the Medicis was satire, all a monstrous joke). “It seems to me better to concentrate on what really happens,” he coolly pronounced in “The Prince,” “rather than on theories or speculations.”

Annie M. Paul is a writer living in New York.

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