The morning following the US election, my college campus was eerily quiet. An almost funereal air permeated the quad and halls (and the cold steady rain didn’t help). In class, some students were visibly distraught, others quietly concerned, and a few others happy and hopeful. For one of my classes, in which we have been studying the political and literary writings of Niccolò Machiavelli (1469-1527), his thought could not help but inform our reactions.
In the infamous chapter 18 of The Prince, the Florentine secretary writes of the requirement for the successful prince to appear to be “all piety, faithfulness, integrity and goodness,” but to reserve the capacity to act with aggression and mendacity when the occasion calls for it: “It is necessary for the prince to know well how to use the natures of both man and beast. […] And from among the beasts he should choose the fox and the lion; for the lion cannot defend itself from traps, and the fox cannot protect itself from wolves. It is therefore necessary to be a fox to recognize traps, and a lion to scare the wolves. […] but it is necessary to know how to disguise this nature well and to be a great simulator and dissimulator.”
Machiavelli’s demystifying exposition of the mechanisms of power certainly still holds up with regard to the violence and subterfuge that has always characterized realpolitik, but it seems that the requirement that the prince conceal these unsavory techniques has, in this election cycle at least, been disposed of.
*Daniel Leisawitz is the Director of the Italian Studies Program at Muhlenberg College (Allentown, Pennsylvania, USA). The artwork is by Abraham Cresques a 14th-century Jewish Spanish cartographer.