Learning from Machiavelli

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Learning from Machiavelli

Niccolo Machiavelli had been a revolutionist. He challenged traditional thought and order. He emancipated politics and ruling power from religion and moral philosophy. He delved into the mechanism behind power and human nature. What he discovered and bared was hypocrisy and deceitfulness in power and darkness and two-facedness in human nature. His empirical findings were turned into a literary masterpiece, “The Prince,” written in 1513. The Roman Catholic Church banned the book and labeled him a teacher of evil.

Machiavelli willingly chose to play the bad guy with the book, making “Machiavellian” synonymous with deceit, tyranny and manipulation for personal advantage. In any pursuit of political idealism of goodness and competency there emerges a Machiavellian leader.

“The Prince” has inspired politicians in the modern age. The author’s ideas on attaining and preserving honor and power had enormous influence on political leaders. The extreme pupils were Benito Mussolini and Antonio Gramsci. The two stood at opposite ends of the ideological axis in 20th-century Italy - the former a flag-bearer of Fascism and the latter of Communism.

Mussolini delved into Machiavelli before and after receiving a doctorate, examining lessons from “The Prince.” Gramsci analyzed Machiavelli in a new light. His theory of cultural hegemony, or the exercise or control of intellectual and moral leadership through alliance with various forces for social revolution of the working class, served as guidance to the left-wing in Korean society of the 1980s. Their interpretation of the text, however, was not what the author intended. Both leaders used the text to apply and justify their political ends.

Machiavelli was based in Florence, Italy, in the 16th century. This year marks the 500th anniversary of the writing of his magnum opus. Last week, a seminar was held in Seoul on the theme “2013 Korea Politics, Why Machiavelli?” Professors, Machiavelli experts like Choi Jang-jip, Kwak Jun-hyeok and Kim Sang-keun, and politicians participated in the event. I, too, spoke on the Italian author’s life and reputation.

Machiavelli had long served in diplomatic and military posts in the Florentine Republic. He interviewed various leaders in neighboring states and closely studied their ascension to power, governance style and skills in winning over the public. His observations were scrupulous. His insight survived time and space. His theories hit the nail on the head when applied to today’s Korean politics.

He wrote, the ruler “should avoid all things which cause people to hate him.” Such advice reminds us of the nationwide protests against American beef imports triggered by the mad cow scare early in President Lee Myung-bak’s administration in 2008. Instead of addressing the public to ease their anxieties with decisiveness, the president languidly strolled up the hills in the back of the presidential residence and watched the crowd singing to the tune of the popular democracy movement theme “Morning Dew.”

The scene was met with a negative response. The opposition perceived a lack of boldness and conviction in the Lee administration. The supporting base of the conservative party was disappointed and turned its back. Lee tried to make up for the folly with eagerness in the economic field. During the financial crisis, the country survived. But the public was unimpressed by the economic feat of a shunned administration.

Machiavelli also explained the complicated public response to reforms.

“There is nothing more difficult to carry out, nor more doubtful of success, nor more dangerous to handle than to initiate a new order of things, for the reformer has enemies in all those who profit by the older order,” he wrote.

Former President Kim Young-sam confessed that reform was more difficult to carry out than revolution.

The Florentine argued that “people are by nature fickle, and it is easy to persuade them about some particular matter, but hard to hold them to that persuasion.” President Roh Moo-hyun came into power amid public aspirations for new politics. But his populist pursuits lost the public’s confidence, and his loyal followers faded into the shadows after he stepped down.

Machiavelli also advised intolerance toward leaders’ misconduct, contending that “men forget more quickly the death of their father than the loss of their patrimony.” A leader must be decisive and prudent in safeguarding the personal assets of citizens. We can apply this lesson to today’s controversy over the tax revision proposal by the government. In August, the government attempted - and failed - to pursue a revision in the tax code that could have translated into a higher burden for the middle class. The public was enraged by the government’s unconvincing proposal to raise funds for its welfare programs.

Virtu (virtue) and fortuna (fortune) are the main themes in “The Prince.” A country’s progress is not simply work of fortune. It is shaped by the creative will, courage and decisiveness of a leader. South Korea’s accomplishments in industrialization and democracy were miraculous in world history. They were possible thanks to the endeavors of leaders to reverse the country’s fortune.

It had been a series of epic triumphs by Syngman Rhee, who planted the seeds for the government’s foundation, Park Chung Hee for industrialization, and Kim Young-sam and Kim Dae-jung for democracy. Likewise, President Park Geun-hye must arm her government with the spirit of virtuosity if she does not want its time in power to be wasted.

Korean politics is crippled by incompetence and frequent breakdowns. The ruling party should have prioritized its campaign promises in its first governing year. Unfeasible promises should have been revised. The government should have persuaded the public on the modification. But the ruling Saenuri Party demonstrated itself as lazy, overly conscious of the president and incapable.

Cause and morality are important in politics. But stubborn and pretentious causes can result in further political damage. Street protests by Democratic Party head Kim Han-gill drew little public interest. Professor Choi Jang-jip advised that “the opposition needs Machiavelli more than Karl Marx.” Politics is the art of the possible. Korean politicians must seek wisdom in Machiavellian politics.

*The author is a senior columnist of the JoongAng Ilbo.

By Park Bo-gyoon
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