While preparing for the Universities Matriculations Examinations (UME) (now known as the Unified Tertiary Matriculation Examinations) in 2005, I came across one new “fact” reading the book A Course Text on Government by Oghenekaro Ogbinaka. I learnt that the word “State” can be traced to an Italian philosopher known as Niccolo Machiavelli. The fact that Machiavelli has a birthdate which is not older than 1469 makes this whole matter more intriguing and fuels my appetite to get to know more.

Ogbinaka did add to my excitement when he recalls that in his most famous book, The Prince, Machiavelli actually recommends several amoral principles for the leaders of modern state, which he calls Prince, to do everything within his power to maintain the state using any means, including every means!

Before reading Ogbinaka’s book, all I knew about politics and political philosophy was how to make societies better often through democracy. My young mind never conceived of how anyone and a “philosopher” for that matter will advise a leader on how to be ruthless and amoral. I thought the likes of Mussolini, Hitler and Franco were possessed by evil spirits. Nothing in my innocent mind ever believed anyone will just intentionally want to self-destruct. All that changed the moment I read that Machiavelli’s forbidden book!

For those who know, Machiavelli was born during a tumultuous era where popes waged acquisition wars against city-states and people. Cities often fell from power as France, Spain, The Holy Roman Empire and Switzerland all battled for regional influence and control. This period was also characterised by military alliances which produced mercenary leaders who changed sides without warning and the rise and fall of many short lived governments. These were perilous times for Italy as the country was divided into principalities (Milan, Venice, Naples, Florence, Rome and others) often at war with each other and often under attacks from external forces from Spain, France and Germany.

These events and more inspired Machiavelli to pen down his most read book.

The Prince unlike what many people may think provides a new understanding of politics and political ethics. It contains Machiavelli’s philosophy about leadership and how a leader should gain, use, manipulate and consolidate power. It explored the causes of the rise and fall of states and the factors for political success. It is viewed as a manual in which Machiavelli outlines amoral principles on how political power may be gained, expanded and retained.

Though he has been frequently criticized for his sadism and his perceived love for violence as an honourable means of acquiring and retaining political power, Machiavelli’s influence transcend even his famous critics.

Whenever I come across someone make statements like “You are a liar” referring to another person, I sometimes sincerely wonder what they mean. Modern politicians will often argue that they “have never told a lie” all their lives, yet that statement contains the biggest lies falsehoods told to man. When caught in the acts of lying they quickly make us understand that the changed their minds. Why really do men who before their ascension to political offices were good men end up turning beasts?

One morning in August, 1971, nine young men in the Palo Alto area received visits from local police officers. While their neighbors looked on, the men were arrested for violating Penal Codes 211 and 459 (armed robbery and burglary), searched, handcuffed, and led into the rear of a waiting police car. The cars took them to a Palo Alto police station, where the men were booked, fingerprinted, moved to a holding cell, and blindfolded. Finally, they were transported to the Stanford County Prison—also known as the Stanford University psychology department.

The “suspects” were willing participants in the Stanford Prison Experiment, one of the most controversial studies in the history of social psychology. The study subjects, middle-class college students, had answered a questionnaire about their family backgrounds, physical- and mental-health histories, and social behavior, and had been deemed “normal”; a coin flip divided them into prisoners and guards. According to the lore that’s grown up around the experiment, the guards, with little to no instruction, began humiliating and psychologically abusing the prisoners within twenty-four hours into the study. The prisoners, in turn, became submissive and depersonalized, taking the abuse and saying little in protest. The behavior of all involved was so extreme that the experiment, which was meant to last two weeks, was terminated after six days.

Other, more subtle factors also shaped the experiment. It’s often said that the study participants were ordinary guys—and they were, indeed, determined to be “normal” and healthy by a battery of tests. But they were also a self-selected group who responded to a newspaper advertisement seeking volunteers for “a psychological study of prison life.” They recreated the original ad, and then ran a separate ad omitting the phrase “prison life.” They found that the people who responded to the two ads scored differently on a set of psychological tests. Those who thought that they would be participating in a prison study had significantly higher levels of aggressiveness, authoritarianism, Machiavellianism, narcissism, and social dominance, and they scored lower on measures of empathy and altruism.

The lesson of Stanford isn’t that any random human being is capable of descending into sadism and tyranny. It’s that certain institutions and environments demand those behaviors—and, perhaps, can change them. Men do not just turn out to be evil in politics; other things bring out the tendencies in them.

As the Stanford Prison Experiment have shown, the modern state, and by extension, all political relationships, are based on power. Machiavelli instead of using a formal experiment like Philip Zimbardo, the Stanford Prison’s lead researcher used the actors in the state as the objects of his experiment which has come to shape our understanding of the modern state. This was the central message in Machiavelli’s The Prince.

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