Machiavelli and Anthony Weiner

Sculptor, Lorenzo Bartolini (1777–1850)

It started out, appropriately enough, with a post on Twitter. @GreatestQuotes posted “Everyone sees what you appear to be, few experience what you really are.” attributing the quote to Niccolò Machiavelli. The metaphysical examination of one’s inner life is a bit outside of Machiavelli’s purview, so it raised my suspicions. Hunting down fake quotes is something of a hobbyhorse. It turns out, however, that it is indeed Machiavelli: from chapter 18 of The Prince, (How Princes Should Keep Faith) but truncated and poorly translated. Here’s the full passage:

Everyone sees what you appear to be, few really know what you are, and those few dare not oppose themselves to the opinion of the many, who have the majesty of the state to defend them; and in the actions of all men, and especially of princes, which it is not prudent to challenge, one judges by results.

Machiavelli is commenting on the crucial importance of appearances in politics. (And he’s addressing the prince, not the common person bewildered that no one really understands them, pace @GreatestQuotes.)

There are certain standards of behavior and speech that public officials must observe, and this is as true in our time as it was in his because “people in general judge by the eye rather than by the hand, for everyone can see but few can touch.” A leader must “seem merciful, faithful, humane, religious, and upright” or he risks the condemnation of his people. You may, at this point, object that there are many politicians who possess none or few of these traits, but you will be hard pressed to find one who does not preach them verbally. This is one of the occupational hazards of politics, the importance of appearance, politicians know it going in and we play along with it as well. We know full well our leaders are not perfect, even those we support, but we want them to appear to be.

Progressives are embarrassed by Rep. Weiner’s actions even though they seem to have little to do with the practical aspects of government. But they do. The ability to rally popular support for government action is built on the foundation of public opinion. A politician who has harmed himself with foolish words and images contrary to the standards of appearance that we expect is a damaged spokesperson for the politics and policies that he supports. A leader derives much of his power from the support and the enthusiasm of the people he represents, even in a principality. A humiliated Anthony Weiner lacks the moral force that he had before all this happened. He was a powerful liberal voice in the Congress that is now diminished. That is precisely what Machiavelli is warning against.

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