TEDxBoston: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Machiavelli

Last month I gave a talk about my graphic novel, Machiavelli, and my reasons for writing about him. Thanks to everyone who attended TEDxBoston, who tweeted about it, and were otherwise supportive on your social media of choice. You guys are the best. I had a wonderful time, and the talk was the result of a couple of months of drafts, rehearsals, and helpful feedback from the excellent TEDxBoston curators.

So, without further ado, here’s the talk: (I’ve included my prepared remarks after the video. It’s mostly the same, but some parts vary where through the vagaries of speaking in the moment.)


What do you think about when you hear the name Machiavelli?

Do you think of the Borgias, Assassin’s Creed, or Tupac Shakur? Maybe more likely, you think about a figure of base cunning and malevolence. The ends justifying the means. That’s what it is isn’t it? The definition of the word. We call our most amoral politicians Machiavellian, especially if they are particularly plotting or cunning. But how has this notion endured the five hundred years since Machiavelli was alive? Where did it come from? Mostly from the line in the his landmark political treatise the Prince: “it is better to be feared than loved”. This is Machiavelli’s most infamous quote. Maybe the thing he’s best known for. Even if you don’t know who Machiavelli is, you’ve probably heard this line.

But when we hear that we’re not getting it in the full context of his work, we’re not even getting the quote in its own context. Because what he says there is if one cannot be both, that is, the ideal leader is feared and loved. In other words, he is respected. Machiavelli cautions time and time again, both in the Prince and the Discourses that the worst thing any ruler can be is hated. There is nothing more dangerous to a regime than the hatred of its people, because you will never be at peace. Enemies of any regime will always be looking for weaknesses to exploit, and a hated regime will have the most enemies.

And so I wanted to write about Machiavelli. I have just completed a graphic novel which I researched, wrote, drew, and published online, in which I hope to go beyond this caricature. Something about the injustice of it struck me, that this thinker had such a malign and undeserved reputation. I felt I needed to right a wrong that Machiavelli was not history’s greatest monster. That the idea we have in the popular culture of Machiavelli as a kind of devil was something I wanted to fix.

This image of him as exalting the despot is exactly backward; Machiavelli was actually a big fan of the republic. He preferred the republic to the principality because he believed the citizens of the republic in the aggregate were wiser than a prince, and made better decisions. He also believed that the republic was better at adapting to changing times than a prince, due to the diversity of opinions and backgrounds of the citizens that are in it, and was thus more stable in the long run.

In the academic setting, this view of Machiavelli is uncontroversial. But in popular depictions of Machiavelli, like The Borgias on TV, the old caricature persists. Machiavelli is portrayed as a paragon of his own adjective, always in the shadows, ready to whisper the some sort of dark advice into the ear of power. But Machiavelli was not particularly Machiavellian, actually. He wasn’t really great at advancing his own career or navigating the internal politics of Florence for his own benefit. But most importantly, he never stabbed anyone in the back.

He was loyal to his government. He worked as an envoy and a diplomat and advisor to Florence’s republican government (the government in the early 16th century) and he was loyal to that government to his own detriment. When the Republican government was overthrown by the Medici when they returned to power in a coup, he lost everything. He was picked up as an enemy of the state, tortured, and banished to the countryside where he wrote his political works because he could no longer work in government. But he never betrayed his state. He probably could have, when the Medici were marching on Florence and things were in the balance and at their most desperate, but he did not.

So I set out to make a comic book about it. I like drawing on paper, working in inks and watercolors. So I based the look of MACHIAVELLI (the comic) on the kind of artwork that got me fired up: the pen and ink works of 16th and 17th century artists. Except for the lettering, everything is done by hand (and in the future, I promise to do even the lettering by hand.) I wanted to make art that evoked his time, that was suited to the time and place of Machiavelli, but also was suited to me. I like working with paper, working with paints, inks, low tech. And so, I’ve been a bit of an outsider as well. My choices of materials and subject matter place me outside the mainstream in the age of Photoshopped comics. But I have chosen to distribute the work electronically, to publish on the web and publicize through Twitter and Facebook. So the more low tech my artwork becomes, the more I’ve relied on technological solutions for getting it in front of people. The more I look into ebook and tablet formats—it’s very exciting!—I think to myself “You know what’s going to look awesome on this? Hand drawn and lettered artwork”

My book begins when he enters public service and brings us to the point at which he begins to write the Prince. Although the dialogue is invented—although based whenever possible on actual period accounts—most of the captions are based on his writing. I draw extensively from his letters to his friends, his coworkers, and his family—and their replies to him—to illustrate the great relationships that they had together. They show Machiavelli as a decent man who did his best for his country and stood by his friends and his patrons. Machiavelli as a friend, colleague, husband, and father. *That* was the story I wanted to tell. That was the historical record I wanted to correct.

Machiavelli was more statesman than schemer, more philosopher than plotter. He was loyal, he didn’t backstab anyone. It is a great irony that Machiavelli’s great misfortune—his banishment—became a stroke of luck for world literature. Had Machiavelli been more Machiavellian in his own career, had he betrayed his government and gone over to the Medici early he might have kept his position in government and the Prince and the Discourses would likely never had been written. That historical irony drew me to Machiavelli’s story, not to mention that his rise and fall and eventual redemption in literature makes for a great narrative.

He never told us that cruelty and duplicity are virtues, or even the best means to our ends. He tells us not to be cruel, so that we are not hated. He tells us above all we should inspire a sense of greatness and goodness with our actions, and that working together we as a people are wiser and make better decisions than any monarch. Demand respect, do not be over-cautious: go and do what needs doing because fortune will favor you for it, even though it may not be in the way you anticipated.

Machiavelli is criticized for describing the harsh realities of ruler ship, but you will make better decisions if you see things as they are and not as you wish they were.

I commend myself to you. Be happy.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *