Tuesday, September 26, 2006
Machiavelli and the Difficulty of Change
I have been reading many classical books lately. The current on my list is The Prince by Niccolo Machiavelli. Despite popular opinion, it is not a book about doing evil for power. Quite the contrary, Machiavelli believed rulers should be full of virtue. However, he believed good rulers would have to "enter into evil" on occasion for the greater good. Those rulers who did not would invariably create more evil by failing to act. The relatively recent example of Truman dropping atom bombs on Japan to end World War Two is a good example of a leader making the best of many hard moral choices to pick the one that will probably lead to the least deaths and the best outcome.
This quote from chapter six of The Prince on initiating change struck me, "We must bear in mind, then, that there is nothing more difficult and dangerous, or more doubtful of success, than an attempt to introduce a new order of things in any state. For the innovator has for enemies all those who derived advantages from the old order of things, whilst those who expect to be benefited by the new institutions will be but lukewarm defenders. This indifference arises in part from fear of their adversaries who were favoured by the existing laws, and partly from the incredulity of men who have no faith in anything new that is not the result of well-established experience. Hence it is that, whenever the opponents of the new order of things have the opportunity to attack it, they will do it with the zeal of partisans, whilst the others defend it but feebly, so that it is dangerous to rely upon the latter.''
In my career, I have been the head of two academic departments at two separate American institutions of higher education. In each case, I have seen faculty members block needed change because they perceived it as threatening their power base or because it was different than how they "have always done things." How ironic that faculty members who advocate major change at the national level at the same time resist even minor change at the university departmental level. Maybe this is why only one American President has had a doctorate? Academia is perhaps a bad place to learn how to make successful changes?
I have always carried through with the changes I have proposd but I have literally seen what Machiavelli is describing as real. Change is perceived as bad for many people. Academics are no excption.
Is it any wonder then that is so hard for nations to make changes in policy and direction? True change leaders will threaten those who benefit from the powers that be but will only have lukewarm support from those who could benefit from a change because the change leader is unproven and could actually make things worse if they fail. This makes it hard for rebels but also for those who suggest moderate or less radical changes.
However, changes can and do occur on a regular basis in the world. Many of these are done at the national level. Some of these require leaders to make hard moral choices for the greater good. Others are the results of leaders who "entered into evil" and decided never to leave it.
I think Machiavelli did a good job of describing power and one way it can be exercised for the benefit of all. I wonder if he was alive today if he would amend his work? Or, have the last 500 years just reinforced what he wrote in the first place?