Middle Class? Machiavellian?


Can members of the middle class consider the Machiavellian perspective as a reasonable view of their world? After all, isn’t Machiavellianism only useful to powerful people who want to conquer a Domain and become a Prince? Isn’t Machiavellianism a belief system that is of most use to aristocrats, senior governmental officials, politicians, corporate big-shots, and so forth? Can a teacher, a computer programmer, a flight attendant, a freelance artist, a college professor, a shop girl, or the manager of an art gallery use Machiavellian principles to their benefit? Aren’t their lives a bit too humble to make such high-octane principles useful?


The answer that the Machiavellian perspective can be of use to almost anyone in almost any situation. A cornerstone principle of Machiavellianism is relativism: all things are relative to the scale, time, place, and people involved. If the Machiavellian perspective offers insight into human nature and into the nature of human interaction, then its ideas should illuminate almost any situation encountered by almost any person, including you - no matter who you are.  

  • Scale: When Roosevelt, Churchill, and Stalin met to agree on a strategy for World War II, they were planning at the highest possible level - the global level. When the department heads of the Drama, Rhetoric, and Philosophy Departments of the University of Idaho met in the same year to decide which of their courses would be required of all Liberal Arts students, they were planning at a much lower level - the University level. But, the pattern of interaction among the World War II group may have been very similar to the pattern of interaction among the University group. The scale is different, but the human personalities might have behaved in very much the same way. Both groups were dividing their world among them, deciding who gets what and how much.
  • Time: Caesar’s army was once the most powerful force on earth, and no one could defy Caesar. However, if Caesar’s armies were resurrected and reassembled as they were at their most powerful moment, they would easily be defeated by a dozen American tanks supported by a dozen Apache helicopters.  It was Lucky for Caesar that he never faced an American tank company. That same tank company - which could have annihilated Caesar’s armies - would itself be no match for the Starship Enterprise commanded by James T. Kirk, and it is Lucky for the tank commander that he never faced James T. Kirk in combat.
  • Place: When the Oscars are presented every year in Hollywood, there is much competition among the participants to be victorious and better dressed than others. On the same night, the competition for the crown among contestants of the Little Miss Greenville Iowa pageant is just as intense, and the costume war is just as ferocious.
  • People: Brilliant people are in every social class, profession, race, gender, political party, club, and subway car. So are vicious people, stupid people, kind people, strong people, weak people, and crazy people. And, I speculate - in the absence of any evidence whatsoever - they occur in about the same proportions in most groups. This varies a little from group to group. The faculty of Harvard are surely smarter as a group than the inmates of the local county jail, but I suspect that some very clever people have spent time in jail and some real dullards have taught at Harvard. Also, I suspect that the faculty of Harvard will all agree that no more vicious a scoundrel has languished in the county slammer than has marched in the graduation procession at Harvard.

Obviously, the rich and powerful have more opportunities and more resources in life, and their lives are therefore much easier for them than for those who live humbler lives. Nevertheless, it is still true that a big frog in a big pond acts a lot like a not-so-big frog in a not-so-big pond. A frog is a frog; a human is a human. Therefore, a middle-class person encounters many of the same problems that were encountered by Julius Caesar in Rome, Cesare Borgia in Italy a few miles north and fifteen centuries later, and Cesar Chavez in California a few thousand miles west and only a few decades ago. President Bush’s private conversations with Tony Blair might resemble conversations that surely must occur occasionally between the president of New Mexico State University and the president of the University of New Mexico. The scale, time, place, and people are different, but the situations are the same and the personalities are the same. All that differs is the attention of historians, who tend to write about the triumphs and vexations of the rich and famous and ignore those of the humble and anonymous.


“OK,” you may be thinking, “maybe modern Machiavellianism can be used to understand my life and the lives of people around me, like the butcher, the baker, and the and the sushi chef - but so what? A knowledge of physics might help me understand why water flows downhill and a knowledge of Latin might help me understand the origins of words I never use. If I want to absorb useless knowledge, I’d rather learn baseball statistics or facts that might help me with crossword puzzles. After all, as a middle-class American I go to work, I come home, I take care of the yard, the house, and the kids, I read a few good books, go dancing occasionally, watch a few good movies, and have good sex with my spouse. I plan to spend the rest of my life doing pretty much what I’m doing now. I don’t spend expect to be conquering rival principalities or beheading my enemies.”

Your point is worth considering. If Machiavellianism isn’t going to help you create a happier and more satisfying life, then there is no reason to think much about it. If the description of middle class life in the previous paragraph describes your life, then you are set for life. Just keep on doing what you are doing and hope that you don’t have any really bad luck until you die.

On the other hand, maybe your life isn’t now all that you ever hoped it might be. If that is true of you, then you need a strategy for getting what you want. Remember, that no matter what you want out of life, someone else will have to give it to you: a raise, a promotion, a part in a play, an opportunity to socialize with a better crowd, a scholarship, a change in the zoning of your property, whatever. Machiavellianism may be a perspective that will help you understand how to get from where you are to where you want to be.

Or maybe, Luck will interfere with your current pleasant existence. Your spouse could die. You could give birth to an autistic child. You could become seriously injured in a car wreck. You might be layed off. You might be indicted for a crime you didn’t commit. You might be indicted for a crime you did commit. You might get a divorce. Your husband might discover that you have a lover. You might go blind. Your lover might discover that you have a husband. There might be a catastrophic event: a tornado could destroy your house, a terrorist might drop powdered plutonium in your city’s reservoir, the housing bubble might pop and you would end up owing more on your house than it is worth, etc. Stuff happens. Machiavellianism says that it is during the good times that you should prepare for bad luck - not obsessively but prudently. 

Machiavellianism is a perspective on human nature that enables some - not all - people to understand themselves and others in a profoundly practical way. It is a perspective that helps some - not all - people get what they want out of life. While Machiavellianism does not tell you what to want or how to behave, it does recommend that you spend your life in the most satisfying way. 

In short, the Machiavellian perspective is useful to people at all positions on the social totem pole. It may not be good for every type of personality, but nothing is good for every type of personality. 


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