As Marshall McLuhan predicted the rapid advancement of communication and transportation technology has produced a globalized world with “more discontinuity and division and diversity.” In our time many conflicting and incompatible beliefs are held by varied groups. The old and more established powers are jostling for their legitimacy, for their survival, and for their dominance against newly arising powers that are equally bent on maintaining their presence. In such a turbulent environment the humanistic impulses often seem pushed around and laughed at. The highly-maligned, first modern political scientist, Machiavelli wrote in his book The Prince: “there’s such a difference between the way we really live and the way we ought to live that the man who neglects the real to study the ideal will learn how to accomplish his ruin, not his salvation. Any man who tries to be good all the time is bound to come to ruin among the great number who are not good.” Are the true humanists bound for disappearance and oblivion?
Machiavelli’s The Prince often shocks us with its amoral observations of how powers operate in the world, so much so that some thinkers, such as Benedetto Croce, considered the work a satire. But, was it? When we read many of Machiavelli’s observations we are inclined to acknowledge the correctness of them. For instance, he says in the section XVII: “is it better to be loved than feared, or vice versa? I don’t doubt that every prince would like to be both; but since it is hard to accommodate these qualities, if you have to make a choice, to be feared is much safer than to be loved. For it is a good general rule about men, that they are ungrateful, fickle, liars and deceivers, fearful of danger and greedy for gain… People are less concerned with offending a man who makes himself loved than one who makes himself feared: the reason is that love is a link of obligation which men, because they are rotten, will break any time they think doing so serves their advantage; but fear involves dread of punishment, from which they can never escape.” Then, he says in the section XVIII: “To preserve the state, he often has to do things against his word, against charity, against humanity, against religion. Thus he has to have a mind ready to shift as the winds of fortune and the varying circumstances of life may dictate… to anyone who sees or hears him, he should appear all compassion, all honor, all humanity, all integrity, all religion. Nothing is more necessary than to seem to have this last virtue… Let a prince, therefore, win victories and uphold his state; his methods will always be considered worthy, and everyone will praise them, because the masses are always impressed by the superficial appearance of things, and by the outcome of an enterprise. And the world consists of nothing but the masses; the few have no influence when the many feel secure.” From these passages, we can see most of Machiavelli’s political techniques are based on the assumption that humans are generally full of immoral impulses. If we agree with his view of humanity, perhaps we are inclined to accept his tactics as necessary evil. But, are humans really as rotten as Machiavelli says they are? The credible answer to this question is this: some humans may indeed seem rotten while others do not, willing to sacrifice themselves for the good/ survival of others; one human may behave in a rotten manner at one time, but the same person may behave in a benevolent manner at another time. So, we cannot say that humans are bad categorically.
In our time of diversity and pluralism, I think what Isaiah Berlin proposed in his essay responding to Machiavelli’s The Prince is most workable: “Toleration is historically the product of the realization of the irreconcilability of equally dogmatic faiths, and the practical improbability of complete victory of one over the other. Those who wished to survive realized that they had to tolerate error. They gradually came to see merits in diversity, and so became skeptical about definitive solutions in human affairs.”