One of my tutees – while I was pushing myself through law school – was a young Russian boy of six called Yasha. Yasha was fiery and precocious and extraordinarily good at chess and his family named him its King. One day, I thought, Yasha will be king of more than just a chess board ruling as he did our class room, the household and the playground in which I would beat him at football, being the only thing I could beat him at.
On the chess board he ruled with a ruthlessness I have never since met. I would think for twenty minutes, he would think for two. I would take his pawn, he would take my bishop. I would take his rook, he would take my queen. And all the time he hummed the Dance of the Knights, chanted “ho ho ho and a bottle of wum” or giggle as he said, “come on Jamesi, I am going to eat your pieces” as though he was hardly playing at all. His was the most intimidating intelligence I have ever encountered for being both naturally occurring and shaped so sharply like a scythe.
What then of Machiavelli? In his short and potent treatise on the nature of leadership, the difficulty of decision making, the displeasing underbelly of political success, Machiavelli cuts too closely like a scythe to fit comfortably in our political discourse: ‘I judge a prince capable of standing on his own when he has enough men or money to gather an army capable of engaging in battle anyone who comes to attack him; and I judge a prince as needing the assistance of others when he is not strong enough to engage an enemy on the battlefield and is compelled to seek refuge behind his walls, which he then has to defend.”
What Machiavelli represents, aside from a lazy synonym for political chicanery, is the power of thoughtful pragmatism. We might not like his message (“in short men must be either flattered or eliminated”) but we cannot deny the careful honesty of his ideas which makes them – at least in part – compelling. It is a deliberately provocative book, it is a polished book, and it is a refreshing book because it runs against the grain of modern utilitarian political discourse, based around the cessation of responsibility by the individual to the state – our constant infantilisation. It is a book written about 16th Century Italian Princes, yet it reveals to us each how we might choose to live in our own principality and to rule our own affairs (“a wise archer, for instance, will perceive that the distance of the target he intends to hit is too far off, and knowing the extent of his bow”s capacity, will aim quite a bit higher, not so that he will reach that height with his arrow, but so that he will gain his objective by aiming above it”).
It reminds me so vividly of Yasha, not simply because it is intelligent, even if it is cynical, yes, but also because I asked Yasha once why he was so good at chess and he said, “it’s easy James, all you have to do is think.”