THERE is almost nothing more revolting in the world than a politician pretending to talk about morality — perhaps only one more revolting thing, which is the politician claiming to talk about morality in a church. I think it is very, very important to understand that politics is, at best, a very, very murky profession caught up in a whole series of problems.
Problems about the relationship between means and ends. Problems about what kind of compromises to make. Problems about the impact of politics on your own character. Problems about psychology.
I mean, who wants to be a politician? What kind of hero-complexes, what kind of narcissism, what kind of archetype is taking place when someone stands to be a politician?
For all these reasons, you should be very, very suspicious of politicians standing in a church and talking about morality.
I want to organise my remarks around the theme of Aristotle, because I think Aristotle is a very good way of guessing at what morality in politics might be. And I want to compare Aristotle with the person that I see as the great villain in politics: the Italian political theorist, Niccolo Machiavelli. Machiavelli is somebody who has had an extraordinary 500-year career. You can barely get on the tube without seeing aspiring young businesspeople reading Machiavelli’s The Prince.
There has been a great tendency in recent political theory to try to rehabilitate Machiavelli, to present Machiavelli as a great champion of republican liberty, to try to talk about Machiavelli as our best guide to politics. And some very distinguished people have embraced Machiavelli as a guide to politics. But he’s a very, very, very dangerous guide, because, with Machiavelli, there is no point at which Machiavelli says, “Here I stand. I can do no other.”
Machiavelli is in perpetual movement. In fact, his book The Prince is full of different Italian words for movement, for lurching around, because to him, politics is by its nature an inconstant business. The politician is navigating across a stormy sea, the ocean changing, the winds changing, and the only way in which the politician can survive, Machiavelli says, is to flip and turn with things as they move. And why? Because for Machiavelli, public life has nothing to do with the private life and the standards of the private life cannot be applied.
Anything is justified in Machiavelli, provided you take power in the end. All The Prince boils down to is glory and fame, success. And, along the way, he describes various heroes of his, doing the most unspeakable things in order to take power. Machiavelli’s argument is essentially an argument against Aristotle and against his successor, Cicero. If you read The Prince carefully, what he’s really doing is taking on the assumption of the classical theorists, who believe that politics is about virtue.
I BELIEVE that politics is about honesty, about justice, about mercy, about generosity; and, if you look at the chapter headings in The Prince, essentially what Machiavelli is doing is saying, politics is not about honesty. It’s not about mercy. It’s not about generosity. Politics is about power, taking power; and he proceeds to explain why he thinks this should be the case.
One reason is that the public never really know what’s going on in 10 Downing Street or in the White House or the prince’s palace. All they see is what the prince or the politician chooses to share, in our modern world through the media. All they get is the message which is projected to them. They can never judge actually what is going on. They can’t really see how good a minister is or how bad a minister is, because they’re not sitting in the ministerial office.
What they see, Machiavelli says, is what the politician chooses to reveal. Furthermore, he says, because the public is inconstantly lurching around and subject to change, the politician or the prince who serves the public must also be in constant lurching around and subject to change. This is because, for Machiavelli, as for many contemporary politicians, the nature of the sea in which the politician swims is an unstable series of popular coalitions where you’re playing whack-a-mole, with different views popping up from every direction ever more. In a world of social media, and therefore in order to succeed, the politician needs to be incredibly nimble.
If, for example, you were trying to become leader of the Conservative Party in 2019, you might conclude, if you’d read Machiavelli, that you might need to make a whole series of promises to the Northern Irish Democratic Unionist Party in order to destroy the soft Brexit deal that Theresa May, the sitting Prime Minister, is trying to get through, make promises to them saying “There’s never going to be a border in the Irish Sea. Over my dead body! Vote with me, and I’ll be able to deliver a deal with no border between Great Britain and Northern Ireland.”
But, once you have managed to get the DUP on your side and you have destroyed Theresa May, then you conclude that you have to betray the DUP in order to get a deal out of the European Union. So, now you go to the European Union, and you say, I need to get my oven-ready Brexit deal through as soon as possible. What I’m going to do is, I’m going to put a border in the Irish Sea. And then, as soon as you’ve delivered that deal, you lurch around 180 degrees again and you think, Well, what I’m going to do is I’m going to break international law and abrogate the agreement that I’ve just made with the European Union on the border, in order to try to placate the DUP again.
In doing so you, would be absolutely behaving in the way that Machiavelli believes that you should behave. Indeed, the individual who behaved like that was rewarded — as Machiavelli suggested he would be — with power. Machiavelli’s line is that the Prince never keeps his word, nor should he. Where Aristotle and Cicero were setting up the idea of honesty, Machiavelli is saying no to honesty.
GENEROSITY was another very important classical virtue. Rulers were meant to be very generous. Machiavelli says: Absolute nonsense. Good princes should be stingy. Again, in the classical world, rulers were supposed to be merciful. Aristotle pushes for mercy; Cicero pushes for mercy. These are great virtues for them. But, again, Machiavelli says, No, you should intimidate, you should impose fear.
Machiavelli argues that the way to get to the top is to care only about success and not care about what you have to do to get there. Machiavelli was writing in the early 1500s, at a time where there was an incredible explosion of renascent political thinkers who genuinely believed, like Cicero and Aristotle, that politics was about virtue. The centre of that concept is a line from Cicero, where he says, “The politician exists not just for himself, but for his family and for his country.” His fundamental idea is that there is an altruistic dimension to the political profession.
AlamyNiccolò Machiavelli, portrait by Santi di Tito (1550-99)
And they offer three major disagreements with Machiavelli. Number one, the idea that you can achieve fame and glory by behaving in the kind of way that Boris Johnson behaves is not actually correct; that the kind of fame and glory that you would achieve by behaving in that way is actually a disgusting form of fame, and a shameful form of glory; that we do not simply evaluate politicians on the question whether or not they made it to the top. For Donald Trump to become President of the United States, and for us then to say: “This is a man of fame and glory, he succeeded”: political theorists like the classical political theorists would say no, because this man lacks virtue. It’s not a decent form of fame or glory.
The second response that you can make to Machiavelli is to say that Machiavelli underestimates the destructive, corrosive consequences for your mind, your body, and your soul if you try to be a politician of that thought. Machiavelli believes that you can somehow wear a mask to take power and then remove that mask once you find yourself in government, and that no damage is done. So, you can somehow lie and you can bullshit and campaign, or you take power, and then you can be a good prince. This is fundamental to his assumption.
But, actually, I think this is not true. The things that you have to do to take power in that way undermine the qualities that you need to govern well. This is a very important theme in European politics and in American politics today: the way that you campaign is damaging to the way that you actually run the country.
Why is that? Well, the way that you campaign is that you do so in primary colours. You have three-word slogans: “Take back control”, “Get Brexit done”. Everything is extremely simplified. You are incredibly optimistic. Everything’s going to be great. You know, we’re going to sort everything out. Global Britain: terrific. Every problem has a solution. Everything is highly simplified. There is no room for complexity. There’s no room for nuance, and everything is incredibly tribal and partisan. No space is given to listening to the other side or giving any credit to the other side. No: the message is all about killing the opposition, destroying the opposition, burying the opposition.
SO, THAT is the mask you put on to get elected. That’s the mask that’s demanded by modern media, by social media. But when you then take power, and you try to take off that mask, you find that mask has been painted with a poison and you remove the mask and your face is corroded with the acid that was on the inside of that mask. Because that way of conducting itself becomes semi-permanent. For most of our politicians, this is their lifelong vocation.
If you are Liz Truss, you started at university, you’ve campaigned through your twenties, you’ve run for an unwinnable seat. You have been pushing pamphlets through letter boxes, year in, year out, for years. You have lived your partisan beliefs. It doesn’t matter whether you’re a Labour Party member or a Conservative Party member, even a Lib Dem. You are living your partisan beliefs. You’re not thinking about policy: you’re trying to win.
And then you find yourself sitting around the Cabinet table thinking about Covid. We’re in the middle of the Covid inquiry at the moment, and if you look carefully at the testimony being given, you realise that what was required was critical thinking. Critical thinking is the ability to be humble, the ability to embrace complexity, the ability to understand that there are no simple answers, the ability to be objective.
But campaigning is the entire antithesis of critical thinking. Instead of nuance and humility, hubris. Instead of complexity, simplicity. Instead of objective distance and analysis, partisanship and tribalism. Increasingly in our governments, we are bad at policy. We are bad at governance. We are bad at critical thinking. We are campaigning 24/7. We’re not thinking.
The final argument of Aristotle and Cicero is that Machiavelli is fundamentally wrong about human nature. He’s wrong about what it means to be a human, why we engage in politics in the first place. Aristotle says man is a political animal — which means every one of us is a political animal. We should be engaged in politics, we should be engaged in the administration of our city state, in running it.
Why? Well, because our sense of what Aristotle calls eudaimonia — happiness, being well — involves being able to discuss together our shared values, find through dialogue a common purpose, a partnership in the creation of a state.
It is not a solitary activity. It’s not a selfish activity. It’s not an activity primarily about power. It is an activity of community. It’s an activity also of rhetoric, and, for Aristotle, rhetoric is about persuasion. It’s about the idea that the skilful speaker can change minds, that there is a common humanity to which we can appeal, that there is a form of empathy that resonates between us which makes it possible for me to change your mind or, perhaps much more radically, and in a much more interesting way, you to change my mind — in other words, that the politician is not always on transmit; that the politician can be on receive, as well. And that is the nature of the partnership that underlies this notion of eudaimonia.
In response to a question about the role of Christianity in his social vision:
THE Aristotelian vision of virtue is incredibly important, as an underpinning of the way that we think about Christianity. But Christianity is a transformation, a miraculous transformation of that vision into a much better place.
In the end, the reason why we cannot rely on Aristotle is that Aristotle is particular, not universal. Christianity is universal, in the way that Aristotle’s vision is really specific to the Republic of Athens in the fourth century BCE.
Secondly, Aristotle’s vision is elitist. It’s the vision of the virtue of a prosperous free man in Athens. The vision of Christianity is radically, fundamentally egalitarian. The distinctions that matter to Aristotle between aristocratic and peasant man or woman, free man and slave, are dissolved within Christianity.
This, therefore, means that Christianity’s contribution to politics is much more powerful, much more exciting than the beginnings that Aristotle is getting to, because, if you take those three critiques that I made against Machiavelli, made from a Christian point of view, they are much more powerful.
First, when Aristotle says the type of fame and honour that you achieve through bad behaviour is not worth having, the Christian notion of a valuable life is so radically different that that question hardly emerges.
Second, when it comes to the question of the corrosive life, the way in which politics damages your mind, your body, and your soul, again the Christian message is far more radical in terms of the type of humility, the type of critical thinking that it would demand.
And, third, when it comes to politics as a partnership, because of its radical notion of equality, Christian notions of empathy, listening, humility, partnership, are far more radical, which is why the real answer to Machiavelli is not Aristotle is not Cicero, but it is, in fact, Thomas More.
If you’re looking for somebody who says “Here I stand,” it’s Thomas More. What More fulfils in his life — remember, the guy is effectively the Prime Minister of England: provided he continues buttering up Henry VIII, as Lord Chancellor, he runs the kingdom — and he chooses to do something that for Machiavelli would be incomprehensible. He chooses to say no.
And, by doing so, he demonstrates that the true meaning of the political life is not a question of success or failure; that politics finds its fruition the moment when you realise that you have to say no; and that the true meaning of More’s life is found only in his ending.
This is as edited extract of a lecture given by Rory Stewart at St Martin-in-the-Fields, London, last month. It was part of the “Here I Stand” autumn lecture series (smitf.org/lectures).
Rory Stewart’s new book is Politics on the Edge: A memoir from within (Jonathan Cape, £22 (Church Times Bookshop £19.80); 978-1-78733-271-3).