Fifteenth century Italian politics was much like the political party scene in East Africa today — fluid and unpredictable, with allegiances shifting without warning and friendship and enmity rarely cast in stone.
That was before Italy united into the modern-day state that we know today.
At that time, it consisted of various kingdoms, city states and republics with ever shifting borders.
It was into this turbulent world that the father of realpolitik, Niccolo Machiavelli, was born 542 years ago on May 3.
Little is known about his early life, but at the age of 29 Machiavelli was appointed civil servant in the Florentine republic, in the diplomatic council responsible for negotiation and military affairs.
However, in 1512, when the powerful Medici family returned to power in Florence with the help of Pope Julius II, Machiavelli was excluded from public life.
In an effort to regain favour with the Medici family, Machiavelli penned his most famous work, the political treatise The Prince.
Though the book was not published until five years after Machiavelli’s death in 1527, The Prince’s apparent support for tyranny and ruthlessness scandalised Europe.
In the book, he insisted that rulers of newly acquired states must employ any and all tactics to ensure control over the state, including lying, manipulation, terror, employment of brutal subordinates, and even mass murder of one’s opponents.
At times, Machiavelli seems to revel in the brutality that he describes — but far from being a psychopath’s manual, The Prince’s underlying tenet is that real life is far from ideal or virtuous, and that it is with this realism that a ruler must approach his domain.
Earlier political discourses were hinged on the assumption that a ruler must above all be good and pursue virtue in the traditional sense.
Machiavelli dashed this assumption when he asserted that a prince must only use virtue if it benefits him — that a prince can be regarded as kind, generous, faithful, and so on, but that in reality, circumstances will often force him to act contrary to these good qualities to maintain control.
To his subjects, however, he must always be thought of as essentially good.
The book deviates unapologetically from traditional values, such as kindness and humility, and asserts that a ruler cannot be constrained by morality if he hopes to be effective.
He argues that power must be maintained for power’s sake — and that everything else should be a means to this end.