Tuesday, April 10, 2007

My Machiavellian Interview

A few days ago I interviewed in Atlanta for a position as a White House Fellow. The people I met there were fascinating. All the finalists and the panelists (who interviewed us) were astoundingly accomplished people. Though I've heard that the atmosphere of these events can be poisonously competitive, in my group all the finalists went out for drinks together on the first night, and shared information about what kinds of questions the different panels were asking (I wasn't very helpful in this regard, I'm afraid, since most of the questions I received were really tailored to me). The whole experience was fun and interesting, and I'll probably comment in a few later posts on the little bits of pieces of medievalism that erupted at those regional finals.

One bit of medievalism stuck out, though: Twice in interviews I was asked about Machiavelli, and once in casual conversation.* I wasn't really sure why. Part of it was, no doubt, that some of the panelists had training in political science and so had studied Machiavelli in that context. Still, I perceived a subtext to the questions. The panelists seemed to be waiting to see if I had a sophisticated view of Machiavelli, or if I would just dismiss him out of hand. I got the sense that saying "Machiavelli is evil because he is all about power" would have been seen as naive and simplistic, while "I love Machiavelli and live my life according to his teachings" would have seemed crass (and potentially dangerous).

Fortunately for me, I had just taught The Prince two days earlier, so it was very fresh in my mind. I was even able to quote a bit to one of the panelists. In the context of the interviews, I tried to distinguish between people who want power because they want to be something, and people who want power because they want to do something. At first glance, Machiavelli seems to be writing for the former: "So, you wanna be a prince, do you? Well, here's how you go about it." By the time we get to the end, though, we see it as a yearning to do something, i.e. resurrect the Roman Empire. That desire to achieve a goal that (from his perspective) would be good for all of Europe makes me a lot more sympathetic to Machiavelli, and a lot more willing to see his book as a serious study in the dynamics of power rather than as a guide for self-serving sociopaths.

The other time Machiavelli came up, I was talking to a high school teacher. He asked, "Is it better to be feared or loved?" Within about a minute, this question transformed into "Is it better to be feared or loved by your students?" The position I came up with on that is that it depends on which motivates those students the best. I knew a matronly woman once who got her students to work diligently by getting them to love her; none of them wanted to disappoint her. On the other hand, I've know some young-looking women instructors who had to operate through fear because the young men in their classes might misunderstand the nature of their affection. Each student is different, too, as is the cocktail of students that make up a class. The efficacy of fear or love depends on any number of factors, and any professor that embraces one to the exclusion of the other risks his students.

I was struck, though, by how easily Machiavelli sauntered into our conversations. Perhaps he is making a comeback in popular culture, or at least in popular political culture.

*Yes, I know Machiavelli is generally considered Early Modern (and I agree that he's more modern than medieval), but he is right on the cusp, and in any case the context of the questions made it clear that people thought of him as medieval.


  1. "he is right on the cusp"

    I would have said he IS the cusp.

    But perhaps you mean reflects the change, rather than causing it. Big Mach was perhaps less influential at the time than our anchronistic, simplify-everything modern view allows.

    But still, I would say Mach and Hobbes are the screws that hold the hinge, and modernity swung around that hinge and bumped us all in right in the bum.

  2. Anonymous3:38 PM

    Glad to hear the Atlanta thing went well.

    "Is it better to be loved or feared?" To me, it depends if you consider "fear" respect.