Stoicism and Machiavellianism are both philosophies that are very much about power in their essence. When Nicollo Machiavelli wrote “The Prince” he wrote it as a gift to his lord, a gift of knowledge gleamed from observing history, and distilling patterns into essence. I do not really know what was Seneca’s motivation behind writing “Letters“, whether he did it for himself or for others. Perhaps it was as “Ethics” by Spinoza, a thinly clad rejection of religious oppression, perhaps like Paine’s “Common Sense” it was a call to action to the peasantry to rise up against their oppressors, or perhaps it was like quite a few of my writings on this blog, something he enjoyed writing about and did partly for himself, partly for others.
Machiavellianism has a distinct outer focus, from the writing style of its inventor, and his modern reincarnation in Robert Greene, the style and philosophy draws on observation of history and the present, and distills them into essence in the hands of the author. Machiavelli and Greene both use stories to illustrate the principles, and this comes naturally to the philosophy, as it is in it’s essence about controlling the external world through cunning, intelligence and shrewdness.
It is clear that certain things are the antithesis to being able to achieve external control, for instance, action without consideration of consequences, will tend to land you in situations where you are disadvantaged. This was what happened at the death of Cesare Borgia, a capable general and fighter, who in his excitement of chasing down the vanquished, found himself in their position. Another example would be Adolf Hitler, who after blitzing down most of Continental Europe was seduced by his own vision of greatness, which had seduced the German people, and then attacked the Soviet Union.
In order to be a skillful Machiavellian, the key is to out-think, out-plan and out-perform your competition, this is not possible if your internal states are not controlled and in balance. I was asked once, what gives psychopaths their power, and it is the same things that often lead to their downfall. A willingness to take high risk, related to fearlessness. Narcissism, which leads to an absence of self-doubt. Finally, lack of empathy, which means the freedom to engage in any action.
This is a powerful cocktail of complimentary traits that together gives you the utmost confidence in success and your own abilities. A disregard for negative consequences and how the world will react to your actions. Finally a complete lack of consideration for how your actions affect the lives of others.
Unlike Machiavellianism, where a founding ethos would perhaps be “How can you affect the world“, stoicism starts from the question “How does the world affect you“. Where Machiavelli gives you the tools to control the world, Seneca and Marcus Aurelius give you the tools to control how the world affects you. I wrote another essay on stoicism where I outline that the basic statement of stoicism is that we cannot control the world, but we can control how we allow the world to control us.
When the book “Dune” was rejected for the 88th time, most authors would have sat down, burned their manuscript or let it die in the back of their closet. Yet, author Frank Herbert sent it out again, and it became a science fiction classic. I think that the reason for persisting for this long, was the knowing that the world so far was wrong about his book, and he was right. 88 rejections would normally be a strong communication of “you suck”, yet the ability to distance yourself from these external messages, or even better, allow them to become your driving force is central to achieving greatness.
Stoicism is about rather than let the world control your actions and affect your inner states, you control them. It is not about denying the world entry into your sacred internal life, rather it is about permitting yourself to control your inner states as a result of worldly intrusions. A stoic admits that the world affects him, his emotions, and his mind, but he is determined that he affects himself, his emotions and his mind more. This is where the best definition I have heard by author Nassim Nicholas Taleb
“A Stoic is someone who transforms fear into prudence, pain into transformation, mistakes into initiation, and desire into undertaking.”
The transformation is a central aspect of stoicism, it is somewhat like the alchemy of philosophy as it is about going from one state, being influenced into a second state by the world, and using that energy to transform into a third state.
A stoic fears, yet is not controlled by fear, because he knows fear is fleeting and will help him transform into the state he needs to be in. A stoic is confident, not in outcomes, but in his ability to handle the impact of any situation. A stoic is aware of, but not intimately bound by the opinions and minds of others, as he knows that their states are as influenced by his own, yet he expects them to gain from their states and what happens to them.
Summary and conclusions
The reason why I view Machiavellianism and Stoicism as complimentary, rather than adversarial is that their focus is fundamentally different. You can use Machiavellian tactics on yourself, but if you do, you may find yourself in the situation of Hitler who bought into his own image, of Cesare Borgia who bought into his legend of greatness. Machiavellianism turned outward is manipulation, Machiavelliansm turned inward is self-deception.
You likewise approach your external world using stoicism, however if this is how you elect to approach the world, you will rapidly find yourself thrown to the wayside, or in a state of apathy towards the external.If you view the external world through the lens of stoicism, you may find yourself as the quiet observer of the world like many Buddhist philosophers, or quietly standing by, watching as your world burns. Stoicism turned inward is self-control and transformational power, stoicism turned outward is apathy and resignation.
Much like capitalism and classic liberalism, being a stoic makes you a better Machiavellian and Machiavellianism makes you a better stoic. Taking action in the world, which is the purpose and goal of Machiavellians, means that you acting upon the external world in bolder moves, and more frequently, which means that the external world will act on you in bolder moves and more frequently, giving your inner stoic a chance to turn external effect into transformation. On the other hand, being a stoic, means you are more controlled than your adversaries, are confident in your abilities and patient in your approach, meaning you become a better Machiavellian.
I dislike the world “synergy” because it has been abused more by management consultants than frequent flier miles and “work lunches“, however in this case it is the correct term to describe the two philosophies. They simply make each other stronger. Now it is clear that an adherent of both, will perhaps always fall more towards stoicism and machiavellianism, thus resulting in less optimal outcomes. Such as becoming more prone to risk taking and no-holds barred fighting of the “High Mach”, while others are more prone to becoming apathetic towards the external world, preferring rather to manage their own internal emotions and thoughts of the world, however this is unavoidable.