Many have dreamed up republics and principalities which have never in truth been known to exist… – Niccolò Machiavelli
What does that mean?
This is a Twitter friendly shortening of a fairly long quote: “Many have dreamed up republics and principalities that have never in truth been known to exist; the gulf between how one should live and how one does live is so wide that a man who neglects what is actually done for what should be done learns the way to self-destruction rather than self-preservation.”
This statement was a warning for those Princes of Renaissance Italy who were educated by the book, and not by experience. Those who read Plato’s Republic (overview, full book) or St. Augustine’s Confessions (summary, full book). For the bare-knuckle politics of the day, both book were hopelessly naive.
The quote was there to warn the idealists who were book wise and street foolish, and keep them from making terrible mistakes based on ideal theory, rather than actual experience. In the books, there are ideal cities, ideal structures, ideal behaviors, and ideal expectations.
It still applies today, as there are many people with great theories and grand plans, but absolutely no practical experience. That rarely ends well. Look at all the child Kings of Europe and how the idealistic ones ruled, and for a very short time. That doesn’t mean the others were evil, just a bit more practical. It’s a fine line, but it does exist.
Why is practicality important?
Some idealists consider compromise and practicality the words of a sell-out or someone who has abandoned their ideals. Unless you’re trying to achieve the title of Martyr to the Cause, I would avoid being painfully idealistic, at least if you’re going to get into positions of power.
Consider the disadvantage to a politician if it were known that he would never lie. Carefully crafted questions would snare them every time. This is, in part, the logic behind another quote about being able to be a fox to outwit the traps of those who would oppose you. In it’s heart, that’s the warning of this quote.
Doing what is ideal can lead to self-destruction, when dealing with those who do not share the same values and rules as you. Similarly, doing what is practical allows you the flexibility to preserve yourself, even if you have to bend a few of your ideals in the process. It’s messy, but necessary in real life. Sad, but true.
Where can I apply this in my life?
Sticking with the lives of the powerful, there was a Prince in recent years that held Peace as his ideal, and did everything he could to appease another, who obviously didn’t share his idealism. The people in this story are real, the time was 1938-1939, and the players were Neville Chamberlain & Adolph Hitler.
The idealist was abused by the pragmatist, and much advantage was gained by the one who had the more practical approach. To me, this is the same lesson of this quote. Sometimes, when we’re thinking as an idealist, we forget that there are those who see us not as fellow travellers, but as sheep to be shorn.
That leads to a decision point, where we have to decide how far away from our ideals we are willing to go in order to protect ourselves (the self-preservation mentioned in the book) or others. Chamberlain’s idealism cost Poland, the Low Lands, as well as several sections of Central Europe dearly. What are you willing to sacrifice to keep your idealism in tact?
Most of us will never be a world leader, so the example, while stark, isn’t terribly applicable to the rest of us. Or is it? What if a friend comes to you spouting some nonsense, and you try to correct them. You are absolutely certain you are correct, and they have their facts wrong.
What if they won’t budge. How far are you willing to push them to stay true to the truth? Are you willing to risk estranging them as a friend, just to be correct, just to see the truth win? What if you’re at a party when the shouting begins? Are you willing to wreck the mood at the party just to be correct? How much is your idealism worth, and when do you become practical about it?
If you’ve ever raised kids, you know the stories of chosing your battles. There are times when you let them get away with something, just because it isn’t worth the fight. You have to be careful about developing a pattern that they can take advantage of, but you know your idealism can only go so far, and then practicality has to win out.
Take heed of the warning in this quote. Ideally, idealism would be sufficient. However, in reality, practicality is the safest path. Somewhere between these extremes lies the Golden Mean. This path, while neither entirely ideal, nor entirely practical, it is a classic compromise.
Where you draw the line is, of course, a very personal decision, and one that will likely change over time and with circumstances. Take a moment and consider what idealistic stances you tend to take, and then look at how often and how much you compromise with practicality. You’ve been living this quote for a good part of your life.
Just remember, just as idealism has it’s place, so does practicality. Sometimes one must give way so that things may go forward.
PS – As this is the election season in the US, consider this thought. What if you would only vote for the ‘perfect’ candidate (by your own definition). Would you ever get what you wanted from the government, or would it be more practical to vote for the person who most closely agrees with your ideals? If you go the idealistic route, you will be forced to live under the rule of the practical people, which may well be worse. What do you do?