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Richard J. Mouw

Dogbert v. Machiavelli

Who is more Machiavellian? A new book argues that Niccolo is actually virtuous—so Dilbert's sidekick wins again.

I often find Scott Adams's Dilbert comic strip a good source for laughs. I also enjoy Adams's books, where he provides commentaries on his cartoons; that material too is usually very funny. Here, for example, is his summary of the theory of evolution: "First, there were some amoebas. Deviant amoebas adapted better to the environment, thus becoming monkeys. Then came Total Quality Management." And this one: "Maybe we should learn something from nature. In the wild, the weakest moose is hunted down and killed by dingo dogs, thus ensuring survival of the fittest. This is a harsh system—especially for the dingo dogs, who have to fly all the way from Australia."

Scott Adams is obviously a gifted humorist adept at exposing the foibles of corporate life. His jokes at the expense of both leaders and followers struck me as innocent fun, with perhaps a gentle hint in the direction of some sort of moral message. I haven't thought it necessary to try to get clear about the exact content of the message. That task I have been willing to leave to some young theologian who is probably right now working on a little book to be called "The Gospel According to Dilbert."

I was caught short, then, by the tone of something Adams said when I heard him interviewed recently on National Public Radio. It was one of those call-in shows where he was the expert guest on the day's topic, "Office Politics." There was a good deal of vintage Adams banter on the program, and I laughed out loud a few times as I drove along the highway. But then a woman called in with this question:

"The management of our company recently announced some plans to make the place into a more humane work environment. Do you think anything good can come of this?"

"Not really," Adams replied. "I don't believe that organizations really can be made into humane places to work. When leaders promise that kind of thing, they are either hopelessly na•ve or deviously clever."

This struck me as an unusually cynical comment. To be sure, there are examples of both hopelessly na•ve and deviously clever leaders in the Dilbert strip. But does Adams really mean to suggest that these are the only options?

Is the real message of the Dilbert saga a Machiavellian one? This last question was a poignant one for me, since I heard the Adams interview during a time when I was slowly working my way through Harvey Mansfield's much-acclaimed recent book, Machiavelli's Virtue.

Mansfield credits Niccolo Machiavelli with having a strong sense of humor. He even suggests that you probably haven't properly understood any paragraph in The Prince "until you have found something funny in it." Well, if there is also something serious to be found in every Dilbert cartoon, there may be some signficant overlap here.

Once you start looking, it is not difficult to find Machiavellian signals in the Dilbert literature. Adams tells us in The Dilbert Principle that after collecting thousands of stories about absurd happenings in corporate settings, he has "developed a sophisticated theory to explain the existence of this bizarre workplace behavior: People are idiots." But not quite all people, since he tells us further on that our world is populated by "nearly six billion ninnies living in a civilization that was designed by a few thousand amazingly smart deviants." It is in this "tiny percentage of deviant smart people" that we can find the folks who have created "all the management theories, the economic models that predict and guide our behavior, the science that helps us to live to eighty."

The Dilbert Principle
by Scott Adams
352 pp.; $13, paper

One of the chapters in The Dilbert Principle actually bears the title "Machiavellian Methods." Adams provides a parenthetical notice that this part of the book is "Written by Dogbert," who seems to be the smartest operator in the Dilbert cast of characters. And Dogbert does sound like he has read The Prince. "The earth is populated by shallow and ignorant people. That's why form will always be more important than substance. You can waste your time complaining about how that should not be the case in a perfect world, or you can snap out of it and follow my advice."

In Dogbert's Top Secret Management Handbook, Dogbert is presented as a large-brained expert at making "the exploited masses" serve his interests. "Leadership isn't only about selfish actions," he counsels; it also requires mastery of the kind of "empty, meaningless expressions"—such as "It's a new paradigm"—that will dupe your hapless coworkers into conforming to your manipulative designs.

Is Scott Adams a Machiavellian, then? I would say he probably is. The interesting question, though, is whether Niccolo Machiavelli deserves to be branded with that label. This question looms large in Harvey Mansfield's collection of essays on Machiavelli's thought.

As Mansfield demonstrates, the question is not susceptible to a straightforward answer. He is obviously not satisfied with the conflicting assessments of Machiavelli current these days. On the one hand is the popular notion that Machiavelli was indeed a Machiavellian—that is, a Dogbert-type teacher of amoral manipulative techniques for getting ahead in competitive settings. On the other is the rather bland assessment common among political theorists, that Machiavelli was simply an important—and rather benign—shaper of today's science of politics, a pioneer in insisting that we focus in a nonjudgmental way on what really happens in political life rather than spinning out, in the manner of Plato and Saint Augustine, idealized schemes of moral "oughts."

Mansfield finds some truth in each of these depictions, but each by itself is too simple. For a properly nuanced understanding of Machiavelli, Mansfield suggests, we do well to follow a piece of advice that Leo Strauss once offered: we must begin with the Machiavellians and ascend from there.

Mansfield makes his case by focusing on Machiavelli's conception of virtue. He complains that Machiavelli's translators have consistently refused to translate the frequent references to virtu as "virtue": they prefer to "call it ingenuity or valor or vigor, thereby revealing that something new is intended while concealing the fact that Machiavelli calls it virtue."

While Machiavelli did indeed reject the traditional notions that moral virtue is either good for its own sake or good for the sake of glorifying God, he did not mean thereby to reject the very idea of virtue out of hand. For one thing, Machiavelli knew that his own recommended designs for political leaders required the continuing acceptance of the older ideas of virtue in the larger community. The effective prince needs to appear to be virtuous in the classical sense. It is only by maintaining this appearance that he can effectively use vice on occasion to achieve his ends.

The selective use of arbitary executions, for example, is an important strategy in Machiavelli's scheme. But this kind of thing must come as a surprise, thereby keeping people off guard. The followers must generally believe that the prince is a person of good will, while not being lulled into thinking that his good will can be taken for granted.

A successful leader, says Machiavelli, must be confident that those who serve him will come to his aid when he needs them and not merely when they think it convenient to do so. Dogbert's Machiavellian maxim about the strategic importance of form over subtance for succeeding in a world full of idiots has a real counterpart in Machiavelli's thought: the prince must be ever mindful of the fact, says Machiavelli, that "the vulgar are taken by what seems and by the outcome of the thing, and in the world there are only the vulgar."

This is where it is important to keep moving, however, in order to ascend from garden-variety Machiavellianism to a higher perspective. On Mansfield's reading, there is something like a more substantive view of virtue at work in Machiavelli's scheme. Take, for example, this comment in The Prince, where Machiavelli has been referring to some of the traditional virtues:

For a prince, therefore, it is not necessary to have all the above-mentioned qualities, but it is judged necessary to appear to have them. Rather, I will be so daring as to say this, that having them and observing them always, they are harmful, while appearing to have them is useful; like appearing piteous, faithful, humane, integral, religious and [perhaps even] to be; but while keeping one's spirit predisposed so that, needing not to be those things, you might know how to change to be the contrary.

There is a notion of "real" virtue lurking here, however attenuated: virtue as a highly refined form of prudence. It is not enough to say that for Machiavelli all human beings are motivated solely by selfish designs. We must also recognize that most human selfishness operates in a fairly crude and unreflective manner. The rare gifted leader is capable of enlisting others in his cause because his selfishness is of a more complex variety, in which "glory"—a largeness of spirit—rather than mere pleasure or power, is the cherished commodity.

As Mansfield observes, Machiavelli does draw on ancient wisdom; but it is the wisdom of Rome and not of Athens or Jerusalem. His models of virtue are military ones, where (as he puts it in the Discourses) "the ability to measure [one's] forces well" is a thing to be celebrated. Mansfield is convinced that the Machiavellians have taken this complex notion of virtue and have "formalized and emasculated" it, thus producing "pitiful creatures seeking security instead of risk who are oblivious to virtue."

Machiavelli's Virtue
by Harvey C. Mansfield
Univ. of Chicago Press
371 pp.; $29.95, hardcover; $15, paper

Mansfield should be happy with the Yale edition of The Prince that has appeared since the publication of his book.

In Angelo Codevilla's new translation, virtu is rendered as "virtue," and the accompanying commentaries by several political theorists comport fairly well with Mansfield's analysis of the overall contours of Machiavelli's thought.

In his editor's introduction, for example, Codevilla insists that many people today who see it as their lot in life to "invent their own values" in pursuing success are in fact promoting ways of living "that Machiavelli would have termed inglorious or even subhuman."

Of course, none of this is enough to make us completely change our moral assessment of Machiavelli. Even granting him his "new" conception of virtue as the prudent pursuit of glory, what he says falls far short of an adequate view of leadership. Mansfield is well aware of that. The author of The Prince, he observes, operated with a clearly "anti-Christian presumption against anything above politics, whether divine or secular, that might deflect politics from earthly acquisition."

A strong motive for Machiavelli's rejection of Christianity, Mansfield explains, was his abhorrence at what he considered the "pious cruelty" of a papacy backed by claims to a universal divine order. Machiavelli saw no alternative but to make politics autonomous of any moral or religious claims. "The soul" must be banished from political life. The problem with this is, as Mansfield insists, that subsequent totalitarianisms have done exactly what Machiavelli prescribed, and in doing so they have outdone "the pious cruelty of any sect with which Machiavelli was acquainted." Perhaps, in the light of that history, Mansfield suggests, even Machiavelli would be willing to consider "ascending" to the reintroduction of the soul, albeit a more moderate one than the version he was rejecting.

Mansfield senses the need for the soul, not only in politics but for corporate leadership in general these days. But he also clearly believes that in reclaiming the soul we must not forget the important conversation that Machiavelli initiated in his writings.

The Prince
by Niccolo Machiavelli
Translated and edited by
Angelo M. Codevilla;
commentary by William B. Allen, Hadley Oaks, and Carnes Lord
Yale Univ. Press
154 pp.; $25, hardcover;
$10, paper

The final essay in Mansfield's book is a fascinating one, entitled "Machiavelli and the Modern Executive." It begins with the observation that "the modern executive, whether in politics or business, feels a vague but uneasy kinship with Machiavelli."

At the very least, for some of us in positions of organizational leadership, this experience of uneasiness will certainly have to do with a sense of our shared sinfulness. We sense the temptation of Machiavellianism, and in our best moments we desperately want to resist its lure.

But there is also a sense of kinship with Machiavelli in recognizing the reality of the agenda that he so ruthlessly addressed. Corporate leadership is a complex calling, and it often seems that the complexities can be soul-destroying, especially when one becomes immune to the pain that organizational decisions, however necessary, bring to individual lives. Leaders must often choose between the bad and the worse. The danger is that we will come to see such decisions as mere exercises in skillful management.

For Machiavelli, the only solution was to reconcile oneself to the need to do evil as an integral part of pursuing the higher virtue. For others of us, such a path is unacceptable. It is not that we want to be less "realistic" than Machiavelli calls us to be.

We simply read reality differently. When "one considers everything well," writes Machiavelli, "one will find that something that appears a virtue, if followed, would be his ruin, and that some other thing that appears as a vice, if followed, results in his security and well-being." Machiavelli is right in his desire to "consider everything well"—which is why for some of us the demands of leadership cannot be considered apart from the revealed will of the One who promises us the gift of wisdom for the complexities of life, not in the form of a prudence that seeks our own glory, but as a discernment that seeks to glorify the Creator.

Machiavelli's contemporary Martin Luther also wrestled with the ambiguities of leadership. In his important essay "Secular Authority: To What Extent It Should Be Obeyed," Luther pointed to the inescapably tragic dimensions of the vocation of the leader. If the Christian prince genuinely desires that "his condition will be outwardly and inwardly right, pleasing to God and men," Luther warned, he must ever be on guard against temptation. And, Luther quickly adds, "he must anticipate a great deal of envy and suffering," for it is inevitable that he "will soon feel the cross lying on his neck."

The proper reintroduction of the soul into corporate life must be accompanied by Luther's very vivid consciousness of the need for forgiveness. There is a sense in which Machiavelli also pointed—unwittingly, to be sure—to the need to "ascend" to an awareness of the dynamics of sin and grace. This is why it is important to give him a fair hearing. The opportunity also to engage him in dialogue is, unfortunately, long past. But there is still some hope that Dogbert, one of his better-known disciples, might yet feel the tug of the divine leash and write a book someday about what it is like to enroll in obedience school.

Richard Mouw is president of Fuller Theological Seminary.

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