Is Bush lending an ear to prince?

January 9, 2004

He may have been dead for nearly 500 years, but Niccol Machiavelli may yet play a part in the forthcoming US presidential election campaign.

Scholars are divided on the relevance of the Renaissance political theorist to modern politics. Many feel Machiavelli can shed light on 16th-century Florence only.

But a group of scholars whose influence stretches to the White House believes the thoughts of the controversial Italian may be useful in analysing US foreign policy.

Harvey Mansfield, professor of government at Harvard University, said that while President George W. Bush made policy based on a distinction between good and evil, the pre-emptive doctrine that he has pursued abroad since the 9/11 terrorist attacks has abandoned that outlook.

Professor Mansfield was a pupil of the late philosopher Leo Strauss, whose work is influential in the Bush administration.

Professor Mansfield is surprised that the Democrats have not yet raised issues of morality over US actions in the war on terror.

"Interest in the influence of morality today ought to raise interest in Machiavelli, the greatest opponent of morality," Professor Mansfield said.

Yet Quentin Skinner, regius professor of modern history at Cambridge University, said most academics focused on understanding Machiavelli's intellectual context, not cherry-picking passages for modern relevance.

"If I wanted to think about contemporary politics, I wouldn't ask myself if someone writing in 16th century Florence had the right answers," Professor Skinner said.

Get an insight into Machiavelli and his political philosophy with OUP's bestselling Very Short Introduction to Machiavelli by Quentin Skinner - free with next week's THES .

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