Iran Again: Machiavelli Meets Churchill

I’m giving a lunch talk today here in the DC area on the subject of “The Education of Winston Churchill,” and one passage from my notes comes to mind in thinking once again about the difficult Iran problem:

One important political book that we know Churchill read either at Bangalore or shortly after, but which he omits to mention anywhere in his memoirs, is Machiavelli’s Prince, often called “the most famous book about politics ever written.”  We know Churchill read Machiavelli because a few years later, in the early years of his career as a member of Parliament and then as a junior cabinet minister, he frequently sent copies of the book to friends along with his endorsement of the book’s value.  But Machiavelli and the adjective made from his name—“Machiavellian”—have a sinister connotation in political life, and Churchill was undoubtedly aware of this.

Here and there one can see some distinct echoes of Machiavelli’s rich and often misunderstood teaching in Churchill’s own words.  In The Prince, Machiavelli wrote that “A disorder should never be allowed to continue so as to avoid a war, because that is not to avoid it but to defer it to your disadvantage.”  In his chapter about the infamous Munich agreement in The Gathering Storm, Churchill writes, “There is no merit in putting off a war for a year if, when it comes, it is a far worse war or one much harder to win.”


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