The same sort of frustration that stimulates tyrant envy in democratic leaders also provokes it in many intellectuals. Political leaders hate having to run for office all the time, submitting themselves to the vagaries of an electorate that the politicians often despise. Intellectuals likewise hate having to compete in a marketplace to sell books, articles, and speeches to audiences the intellectuals often despise. How much better it would be to sit at the right hand of the prince than to compete with the hundreds of writers who submit op-eds for two or three slots in the Wall Street Journal every day! And if you get that job as consigliere to the capo, you get to see your ideas put into effect quickly, and without that messy process of having to convince all those unwashed people to appreciate your brilliance. You only need one appreciative fan.
No surprise, then, that intellectuals find it so easy to appreciate the qualities of the tyrants. Watching the convulsions of Syria today reminds us that not so long ago an intellectual as thoughtful and brilliant as Henry Kissinger could pronounce Hafez Assad “the most interesting man in the Middle East.” At a lower level of intellectual prowess, Thomas Friedman more recently permitted himself the observation that the Chinese government often seems to work a lot better than our own messy democracy. One heard similar remarks about the presumed superiority of the tightly organized Japanese industrial/political system back in the 80s, when it was widely believed that Japan was the next Big Thing. After all, they bought Pebble Beach, didn’t they?
Machiavelli, despite his reputation, knew better. His own political success was not the result of the favors of tyrants, but rather of his work for the Florentine Republic. When the Medicis conquered the city, he was jailed and tortured, then exiled. It was then that he wrote The Prince, and he dedicated it to the Medici of the moment.
But then, he needed a job, and the government controlled the sort of job for which he was qualified.