• Elizabeth Alexander

A Deceiver's Guide to Power?

Updated: Oct 15, 2021

When you hear the word ‘Machiavellian’ what immediately springs to mind? Check the term in a dictionary and you’ll come across suggestions that include: politically devious; unscrupulous; conniving; opportunistic, deceitful, double-dealing… not very flattering, right?

So, it seemed natural that the character of Francis Light I wanted to portray in Lies That Blind (paid link) would have read Machiavelli’s seminal work, The Prince (published in 1532). In the Chapter 8 conversation (above), Light even loans Jim his copy so that the younger man might better understand his view that ends justify means.

And Jim is a willing adherent, at least at first. After all, he had used similar deception to become Light’s assistant.

There’s a wonderful thing that happens when researching a book like mine – at least, I found it to be the case: I begin to educate myself more deeply on topics that I only knew or understood superficially.

Take our general understanding of Niccolò Machiavelli, for example. Supported by the dictionary definitions offered above, his name is typically associated with a treatise on how to “bribe, swindle, and assassinate one’s way to power.”

Yet that’s not the view that philosopher Erica Benner shares – as she points out in this Guardian article. According to her:

His city’s tempestuous history taught Machiavelli a lesson he tries to convey to future readers: that no one man can overpower a free people unless they let him. “Men are so simple,” he tells us, “so obedient to present necessities, that he who deceives will always find someone who will let himself be deceived.”
To each of us, he says: don’t become that someone. Citizens need to realise that by trusting leaders too much and themselves too little, they create their own political nightmares. “I’d like to teach them the way to hell,” he told a friend toward the end of his life, “so they can steer clear of it.”

Unfortunately, that’s not the message that my imagined Francis Light took from The Prince. But then, that’s the problem with “confirmation bias” – we look for evidence that supports our existing beliefs. And in Light’s case this seemed to be that, after 15 years of trying and failing to secure himself a governorship so that through the “founding” of Penang his name would be forever remembered, the means of duplicity and double-dealing were the only way he was going to secure the end he sought.

But, as James Scott intimates to Jim upon their first meeting:

“Aye, well, Francis gets to be called Superintendent of Penang so I imagine he’s happy enough, but my friend’s got his self into a hell of a mess because of it.”