Disclaimer: Some of my links are to actual clips from “The Sopranos,” which may contain inappropriate language.
When criticized about his decisions as a mob boss in the critically acclaimed TV show, “The Sopranos”, Tony Soprano responds by saying “[With] All due respect, you got no [expletive] idea what it’s like to be number one. Every decision you make affects every facet of every other [expletive] thing… And in the end you’re completely alone with it all.”
Even though Tony admits that being on top isn’t always easy, it’s the life he chose, and it’s the way in which he governs those below him that allows Tony to remain on top. Characters in “The Sopranos” come and go due to the violent nature of the mafia lifestyle that is portrayed, but Tony’s stability as a leader can be attributed in part to the Machiavellian style of which he leads his men.
In fact, even before he was a mob boss, Tony’s ascension into power had Machiavellian ties. In The Prince, Machiavelli tells the story of Agathocles, the Sicilian, who became the Prince of Syracuse by crime. Agathocles, along with the help of his men, killed all of the senate members that previously ruled Syracuse and put himself in charge.
The beginning of Tony Soprano’s life as a mobster started with a criminal act as well. When he was a teenager, he robbed a bunch of high profile mafia members at a card game and got away with it. Instead of killing all of the mobsters at the event, Tony let them live to tell the tale. By the time they figured out it was Tony, retaliation was not an option and Tony earned the respect of the elder mafia members as an up-and-coming gangster. This put him on the fast track to becoming a “made man.”
Once “made” and in charge, Tony faced a classic dilemma outlined by Machiavelli in The Prince, of whether to be loved or feared as a leader. Ideally, Machiavelli says, a good prince would be both loved and feared, with being feared coming before being loved.
It appears that Tony recognized Machiavelli’s approach. While he has methods of intimidation that are both direct and indirect, Tony is able to get what he wants from the people around him by invoking fear through his intimidation tactics. He knows that business is easier when people are afraid of him—because people are more likely to give him what he wants if they are afraid of what his consequences might be for inadequacy.
Machiavelli also discusses the importance of a prince treating his subjects the same way consistently, and this is something that Tony appears to enforce. As long as his men on the ground are earning their money, Tony does not bother them by doing things like imposing higher taxes on their earnings—something Machiavelli warns against a prince doing. Although his men frequently complain that Tony is never satisfied with them, even when they exceed expectations, it is Tony’s consistent enforcement of this attitude that keeps them earning.
Even in times of disobedience or chaos, Tony tries his best to make rational decisions, which is important as Machiavelli points out, because a decision that involves cruelty should be used sparingly. Specifically, Machiavelli says “A Prince should therefore disregard the reproach of being thought cruel where it enables him to keep his subjects united and obedient.”
An example of Tony using cruelty would be when he is forced to kill one of his closest workers and friends, Salvatore Bonpensiero, when he finds out that Bonpensiero is working for the FBI. Tony knows that if he does not exercise the cruel act of killing his close friend, he could have others close to him working to bring him down if they were to get “pinched” by the Feds.
Even though the mafia in itself is an illegal business, there are unwritten rules, and one of them is that those who get busted don’t give up associates. As Machiavelli points out, “fear is sustained by dread of punishment.” Tony knows he has to put forth the cruel actions necessary to instill fear so that his men follow this unwritten rule of mob life.
Now, despite Tony’s ability to take out mob associates, Tony also shows signs of love and compassion—which Machiavelli points out is important. Machiavelli says, “Men are less hesitant about harming someone who makes himself loved than one who makes himself feared because love is held together by a chain of obligation…”
Tony creates this chain of obligation—and loyalty to his rule—by caring for his closest men when they are in need. An example of this is when his nephew, Christopher Moltisanti, develops a heroin problem and Tony decides to take the necessary efforts to get him clean.
The decision made by Tony to get Christopher clean is one with Machiavellian ties that works out well. After Christopher gets off drugs, he finds out that his fiancé has been working for the FBI. Rather than run off with her and abandon his life as a mobster, Christopher feels obligated to tell Tony, because he knows he cannot turn his back on the man who helped him out of a dark stage in his life. This allows Tony to steer clear from potential FBI trouble and remain in charge as a leader.
While it is unclear if Tony Soprano is destined to lead his division of the mafia past the six seasons of the Sopranos, his skillful implementation of Machiavellian principles is a big reason why he is not taken down by other gangsters or the FBI through the duration of this classic show. Although Tony Soprano exists only within the confines of a television, he has plenty of real life implications, and the Machiavellian way in which he rose to power and commands those below him is just one example.