A Machiavellian Analysis of Why Scar Failed

In some ways, Scar, the villain from Disney’s The Lion King, might seem like the perfect Machiavellian leader. He is cunning, devious, and completely lacking any moral scruples. But I don’t think that Machiavelli would have admired Scar. The sixteenth-century Italian political theorist and father of modern political thought, who once claimed that a ruler must seek to be like the lion or the fox, probably would have found much lacking in Scar’s leadership style. To be fair, I will give Scar the benefit of the doubt and admit that as a lion on the African serengeti, he probably never got the chance to read Machiavelli’s The Prince, but had he, he might have been more successful. So here are the Scar’s top five mistakes, from Machiavelli’s point-of-view.

1. Scar didn’t know what kind of kingdom he was taking over.

The least assigned chapters of The Prince are probably chapters one through twelve. They don’t seem as novel or important as the parts in which Machiavelli tells princes to do bad things. But they are important nonetheless. What Machiavelli is doing in the first part of The Prince is establishing a typology of monarchies, since how one rules a kingdom is intimately tied up with what type of kingdom one is ruling. For instance, if you are the son of the monarch, and the people have lived under your family’s rule for a long time, you probably don’t need to do much to win their loyalty (Machiavelli, chp. II). Simba, for instance, was a hereditary monarch of this sort. If on, the other hand, you are a new monarch, you’ve got to be much harsher. When Scar took over, he was a new ruler, and acted like kind of a jerk. He let the hyenas into the pride lands, put Zazu in a cage, and slapped Sarabi in the face when she dared to question him. So far, so good? Not quite.

In book IV of The Prince, Machiavelli distinguishes between annexing a state in which the people are used to living as free men (or free lions, as it were) and a state in which people are used to living under a monarchy. When people are used to living as free citizens in a republic, it is, claims Machiavelli, easy for someone to take the country over, but almost impossible to control it. In such a state, the nobility is always dissatisfied so there will always be some disgruntled subjects ready to help you overthrow the current ruler, but as soon as you take over and try to settle down to the business of ruling your new state, those unruly nobility turn on you as well. On the other hand, in countries in which the people are used to living under a monarch, like let’s say, either the Turks or like Mufasa’s pride, it is very hard to take over but very easy to keep your power. And here is where we get to Scar’s first fatal mistake: he actually treated the pride too harshly. None of the lionesses seemed particularly excited about Scar taking over, but they also didn’t seem primed for rebellion either. They were like the Turks, quite used to living in submission to a monarch. Even though he was a new monarch, Scar didn’t need to be a such jerk.

2. Scar Didn’t Personally Kill Simba when he had the Chance

And that brings us to fatal mistake number two, which in some ways seems to contradict mistake number one: Scar didn’t kill Simba when he had the chance. Totally and absolutely unforgivable. Recall that Mufasa’s lion pride is the type of government that Machiavelli would have most likely compared to the Turks, accustomed to living under a hereditary monarchy. While imagining what it would be like to try to take over Turkey, Machiavelli writes, “…whoever attacks the Turk should expect to find a united enemy and would thus need to make sure of his own strength. However, once the Turkish armies were crushed, an invader would only have to worry about the royal family. Once he had executed all of them, there would be no one left to fear” (Machiavelli, chpt. IV). So the hard part was getting rid of Mufasa; keeping power should have been easy.

After he tossed Mufasa off a rock, Scar comes upon little Simba trying to crawl under his dead father’s paw. He tells Simba that it was his own fault his dad died (which seems unnecessarily cruel since he is planning to kill Simba in a few moments anyway). He then warns him to run away and never return. As far as we can tell, there is no one there in that gorge, just Scar and Simba. Assuming Simba is a little less than half a year old, he is probably weighing in at about twenty-five pounds. Scar is a full grown lion, probably around 18 to 20 times as heavy as Simba. One quick swipe to the head and there are no possible claimants to the throne. Instead, he leaves the hyenas to do his dirty work, and they bungle it royally.

That was a mistake but it wasn’t the only mistake. Machiavelli points out that you should not just eliminate the heir when you take over a hereditary monarchy, you should really eliminate the whole royal line. Now, in most lion prides, there is one dominant male who sires all the cubs. Which means that Nala was probably Mufasa’s daughter and Simba’s half-sister.

So Nala probably had to go too. Cruel? Yes, Machiavelli would admit that. But prudent too since as soon as Nala finds out that Simba is alive, she starts to plot her uncle’s overthrow. Scar could have avoided that by killing Nala immediately.

What is ironic here is that Scar not only failed to act like a good Machiavellian when he failed to kill Simba and Nala, he also failed to act like an actual lion. In real life, when a new male takes over a pride, one of the first things that he typically does is to kill off cubs. Biologists think that the male lions do this both to better the chance of survival for their own offspring, but also to stimulate breastfeeding mothers back into estrus. That is, lions kill their recently overthrown rival’s cubs in order to push their mothers back into heat. Scar would have been much better off had he simply behaved like a normal lion: kill off all the royal heirs and then treat everyone else more nicely.

3. Scar used mercenaries.

In a Machiavellian sense, Scar made a couple other big mistakes. Probably the next biggest was his use of mercenary soldiers, namely the hyenas. In his bid for absolute power, Scar enlists the help of the otherwise outcasts hyenas to help set Mufasa up for assassination. They are unapologetic about being mercenaries. They work for food. Scar is unapologetic about the transactional nature of their relationship, in exchange for “quid pro quo” as he calls it, the hyenas will be “rewarded” for their participation in his plot that is “sordid”, when at last he is given his due.

So what is the problem with mercenaries? In chapter twelve of the prince, Machiavelli explains:

A prince can defend his state with his own forces, with mercenaries, or with allies. Mercenaries and allies are not useful; on the contrary, they are quite dangerous. A state defended by mercenaries will never be secure because mercenaries are disunited, ambitious, undisciplined, unfaithful, and cowardly in the face of enemies. Mercenaries neither fear God nor keep their word with men; they run away as soon as they are attacked. They will rob a prince during peace time and let him be robbed by his enemies in war. Nothing keeps a mercenary in the field except his pay, which is not enough to make him want to die for you.

Machiavelli almost perfectly predicts the problems with the hyenas. They are disunited. They fight with each other as much as with lions. They are ambitious, believing that if it weren’t “for these lions,” they’d be “running the joint.” They are undisciplined, hardly able to pay attention to Scar’s plan. They prove to be unfaithful, turning on Scar in the final act. And they are cowardly in the face of enemies, as when several hyenas get taken out in the final battle by one warthog, one meerkat, and a monkey with a stick. Scar should not have used hyenas/mercenaries to secure his state.

4. Scar was too generous (probably).

We don’t really know what happened in between when Simba escaped and when he came back to pride rock, but as he treks back over the wasteland that his homeland has become, we see the fragments of antelope skulls littering the landscape, and we are left to ask the question: geez, what happened? Scar must have been a pretty bad ruler. But why? Did Scar just have bad luck: or rotten fortuna as Machiavelli would have called it?

Maybe, but it seems that perhaps Scar just allowed the food supplies to be overhunted. And this gets to the root of why Scar is personally unfit to be king (in a Machiavellian sense): his ambitions are all personal and full of vainglory. He doesn’t want to rule for the common good. He wants to be “seen for the wonder he is.” This is classic borderline narcisstic personality disorder, and it is completely antithetical to good Machiavellian rulership. Machiavelli thinks that a prince generally needs to take care of his reputation. But not always, especially when a concern for reputation does harm to the common good. And one of those times is on the question of whether a prince should be considered generous or cheap. On this account, Machiavelli writes:

Some princes are considered generous; nevertheless, you might spend a lot of money and still not gain a reputation for generosity. Thus, if you want to be sure that others think you are generous, you will have to spend money constantly, and you will quickly use up all your funds. Since a prince cannot gain a reputation for generosity without harm to himself, he should not worry about being thought generous at all.

Why did Scar let the pridelands be overhunted? Probably because he wanted popularity. He wanted to be thought generous. But there were just too many hyenas for the pridelands to support. Coupled with a bad drought, Scar’s generosity proved his undoing.

5. Scar Never Should Have Taken the Throne in the First Place

I began this essay by claiming that Scar is just the type of leader we might mistake as a perfect Machiavellian. Scar was deceitful and ambitious, sly and amoral, everything we typically think of when we think of the word “Machiavellian.” But Machiavelli didn’t admire deceitful leaders just because they were deceitful. He admired deceitful rulers when they used deceit wisely, to protect their state. Like Trump, Machiavelli admired winners. Scar was a loser. But worse than that, according to Machiavelli’s rules, Scar should have never played the game in the first place.

You see, The Prince is really a book about how to keep power, not so much about how to get power. It was written for the Medici ruling family in Florence that already had power, and had gotten it, in Machiavelli’s typology, by “the good luck of others.” Machiavelli was telling them not to be afraid to get their hands dirty to keep it, if necessary.

But the if necessary part is important.

Before writing about monarchs who come to their thrones, “by the fortune of another” like the Medici, Machiavelli wrote about rulers who come to the throne “by wicked means.” His example was Agathocles, the tyrant of Syracuse, who secured power by massacring the whole senate in a surprise attack. Agathocles had a lot of great qualities that Machiavelli admired. But this is how Machiavelli summed up Agathocles life:

If we consider Agathocles’ fortitude, his ability to get out of danger, and his unbeatable spirit in adversity, he seems to be one of the greatest military captains who ever lived. Nevertheless, his beastly cruelty, inhumanity, and infinite wickedness prevent us from praising him as one of history’s most excellent men. (Machiavelli chp. VII)

According to Machiavelli, Agathocles had some great qualities, but Agathocles massacred his fellow citizens to take a throne that did not belong to him. And why? For his own personal ambition. Getting one’s hands dirty for the common good was one thing. But for personal ambition? Not much disgusted Machiavelli more. If that is what he thought about Agathocles, what would he have thought about a loser like Scar?