© 1532 Niccolo Machiavelli
Italy, circa 1500, was a rough neighborhood. Divided between powerful city-centered states and frequently threatened by outside empires, few rulers could rest on their laurels and enjoy a prolonged peace. Even if someone outside didn’t want to take over, someone inside might want to effect a little regime change. In such an environment, Nichola Machiavelli chose to present his newly-acclaimed ruler with a gift of advice. The Prince is a brief, grimly realistic review of how states work and how best to manipulate them, drawing on Italian or Mediterranean history for case studies.
I’ve grown up to associate the term Machiavellian with sinister calculation, usually of the wheels-within-wheels kind, and especially with cold-blooded calculation that doesn’t hesitate to burn bridges, step on toes, and secure pointy knives in the back of friends who have outlived their use. The Prince doesn’t quite do that reputation justice, but it’s easy to see where it lies. Most of the beginning advice is analytical, as Machiavelli reviews different types of states and ways to rise to power — He argues that a feudal state like France is relatively easy to compromise and invade, but nearly impossible to consolidate because of the heavy local basis of government.. An autocratic regime, on the other hand, where the weight of the state is on the ruler’s shoulders and not supported or drawn from civil society, is harder to invade because of the central power but relatively easy to subdue thereafter. He appraises different sources of effective defense, from the best (a native, professional army) to the worst (foreign auxiliaries). It’s later on, though, that things get….interesting.
Machiavelli argues that morality has little place in politics; politics is about what is rather than what should be. He does not equivocate: men are wicked. You cannot account on their affection, because it evaporates quickly. You cannot count on loyalty, because everyone looks instinctively to their own interest in the pursuit of power and wealth. It is better, then, to be feared rather than loved — so long as one is not hated. Rulers should make and break their word with the same ease of a mechanic breaking down equipment to replace or mend its parts. This should not done flippantly or obviously — it’s always important to maintain the appearance of virtue if not the substance of it — but a prince is judged by his results and nothing else. The best way for a prince to solidify his power, in fact, is for him to make himself indispensable, a man whose fall would cause more trouble than his continuing in office. In weighing the virtues of generosity and parsimony, Machiavelli concludes that it is far better for a prince to be faulted for stinginess than liberality: recipients of gifts are never as grateful as they should be, and the giving of gifts and favors only spurs resentment among those who do not benefit, induces greater expectations for future, more fulsome giving, and empties the state’s coffers. In a worst case scenario, the liberally-giving prince can earn the hatred of the people by taxing them to give them gifts they do not regard as favors but rather as entitlements. All this advice is not intuitive: while one might expect advice to a dictator to urge disarming the rabble so they don’t protest, Machiavelli instead maintains that keeping the population armed is a wiser choice. A ruler who disarms his subjects broadcasts his distrust of the people, and so cultivates their contempt. The strength of the ruler lays in his ability to defend against threats, and an armed populace is the best means of doing so.
The Prince has all kinds of related advice in it, from choosing wise-but-not-too-wise counsel, to squelching conspiracies. Some of the advice has modern application which anyone would applaud, like the avoidance of sycophants and foreign auxiliaries (how much money did DC waste in Afghanistan trying to create a native security force?). Some of this is material which I think we all suspect but rarely want to admit — like the necessity for leaders to appear decisive and strong even if they are internally conflicted. That can easily lead us into folly if leaders focus too much on appearances rather than reality, but it is possible to change one’s mind in light of growing evidence and still appear decisive. None of us would want to live in states where leaders lie and manipulate the people, but judging by the popularity of shows like House of Cards, we suspect we do already. Although I would not advocate The Prince as a way to government — I put personal stock in virtue, honor, truth, all that dated and impolitic stuff — I suspect even good, well-intentioned people who come into power find themselves enacting its lessons as they settle into office. The Prince has enormous value for me in its naked view of man the political creature, admitting as it does the limitations of building societies from the crooked timber of humanity.
great choice for a current post! and admiration for reading it! your precis sounds different than my former, half-baked impressions, and rouses my curiosity… i think i'll get a copy… tx for the eye-openers…
Read this back in 2014 and was impressed despite its age. He certainly had a pretty raw view of humanity that was quite refreshing if a little brutal at times. I can see why he's still being read though – some things (like human nature) is timeless!
If it's of interest, my reading copy was from “The Great Books Foundation” and included Plutarch's “Pompey”.
Indeed…the copy I was reading had lots of notes from someone who was planning to compare Nixon and Pompey — which is less odd than it sounds because of my edition's inclusion of a Pompey bio. They're both brief works in a larger classics collection, I think, so they were printed together.
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