December Book Review: The Prince

The Prince has been on my reading list for the better part of fifteen years and I borrowed it over a year ago, so it is a bit ironic that my first reaction on finally cracking it open and reading the first few pages was, “Wow, this is so useful! I should have read it years ago!” That reaction fluxed and changed over the course of the book, and this is the story of how that happened.

Of course, The Prince is often spoken of in shocked terms as being an amoral book, and certainly, as the introduction to this edition readily admits, “Machiavelli’s chief contribution to political thought lies in his freeing political action from moral consideration.”

True, Machiavelli does not insist upon morality if that will lessen power. But neither does he completely ignore moral considerations:

Still it cannot be called virtue to slay one’s fellow citizens, to betray one’s friends, to act without faith, without pity, without religion. By such methods one may win dominion but not glory.

His savage and inhuman cruelty and his many acts of wickedness do not permit him to be celebrated among men of unusual excellence.

His philosophy seems to be summed up by his remark that

The way men live is so far removed from the way they ought to live that anyone who abandons what is for what should be pursues his downfall rather than his preservation.

You cannot criticize his honesty; someone who shares his opinion that the acquisition and maintenance of political power is an end in itself would probably do well to take his advice. Yet it is still possible for someone who seeks or accepts power for altruistic motives to study his analysis of the underlying situations and universal pitfalls and combine that analysis with their own value system to arrive at a completely different set of tactics.

It is important to remember that one may be innocent as a dove while still being wise as a serpent.

For example, consider these statements and their applicability to everyday life:

It must be realized that there is nothing more difficult to plan, more uncertain of success, or more dangerous to manage than the establishment of a new order of government; for he who introduces it makes enemies of all those who derived advantage from the old order and finds but lukewarm defenders among those who stand to gain from the new one.

Someone attempting to impose a new order – in a family, at work or in a larger sense – would do well to remember this.

Or

Men of little prudence will do a thing for immediate gain without recognizing the poison it bears for the future. (Yeah, we’re talking to you, Wall Street!)

Or

You offend [your subjects, your employees or your friends] by showing them that, either from cowardliness or from lack of faith, you distrust them; and either conclusion will induce them to hate you.

Or

One should never allow a disorder to persist in order to avoid a war, for war is not avoided thereby but merely deferred to one’s own disadvantage.

Think of the manager who allows a seditious and troublesome employee to continue their bad behavior unchecked because the manager dislikes “conflict.” This is bad on several levels. As Machiavelli illustrates in chapter 20, “divisions are never tolerated in a strong state” because such dissention among the citizens can lead to a city’s lessened productivity and ultimate downfall. The manager who follows this course, having inflicted suffering on their department, is likely to ultimately lose it. Better to deal with the matter swiftly and move on.

Or

Every wise prince should… never submit to idleness in time of peace, but rather endeavor to turn such time to advantage so as to profit from it in adversity.

Or

Having set an example once or twice, he may thereafter act far more mercifully than the princes who, through excessive kindness, allow disorders to arise from which murder and rapine [the seizure of property by force] ensue.

The teacher who can establish order on the first day of school may afterwards have fun with the students, but the teacher who is too soft on the first day will never have their respect and so will be much less effective at both teaching and guiding them – or will be forced to resort to much stricter punishments throughout the year to re-establish order.

Or

When you see a man who thinks more about his own interests than about yours, who seeks his own advantage in everything he does, then you may be sure that such a man will never be a good minister, and you will never be able to trust him.

I think most people would agree that these are true, which leads me to the opinion that never have I read anything in which the good and bad were so thoroughly, even ironically, mixed.

The quote about never submitting to idleness is immediately preceded by the instruction that “A prince must have no other objective, no other thought, nor take up any profession but that of war.” This may or may not have been good advice in Machiavelli’s time and place – he recounts countless wars and armed conflicts just in Italy in the 50 years preceding his book – but it is unequivocally bad advice now that politics and daily life have taken a less dangerous turn.

Even if one amends “war” to “politics” or “how to maintain power,” I think few would agree that that should be one’s only focus. There are many other things a prince should learn: how to maintain peace in his domain, how to improve the prosperity of his people, how to discern and practice justice.

The principle I have applied to teachers comes from a chapter titled “Concerning Cruelty: Whether it is better to be loved or feared.” It is surprising how often Machiavelli does use the word “cruelty” – so often that I began to wonder if it was an accurate translation – but, in fact, the word he uses throughout, “crudele,” seems to be universally translated as “cruelty”.

Certainly, in many situations discipline is necessary, or a show of strength is called for. But must that be cruel? In a classroom, certainly not!

Surprisingly, for one of his era and ruthlessness, he applies the word “cruelty” to the execution of people who will otherwise never stop making trouble. Some modern readers will agree with this; others will find such executions to be not only justified, but in some cases, merciful. So there is still a lot of room for each person to decide what they consider cruel and whether there is any other way to accomplish the desired result.

Finally, considering that Machiavelli approved the judicious use of cruelty and deception (“If all men were good, this would be a bad precept, but since they are evil and would not keep a pledge to you, then you need not keep yours to them.”), it is clear that his warning about a man who is completely self-absorbed is intended to help those who are completely self-absorbed and seek their own advantage in everything!

In the end, I resorted to a little Googling to help make sense of it all.

The abortive fate of The Prince [after all, it failed in its stated goals of launching a new school of political thought, “saving” Italy from invaders, and winning Machiavelli a political post] makes you wonder why some of the great utopian texts of our tradition have had much more effect on reality itself, like The Republic of Plato, or Rousseau’s peculiar form of utopianism, which was so important for the French Revolution. Christianity itself— its imagination of another world beyond the so-called real world—completely transformed the real politics of Europe. Or Karl Marx, for that matter. It’s not the realism of the Marxian analysis, it’s not his critique of capitalism’s unsustainable systemic contradictions—it’s more his utopian projection of a future communist state that inspired socialist movements and led to political revolutions throughout the world. – Rosina Pierrotti

If Machiavelli were as purely evil as he has often been painted, it would perhaps be easier to separate the good from the bad in his book. The danger of it is that, as he condones cruelty and trickery only as a last resort, a reader may find this to be reasonable, and may come to believe that there are situations that can be handled no other way. Whether or not it is true that there are political situations that can be won no other way, there is always another course of action.

The reader must decide whether they wish for power without glory, whether their own desires are so important to them that they will contribute to the evils of the world to attain them – or whether they wish to be “celebrated among men of unusual excellence.” The latter course may, in the end, be more effective anyway.

A couple of references, for those who are curious:
http://qn.som.yale.edu/content/what-can-you-learn-machiavelli (The source of the Rosina Pierrotti quote)
http://www.fordham.edu/halsall/ancient/polybius-hannibal.asp Not quoted in the blog, but this text by Polybius from the 2nd century BCE interestingly shows that not all of Machiavelli’s ideas are as original as he gets credit for!

(Although writing this review was somewhat delayed by my computer dying, I assure you I did read the book in December, per my resolution! I also read my November book – review coming shortly.)

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