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Classics Review: The Prince by Machiavelli

As I embark on my latest philosophy excursion, I am gathering some of the pieces I have written in the past. I am casting my philosophy net wide; I will include any book that has bearing on how humans should live, what is true, and/or the meaning of life. I read The Prince about a year ago and posted the following review on my previous blog…..the prince

All my adult life I have been running across this term “Machiavellian” and somehow, through context and osmosis, I understood that the term refers to the idea that the ends justify the means. A week or so ago my reading path led me down a dark side path right into to clutches of Machiavelli and I realized I could no longer avoid reading the source of that shady reference: The Prince.

Here’s how it happened. I had finished this philosophical novel The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery and that got me interested in the essay “The Hedgehog and the Fox” by Isaiah Berlin. But when I looked at Isaiah Berlin’s collection of essays The Proper Study of Mankind I saw that one of his essays is about Machiavelli so I decided it would be better to read The Prince first. The time had come to find out what this Niccolò Machiavelli really said that has caused so much literary and political uproar these past five centuries. He wrote The Prince in 1513 and distributed some written copies but it wasn’t officially printed until 1532.

Was Machiavelli really a literal or literary devil, as some have called him, or has he been misrepresented? My rapid research indicates that he has had his supporters and apologists over the years, but few deny that he presents the human race in a cynical light. After reading The Prince I find that the book fully deserves its reputation, but I wondered if it were not some sort of satire, a sort of 16th version of The Onion. But I think not. It is too true to the facts. The book deals with the true state of human affairs – just on a level we usually do not usually acknowledge openly.

Although Machiavelli is often categorized as a philosopher, I suspect that is not the perspective he was going for. He is not trying to figure out the meaning of life or understand the nature of truth. Within the scope of his subject matter, he already knows the meaning life (acquiring and keeping power) and the book simply describes what a prince (or head of state) needs do if he wants to be successful and avoid losing his state. It is a straightforward operating manual that uses examples from current events (circa early 1500s) as well as from history, particularly that of the Roman Empire, but also draws from the Old Testament.

The Prince seems to me a very practical book that deals with the world as it is rather than with ideals or the way it should be. It’s just that in the arena of acquiring and keeping state power, the plain truth is often brutal. In many ways throughout the book, Machiavelli makes the point that “…it is necessary for a prince wishing to hold his own to know how to do wrong, and to make use of it or not according to necessity.”

Whatever goes on behind the scenes, the prince must maintain a public image that complies with the current standards of morality and virtue, cultivating a reputation as an upstanding man of both courage and mercy: “A prince is highly esteemed who conveys this impression of himself and he who is highly esteemed is not easily conspired against; for, provided it is well known that he is an excellent man and revered by his people, he can only be attacked with difficulty.”

Nowhere in the book does Machiavelli suggest that any prince ought to be virtuous for the sake of true morality, God, or decency. Goodness, or at least the appearance of goodness, is a useful and necessary tool for maintaining one’s power. The only thing that is good in itself is power. Power is the goal and therefore a prince’s real virtue, wisdom, and strength lie wholly in his ability to do whatever it takes to sustain it.

However no prince can afford to have the people hate him. The hatred of the people will be his downfall because any enemy can come along and leverage the power of that hatred against him. And yet, as a wise prince, you don’t want the people to exactly love you either – you just want them to not hate you. Machiavelli tells you why this is so and how to obtain this balanced relationship with your subjects:

“…for love is preserved by the link of obligation which, owing to the baseness of men, is broken at every opportunity for their advantage; but fear preserves you by a dread of punishment which never fails. Nevertheless a prince ought to inspire fear in such a way that, if he does not win love, he avoids hatred; because he can endure very well being feared whilst he is not hated, which will always be as long as he abstains from the property of his citizens and subjects and from their women.”

Of course behind the strong yet virtuous façade, the prince must be willing, able, and ready to do whatever is necessary to maintain his power. This includes killing his enemies, anyone who threatens to become an enemy, anyone who might give courage to an enemy, anyone who undermines him with the people, and most importantly, anyone liable to become more powerful than the prince himself.

There are many ways to control or destroy one’s enemies and just as many ways to secure the loyalty of one’s friends. A successful price is always on the lookout for potential threats, and even in peace, is always securing the foundations of his political and military strength. Affection and love are good as far as they go but a prudent prince will want to take out insurance policies on his friends by making sure they stand to lose something important, such as life or property, should he experience loss of power.

Some of the topics covered in this amazing little treatise include:

  • The various paths to becoming a prince and the risks and benefits of each: inheritance, conquering a principality by your own arms and ability, good fortune (you benefit from the arms of others), wickedness (you kill the prince and usurp the kingdom), civil means through the favor of the people or the nobles, or ecclesiastical appointment.
  • Managing your soldiers and the dangers of using mercenaries
  • The utmost importance of studying war.
  • The pros and cons of liberality (generosity) toward for friends and subjects and meanness (frugality).
  • The proper balance of cruelty and clemency.
  • To what extent do you keep promises and when deceit becomes necessary or prudent.
  • Why you should arm the people.
  • How to gain renown (using King Ferdinand of Spain as an example: the one married to Queen Isabella who gave Christopher Columbus the ships in 1492.
  • How to choose secretaries and assistants (how to know who to trust).
  • What to do about flatterers.
  • Why princes lose their states.
  • How to prep for bad fortune.

The Prince is an enlightening little book that is dense in ideas, advice, names of historical figures, and case histories. I found the ideas easy to follow but the names – lots of Italian names of now obscure people – and the complex military events were a bit overwhelming. One thing the book showed me is that the politics and constant power struggles of the Italian principalities at that time were complex and extremely brutal.

Now I have known for a long time that the standards of this world and the way of higher, or eternal, truth are two entirely different things. That is part of the point of Christ’s crucifixion story. He became a threat to the powers of this world. But I am always fascinated to learn more about the ways of the world we live in and I found The Prince be quite educational. The equally educational TV series “House of Cards” would fit well as an appendix: a modern update of sorts. As would pretty much any edition of the daily political US and world news.
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NOTE: I read the edition of The Prince published by Dover Publications for Kindle and translated by W.K. Marriott.

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