The Prince by Nicolo Machiavelli: it’s a jungle out there

The PrinceThe Prince by Niccolò Machiavelli
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This short textbook on how to rule a state is still the playbook for politics.

Looking in my Webster’s, I see the following definition of Machiavellianism:

the political theory of Machiavelli; especially: the view that politics is amoral and that any means however unscrupulous can justifiably be used in achieving political power

Until I’d read his book, this was all I knew of Machiavelli. His name is used only as a label for cunning, underhanded pragmatism, for the doctrine that the end justifies the means. It’s a sneer-word that we throw at those who have achieved their aims unfairly.

It’s true that Machiavelli does not sugar-coat his advice; he intended his work to be used by a real prince (he hoped it would be adopted by the Medicis), who would keep the manual in his council-chamber and not merely add it to the other volumes of his publicly visible library. It uses the plain, unvarnished language of the trusted cabinet adviser speaking in private, off the record. Statecraft is the most pragmatic of businesses; and this is a pragmatic book.

The core of Machiavelli’s message is this: if you wish to rule, then you must base your actions on the way people really are, and not on the way you wish they were. If you want to bring out the best in people, provide them with a secure, prosperous, well-governed state. It just so happens that to do this, the prince is obliged to engage in behavior that, in polite society, is condemned as immoral. He will need to dissemble, to deceive, to break faith, and to take preventive action against his enemies. If he fails to do these things properly, then he will soon be replaced by someone who does not so fail.

I sense that Machiavelli’s bad reputation comes from a belief that his counsel was aimed at creating tyrants: evil, unjust rulers. But I think this is incorrect, for Machiavelli saw that happy subjects should be one of the prince’s prime concerns; indeed, chapter 19 of his book is entitled, “That One should avoid being despised and hated.” The hated prince makes life a lot harder for himself, and shortens his own career.

Nonetheless, Machiavelli, examining the question of whether it is better for a prince to be loved or to be feared, says that, since it is difficult to be both—which would be best—the preferable alternative is to be feared. Why? Because, in general, men

are ungrateful, fickle, false, cowardly, covetous, and as long as you succeed they are yours entirely; they will offer you their blood, property, life, and children when the need is far distant: but when it approaches they turn against you. . . . Men have less scruple in offending one who is beloved than one who is feared, 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.

There you have it: the baseness of men. What do you think? Are men base? Are we driven purely by self-interest? Will we leave others in the lurch when we think that it will benefit us to do so?

The answer, I would say, is yes. Very few of us are purely virtuous. Most of us are driven by vice at least part of the time, and some of us are driven by it all of the time. As a copywriter I was taught that everyone listens to radio station WII-FM: What’s In It For Me? This is natural, normal, and usually harmless to others. Sometimes it’s not harmless. But the point for Machiavelli is that this behavior can be relied on—and that’s what’s useful for the prince to know.

In chapter 15, “Concerning Things for which Men, and especially Princes, are praised or blamed,” the author observes that successful princes have been perceived as both generous and rapacious, as cruel and compassionate, as affable and haughty, and that it doesn’t seem to make much difference to their success which of any of these they are. To be sure, it’s best to be perceived as virtuous whenever possible, but in fact the prince’s actions must above all be effective, and whether they are praised as virtuous or blamed as vicious is an altogether secondary consideration. For a prince the only real vice is failure.

Nonetheless, I noted that in Machiavelli’s list of virtues and vices there was an important omission: the virtue of justice and the vice of injustice. Why didn’t he include these in his list?

Justice is one of the Great Ideas; its fundamental nature remains a matter of controversy. Is it just to liquidate your enemies for the sake of maintaining peace and order in your state? Different people would answer that question differently. My own thought is that people usually will put up with a lot of pain and difficulty if they think that it’s just. I suspect that much of our selfishness arises from our fear or conviction that the world is not a just place, so there’s no alternative to grabbing what you can. This would seem to imply that a prince, by establishing a just state, might encourage people not to act according to what is base in themselves. And indeed Socrates, in Plato’s Republic, argues that justice is the only possible foundation for a viable state. It would be interesting to hear Machiavelli meet this argument head-on.

But I get the feeling that he may have regarded this topic as a luxury for the pragmatic prince. For princes, as Machiavelli acknowledges, are not necessarily men of great vision or ability. Their project is not to set up an ideal state, but rather, merely, to survive. Like any working stiff, they’re just trying to get through their day. The measure of their success is the longevity of their state and of their rule.

For theorists such as Socrates were just that—theorists. Socrates had never run a state in his life. Machiavelli, on the other hand, had had long experience as a magistrate and ambassador. When the Medicis came to power in Florence in 1512 he was imprisoned and tortured, gaining release only when there was a change of pope. He knew the ropes; he’d been on them. His manual, accordingly, is written with hard-won authority.

One of my main takeaways from this book is that statecraft is a distinct and complex art. Machiavelli makes it clear that a prince, if he is to succeed in ruling, has little free time and no true friends; many tasks and projects will occupy his attention, and all of his relationships are instrumental. That’s the job.

The writing itself is admirably pithy, readable, and to the point. In my edition the actual text of his work runs only 37 pages. If I were a prince I would keep it near me and refer to it often. For us non-princes, it still gives excellent insight into the thinking and plotting that lie behind the public blandishments of our rulers.

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