Scroguely Works presents: Il Principe (The Prince), by our newest Scrogue, Niccolo Machiavelli

The Prince, by Niccolo Machiavelli, first published in 1513, 176 pages, ISBN 978-0553212785

The worst that a prince may expect from a hostile people is to be abandoned by them; but from hostile nobles he has not only to fear abandonment, but also that they will rise against him;

In 1513, early into the Great Wars of Italy, an Italian politician, ambassador, soldier, and political philosopher was on the losing end of one of the many internal conflicts that followed the Reniassance. After being tortured and eventually released, he moved to his beloved Florence and settled down on a farm to write what is probably one of the most important treatises on politics written – Il Principe, The Prince, by Niccolo Machiavelli.

In The Prince, Machiavelli lays out different kinds of principalities that exist, their various strengths and weaknesses, how to become a prince, and how to most effectively rule a principality. In so doing, Machiavelli gives us an eminently practical and pragmatic book about political leadership as well as a detailed look at the political and military history of his precious Italy.

[T]his country was under the dominion of the Pope, the Venetians, the King of Naples, the Duke of Milan, and the Florentines. These potentates had two principal anxieties: the one, that no foreigner should enter Italy under arms; the other, that none of themselves should seize more territory. Those about whom there was the most anxiety were the Pope and the Venetians.

However, the modern reader shouldn’t just read The Prince for its historical insights, fascinating as they are. Instead, the examples that Machiavelli scatters throughout the book are highly valuable for their parallels to modern politics, especially politics in parliamentary and federal systems a la the United States, the United Kingdom, Israel, Japan, etc. Given that the governance of republics is specifically not addressed in The Prince, that Machiavelli’s insights nonetheless apply should give all of us pause.

If we look at the United States, we find that the country has a long history of political dynasties – the Bushes, the Udalls, the Rockefellers, the Kennedys, the Roosevelts, just to name a few. In many respects (although certainly not all), these families qualify as “hereditary principalities” according to Machiavelli’s definition. And as such, it’s easy to understand how they maintain their influence over a political system that is supposedly a republic.

I say at once there are fewer difficulties in holding hereditary states, and those long accustomed to the family of their prince, than new ones; for it is sufficient only not to transgress the customs of his ancestors, and to deal prudently with circumstances as they arise, for a prince of average powers to maintain himself in his state, unless he be deprived of it by some extraordinary and excessive force; and if he should be so deprived of it, whenever anything sinister happens to the usurper, he will regain it.

In other words, once you’re in with the help of Mommy or Daddy’s money and contacts, unless you suck badly, you’re in for good.

Our system approximates a “civic principality” as Machiavelli defines it, especially the Presidency. Given what Machiavelli says about civic principalities, and civic princes, it’s hardly a surprise that Presidents have sought to expand their power, generally successfully:

He who obtains sovereignty by the assistance of the nobles maintains himself with more difficulty than he who comes to it by the aid of the people, because the former finds himself with many around him who consider themselves his equals, and because of this he can neither rule nor manage them to his liking. But he who reaches sovereignty by popular favour finds himself alone, and has none around him, or few, who are not prepared to obey him.

As the quote that opened this post illustrates, Presidents civic princes who are installed via a public vote are largely insulated against the power of Congress their fellow nobles because the nobles cannot effectively resist the mass of the public. The only problems come when the prince visits upon his subjects (both the people and the nobles) sufficient indignities that he becomes hated and despised.

…I consider that a prince ought to reckon conspiracies of little account when his people hold him in esteem; but when it is hostile to him, and bears hatred towards him, he ought to fear everything and everybody. And well-ordered states and wise princes have taken every care not to drive the nobles to desperation, and to keep the people satisfied and contented, for this is one of the most important objects a prince can have.

Unfortunately for this excellent little book, The Prince has too often been considered a template for personal power. While there is certainly truth to that opinion, there’s a great deal more going on in The Prince than the quest for, and the maintenance of, personal power. In many respects, Machiavelli holds flexibility in the face of setbacks and various forms of opposition to be the single greatest asset any leader could have, and he points out that truly effective leadership essentially boils down to knowing the best approach to dealing with a problem and then implementing that approach. And Machiavelli clearly implies that only a truly effective prince can keep his principality safe from invasion, civil war, and even self-destruction.

Machiavelli has been badly misunderstood to be justifying any actions so long as those actions are effective at keeping the prince in power, when in fact he’s an agitator for princes to temper their basest tendencies in favor of the health of their very subjects and nations.

This is not to say that Machiavelli doesn’t justify cruelty, or lying, or the invasion of other nations – he does. But he points out that princes must limit their cruelty to situations where it’s absolutely necessary, and even then to quick cruelties that affect the fewest people, lest the princes be at risk losing their positions. He points out that lying and going back on your promises is sometimes necessary, but that doing so all the time gives the nobility and public reason to hate and oppose you. He points out that, if invasion is either necessary or desired, then there are ways to do it that will not destroy your own nation via overextension in the process.

The ends may justify the means, but for Machiavelli, the ends being justified are at least as much the security and prosperity of the nation as a whole as they are the personal power of the nation’s prince or princes. The Prince is a book of sufficient subtlety that the differences between personal power and national authority are not necessarily obvious, something that too many readers and reviewers over the centuries have failed to grasp.

Our leaders would do well to study again their Machiavelli and to re-learn what they believe they understand so well.

To read The Prince in its entirety on-line, please visit Project Gutenberg.

10 replies »

  1. An interesting and timely take on the work. Like all great literature, The Prince can be read to support preconceived ideas; it has probably suffered that fate more than most. Though i cannot remember where i saw it, i recently read a suggestion that it may have been a satire. I have yet to go back and reread the book with that in mind, but the suggestion certainly made me think, “hmm.”

    P.S. As a former printer from a family of printers, i appreciate the inclusion of the ISBN number.

  2. Machiavelli has had a pretty tough press, historically; in the early modern period, Machiavelli was thought of as synonymous with the Devil and a significator of calculating amorality – in fact, if memory serves, he opens Marlowe’s The Jew of Malta.

    I could be wrong about that, but it was one of Marlowe’s plays for sure, and it was in another country, and besides, the wench is dead.

  3. Actually, our very own Whythawk first suggested that The Prince might be satire to me in a comment thread on another post a few months ago. As with you, it made me think a little. While I haven’t re-read my copy since, I re-read parts of the online version while I was researching this piece, and there’s enough ripping up of his contemporary leaders that it’s a reasonable interpretation.

    Not saying that’s where you heard it, but that’s where I first heard it.

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  5. Brian,

    This may/may not be relevant, but I thought I’d share. It’s about Machiavelli in its own way. And I thought you’d get a kick out of it….

    It’s from my forthcoming book “The Life and Opinions of Jay Breeze, Rock Star: or, Completeness of the Soul”:

    “Tell you a story. When I was eleven or twelve, I used to mow my Aunt Barbara’s lawn every week. While I mowed I listened to a transistor radio. It was red and had a white cord with an ear plug for one ear. The cord was just long enough to reach from the radio in the pocket of my shorts to my right ear.

    “I would mow and sing at the top of my lungs along with the British Invasion groups: The Beatles, of course; The Rolling Stones; The Animals; The Kinks. I had the best time, you know?

    “This drove my Aunt Barbara crazy. She would call me up to her screened back porch and give me a glass of lemonade or iced tea or milk and maybe a sandwich or a piece of fruit pie. Then she would fetch a volume of The Harvard Classics and have me read to her from that to prove that rock and roll wasn’t rotting my intellect. That summer I got through Machiavelli’s The Prince and Thomas More’s Utopia. And I learned the words to “Satisfaction” by The Stones and The Beatles’ “Help.”

    “And it all made sense to me. I began to think of The Rolling Stones as Machiavellian and of The Beatles as Utopian (probably because I thought Utopia was supposed to be a nice place and The Beatles seemed nicer than The Stones). Maybe that’s what’s meant by a liberal arts education.

    “You know, Angel, I told Ringo this story at a party in L.A. We sat on one of those huge sectional sofas that was about a half mile long and went all along the walls of this room that had floor to ceiling windows looking out over Malibu Canyon. He just sat quietly and listened. When I got finished he said, “Imagine. A kid in a little town in North Carolina listening to us on a transistor. And now you’re here. Imagine.” Then he got up and went to pee or something.

    “I have no idea what the hell it means, Angel.”

  6. The end for which Machiavelli justified means both fair and foul was that there is no higher calling than service to the state (city). This is the bit that many of today’s leaders seem conveniently to gloss over. Without the underlying idea that the welfare of the state is the greatest good, Machiavelli is indeed the soulless manipulator he’s often accused of being.