on 6 August 2012
I chose this version of The Prince because it was translated by Tim Parks, an author whose books I've read. Originally from England, he has lived in Italy for the last 20 years. He's produced a lively and modern translation - here's a sample, from the chapter on A Ruler and His Promises; "But you have to know how to disguise your slyness, how to pretend one thing and cover up another. People are so gullible and so caught up with immediate concerns that a con man will always find someone ready to be conned".
The translator explains why he translated The Prince in this style. He also gives a good background to the political situation in early 16th century Italy, when Machiavelli was writing.
The Prince includes references to politicians and statesmen during that era, so there's a brief history of their lives at the back of the book.
What struck me was that although sometimes Machiavelli has a manipulative approach to statemanship, in general his advice is full of insight. In other words, Machiavelli is less Machiavellian than I expected.
In the course of my political science training, I studied at great length the modern idea of realpolitik. In that study I came to realise that it was somewhat incomplete, without the companionship of The Prince, by Niccolo Machiavelli, a Florentine governmental official in the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries. The Prince is an oft quoted, oft mis-quoted work, used as the philosophical underpinning for much of what is considered both pragmatic and wrong in politics today. To describe someone as being Machiavellian is to attribute to the person ruthless ambition, craftiness and merciless political tactics. Being believed to be Machiavellian is generally politically incorrect. Being Machiavellian, alas, can often be politically expedient.
Machiavelli based his work in The Prince upon his basic understanding of human nature. He held that people are motivated by fear and envy, by novelty, by desire for wealth, power and security, and by a hatred of restriction. In the Italy in which he was writing, democracy was an un-implemented Greek philosophical idea, not a political structure with a history of success; thus, one person's power usually involved the limitation of another person's power in an autocratic way.
Machiavelli did not see this as a permanent or natural state of being -- in fact, he felt that, during his age, human nature had been corrupted and reduced from a loftier nobility achieved during the golden ages of Greece and Rome. He decided that it was the corrupting influence of Christianity that had reduced human nature, by its exaltation of meekness, humility, and otherworldliness.
Machiavelli has a great admiration for the possible and potential, but finds himself inexorably drawn to the practical, dealing with situations as they are, thus becoming an early champion of realpolitik carried forward into this century by the likes of Kissinger, Thatcher, Nixon, and countless others. One of the innovations of Machiavelli's thought was the recognition that the prince, the leader of the city/state/empire/etc., was nonetheless a human being, and subject to all the human limitations and desires with which all contend.
Because the average prince (like the average person) is likely to be focussed upon his own interests, a prince's private interests are generally in opposition to those of his subjects. Fortunate is the kingdom ruled by a virtuous prince, virtue here not defined by Christian or religious tenets, but rather the civic virtue of being able to pursue his own interests without conflicting those of his subjects.
Virtue is that which increases power; vice is that which decreases power. These follow Machiavelli's assumptions about human nature. Machiavelli rejected the Platonic idea of a division between what a prince does and what a prince ought to do. The two principle instruments of the prince are force and propaganda, and the prince, in order to increase power (virtue) ought to employ force completely and ruthlessly, and propaganda wisely, backed up by force. Of course, for Machiavelli, the chief propaganda vehicle is that of religion.
Whoever reads Roman history attentively will see in how great a degree religion served in the command of the armies, in uniting the people and keeping them well conducted, and in covering the wicked with shame.
Machiavelli has been credited with giving ruthless strategies (the example of a new political ruler killing the deposed ruler and the ruler's family to prevent usurpation and plotting is well known) -- it is hard to enact many in current politics in a literal way, but many of his strategies can still be seen in electioneering at every level, in national and international relations, and even in corporate and family internal 'politics'. In fact, I have found fewer more Machiavellian types than in church politics!
Of course, these people would be considered 'virtuous' in Machiavellian terms -- doing what is necessary to increase power and authority.
The title of this piece -- the virtues of Machiavelli, must be considered in this frame; certainly in no way virtuous by current standards, but then, it shows, not all have the same standards. Be careful of the words you use -- they may have differing definitions.
Perhaps if Machiavelli had lived a bit later, and been informed by the general rise of science as a rational underpinning to the world, he might have been able to accept less of a degree of randomness in the universe. Perhaps he would have modified his views. Perhaps not -- after all, the realpolitikers of this age are aware of the scientific framework of the universe, and still pursue their courses.
This is an important work, intriguing in many respects. Far shorter than the average classical or medieval philosophical tome, and more accessible by current readers because of a greater familiarity with politics than, say, metaphysics or epistemology, this work yields benefits and insights to all who read, mark, inwardly digest, and critically examine the precepts.
I've read various translations of `The Prince' over the past 40 years, and was introduced to this one as part of a book club read. I was interested to see how I'd find this translation relative to others and I was particularly interested in reading Tim Parks's long, context-setting introduction.
Why do we continue to read `The Prince'? What lessons can we learn from a political treatise written by a retired diplomat in the 16th century? Do we read it because of the insight it may provide into the minds of our own rulers? I suspect that few of us read it as a primer for our own attempts to seize power. And if we read it for insight, then it is an egalitarian text rather than an elitist one.
I enjoyed the introduction, and believe that it would be helpful to a first time reader of `The Prince', especially to a reader unfamiliar with the political landscape of Italy in the 16th century. Machiavelli's portrayal of the world as it was makes far more sense with some knowledge of the historical and political context.
The first part of the book discusses different kinds of state, how to deal with trouble in each of them and how to conquer each type successfully. In conquering a republic: `your only options are to reduce the place to rubble or go and live there yourself'.
My favourite parts, though, are where Machiavelli tells us what attributes an effective ruler should have: `It's seeming to be virtuous that helps; as, for example, seeming to be compassionate, loyal, humane, honest and religious.' Appearances are clearly important.
While I enjoyed the translation, I found a couple of modern linguistic references jarring. Not, I hasten to add, because I think that they are wrong simply that I'm more used to an older style of expression from works of this period. On the other hand, much of what Machiavelli wrote in the 16th century could equally have been written this century or even last week.
If you haven't yet read `The Prince' I can recommend this translation. If you have previously read `The Prince', this translation is worth reading because of both the introduction and because one of Tim Parks's objectives was to convey a sense and feel of the original text as it would have been understood at the time.
`A leader doesn't have to possess all the virtuous qualities I've mentioned, but it's absolutely imperative that he seem to possess them.'
on 8 November 2013
The infamous Niccolo and his famous work. I purchased this book for my Politics course at University and Machiavelli was the first thinker we studied this year, with this book being the focus.
Remember, the "Prince" is someone who holds a position of power, or is destined to or wishes to hold a position of power, and the book is the manifesto that that individual must adhere to in order to attain and sustain power.
You can understand why The Prince continues to take people by surprise, but with an open mind you can understand where Machiavelli is coming from, although most people would disagree with the slightly barbaric tone that runs throughout.
A vital book to own for any political thinker, student or someone who simply holds an interest in political theory and history or even the history of Italy.
on 27 February 2006
With ‘The Prince’, Niccoló Machiavelli expertly constructs a framework for the optimal way to control a princedom. Making use of historical and contempory (to Machiavelli) examples, he explores every aspect of the successful running of a principality from keeping your citizens happy, to warring with other nations.
Originally written for Lorenzo dé Medici, it is a work of strategic art, much focused on by modern military men and businessmen alike. Although around five hundred years old, it is not hard to see the relevance of ‘The Prince’ in today’s society.
Through historical examples Machiavelli points out mistakes made by other princes that have resulted in the loss of their power while also citing acts which have won princes great power. This knowledge, from someone well able to analyse the causes of the events opens up a new insight into the world of the pre-sixteenth century rulers and the problems that faced their rule.
The Penguin Great Ideas edition of this classic text is excellently presented, especially for people who want to study the text alone. It is often discouraging, when reading other texts, to find more notes than actual primary text but the Great Ideas edition cuts all those pesky notes out. What this means it that the reader is presented with a neat, short copy of the text for a much-reduced price.
on 13 November 2010
This is not a review of The Prince as this has already been done very adequately by previous reviewers, and it is indeed a brilliant political writing. However the Dover Thrift edition of it isn't the best, its printed on very cheap paper and bound in a cheap cover, this may not be important for some people. If you just need to standard text for quick reference then this is good enough but if you want a bit more of a substantial book with a very good introduction then I would spend a couple more quid and buy the Penguin edition (which I have just done).
on 16 December 2010
The end justifies the means. This simple, pragmatic maxim underpins Niccolò Machiavelli's classic work, The Prince. Written in 1513, when Machiavelli was a Florentine registry official, this handbook of political power provoked controversy like no other. Its central theme is how Renaissance rulers should act if they want to prevail. According to the author, a strong state requires a leader who is able to defend his power at all costs. Machiavelli maintains that a ruler may deceive, trick, oppress and even murder his opponents, as long as his misdeeds serve the state's stability. Without question, this short treatise offers enough material to demonize its author. However, Machiavelli does not champion unlimited ruthlessness and violence. Nor does he justify any objectives that seem to warrant violence. However, he also does not try to align his work to Christian morals as he examines the practice of statecraft and leadership. The term "Machiavellian" emerged in the 16th century to describe a devious, cruel tyrant, who uses any means to achieve his goals. When 20th century dictators praised Machiavelli's masterpiece, it came into disrepute, but in contemporary thought, its literary foresight makes it a classic. Modern readers will be able to understand the book's significance thanks to the accessible translation and annotations by Peter Bondanella. To put the treatise in context, Maurizio Viroli explains in his introduction, "For Machiavelli, the old way of building and preserving a regime...had to be abandoned in order to embrace a new conception...based on the principle that no state is a true dominion unless it is sustained by an army composed of citizens or subjects." getAbstract recommends The Prince to literature and history buffs, be they subjects or citizens, and to strategists and political scientists as a core work in their field.
on 7 June 2010
An excellent read - the man wrote, without sentiment or flannel, a piece of sharp political insight. He didn't sugar coat things and this is perhaps why his name became synonymous with devious, manipulative politicing. However as one reads the work it becomes apparent that he was a very astute, informed and observant man who 'said it like it was'. Also apparent are the parallels with contemporary life and recent history. Fascinating stuff.
on 26 March 2015
Niccolo Machiavelli may represent the epitome of a politician born in the wrong age. Nowadays anyone as politically astute and accomplished as Machiavelli undoubtedly was would make sure that they had a slick PR team in place, ready to put a positive spin on their every utterance. Even then, things can come adrift. In recent years even as experienced a political operator as Peter, now Lord, Mandleson, New Labour spin doctor extraordinaire, though having a whole team of press consultants and PR men at his behest, found his ceaseless machinations earned him a reputation for duplicity and divisiveness, rendering him a hissing and a byword within his own party, let alone among his Conservative opponents. Yet even Lord Mandelson didn't suffer the vilification and revulsion that have attached themselves to Machiavelli over the last six centuries.
The very word 'machiavellian' carries with it a heavy semantic weighting, with connotations of intricate and decidedly underhand plotting; shameful manoeuvres best left in the shadows, hidden from view. There is even a solid body of belief that ascribes the origin of the Devil's cognomen 'Old Nick' as a reference to Machiavelli's practice of the dark arts of political persuasion, and to this work in particular.
Florence in the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries may have been at the centre of the Renaissance, but it was also a hub of political and military activity. Machiavelli had held public office during the brief history of the Republic of Florence before the Medici dynasty reasserted itself. As so often befalls senior in times of violent regime change, Machiavelli found himself imprisoned and even tortured in 1512. It was in the years shortly after this that he wrote this work, an observation on the practical application of political rule. He is careful not to become bogged down in moral considerations. He is, instead, principally concerned with the establishment of a strong administration that can defend and maintain its borders and protect its people. The implication is that if military security can be established, the populace will benefit in the long run. His advice is, therefore, essentially dispassionate. He has studied politics in action during disturbed time, and synthesis his experience into a handbook for the ambitious ruler.
He was clearly a scholar and shows great familiarity with the classics. His chapter on the impact of ruler who achieve their position as a consequence of crime is a distillation of Herodotus's life of Agathocles of Syracuse. Born the son of a potter, Agathocles combined courage and ambition with criminal intent, allying himself with the Carthaginians to establish himself as King of the Syracuse throne. Having stolen the throne, he established himself as a pragmatic and successful leader who protected his realm and people, and this reigned for several years in relative stability.
His taste for pragmatism does occasionally lead him into blunt and even reckless assertions. Comments of the nature of, 'I say it would be splendid if one had a reputation for generosity; nonetheless, if you do earn a reputation for generosity then you will come to grief' can never constitute a popular manifesto!
In the end, the question of whether he was evil and manipulative, or merely pragmatic, is really somewhat irrelevant. His book has survived for centuries, and offers a fascinating observation of the political life in a turbulent city state, caught between the Scylla of impending military intervention by the French and the Charybdys of an omnipresent Church that dominated everyday life.
The translation that I read (which I bought more than thirty years ago while still at school) was that by George Bull, published by the Penguin Classics series in 1961, and it did seem rather dated in parts. The introduction offered lots of fascinating information about Machiavelli's life and the prevailing context against which he wrote, though I have seldom seen a scholarly tract that was so poorly written. Bull obviously poured all his efforts into the translation and just dashed the introduction off against a too tight deadline!
on 3 September 2012
"Welcome to your new kingdom. We hope you will enjoy a long and productive ownership, and to facilitate this please read the following instructions carefully. Firstly please study the art of war carefully and personally take charge of your citizen army. Do NOT use forces from other suppliers as that would invalidate your warranty. In diplomacy avoid alliances with stronger powers if at all possible, but protect and support weaker powers without permitting them to increase territory. Treat your subordinates well but make sure you always delegate the unpopular tasks to those not closely identified with your Personage. It is vital to have a sound economy and a reputation for generosity would hinder you in this. It is however important that you are regarded as a pious, honourable and religious man but you must be able to lie and break promises without getting caught.
Your eternal servant, Nick 'Oldie' M."
These are some of Machiavelli's key recommendations. A first reading is striking and shocking for the abscence of moral value judgements - as if he aspired to be a pure political scientist indifferent to how the knowledge might be used. A careful reading suggests a harsh utilitarian morality: it is better to kill people now if it firmly establishes your rule and allows your subjects to live peacefully and safely in the long term, than that in attempting to be good now you should promise more than you can deliver, leading to dissatisfcation and disorder.
Like any brutal honesty Machiavelli's words are hard to listen to - even if we disagree with him. However they are well worth the effort. For a start they are a wake up call as to what the world of politics is really like and we can test our moral convictions against his understanding of the world.