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.
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 12 May 2012
Niccolo Machiavelli's book was written in the mid 16th century; this is a later translation from the 17th century converted into ebook format. There are a couple of issues with the format on the Kindle; some missing page breaks, and some odd sentence breaks. The ebook version also includes a couple of additional items written by Machiavelli later in his life.
"The Prince" of the title is merely a generic label for a leader, rather than a given level of nobility. The main book is a study of the concept of leadership, and particularly the application of politics within a nation or state. It is based upon a very careful study of the leaders of the time, especially within Italy and from the classical period of Greece and Rome. Although written some 500 years ago, most of the precepts can be seen to have been relevant throughout the intervening period and in many ways are still pertinent today.
In fact some of the material could equally be applied within large organisations; examine the biographies of some of the most famous business leaders and entrepeneurs, and you will see many of the factors that enabled them to rise up being the same that Machiavelli identified as being desirable in a great leader. It does perhaps portray a certain level of cynicism and certainly indicates the ruthlessness that is required to become a political figure; and it is this that has made the name of Machiavelli synonymous with political intrigue.
In many ways, this book is to political governance, what Sun-Tzu's "Art of War" was to the concept of military leadership. Careful study will reveal a lot of valuable advice and information; and although not the easiest book to read, the end result is well worth the effort.
No one can doubt the lasting significance of The Prince, for it is frequently cited in discussions of modern political theory. The work has been often criticized as malevolent, while its original form has been examined less than closely. Such being the case, Machiavelli's intentions are easily misread. His goal was in fact to offer a practical, realistic guide to governing; it is a sad irony that these pragmatic goals have become something philosophically ethereal in the hands of many critics.
The Prince draws from the past and is at the same time applicable to the future. The author was a statesman of moderate capacity as well as member of the social body, a link between the ruler and the ruled. He was driven by a realism that forsook Platonic ideals of justice and virtue, in favor of efficiency, military strength, and power. For Machiavelli, the ends always justified the means. The state's perpetuity was the sole goal to be sought by the ruler. While it is true that Machiavelli voiced a disdain for men, he did not call for their enslavement or complete subordination to the ruler; in fact, he felt that what was best for the state was best for the people.
One must bear in mind the time in which Machiavelli wrote, which was a time of great upheaval in the Italian states. This lack of stability certainly contributed to the author's commitment to strong, lasting government. Nowhere does he condemn democracy nor worship autocracy; in fact, he clearly implies that the particular conditions of any polity best determine the most fitting type of government. He warns the ruler of dangers both from within and without, and recommends in all matters strength of position. When he counsels that virtues, when excessive, can weaken the state, he does not endorse tyranny.
One finds simplicity alongside complexity in this book. Just as he encourages efficiency in the ruler, Machiavelli writes directly, never indulging in philosophical digressions. He defines the state and how it comes to be, as well as the manners by which a prince accedes to power. He then shifts to the practice of warfare, the most important activity of a state, complemented with advice on maintaining internal stability. Finally, he speaks of Italy's present troubles, making clear that it is his ambition in writing this work to return stability to his homeland and protect its future from chaotic affairs.
The Prince is a pioneering work of political science. It is distinguished by Machiavelli's employment of history as a source of applicable knowledge. Machiavelli had no idealistic goals in mind when he wrote The Prince. He was successful in that, although controversial and often misinterpreted, his guide is still a source for knowledge as well as action.