Tuesday, June 19, 2012

The Prince

The Prince, by Niccolo Machiavelli

Niccolo Machiavelli was a court diplomat working for the Borgias, but they got run out of town by the Medicis and Machiavelli was banished.  Living on his tiny little estate in the country, he wrote The Prince as a gift for Lorenzo de Medici in hopes that it would get him a job.  Machiavelli was a born politician, and though his poverty grated on him, it was really the hope that he could get back into politics and help repair the ruined mess that was Italy that spurred him to write the book.

Machiavelli, evidently wearing a lot of padded clothing
The Prince is written in a plain, straightforward style that will surprise anyone used to the flowery, discursive manner of most medieval works.  Apparently Machiavelli had intentions to pretty it up a bit but never got around to it or something.  Nowadays the style makes it easy to read, to the relief of countless high-school students. But Machiavelli's frequent references to historical events that illustrate his political principles require a good deal of footnote-checking.

The first several chapters were very difficult for me to get through.  They are quite abstract and I kept falling asleep!  I'd read less than a page and lose focus (maybe this is a side-effect of being a mom in summer, taking the kids swimming all the time?).  But pretty soon it gets very interesting.  Machiavelli starts talking about how a prince should behave--should he be generous or frugal?  Lenient or cruel?  Should he keep his word?

Machiavelli's principles throughout are severely practical.  He is aiming at the stability of the state, the general good of the many, and the advancement of 'the prince'--whoever is running the state.  As far as he is concerned, it would be wonderful if everyone was virtuous, but they absolutely are not, and therefore a prince must cultivate an image of virtue while practicing it only when expedient.  At bottom, his philosophical outlook is that "men will always prove bad unless necessity forces them to be good." (ch. 23)

Therefore, a prince should be severe, especially at first, for leniency just makes people think they can take advantage of you, and it leads to trouble (his example here is an incident where a prince was lenient to a couple of troublemakers when Machiavelli wanted them exiled or executed--they went on to foment riots and unrest, leading to many deaths and destruction in the city).  A prince should be frugal, even though it earns him a reputation as a miser, for if a prince is generous enough to get a reputation for it, he will bankrupt himself.  Then he would have to tax his people too much and would be unable to finance his own wars, all to keep a few noblemen happy.  Better to be able to pay for your war yourself and leave your people alone.

A few general principles: Never rely on mercenaries or troops borrowed from other countries.  All you have to do to keep your people happy is to not tax them too much and let them get on with their lives in peace; leave them their property and their honor, and they'll like you fine.  Plan for disaster, and it won't be too bad in reality.  Only keep promises when it's expedient; others won't keep their word to you, so don't worry overmuch about breaking yours when it's politically advantageous.

Certainly Machiavelli is on the amoral side and he believes that the means (pain for a few) justify good ends (peace for the many).  On the other hand he does not advocate harming innocent bystanders; he's much more likely to say that trouble-makers should be visibly punished in order to keep the peace.  He thinks in the long-term.  Machiavelli is unhappy about all the disasters and wars that have ruined the country, and he figures that decent governance, however amoral, would really improve things a lot over the current immoral mess.

I'm glad to have finally read this influential treatise.  And now I've read six medieval works!  I'm halfway! Woohoo!

4 comments:

Amy said...

Ha--I read while the kids are swimming, too, and fall asleep in the heat. Glad to hear I'm not the only one.

My impressions of The Prince were similar to yours, I think (it's been several years now). He's no altruist, but he's not nearly as bad as he's painted.

Brian Joseph said...

Interestingly the find time that I read it was for a class on American Constitutional History. Many consider Machiavelli's views on balanced government to be an important influence on America's Founders. To some degree I agree with that assessment.

Jenny said...

Or you could just read "Artemis Fowl" with your second grader. Same difference. :)

Jean said...

Ha! Machiavelli made simple...