Rereadings: Machiavelli’s The Prince, Part I

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Youth is wasted on the young. Really? That’s one of those myths – “If you build it they will come” is another – that wormed its way into our culture without our giving it enough thought. The young do appreciate their youth; they don’t care for certain other aspects of life, perhaps because they lack the experience to do so. Reading is one of those. Of course the young do read, and so do the rest of us, regularly – newspapers, magazines, websites, e-mails, tweets, crime novels. The Classics are another matter. Which is why, upon reaching a ripe age and on realizing how many important books I either never read or was forced to read in college and never appreciated, I decided to embark on a Year of Reading Dangerously. I shall report to you, now and then, from that far country.

In this column and the next, I reread one of the most dangerous books ever penned, The Prince. Niccolo Machiavelli (1469-1527) wrote it as a series of letters in 1513, and its chapters were circulated for years before being first printed as a book in 1532, five years after his death. This is one of those books more talked about than read. We equate it with the adjective Machiavellian, loosely defined as a condition of amorality. We think we know that its writer counsels his unnamed prince in violent and cunning ways to amass, perpetuate, and wield power without regard to justice or conscience.

At 80 pages, The Prince can be read in a single sitting, although – like fudge – it is best in small bites. The book is a series of brilliant analyses of the human condition and of how autocratic leaders can use those understandings to temporal ends. All states, Machiavelli writes – bear in mind that this is 500 years ago — are either Republics or Princedoms, and all Princedoms are either hereditary or newly-won; he speaks only of Princedoms, having discussed republics in previous works. Actually, Machiavelli favored having more republics but lived in a world in which there were very few.

The precision and clarity of his language, even in translation, is breathtaking. Here’s how he counsels a prince not to wait to address the ills of a newly-won state: “For the distempers of a State being discovered while yet inchoate, which can only be done by a sagacious ruler, may easily be dealt with; but when, from not being observed, they are suffered to grow until they are obvious to everyone, there is no longer any remedy.”

Machiavelli advocates the use of “violence,” stern measures to quell incipient rebellions, foreclose possibilities for usurpers, and to keep the populace in line, while also advocating the doing of demonstrably good works and charity in the service of retaining power, making the people happy, and perpetuating the princedom past the prince’s lifetime.

This approach may seem overly tough and dictatorial to us, but in Machiavelli’s time Europe was a series of princedoms and fiefdoms and there seemed no alternative way of governance. He drew his examples from Italy, France, and Germany in the Dark Ages after the fall of the Roman Empire. His knowledge of these matters, some of it firsthand from his years as a counselor – and from his years in prison – imbues the tract with authority and sagacity. Machiavelli didn’t see all autocrats as villains or as necessarily having to be cutthroat. He counsels princes who have come by their princedoms by “wickedness and crime” to quickly shift over to benevolence, lest they be as quickly overthrown. You can read into the book both a paean to the need for federalism, and the need for small, self-governing units. You can find in it advice on being a good leader, and advice on learning how, when, and why to follow.

This is as keen an observer of the human condition as ever wrote. He asserts that if you gain your princedom with the aid of the nobles, you must thereafter be wary of them because they think you are no better than they; but if you win your princedom with the aid of the people, you will be even more alone, although it will be easier to satisfy the demands of the many than the demands of the few.

A lot in the book still resonates; politicians, CEOs, and anyone who has a bit of power and now and then has need of using it should read the book, if only to understand from it the basic reasons for having democratic governance and institutions, and the reasons against the arbitrary use of power.

Next time, more about The Prince, including Macaulay’s analysis of why the book came to be so detested, and its author’s name, synonymous with villainy.

— Tom Shachtman