The Prince is a seminal work of Western political thought, written in the early 16th century by notorious pouty political bad-boy and advisor to the Florentine Republic, Niccolò Machiavelli. The book was controversial in its time – and remains so, to a degree, in ours – for its central thesis, which is that a ruler, a prince, must approach their station of power with a shrewd, cynical, and non-moralistic eye and appetite.
The book was originally dedicated to the Medici Family, and Machiavelli intended it as a kind of new-age handbook for up-and-coming, or even present, rulers of the time.
There are plenty of juicy ideas in The Prince, but the one I found coming up more and more, either in name or reference, was this this one:
There’s no overarching “good” way to rule, but there are smart ways.
Machiavelli lived in a time where princes and other rulers were ostensibly bound by a code of morality and ethics, usually and unsurprisingly originating from Catholic doctrine, or at least influence. It was implicitly understood that all rulers would do what was right in the eyes of a higher power, as well as in the eyes of the people they ruled. Clearly, as history may show, this wasn’t often the case, and there are many examples of princes and other rulers who either abused this morality and manipulated it as a trojan horse for their own aims and ends, or ignored it altogether, apparently and completely content to forsake themselves in the eyes of God and history to achieve whatever they set out to do. Because of these loopholes—it’s difficult to govern on the honor system, because who watches the watcher?—it becomes pretty clear in The Prince that Machiavelli saw this kind of moral stipulation as a hindrance to political thought – the prince ought to take things as they are, not as they ought to be. To obey a set of abstract moral principles that viewed the world and its people idealistically was a clear path to ruin. The only way to govern effectively was realistically, which meant, at times, undertaking immoral action to begin, further, or codify one’s rule.
This immoral action was variable in its forms, but not limited to: wiping out noble families who pose a threat to the prince’s rule; using fear and shock as a means to keep the public in line; allying yourself with that same public, not out of common charity, but necessity in case you need to use them against the noble class; joining wars on whatever side is clear to win; and perhaps most famously and Machiavellian at all, making absolutely certain that if you have an enemy, you completely and totally obliterate them:
“Upon this, one has to remark that men ought either to be well treated or crushed, because they can avenge themselves of lighter injuries, of more serious ones they cannot; therefore the injury that is to be done to a man ought to be of such a kind that one does not stand in fear of revenge.” (Machiavelli, pg. 9).
All of this, at face value, is incredibly cruel, and could even, through certain contexts, be called evil. But what I think you have to keep in mind, and what it seems Machiavelli knew as well, is that even if you behave morally, you should not expect your enemies, or even your friends, to do the same. In this way, Machiavelli’s thought is incredibly modern—whether that’s because of The Prince’s influence even today, or because human nature can be both self-effacing and yet so fundamentally naked is up for debate. But in our present day, which is markedly absent of any overarching moral dictum that is universally followed, it’s well understood that there are people, both in government and in the common and everyday, who will manipulate a system’s rules to gain wealth, or fame, or most important of all, power, regardless of how it affects others – and they often do this while flying the same moral banner as everyone else.
What’s notable, for me, at least in reading The Prince, was how it clashed against the view of Machiavelli as I’d heard/seen of him through cultural osmosis. I’d always heard his name spoken in a kind of hush, or at least disdain, like he’d written against all the good and upstanding cultural values of the modern world and invariably turned politics into what it is today – a fierce and cold grab for power between individuals and entities who want nothing more than to dominate their people and obliterate their opponents. When people hear the term Machiavellian, it connotes a sinister, shadowy figure, plotting in the background against friends and enemies alike, wringing their hands in the dark until their day in the sun comes and they’re allowed to exercise tyrannical power disguised as intelligent politics.
It doesn’t help that one of the more infamous political celebrities in European history – Henry VIII – cited The Prince in his decision to form the Anglican Church. Later thinkers, like Rousseau, even classified The Prince as a satire, because in no way could anyone write such a work and not intend it to be a kind of exaggerated joke played on the upper classes for sport.
If there’s anything necessarily critical I can say of Machiavelli’s book, it’s that most of his examples are relatively obscure to someone not versed in 16th century Italian geopolitics. Of course, he wrote The Prince as a handbook for the Italian nobility of the day, so it makes sense that his references and examples of what to do and what not to do would be as specific as possible, so they’d be highly comprehensible and tangible to his audience. Nowadays, though, that specificity is a bit difficult to weed through, though I found if you try and take in the names, but focus more on what is being said, the examples become a bit more lucid.
I’m going to end with a few ideas that I came to me while I was reading. Whenever I’m reading any kind of book, I like to try and keep track of any ideas that come up, and either are totally separate from the content of the book, or could be, what I think, new additions to it, new ideas to add. So, with The Prince, here are some modern addendums that can be made by porting over the concepts he uses.
One idea is The Rule of the Bargaining Law. Briefly stated, this means:
It is more often beneficial than not for a leader to go against their own people, without the people knowing, and under the guise of extraordinary circumstances, leverage a massive amount of power that will inevitably rankle the people to such an extent, open revolt is the only visible alternative. At this point, the leader will begin to roll back the extreme measures they installed – to the applause of his people.
This is a classic bargaining technique – introduce a figure so ridiculous that the other person will, by instinct, immediately recoil and demand a lower figure. But a lower figure from something ridiculous is still expensive, and the first man, the introducer, comes off richer from this engagement.
Another is that of Singular Powers:
You should view your government as a monarch, with its own persona, and interests. If democracies were truly dynamic, they would be prone to large-scale fluctuations and rendered nearly inoperable.
And the final is the Longrun Theory:
Political parties/movements can’t just be viewed in their present day incarnations – they must be taken on a holistic, temporal basis that allows for an evaluation of their long-term arcs.
All in all, for anyone who’s interested in political philosophy, or even just politics and its influences in general, I’d recommend The Prince. It might be a bit obscure at times, but it’s shaped the modern political landscape for better, or for worse, and that makes it worth a read.
Machiavelli, Niccolo. The Prince. Antonio Blado d’Asola, 1532.