Sunday, February 15, 2009

Niccolo Machiavelli and The Prince

Because the sitemeter shows repeated and long term hits to a post Machiavellian Politics, I decided that I'd make my third or fourth reading of 'The Prince.' I first read the book in the mid-60s in junior high school, again later in high school or college or both - I forget. Suffice to say, that was awhile ago and perspectives change with age and the times. I know I read it in junior high primarily as history, as I remember the later readings were from a political perspective. This reading is made in my mid-50s with a lot of water under bridges of various construction.

Machiavelli was born in 1469 to a family with political background and he was raised with republican (of the times) sentiment. In adulthood he held various governmental, ambassadorial and military postings. He left governmental service after 14 years, apparently in poor financial straights, evidently an honest man. "The Prince" was written over the course of several months in 1513 and was originally intended to be given to Guiliano de' Medici but kept in his desk until after Guiliano's death in 1516 and dedicated and sent to Lorenzo de' Medici. Lorenzo did not acknowledge the book and it wasn't printed until 1532, 5 years after Machiavelli's death.

'The Prince' is very much a product of its time, it was written in a period of warring city states with much of Italy under foreign domination by France and Spain with the Papacy in rising political power. Political murder was common as were shifting alliances and mercenary armies, a mainstay of many Italian city states (and Italy's downfall in M's view). It is a modest sized book even by the standards of the day amounting to just over 100 pages in modern print. Taken as a schematic for governing it is frozen in its milieu, but taken as observations of the nature of political thinking and sociological condition it is the product of an intelligent and observant participant in some of the rawest uses of political power. This was a period in a country in which the strangulation of 13 perceived political rivals by Cesare Borgia at a dinner party or the murder of an entire family of relatives by Oliverto da Fermo was tolerated and there was near constant warfare between city states and with foreign governments mixed in. One might forgive Machiavelli the observation that men are, by nature, bad.

'The Prince' contains observations of the political condition that may or may not be timeless, but are still applicable today. He notes, for instance, that in the question of whether as a Prince it is better to be loved or feared and the best of being both is unattainable that it is better to be feared which can be maintained but that loved is inconstant. While fear is better, the Prince must not be hated. The fear that Machiavelli refers to is not the sort of naked fear inspired by a Stalin, but rather the inevitable consequences attendant to conspiring against the state - a potential rather than terrorism. Taken in a modern sense with the State replacing the Prince it is the knowledge that acts against the State, foreign or domestic, will be met with overwhelming power and absolute sureness. It is the message to Timothy McVeighs that you will be caught, prosecuted, and punished, it is the clear statement to the Soviets that an attack would involve massive and catastrophic nuclear retaliation, it was the idea behind Afghanistan. But note the attached corollary about hate, the Prince - or State - cannot behave in a manner that creates hate and disgust, a lesson forgotten with the Iraq War or the Bush war on civil liberties and civil discourse. This concept is twined throughout 'The Prince', it is the iron fist in a velvet glove.

A recurring theme of the book is that the Prince is best served by the loyalty and affection of the masses. It is very nearly matched in frequency by the notion that the masses are more informed by appearances than fact. The power structures that Machiavelli breaks the political world into are the masses, the military,and the nobles with religion as a separate and distinct one. It takes little to push those groupings into a modern structure and apply Machiavelli's analysis. The masses of today are more and yet less informed than the masses of his time, in his time the personage of the Prince was a neighbor, an individual present on the scene and while the level of literacy and press was considerably lesser, there is an informational advantage to nearness. I have been close enough to Barack Obama to personally read his expressions and body language as he spoke and answered unscripted questions, that places me in a vanishingly small minority of this nation, the people of the city states of Machiavelli's time lived with their Princes. The weaponry and sophistication and application of military power has changed since that time, but the essential job has not. That essential job brings a mindset with it, to finely analyse it would require much more patience than any reader of this blog has. The nobility of the time remains, today we call them Congress, lobbyists, plutocrats, and some others. Machiavelli's Prince is to put the masses first and the nobility last with the military in a shifting second regard. The nobility is untrustworthy, they have agendas of their own and a general dislike from the citizenry which most bears their affronts and provides the real political threats to the power of the Prince. It does not force an analogy to see connections to the modern political world.

In the face of very recent history, Machiavelli's analysis of the Prince's ministers deserves some real attention. Machiavelli sees the ministers/advisers to the Prince as the most visible elements of his power and essential to the promulgation of policy...and as scapegoats. Machiavelli asserts that the quality of the ministers is a direct consequence of the quality of the Prince. A perspicacious Prince will choose high quality ministers and be served well by them, an inept Prince will surround himself with ineptness. The ministers are never to usurp the authority of the Prince, but are to understand that only the truth will suffice as answers. The Prince cannot function with the inaccuracy of the flatterers and they are to be avoided as much as politically possible. Because the ministers are the visible hands of the Prince he will be held responsible by the populace for their actions and because they are his advisers his action will be affected by their input, again subjecting the Prince to the approval of the people for the actions of his ministers. No advisor is to be allowed to presume preeminence in an area as that usurps the authority of the Prince and encourages it in the minister. Because a competent Prince will have chose well in his advisers the Prince should trust them, but watch them - because they have been given access to power.

No discussion of 'The Prince ' could be made without reference to, "the ends justify the means." This is a paraphrase of a paragraph and really of several mostly dealing with the necessity of the Prince being able to adjust to changing circumstances and that when he cannot be good to be bad. It is a very nearly accurate description of that particular section of the book. Machiavelli places the continuance of the State and the Prince ahead of narrow questions of morality while encouraging at the least the appearance of piety. Oddly considering his credit for the phrase, it is a course he consistently places below actual honorable behavior. In consideration of the realities of his times in that place it is somewhat surprising that he does not place it at the head of his list of behaviors rather than as seemingly a last resort. This was an incredibly dangerous and violent world he moved in and presumed to advise. It is doubtful that most leaders of the time, including Popes, could avoid life sentences in today's America. He does quite baldly advise that the Prince is not consider himself bound by his word, or treaties, or ethics if the situation calls for it, because - men are, by nature, bad; and will not on their part be bound by any such considerations. Taking that as the measure of 'The Prince' or Niccolo Machiavelli is a simplistic mistake and misses entirely the major thrust of the work.

This is scarcely an in depth analysis of 'The Prince', Machiavelli, or Italy of the time. It is intended to whet interest and discussion of a historically important book that has resonance today and probably into the future. It is certainly not an endorsement of the political structures within which Machiavelli lived, but an acknowledgement that observation of events and analysis of motivations is informative across centuries and cultures. If like myself you haven't read it in quite awhile or have never read it, it is worth the couple hours it takes to read and reflect.


Oregonian37 said...

I've now taken two classes that touched on Machiavelli, particularly his influence on Realist theory, at least enough to realize that I had a very "un-nuanced" view of him. I have not yet read The Prince (I never seem to have time to read beyond my textbooks these days!), but it is on my post-school book list.

As with most any other "founding thinker" of a school of thought, it is clear that we have a tremendous tendency to pick and choose what agree with our own views, as a means for backing up those views.


joycemocha said...

If you like The Prince, Machiavelli's other book, The Dialogues, is even more interesting....

joycemocha said...

Correction. The Discourses,, not The Dialogues

Chuck Butcher said...

Dicourses is on my list, but not real high. Translations are awkward and tend to kill the flow of writing making it less 'pleasing' to read. I know it is a more expansive view and deserves to be read.

I don't know that I actually like The Prince, I think it is important which can be a different thing.

joycemocha said...

Actually, Chuck, The Discourses is the better book--and addresses the issues of a Republic in much more depth

(Book V--To whom can the guardianship of liberty more safely be confided, to the nobles or the people? And which of the two have most cause for creating disturbances, those who wish to acquire, or those who desire to conserve?)

Good discussions on corruption and republics, in an examination of the Roman Republic. Hmm. I might just reread it today myself. Very well worth the read in this era--more so than The Prince, IMHO.