The Prince by Niccolo Machiavelli

July 23, 2010

He who believes that new benefits will cause great personages to forget old injuries is deceived.

Niccolo Machiavelli is widely known for this work in particular, a work which he wrote in an effort to gain the favor of the then-ruling Medici family. The same Medici who had him tortured and imprisoned. Machiavelli did, at least, practice a bit of what he preached. He bore no grudges where the grudges did not serve a purpose. Of course, it would seem the Medici already knew some of the lessons Machiavelli had to teach, for they never gave him the new benefit of a position in their government, but left him crushed and impotent (but for his writing).

The translation I read is an old one (1908) by W. K. Marriott. He includes a somewhat defensive introduction in which he praises Machiavelli and downplays the extent to which this work was an effort to curry favor with the Medici. His introduction and translator’s note are, themselves, interesting. He sets forth a great deal of Machiavelli’s biographical details for readers unfamiliar with them.

The work is an attempt to set forth principles on how princes may obtain and keep principalities. He gives a great deal of advice, often demonstrating his points with ancient or contemporary examples. I have not read any of his contemporaries, but his insights into political machinations sound like they are the result of watching cable television and modern-day politics. Neither men nor politics have much changed.

If men were entirely good this precept would not hold, but because they are bad, and will not keep faith with you, you too are not bound to observe it with them…But it is necessary to know well how to disguise this characteristic, and to be a great pretender and dissembler; and men are so simple, and so subject to present necessities, that he who seeks to deceive will always find someone who will allow himself to be deceived.

And, so, Machiavelli was first of all a pragmatic man, both in his own life (flattering the Medici) and in his writings. He did not exactly shun or ignore morals, but believed that living a morally blameless life was a good way to lose a kingdom.

[F]or a man who wishes to act entirely up to his professions of virtue soon meets with what destroys him among so much that is evil. Hence it is necessary for a prince wishing to hold his own to know how to do wrong, and to make use of it or not according to necessity.

There is more here than only the reputation. The book is short, but packed with biting insights and wit. I could quote the thing at length, but then there would be little else for you to discover. Machiavelli does present a very jaded and cynical view of man and politics, but that is precisely why it is so brilliant. You need look no further than the reports that British Petroleum (BP) allegedly advocated for the release of one of the Lockerbie terrorists to see a present day example of pragmatism overriding any sense of ethics or morality. Name a politician and I will find you a quote that describes his rise or downfall. Pull a quote and I will show you a modern-day politician who provides the anecdotal evidence of its truth.

This is not, I would say, a guide to how to live. It is atrocious for that. Unless, of course, you aspire to power and glory. In that case, I suppose you could do worse. For the rest those of us more interested in literature than in elected office, however, Machiavelli had a novelist’s eye for capturing and pithily dissecting human nature.