Friday, March 4, 2011

The Prince

Niccolo Machiavelli's The Prince represents a departure from all of the works that I have looked at before. Virtually all of the people that have been discussed would support somewhat of a Judeo-Christian value system, which would require leaders to act with kindness in dealing with their subjects. However, with chapter titles such as "Concerning Those Who Become Princes by Evil Means" and "Concerning Cruelty" we can clearly see that Machiavelli is not going to be bothered at all by a desire to be nice. The author's name has even become synonymous with being cutthroat or heartless. We will take a closer look at this book dedicated to Lorenzo di Piero de' Medici and see how Machiavelli values power over kindness.

Machiavelli opens his book by discussing how princes, the word he uses for leaders or rulers, should handle governing different types of newly formed states. He writes about these over hereditary states where princedoms are passed down because he believes that newly formed states are more difficult to control. Mixed princedoms consist of new conquests added to older states, conquered kingdoms, and conquered free states. Next he deals with totally new states, whether they are conquests by virtue, fortune, or "criminal virtue."

After a brief look at defense and military, Machiavelli comes to what is probably the most famous part of his book: the qualities of a prince. Condemning the virtues we see extolled by some of the other authors written about here, Machiavelli claims that "a man who strives after goodness in all his acts is sure to come to ruin." Wow. I can't see Martin Luther King, Jr. or Paul Rusesabagina ever saying something like that. Although this statement seems cold and callous at first glance, it seems that Machiavelli may have just been well ahead of his time in terms of acknowledging lack of self control. He suggests that most men act with the intention of being good but fail in reality. This appears to be more realistic than evil or immoral.

One of the biggest themes in The Prince is Machiavelli's idea of pragmatism over idealism. He bemoans the fact that other men have written about governing states that could never really exist. He does not see the point of discussing "imagined republics and principalities that never really existed at all." We must look at the situations that a prince will face through a realistic lens. Another big issue for Machiavelli is that this type of political philosophy necessarily implies a sort of Hobbesian view of the nature of man. He claims that men in general are "ungrateful, fickle, dissembling, anxious to flee danger, and covetous of gain." Because of this, the power of a prince is always in danger. At the smallest sign of weakness, opponents will look to capitalize.

To be considered "Machiavellian" in today's terms is not typically a compliment. People associate his name with a desire for power and a cutthroat mentality. In reality, Machiavelli's view of the nature of man requires this effort to protect yourself in positions of authority. He clearly rejects idealism in favor of a more realistic attitude toward leadership. Although not all, people deserve such a cynical attitude, there are some people out there who fit Machiavelli's description. Self-preservation requires that we be aware that these type of people exist and act to maintain our leadership position. Not everyone may want to acknowledge how close Machiavelli's idea of human nature is to reality, but the best leaders must.

1 comment:

  1. I’m really glad you read Machiavelli! It really is different from the others. What a good book for creating context. Kindness?! Feh! Anyway, you summarize this well and focus on the key parts. M. was a real outlier – a really unusual critic of leadership in his time. Goodness = ruin. Amazing. Realism is a mode and we have to accept it. He’s not saying necessarily that effective leaders are unethical. He’s saying that they should be realists – that is, non-ethical. In an era when Christian claims were the vaneer of governance, M. was telling the truth. A polity based on reality! It was a new idea then. You are right to negate the automatic assumptions about his ideas. Again, defense is the best offense. In the U.S, when presidents claim they have made decision X based not on political considerations, they are lying. M. taught us to call that lie. How can there NOT be political considerations? Let’s be honest. Honesty is a nicer name for realism.