The Prince – Niccolò Machiavelli

Everyone has heard the name Machiavelli, but how many have actually read the book he is most famous for? Well until this week I hadn’t got round to it despite owning a copy for many years. It’s an interesting book, originally written in Italian at around 1513 and ultimately dedicated to Lorenzo de Medici after the original proposed dedicatee died before the work was finished; it has given its author a reputation for ruthlessness and scheming which is partly but not entirely justified. Machiavelli was above all else a patriot to his city state of Florence and having lived through turbulent times when the various Italian states had been repeatedly fighting each other along with invasions from both France and Spain he wanted to set down some advice based on his experiences. Florence was seriously weakened during his lifetime and he wanted it to rise again so sets out in the first half of the book some arguments as to how a state rises, is maintained, and can ultimately fall with numerous historical examples to back up his propositions.

It is probably the second half of the book which has been historically so troubling but frankly despite the directness of the language, you can still read it and see where he is coming from even if you don’t agree with his arguments, see the following passage for how a prince should behave

he should learn from the fox and the lion; because the lion is defenceless against traps, and the fox is defenceless against wolves. Therefore one must be a fox in order to recognise traps, and a lion to frighten off wolves. Those who simply act like lions are stupid. So it follows that a prudent ruler cannot, and should not, honour his word when it places him at a disadvantage and when the reasons for which he made his promise no longer exist. If all men were good this precept would not be good; but because men are wretched creatures who would not keep their word to you, you need not keep your word to them.

Chapter XVIII – How princes should honour their word

He further looks to whether a prince should be generous or parsimonious and concludes that whilst generosity can possibly rise a new ruler to princedom it cannot keep him there as it ultimately will be ruinous and any attempt to raise further funds will be resented by the majority who have to supply the money either by taxes or seizures of property and merely appreciated by the minority who gain by them. This will lead to uprisings against the prince and the loss of his state or more likely his life. The decision is then that a prince should be seen as miserly by preference especially if they use the garnered wealth to maintain sufficient soldiers to make the state safer from possible attacks from its neighbours. He also has much to say about armies and why mercenaries are a bad thing as they just draw on the state funds when not in use and can simply move to another state willing to pay them more money if things start to look as if they are going against them. Even a professional army is a problem that needs to be carefully looked after to avoid officers rising to a point where they could see themselves as possible rulers and therefore mutiny and there is a balancing act needed to ensure loyalty without engendering resentment from the populace who ultimately have to pay for them.

He is even more troublesome when it comes to cruelty or compassion to your subjects

So a prince should not worry if he incurs reproach for his cruelty as long as he keeps his subjects united and loyal. By making an example or two he will prove more compassionate than those who, being too compassionate, allow disorders which lead to murder and rapine, These nearly always harm the whole community, whereas executions ordered by the prince only affect individuals.

Chapter XVII – Cruelty and compassion, and whether it is better to be loved than feared, or the reverse.

Well that last sentence is certainly true, especially for the individual being executed, but I’ve never come across such an argument so brutally put and it is probably such sentiments that have given Machiavelli his reputation today, and indeed pretty well ever since the book was published in the early sixteenth century.That is not to say that the book is not worth reading, because it definitely should be read today especially when considering the current state of world politics and conflicts. Machiavelli is blunt in his opinions but that only makes them easier to read and understand, I’m certainly not recommending the book as a guide to how to exist nowadays but it can give valuable pointers as to the possible mindsets of various rulers today who whilst not embracing Machiavelli in his entirety definitely give the impression of being in general agreement with him.