Bone Crushingly Rational.
Machiavelli does not care about the virtue of actions but the rewards from outcomes.
The Greatest Book’s Ranking: #4/100
This short treatise on bad acts within the royal court reads more like the rules of engagement from a political intrigue novel. Backstabbing is permissible. Cruelties okay if justified. Fear is a better tool than love.
The measuring stick for Machiavelli is whether it works. It promotes egalitarian rights only in so far that it helps The Prince stay in power, not whether it is the “right” thing to do. What it leaves out is more deafening than what’s available: no talk about virtues, ethics, or morals. While it is never so clearly stated, the colloquial summary of this book is correct… “The Ends Justify The Means.”
Machiavelli was born in Florence, Italy. The backdrop of his era was constant warring between the city-states of Italy as the pope tried to corral everyone under one control. In the early 1500s, he over saw the Florentine militia and was involved in diplomatic missions to try and secure Florence independence against assimilation under the hegemony of other leaders.
The Medici family finally took over Florence and accused Machiavelli of treason. After some torture, he disappeared from active political life but acted as a consultant to those still in the game. During this period he wrote theThe Prince. The opening chapter is a letter written to the recipient of this treatise, Lorenzo de’Medici. While written in 1513, it would go on to be formally published in 1532 after Machiavelli’s death.
It would go on to influence later political leaders such as Henry VIII, Charles the V, and Thomas Cromwell.
There are three things that stand out in this short work: the critical thinking, the view of humanity, and the harshness. The first is because it is a work of rationality, trying to use thought experiments and history to come up with truths and guidelines. The second because of how little he thinks of people outside of the “heroes” of history. The third because immorality takes a back seat to getting things done.
While people have been talking politics since Plato and Aristotle, Machiavelli focuses more on a “what if” game of variables to guide judgements.
In Chapter 4, he speaks of whether a country would be hard to invade and rule depending on their political system. He posits that states with a prince overseeing barons are easy to invade but hard to rule because while the barons will welcome someone overrunning their superior, they won’t so easily bow to a new one. On the opposite side, a prince who rules with servants will be hard to invade but easy to rule: they are used to being obeyers, but will not be easy to use for subterfuge against their masters.
This kind of comparison between governmental systems with potential strengths and weaknesses throughout the book is common place and well done.
Machiavelli does not think much of humanity:
“Of mankind we may say in general they are fickle, hypocritical, and greedy of gain.”
Of course, this opens people up to be taken advantage of. His view is that it’s okay to use bad virtues to take advantage of bad virtues. Actually, that’s probably giving him too much credit: anything that secures your future is on the table, whether the other person has bad virtues or not.
There are times that he suggests to be friends of the people, but this is not because of some sense of duty: nobles think the prince is an an equal but the people will forever obey. Of course, one can go too far with this.
“He who builds on the people, builds on the mud.”
It’s a Cruel, Cruel World.
Combining his critical thinking with his view on humanity creates for a pretty terrible ethic.
“It is much safer to be feared than loved because …love is preserved by the link of obligation which, owing to the baseness of men, is broken at every opportunity for their advantage; but fear preserves you by a dread of punishment which never fails.”
Some good pithy sayings on how people suck and we should take advantage of their weaknesses.
Other People’s Takes:
- The World’s Corner: “The Prince is significant to the history of political thought because it advocates a purposeful approach to problems.”
- The Troubled Waters: “It clearly came to Machiavelli’s mind that the perfectionism of life preached by the Church and Papacy cannot and would in no way fill the void of human imperfectionism.”
- The Learning Age: “It is this ‘naked truthfulness’ that sets Machiavelli apart from most other political theorists and explains the still extraordinary urgency and relevance of his writing.”