The Prince by Niccolò Machiavelli

I read The Prince by Niccolò Machiavelli, in George Bull’s translation to English, recently. Machiavelli changed the discourse about politics and moved European politics into the modern ear, one might say. Anthony Grafton puts it in perspective in the foreword:

machiavelli_prince_cover_smallerMachiavelli hated ‘unarmed prophets’ (profeti disarmati) […] Yet he himself was armed only with a pen when he became the prophet of a new understanding of politics. He gave permanent, unforgettable literary form to the sharp, unforgiving vision of politics that had long been cultivated by members of the Florentine élite. At the same time, however, he made clear the limitations of that inherited vision, as well as those of the more idealistic one that had previously dominated political literature. No wonder that his portrait of the prince […] retains its power to fascinate, to frighten and to instruct [pp. xxviii-xxix*]

Machiavelli discusses different types of states and how to rule them, with examples from contemporary Italy (late 1400’s and early 1500’s), Roman times, and the antique. Most examples are rather arcane for an unstudied bastard like me, but George Bull’s extensive notations makes it at least theoretically possible to dive into historical sources. Bull also provides a useful glossary of names; as said, many of the historical figures referred to are unknown to me and probably many, if not most, readers of today.

It is tempting to dive into some of the historical cases, as many of Machiavelli’s examples seem interesting in their own right. In part because few nations has a richer history than Italy, perhaps particularly when it comes to governmental issues, but also in terms of culture and science, for example. A particularly interesting example that Machiavelli discusses is that of Severus and his rise to become ruler of the Roman empire (see chapter XIX). Introducing the example of Severus, Machiavelli writes:

Because what Severus did was remarkable and outstanding for a new prince, I want to show briefly how well he knew how to act the part of both a fox and a lion, whose natures […] must be imitated by a new prince [p. 63].

The prince should be both a fox and a lion! Machiavelli elaborates further on how a prince (or ruler, in current terms) need to behave:

A prince […] must be very careful not to say a word which does not seem inspired by [five qualities]. To those seeing and hearing him, he should appear a man of compassion, a man of good faith, a man of integrity, a kind and a religious man. And there is nothing so important as to seem to have this last quality. Men in general judge by their eyes rather than by their hands; because everyone is in a position to watch, few are in a position to com in close touch with you [the prince is the intended reader, that is]. Everyone sees what you appear to be, few experience what you really are [p. 58].

I guess most politicians today, and most public figures for that matter, can subscribe to that last observation: Everyone sees what you appear to be, few experience what you really are.

In addition to discussing ideal political behavior, Machiavelli also comments on the contemporary political situation in Italy. For example, Machiavelli suggests that Italy stayed fragmented in small states and city-states after the fall of the Roman empire (Italy wasn’t united until well into the nineteenth century) because of the many weak rulers who relied too much on hired or allied troops. An interesting theory indeed, but the situation was probably a good deal more complicated.

I always have to struggle to engage in political debates; often because I quickly become confused. Now that I have read Machiavelli, I at least have a background to extrapolate political arguments from. Perhaps I will enjoy politics more in the future.

*Page numbers refer to Penguin Books paperback version, reissued with revisions, 2003.


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