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Why is Machiavelli's The Prince still relevant today?
16 June, 2017
<p dir="ltr"><span>When you think of classic books, you probably think of books that are two hundred years old at most. Hugo, Dickens, Austen, Twain, Shelly, and so on. The great works of Shakespeare being the oldest literature that most people ever really read, outside of religious texts. But one work of Renaissance literature in Italy still stands out as one of the most important books ever written, and still strikes us with an uncanny feeling of understanding and dread when we think of it; </span><span><em>The Prince</em>, </span><span>by Machiavelli.</span></p> <p dir="ltr"><span>Few books have garnered as much controversy during their existence as <em>The Prince</em>. It has been banned by the Catholic Church, seen as cynical by many, and was the basis for the naming of one of the worst psychological traits a person can have-Machiavellianism. This is the book that gave us such quotes as “<strong>It is better to be feared than loved, if you cannot have both”, </strong>and<strong> “The ends justify the means</strong>”. History’s greatest how-to-rule guide has also been one of the most widely reviled books of all time.</span></p> <p dir="ltr">And the worst part? This book is still incredibly relevant to us today.</p> <p dir="ltr"><span>The book begins by telling us that it is about how to run (specifically) an Italian renaissance autocracy in the same way that the (irony alert) ever relevant </span><em>Art of War</em><span> pertains to iron age warfare. While several portions of the book, such as the section discussing the proper ratio of local troops and mercenaries to build an army with are relics of times past, </span><em>The Prince</em><span> still offers us practical lessons in politics today.</span></p> <p dir="ltr"><span>While some of the best ideas in the book can seem obvious, like that a council of advisers should be wise men rather than flatterers; many people still don’t follow the advice. Before Machiavelli, many of the big ideas he wrote about weren’t even well agreed to.</span></p> <p dir="ltr"><span>Here are a few of the ideas that can be used, for good or evil, laid out by Machiavelli. </span></p> <blockquote></blockquote><p dir="ltr"><strong>“A prudent man should always follow in the path trodden by great men and imitate those who are most excellent.”</strong></p> <p dir="ltr"><strong>“It is essential therefore for a prince to have learnt how to be other than good and to use, or not to use, his goodness as necessity requires.”</strong></p> <p dir="ltr"><strong>“All courses of action are risky, so prudence is not in avoiding danger (it's impossible), but calculating risk and acting decisively. Make mistakes of ambition and not mistakes of sloth. Develop the strength to do bold things, not the strength to suffer.”</strong></p> <p dir="ltr"><strong>“Be it known, then, that there are two ways of contending, one in accordance with the laws, the other by force; the first of which is proper to men, the second to beasts. But since the first method is often ineffectual, it becomes necessary to resort to the second.”</strong></p> <p dir="ltr"><strong>“And here we must observe that men must either be flattered or crushed; for they will revenge themselves for slight wrongs, whilst for grave ones they cannot. The injury therefore that you do to a man should be such that you need not fear his revenge.”</strong></p> <p dir="ltr">As you can see, many of the pieces of advice in the book are benign or even admirable. Most of them, however, suggest that a wise leader tend to healthy doses of brutality, suppression, and nighttime raids as needed. An idea that offends those of us who suppose that a righteous leader will always prevail in the end. It is that very idealism we love that <em>The Prince</em> warns us against.</p> <p><span id="docs-internal-guid-44ad9d1e-aef8-b809-09cd-4e517b83c7f6"> </span></p> <p dir="ltr"><span>While we might want our leaders to be Christlike or be the kind of guy we would want to have a beer with, Machiavelli points out that what we really need is effectiveness. The things that make a person nice are rarely the things that make a politician effective. A detail which is relevant not only to the petty tyrant, but also to the voter. </span></p> <p dir="ltr"><span>Machiavelli had written extensively on republics before writing </span><em>The Prince</em><span>, and was held by many Enlightenment philosophers to be a closet republican. </span><span>Rousseau went so far as to suppose </span><em>The Prince </em><span>was a satire on how brutal autocracy can be. In all likelihood, however, </span><em>The Prince</em><span> is a sincere how to guide on bringing wealth, glory, and stability to the state, by any means necessary. No matter what the author truly felt about the best way to run a country.</span></p> <p dir="ltr"><strong>But, if it has all these useful tips, why do we dislike it so much?</strong></p> <p dir="ltr"><span>Victor Hugo may have summed up our distaste for </span><em>The Prince</em><span> best in </span><span>Les Miserables: <br></span></p> <blockquote> <p dir="ltr"><span>“</span>Machiavelli is not an evil genius, nor a demon, nor a miserable and cowardly writer; he is nothing but the fact. And he is not only the Italian fact; he is the European fact, the fact of the sixteenth century.”</p> </blockquote> <p dir="ltr"><span>We dislike him because he told us that our politicians cannot all be saints, if any of them can be. We know that Richard Nixon was both unscrupulous and effective, while our sense of justice tells us it shouldn’t be so. Machiavelli’s </span><em>The Prince</em><span> reminds us to focus on the real, understand that the virtuous politician is not the same as a saint by any measure, and that it is better to be feared than loved not only for kings, but also for political books. </span></p> <div><span><br></span></div>
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Machiavelli The Prince Prince autocracy republic renaissance dictatorship literature political philosophy
The thoughts on ruthless leadership by Italian politician and writer Niccolò Machiavelli resonate today.
17 April, 2017
Portrait of Niccolò Machiavelli by Santi di Tito. Mid 1500s.
<p class="p1">The Italian Renaissance thinker <strong>Niccolò Machiavelli</strong> is considered one of the seminal figures in modern political science, even though his most important text <em>The Prince</em> was written in 1513. In the book he described a certain kind of behavior that's come to be regarded as a manual for powerful rulers. The book has been so influential that the word “Machiavellian" became an adjective synonymous with immoral, brutal politicians. </p> <p class="p1">While he was a politician and diplomat in Florence, Machiavelli was not known as a ruthless, cunning manipulator himself. Rather, a lot of his insight was informed by the actions of the powerful families of his day like the Borgias and the Medicis. The lessons of his book are rooted in realism and can be useful to any leader. Granted, there are some aspects of Machiavelli's teachings that are surely controversial and should be viewed in light of their historical context.</p> <p class="p1">Here are some key ideas to take to heart:</p> <p class="p4"><strong>1. The end justifies the means</strong></p> <p class="p4">Machiavelli often gets credit for saying this classic quote about <strong>consequentialism</strong> which says that a morally right act is one that causes a positive outcome. But the way you get to that goal is not important and can be immoral.</p> <p class="p4">While he expressed such a sentiment in other ways, Machiavelli didn't actually say this famous maxim. What he did think was more nuanced, proposing that people don't necessarily want to focus on the details and tend to judge leaders by results. In fact, Machiavelli's thoughts describe how a modern politician might deal with the media, which can be baited and confused by strong actions. Does anyone come to mind as you read this from <a href="https://www.gutenberg.org/files/1232/1232-h/1232-h.htm#link2HCH0018" target="_blank">Chapter 18 of <em>The</em> <em>Prince</em></a>:</p><blockquote>[M]en judge generally more by the eye than by the hand, because it belongs to everybody to see you, to few to come in touch with you. Every one sees what you appear to be, few really know what you are, and those few dare not oppose themselves to the opinion of the many, who have the majesty of the state to defend them; and in the actions of all men, and especially of princes, which it is not prudent to challenge, one judges by the result.<br><br>For that reason, let a prince have the credit of conquering and holding his state, <em>the means will always be considered honest</em>, and he will be praised by everybody because the vulgar are always taken by what a thing seems to be and by what comes of it; and in the world there are only the vulgar, for the few find a place there only when the many have no ground to rest on.</blockquote> <p class="p7">While his advice might apply well to corporate leaders as well as political, we can see the limitations of such approaches when confronted with the social media outrage culture. Like the United Airlines fiasco recently showed, some “means" will be called out and debated. In the political sphere, however, especially in a hyper-partisan atmosphere, the methods might often be argued but the results of actions will likely overwhelm any details.</p> <p class="p9"><strong>2. </strong><strong>It's better to be feared than loved if you cannot be both</strong></p> <p class="p9">He didn't say it exactly the way it's been spread around the Internet. His exact quote <a href="https://www.gutenberg.org/files/1232/1232-h/1232-h.htm#link2HCH0017" target="_blank">in chapter 17</a> was: </p> <blockquote> “A question arises: whether it be better to be loved than feared or feared than loved? It may be answered that one should wish to be both, but, because it is difficult to unite them in one person, it is much safer to be feared than loved, when, of the two, either must be dispensed with."<br> </blockquote> <p class="p9">The advice here can certainly be taken to extremes, with visions of authoritarian figures ruling through intimidation and secret police. Taken on a broader basis, the idea is that fear is simpler to maintain for a ruler than love, which can be fickle. The key is to avoid being hated, which is when people can really turn against you.</p> <p class="p12">How do you instill that fear? Machiavelli maintained that the “dread of punishment" was important for a smart prince to institute. Cruelty was also some times necessary. Very much a law and order kind of guy, Machiavelli called for strong examples to be made of offenders as lessons to others:</p> <blockquote> “With a few exemplary executions, he will be more merciful than those who, through too much mercy, allow disorders to arise, from which follow murders or robberies. These harm the whole people, while those executions he ordered offend only the individual."<br> </blockquote> <p class="p9"><strong>3. Strong public outreach/propaganda</strong></p> <p class="p9"><a href="https://www.gutenberg.org/files/1232/1232-h/1232-h.htm#link2HCH0015" target="_blank">In chapter 15</a>, Machiavelli talks about qualities that a leader should appear to possess and thus would need to cultivate in some measure. When talking about things that would bring a prince praise or blame, the Italian thinker describes it this way:</p> <blockquote> “One is reputed generous, one rapacious; one cruel, one compassionate; one faithless, another faithful; one effeminate and cowardly, another bold and brave; one affable, another haughty; one lascivious, another chaste; one sincere, another cunning; one hard, another easy; one grave, another frivolous; one religious, another unbelieving, and the like. And I know that every one will confess that it would be most praiseworthy in a prince to exhibit all the above qualities that are considered good".<br> </blockquote> <p class="p15">How many of these characteristics are still true for modern politicians or corporate leaders?</p> <p class="p11">Basically, no matter what you do to stay in power, one aspect to not neglect is strong public relations. Good leaders must appear to have certain characteristics even if they don't actually have them. The case of the tone-deaf United Airlines CEO's <a href="https://bigthink.rebelmouse.com/paul-ratner/why-so-many-people-think-the-united-airlines-video-shows-the-decline-of-america" target="_blank">initial response</a> to the outrage over a passenger dragged out of their plane comes to mind.</p> <p class="p17"><strong>4. “It is necessary to be a fox to discover the snares and a lion to terrify the wolves."</strong></p> <p class="p1"><a href="https://www.gutenberg.org/files/1232/1232-h/1232-h.htm#link2HCH0018" target="_blank">This passage</a> means that some times a leader can't always respond by brute force and must act with insight to recognize the any traps. But against other opponents, like against “the wolves," a leader should be ready to show strength of a “lion" to gain respect.</p> <p class="p11">In other words, know your weak spots, be cunning, and ruthless when necessary.</p> <p class="p9"><strong>5. Build an enduring leadership structure and strong team</strong></p> <p class="p9">Machiavelli saw that a strong prince is ultimately as good as his "servants".</p> <blockquote> “The first opinion which one forms of a prince, and of his understanding, is by observing the men he has around him," wrote Machiavelli in <a href="https://www.gutenberg.org/files/1232/1232-h/1232-h.htm#link2HCH0022" target="_blank">Chapter 22</a> of the book.<br> </blockquote> <p class="p15">He says that if such "men" around the prince are “capable and faithful," then the prince will be considered wise. Otherwise, if the servants are failing, it's the prince's “error" for choosing such help.</p>
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