Nicolo Machiavelli's The Prince, reviled by many, may be the most important book ever written about Power and Leadership


The Prince – Nicolo Machiavelli (1532)

            Where can I begin? It is hard to say when it comes to the  diplomat, politician and writer Nicolo Machiavelli.  For one, he lived at a time of great tumult in the peninsula we now refer to as Italy.  City-states would war against each other.  Princes from foreign countries would take turns assisting and then attacking various fiefdoms and principalities.  Naples hated Florence.  Pisa hated Naples. The Tuscans hated Pisa.  It was endless.  Nicolo Machiavelli, considered a good public servant, was at times placed in powerful and prestigious political positions, where he availed himself very well.  When revolts happened, as they so often did back then, Nicolo would end up displaced and exiled, only to be asked back by a new leadership.  Eventually, Nicolo Machiavelli was arrested and placed in custody.  He was a middle-aged man at that time, and this is when he began to write the works we know him for today.  Preeminent among them is The Prince, an amazing work of political genius, detailing the lessons Nicolo learned watching, assisting, and escaping from, various princes and kings.

            I learned all of the above once I started reading The Prince, as I did some research into Nicolo Machiavelli’s life.  I mention this because the general knowledge I had on Machiavelli was nearly complete hyperbole.  The name Machiavelli, and the term “Machiavellian,” have come to signify a person without scruples, willing to do anything, even hurt his own people, in order to gain and keep power.  This is a massive over-simplification of what Machiavelli states in his book.  It helps to understand that Nicolo Machiavelli did not begin to write the works we know him for until a regime change in his home forced him into incarceration.  It was as a prisoner that he focused his thoughts and had the time to write, distilling the chaos of the warring nations of Europe and the Italian city-states, as well as the various traits witnessed in the countless princes, kings, regents, governors, etc. whose fortunes rose and fell with the political tide.

            During his incarceration, Machiavelli had time to process his experiences.  Using the books he brought with him, he proceeded to distill the wisdom learned during a lifetime of study and civic duty.  The work that ensued, The Prince, is a masterpiece of political wisdom.

            The first chapters are devoted to explaining the different types of state, and how they are acquired.  He describes the two basic ones, Republics and Principalities, and goes into greater detail about the principalities.  Machiavelli discusses hereditary principalities, those received through a family line, and describes how these type of states have the least difficulty in being held by their prince.  The country and people are long-accustomed to the reigning family, and will continue to support the Prince, unless he is of an extremely low character. 

Mixed principalities are also discussed.  These arise either as new states, or as part of an older country that has decided to form its own government.  New leaders burden the people, forcing them to accommodate strangers, feed invader armies, etc.  Many enemies are created, both the locals who have seen their leaders killed and replaced, and the previous enemies of the new prince, who rail at seeing the prince gain new territory and wealth.  This makes for a very unsteady prince, ripe for revolution, or invasion.  Referring to a new principality located in a foreign land with foreign language, Machiavelli suggests it is far better to create a colony than to erase the old rule completely.  The successful new prince will relocate himself to the new land, to better allow the people to see him, and to better cut off any rise in revolt.  The new prince should make himself the defender and leader of the less powerful neighbors as well, for this keeps a new foreigner from taking over once the people are fed up with the latest prince.

Machiavelli, often in this book, will distill his ideas into statements that, when read out of context, seem like the stereotypical “Machiavellian” ideas.  For example, in discussing the situation explained above, Machiavelli states the following, “…one has to remark that men ought either to be well treated or crushed, because they can avenge themselves of lighter injuries, of more serious ones they cannot; therefore the injury that is to be done to a man ought to be of such a kind that one does not stand in fear of revenge.  This seems cold and calculating, but the mind and decisions of a prince cannot be held to the same morality as that of a peasant.  The enemies of a common person can cause much harm, but the enemies of a prince can destroy whole nations.

In reference to the mighty Roman Empire, Machiavelli states that the reason the empire lasted so long, and was able to annex and absorb countries and peoples from far and wide, was because, for the most part, Rome was not a conqueror of nations.  Rome, instead, would be asked to come take over a region, which they would do via the use of colonial methods.  They would support the neighboring states, but not let them get too powerful.  They kept down the greater powers of their strong enemies, and never allowed them to gain any authority.  The Romans, foreseeing trouble, would immediately take action, never letting any resentment breed into revolution.

Throughout the Prince, Machiavelli provides detailed examples from history.  During his life, France had detached itself from the Roman Catholic Church, which caused the church to rise in power in the neighboring states of Spain and Italy.  The church then helped the princes of Spain and Italy attack France at every turn.  Machiavelli states the following, “From this a general rule is drawn which never or rarely fails: that he who is the cause of another becoming powerful is ruined; because that predominancy has been brought about either by astuteness or else by force, and both are distrusted by him who has been raised to power.

There are too many examples throughout human history showing this to be a truth. New leaders distrust those that helped them achieve their goal, for they may very easily help someone else replace them.  The true genius of Machiavelli was his ability to distill wisdom and experience down to the bare bones.  The most complex of ideas are shared in a way that allows us, nearly half a millennia later, to understand the concepts in a rich and subtle manner.

Machiavelli discusses how and why princes use soldiers and mercenaries.  He details why homegrown soldiers are always preferable, and gives examples of lords and princes whose demise came about due to their injudicious use of their armies.  For example, a chapter is devoted to the ways that the descendants of Alexander managed to maintain control of the kingdom taken from Darius after the great Alexander’s death.  Other chapters explain the difference in holding a kingdom won by one’s own arms and people, a kingdom won by the use of other’s arms and people, or a kingdom won by wickedness. 

Just as there are many ways to gain power, there are an equal number of ways to lose it.  Machiavelli goes into great detail discussing the many issues princes must face and the best ways to handle them.  It is here that many interpreters and readers seem to misunderstand Machiavelli’s intent.  Much like the naturalist who seeks to describe the life of an apex predator, (and most princes and lords are indeed apex predators), Machiavelli needs to explain in an unbiased and, to modern ears, callous manner exactly what works and does not work in maintaining a kingdom.  He is not discussing how to best be a “good” king.”  He is merely expounding on how to best become, and stay, a king. 

A normal person’s actions may affect a few dozen people, but a prince’s actions affect whole nations.  There is not one decision that a prince makes that does not injure someone, either by actual physical, fiduciary, or psychological harm.  Choosing an ambassador, for instance, can grant a person great prestige and rank, but, to those considered but not chosen for the position, enmity and hate can and do arise.  Deciding to send aid to an ally can enrage the people of one’s kingdom who are hungry, or desperate.  Marrying a princess from one nation can cause another nation to wage war on you.  It is for these situations, unusual or unknown to the common man, that Machiavelli applies his wisdom.

A key chapter discusses whether it is best to be loved or feared as a leader.  Machiavelli does not hold back.  Even though love is the Christian virtue, and what all men should seek to share and spread amongst each other, a prince that is loved is in a far more tenuous position than one who is feared.  All it takes is one mistake, one error in judgement, one scandal, and the people whose love was taken for granted can and do turn on a leader with vehemence.  A prince who is loved has a hard time determining who may be lying or plotting.  A prince who is a fair man, but harsh in his punishments, will come to be feared and respected.  The fear comes from an honest place of not wanting to offend or draw the ire of the prince.  The trick for both loved and feared leaders is to work hard to make certain that the fear or love does not transmute into Hate.  A hated prince is in the worst position, for both his allies and enemies can easily find common ground.  There is no safety for a hated prince.  If lucky he may just get deposed, but for the most part, hated leaders end up in tragedy.  They are tortured and killed.  Their families are killed.  Their friends are killed.  Those in the government that worked closely with them are killed.  A hated leader will bring the worst out in humanity.

Machiavelli clearly states that it is best for a leader to be feared.  If not feared, it is better for him to be loved.  These are both abstract and concrete truths.  Machiavelli writes, “…men have less scruple in offending one who is beloved than one who is feared, for 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.  Machiavelli was not an idealist.  He understood that man is driven by need and desire.  Most people do not care who their prince is.  They just want stability and fairness, regardless of who is in power.  They will only love you if it is to their advantage to do so.  Princes work by rules and so do the people.  A prince whose people see as soft or weak will have his wealth and power slowly and surely eaten away, especially by those closest to him.  A feared prince, however, helps maintain a level of order and place, for a subject must know and accept that they are a subject, just as a leader must know and accept that they are a leader, and fear comes with the territory.  We all know parents whose children pay them no mind, who lack the inherent respect a child should have for their mother or father.  Machiavelli knew that princes see themselves as the father figure for their nation or kingdom.  A smart prince will see that his children/subjects have a healthy fear and respect of his powers.

Frankly, I could write so much more about this relatively short book.  I feel I have just scratched the surface of the countless subjects Machiavelli touches on.  There are writers I have come across who use language freely, writing endless pages and chapters, merely to share a wisdom better served through a short, succinct statement.  Machiavelli is the exact opposite.  He brings so much knowledge, experience, and wisdom to the writing of the Prince that each sentence is loaded with meaning.  This is best type of writing.  It has survived to be read, studied, and pilloried these many centuries because of its inherent value.  Anyone who will rise, or seeks to rise, to a position of power, whether as a leader of a company, city, state, or nation, should read this book carefully.  It provides the most sage advice and profound warnings while sharing the best historical precedents.  There is no fluff in this work.  These doughnuts are all jelly.  I highly recommend this to anyone willing to ignore the cult of personality built around Nicolo Machiavelli.  It will expand your mind and provide you with a deeper understanding of the politics and power plays we experience today, almost five hundred years after Machiavelli laid it all down in his prison cell, (especially if you have just finished watching the series finale of Succession on the HBO). 

(This book can be downloaded and/or read here: https://www.gutenberg.org/files/1232/1232-h/1232-h.htm )


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