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“It is good to be loved. It is better to be feared.”
His name has become synonymous with Satan himself, but Niccolo Machiavelli, a low-level Florentine statesman and scholarly humanist, began with the best of intentions. His native Italy was ridden by factions, in thrall to the consolidated power of France and the Holy Roman Empire. Machiavelli longed for Italian unity, for a strong leader who could unite the various princes, dukes, counts and cardinals into a political coalition powerful enough to stand on its own feet. Unfortunately, the only man who had come close was Cesare Borgia, the illegitimate son of a pope. Backed by his father, Borgia rose through cunning and treachery. He came within striking distance of ultimate power, but the death of the pope and his own illness quashed his efforts at the last minute. This is the man Machiavelli chose as the model for his ideal Prince.
The Prince is famous for arguing that the ends justify the means. Machiavelli was the original realist. He saw that the ultimate goal of the powerful is to stay in power, and that anything that secures this end is justified. And though we may condemn the principle, how many of us today are content to live by it? How many of us are willing to overlook the faults of our party so long as it remains in power? This is the sum of Machiavelli’s argument, and though none of us would willingly accept the title Machiavellian, the vast majority of us probably merit it.
There is a clever ruthlessness in the advice Machiavelli gives. For example, he advises his prince that when he comes to power, he should execute all of his enemies in a terrifying bloodbath. Then, when the survivors are uncertain of their own fate, the prince should show great kindness to them and win them over. He relates the story of the time Cesare Borgia took a city, commanded one of his subordinates to purge all of its leading figures, and then executed the subordinate himself, telling the people that Borgia had no idea how cruel the man had been!
In many ways, The Prince is the prototypical book of its age. Reading the book, be sure to notice the way that Machiavelli argues his case. He invokes examples from ancient and recent history, displaying a characteristically humanist concern for the lessons of classical antiquity. He also delves into the perennial mystery of human agency and God’s sovereignty, deciding on a rather pragmatic fifty-fifty split: fortune controls half of what happens, man’s free will controls the other half.
The Prince is a short book written in lucid prose. A discerning reader should ask which observations of Machiavelli are wisdom, and which foolish. If you have time, you might also compare this guidebook to the contemporary manual for courtiers, Castiglione’s The Book of the Courtier—you will find that while princes were being educated on nefarious policy, their courtiers were still grappling with courtly love, chivalry and the first fruits of neo-Platonism.
by J. Mark Bertrand