Niccolò Machiavelli was born in Florence, Italy, May 3, 1469
We first had to read The Prince in high school. I remember it as drudgery. I read it again a couple years later, and the light dawned. It became especially relevant with all of my reading about the Founding Fathers, and their thoughts on government, the workings of power, and the general corruptibility of man. One of my favorite things about all “those guys” was their distrust of idealism and Utopias. They were skeptics about mankind and human nature. Man is not to be trusted with power. Ever.
Machiavelli understood that better than most.
At Ebertfest last year, Chazz Palminteri’s wonderful film A Bronx Tale was screened, and I had forgotten its repetitive mention of Machiavelli (especially in one key monologue from the gangster Sonny). During the audience QA afterwards, a high school teacher stood up and said, “I just want to thank you because I teach Machiavelli to 10th graders, and A Bronx Tale has always been a great ‘hook.’ All I need to do is show them that scene and they get it.” Wonderful! Mr. Palminteri talked about the gangster he knew as a kid, the one on whom Sonny was based, and he said that, yes, that guy talked about Machiavelli all the time. The gangster had read Machiavelli while “away at college” (i.e. prison), and the quote in the title of this post, as well as the excerpt below, about fear/respect and love, was one of Sonny’s “take-aways” from The Prince.
The Prince has a strange chameleon-like quality, and seems to reveal different things to me depending on where I’m at when I read it, or where the world is at. The Prince has become increasingly important in the last couple of years to me personally as I have started to move into areas in my career where I need to negotiate, where I have a property that I know is valuable, and I need to figure out how to protect it.
I like the section on armies very much. But going to post excerpt from the famous chapter that Chazz’s gangster loved so much: “On Cruelty and Clemency, and Whether It Is Better to be Loved or Feared”.
The edition that I have starts with an introduction about the history of responses to The Prince, and “Machiavellian” became a descriptive term meaning brutal selfishness and single-mindedness – and this association occurred pretty much during his lifetime. The work is misunderstood. (Machiavelli is similar to Orwell in that respect. Christopher Hitchens, in Why Orwell Matters analyzes how “Orwellian” became a descriptive term, and how so often Orwell is associated with totalitarianism, as though he endorsed those views, instead of just being able to lay them out them so accurately. Orwell/Machiavelli: association of author with subject, mistaking the messenger for the message. The age-old problem: If you show reality so clearly, with no apology, does that mean you endorse the reality?) Machiavelli’s very name now means something malevolent, it is a signifier, a shorthand. Maybe the only thing people remember from the book is the famous sequence on “the ends justify the means”, which, taken out of context, is of course terrifying. Even in context it is terrifying.
Machiavelli was a political insider who had a cushy government job, but all of that changed when the Medicis took power. Machiavelli was imprisoned, tortured, and exiled. During his exile, he wrote The Prince, as a hopeful gesture to get in the good graces of the Medicis. A gift, a presentation: “Here is all that I know about politics. You shouldn’t exile me. I can help you. Let me be of service to you.” In that light, the book is obviously a groveling piece of sycophancy. It’s important to remember those fascinating levels when you read some of the more cold-hearted sections of the book.
Here is a bit from a letter he wrote to a friend during his exile:
I am living in the country since my disgrace. I get up at dawn and go to the little wood where I see what work has been done …
Then comes a long section where he discusses sitting outside on a hill, reading Dante, Petrarch, Tibullus, Ovid. Then he goes to spend the afternoon at the inn, with the miller, the butcher, a cook, some bricklayers. The letter continues.
[Spent the afternoon] with these boors playing cards or dice; we quarrel over farthings. When evening comes I return to the house and go into my study. Before I enter I take off my rough mud-stained country dress. I put on my royal and curial robes and thus fittingly attired I enter into the assembly of men of old times. Welcomed by them I feed upon that food which is my true nourishment, and which has made me what I am. I dare to talk with them, and ask them the reason for their actions. Of their kindness they answer me. I no longer fear poverty or death. From these notes I have composed a little work, The Prince.
I find that extraordinary. My favorite image of him is changing into his old court robes whenever he went into his study to write. The man was exiled from the court at the time, but the court robes gave him a sense of humility, awe, and respect when sitting down to contemplate Dante or Ovid. (The astronomer Tycho Brahe, apparently, used to put on his court robes every time he looked through a telescope.)
The Prince didn’t win over the Medicis, and Machiavelli remained an outsider for the rest of his life. But the document stands as one of the greatest books of political philosophy ever written.
Here’s an excerpt from The Prince:
From this arises the question whether it is better to be loved more than feared, or feared more than loved. The reply is, that one ought to be both feared and loved, but as it is difficult for the two to go together, it is much safer to be feared than loved, if one of the two has to be wanting. For it may be said of men in general that they are ungrateful, voluble, dissemblers, anxious to avoid danger, and covetous of gain; as long as you benefit them, they are entirely yours; they offer you their blood, their goods, their life, and their children, as I have before said, when the necessity is remote; but when it approaches, they revolt. And the prince who has relied solely on their words, without making other preparations, is ruined; for the friendship which is gained by purchase and not through grandeur and nobility of spirit is bought but not secured, and at a pinch is not to be expended in your service. And men have less scruple in offending one who makes himself loved than one who makes himself feared; for love is held by a chain of obligation, which, men being selfish, is broken whenever it serves their purpose; but fear is maintained by a dread of punishment which never fails.
Still, a prince should make himself feared in such a way that if he does not gain love, he at any rate avoids hatred; for fear and the absence of hatred may go well together, and will be always attained by one who abstains from interfering with the property of his citizens and his subjects or with their women. And when he is obliged to take the life of any one, let him do so when there is a proper justification and manifest reason for it; but above all he must abstain from taking the property of others, for men forget more easily the death of their father than the loss of their patrimony. [I guess Marx and Lenin didn’t read their Machiavelli, huh?] Then also pretexts for seizing property are never wanting, and one who begins to live by rapine will always find some reason for taking the goods of others, whereas causes for taking life are rarer and more fleeting.
But when the prince is with his army and has a large number of soldiers under his control, then it is extremely necessary that he should not mind being thought cruel; for without this reputation he could not keep his army united or disposed to any duty. Among the noteworthy actions of Hannibal is numbered this, that although he had an enormous army, composed of men of all nations and fighting in foreign countries, there never arose any dissension either among them or against the prince, either in good fortune or in bad. This could not be due to anything but his inhuman cruelty, which together with his infinite other virtues, made him always venerated and terrible in the sight of his soldiers, and without it his other virtues would not have sufficed to produce that effect. Thoughtless writers admire on the one hand his actions, and on the other blame the principal cause of them.
And that it is true that his other virtues would not have sufficed may be seen from the case of Scipio (famous not only in regard to his own times, but all times of which memory remains), whose armies rebelled against him in Spain, which arose from nothing but his excessive kindness, which allowed more licence to the soldiers than was consonant with military discipline. He was reproached with this in the senate by Fabius Maximus, who called him a corrupter of the Roman militia. Locri having been destroyed by one of Scipio’s officers was not revenged by him, nor was the insolence of that officer punished, simply by reason of his easy nature; so much so, that some one wishing to excuse him in the senate, said that there were many men who knew rather how not to err, than how to correct the errors of others. This disposition would in time have tarnished the fame and glory of Scipio had he persevered in it under the empire, but living under the rule of the senate this harmful quality was not only concealed but became a glory to him.
I conclude, therefore, with regard to being feared and loved, that men love at their own free will, but fear at the will of the prince, and that a wise prince must rely on what is in his power and not on what is in the power of others, and he must only contrive to avoid incurring hatred, as has been explained.