Friday, August 19, 2011

the prince

This one has been on my list for a while, but it didn't take long.* Niccolò Machiavelli doesn't take up a whole lotta' room when it came to passing out advice to Princes. It seems that you can boil down the dos and don'ts into a pretty concentrated brew: a few small sips and you're ready to rule, baby!

Here's a li'l sum'n sum'n from the rules for new princes [Chapter VII]. In summary: Be like Francesco Sforsa, Duke of Milan. The Duke, taking advantage of help where he could get it, in this case from the King of France and the kindness of the Pope, moves in on Romagna and the Dukedom of Urbino. The trick thereafter, according to Machiavelli, is to hold your new princedom. The Duke did this in four ways:

"First, by exterminating all who were kin to those Lords whom he had despoiled of there possessions, that they might not become instruments in the hands of the new Pope."

Machiavelli then goes on to explain why killing not just your enemies, but their entire families, including the women and children, is a good first step. The four steps of the "Do it Like the Duke" method takes a few pages, but are summarized thus, near the end of the chapter:

"Whoever, therefor, on entering a new Princedom, judges it necessary to rid himself of enemies, to conciliate friends, to prevail by force or fraud, to make himself feared but not hated by his subjects, respected and obeyed by his soldiers, to crush those who can or ought to injure him, to introduce changes in the old order of things, to be at once severe and affable, magnanimous and liberal, to do away with a mutinous army and create new one, to maintain relations with Kings and Princes on such a footing that they must see it for their interest to aid him, and dangerous to offend, can find no brighter example than in the actions of this Prince."

See? Boiled down to its essential goodness. Like grandma's beef stock.

I was turned on to The Prince from a variety of sources. I know Machiavelli in the pop culture sense, and his name shows up most often in the term Machiavellian [adj - cunning, scheming, and unscrupulous, esp. in politics or in advancing one's career.] Though, I can't imagine why? Then he showed up in a story I was reading to my son, The Magician, as a character from history who indeed had a cunning, scheming personality, and was not, on the whole, very friendly to the hero of the story, Nicholas Flamel.

I most recently ran into him, as I guess one would expect, listening to an Open Yale course offered at iTunes U called PLSC 114: Introduction to Political Philosophy, with Professor Steven B. Smith. I really enjoyed Smith's lectures on the basics of political philosophy. There are 24 lectures in the class, which begins with Socrates, and covers Plato, Aristotle, Machiavelli, Hobes, Locke, Rousseau, and Tocqueville. The Prince is discussed over the course of two lectures, so I really got a sense for who Machiavelli was, and where he falls in the development of what we consider modern political systems.

The book itself is only 90 pages. I read a translation by N. H. Thompson, published by Prometheus Books, but you can read it for free on line, which you ought to do. We don't have that many princes running around anymore, but after you read this, and then think of someone like Musolini, its a wonder one doesn't see pictures of il Duce with a copy rolled up in his hip pocket.

* I started this blog post on August 19th. Its now the 29th, and I've finished another book,** and I'm working on a third.***
** A Wizard of Earthsea
*** Foundation/I, Robot

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