Friday, March 12, 2010

Book #4: The Prince

A wise ruler ought never to keep faith when by doing so it would be against his interests. 

-Niccolo Machiavelli, The Prince

Machiavelli has gotten a pretty bad rep over the years because of his political and moral beliefs. He even has an adjective named after him, Machiavellian, describing a person who is cunning or unscrupulous. The Prince is Machiavelli’s handbook for new rulers, or any ruler who wants to keep his power and doesn’t mind justifying the means with the end. It’s a very realistic book, laying the bare truth out on the table. It says, in effect, “You want to keep your kingdom? I’ll show you how.”

I found this book to be extremely interesting from the psychological standpoint. In a way it is like How to Win Friends and Influence People, only more like, How to Manipulate Friends and Corrupt People Without Being Hated. At one point Machiavelli states, “A son can bear with equanimity the loss of his father, but the loss of his inheritance may drive him to despair.” Also, “The wish to acquire is in truth very natural and common, and men always do so when they can, but when they cannot do so, yet wish to do so by any means, then there is folly and blame." You get a lot of insight into human character. Assuming that Niccolo was correct in all of his observations.

There are several ways to become a prince: 

  1. Inherit a throne
  2. Acquire a throne by force
  3. Be invited to take a throne (I like the idea of being invited to be the ruler of a country).  

Each situation has advantages and disadvantages of its own. Inheriting a throne is the best case scenario, but if you do something terrible your people will probably try to overthrow you no matter how long your family has been ruling them. New principalities are more difficult to handle because if you are unsatisfactory, the rabble will be very willing to rise up and overthrow you for another, convinced that their situation will be improved. Etcetera. 

A quick overview of some of Machiavelli’s beliefs and principles: 

  • Self-reliance is key. Depending on mercenaries is a very, very bad idea. They have no real loyalty to your cause and will go to the highest bidder.
  • You should acquire a reputation for generosity without actually being very generous. If you give away too much money the people will no longer appreciate it and just want more. Don’t be afraid to be called a miser.
  • Don’t be despised and hated! There’s a fine line between necessary violence (wiping out the entire royal family of a usurped ruler), and the kind of needless violence that turns people against you. You can kill them, but don’t touch their property or their women.
  • Avoid flatterers at all costs.

So, what do I think of The Prince? It has given me some major inspiration for a story I have rolling around in my head, but as far as actually applying these principles? 

Machiavelli is of the opinion that morality is wonderful in peacetime, but useless when your throne is in danger. I believe that depending on the Lord and obeying His laws is important no matter what is at stake. Lying, murdering, and stealing may pay off in the short-term, but as time goes by I believe that it will come back to bite the Prince that justifies bloodshed and tyranny with retaining power. 

Despite believing that, if one must choose an extreme, it is safer to be feared than loved, Niccolo seems to agree with me on one point, “it cannot be called prowess to kill fellow citizens, to betray friends, to be treacherous, pitiless, or irreligious. These ways can win a prince power but not glory.” 

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