Machiavelli's The Prince. Need some insight before I read it.

As stated in the title, I haven’t read it yet. A recent thread on The Fall of the House of Usher prompted me to scour my personal library for a book on Poe’s works. In finding it I also discovered this small volume I had forgotten that I bought years ago. (I love books and I love reading, what’s a guy to do?)

Anyway, the volume I have is from Mentor and the intro is written by Christian Gauss, in case anyone else has this version. Not important, really, but it’s the one I’ll be reading.

To keep this OP from becoming a novel in itself, here’s the short and sweet of the debate.

  1. For years I was under the impression that anything “Machiavellian” was just a hair short of something that would make Hitler and Stalin say “This guy’s nucking futs.” In skimming the intro, it (spin?) tries to present the text in a way that it’s a legit way to persue political power.

  2. After more than 500 years, it’s still used in some college courses, and seems to be still popular enough to warrant repeated printings. (Yes, I know printing runs alone don’t make it solid philosophy.)

So what’s to debate? Well, it’s one text, and a popular one at that, and it can be interpreted in different ways depending on what you believe going in.

So what I want to know, before I tackle this manuscript, is how should I read it?

Tell us what you think of each chapter and how it’s either right or wrong or ambiguous. In other words, when I dive in, how should I look at what is being purported?

You should look at it as being very specific tips on how to be a ruler, with a few excursions on general purpose manipulation of people. Some but not all of it can be used for businesses, but for the most part, read it not for the manipulation of people in the here and now, but instead, for advice on what to do if you ever travel back in time and need to rule a kingdom.

Besides, it’s not nice to manipulate people. :mad: at you.

Um, the intro is written by Christian Gauss. Not Strauss. If you had a reason for me to slog through Google links, please tell me waht to look for instead of just giving a link to a search of someone I’ve never heard of.

Machiavelli’s gotten a bad rap all these years. Most of what he says is common-sense politics, and not really verty nasty at all. Machiavelli thought he was giving good advice to the rulers of states, so they could avoid the mistakes of the past, and the mistakes of the short-sighted. SDome off his stuff seems pretty nasty to modern ears, but he wasn’t talking about how to control a constitutional democracy or monarchy – a lot of the folks he addressed seized their thrones by force, and killing off the deposed monarch’s family was pretty much a matter of course.
There’s a good intro to the Penguin edition, which is the one I have. Heck, I’ve got the whole thing – unabridged – on audio tape from Penguin, too. It’s only 4 tapes, read by Fritz Weaver. The book really isn’t very long, you know.

Basically The Prince is about divorcing ethics from politics in the quest to achieve and maintain political power. Ethics, particularly Christian ethics, interferes with the exercise of power and Machiavelli recommended discarding them. However, he had no problems with a ruler appearing to be the epitome of mercy and justice. It helps control the populace and so ensures the continuation of the price’s rule.

For maybe a less pragmatic approach, his Discourses are worth looking at.

Some really general info. What Machiavellis was writing was a “mirror” which was a fairly common genre in the late Middle Ages and early Rennaisance. These were, in effect, handbooks for rulers to use to teach them how to rule, and they follow a certain pattern. First, there’s a dedication to the ruler, in which the author says, “Even though this is a stupid little book, it might help you”. Then the work itself begins, and the pattern here is that you have a moral precept…“A good prince should do x”, and then you have an “exemplar”, a story about someone who did X, that the reader should pattern himself after.
Ok, so why did Machiavelli write it? Florence had been, since 1434, under the control of the Medici family, until they were overthrown in 1494, and made a republic. Machiavelli had a number of positions as a civil servant and diplomat in the new government, and had a good deal of influence. In 1512, the Medicis came back to Florence, backed by Spanish troops. Machiavelli was dismissed, and then later arrested and tortured, for his republican sympathies. So, at that point (in 1513), he was broke, and out of favor. This is when he wrote The Prince, as an unsuccessful attempt to get a position again under the Medici government.

If you have more specific questions, please let me know.

What’s the story on Leo Strauss?

PatriotX is not being overly communicative, but I’ll talk.

Strauss is a famous Chicago conservative great books guy who has somehow gotten tagged as the father of the neocons (because Wolfowitz was a student and because Strauss has spawned a cadre of devoted academic followers/intellectual heirs).

One of Struass’ pet theories was that writers often “write esoterically,” that is, “beneath the surface,” whenever they have something controversial to say. As readers, we need to look for messages in texts that would have gotten the author into political trouble if stated plainly.

Strauss’ most used example was The Prince. He asks whether Machiavelli really meant to praise Machiavellian intrigue, deception, torture, your basic pragmatist code for tyrants, or whether this is a deeply sarcastic criticism of the Medicis–an attempt to take things to their logical ends (which are quite horrible from an ethical perspective) which most people didn’t “get.”

Here’s the thread we had when Cecil’s column first came out–it has an annoying political highjack at the beginning.

I disagree slightly with Grey. I think Machiavelli can be interpreted as striving for a greater ethical good-- namely the widespread prosperousness that comes from political and economic stability while avoiding war. The price is sacrificing a few members of the ruling class that you don’t really like anyway.

I highly recommend the book, as some of the techn iques he uses are still widely used by both politicians and managers. It’s fundamental stuff about how to manage people, written from a cynical viewp;oint for a cynical age. I disagree with much of it morally, but it really helps to know what an opponent is really up to, sometimes.

You think so? Ultimately the emergent good is solely for the benefit of the prince, not the populace. They benefit from it of course, but the peace and stability is sought out as a way to maintain the prince’s rule.

If we were discussing the Discourses I think I’d agree with you.

Go to Sparknotes or Cliffs Notes and read their summaries and notes. I enjoyed reading those more than the actual book.

A lot of the Prince is specific to its time, although it’s certainly worth reading as one of the first books to concentrate on the mechanics of ruling without much thought to ethics.

At the time it was written Italy was a football being kicked around by France and the Holy Roman Empire in their struggles with each other. It was Machiavelli’s hope that a strong ruler–Cesar Borgia was the most likely candidate and IIRC Machiavelli dedicated either the Prince or the discourses to him–would unite the squabbling Italian city states into a force that could resist the French and HRE incursions. Needless to say it didn’t happen and it would be a few centuries before Italy became a united independant entity.

For example you’ll see a lot in the Prince about not hiring mercenaries, to the point where you’ll probably want to shout “Enough already, I get it! No mercenaries!” But this was a serious problem in Italy at the time, as the powerful families would hire mercs–mostly Swiss–who fought half-heartedly and were prone to turning into bandit gangs.

This isn’t to say Machiavelli isn’t worth reading today, or is only interesting in his historical context. He is quite thought provoking on power and its uses. He is one of the forefathers of modern military strategy based around a national army though you get more of that from his The Art of War.

Also, in no way would Hitler or Stalin look sane next to Machiavelli. Machiavelli advocated effective rulership, and would doubtlessly ridicule an attempt to run a government based on lunatic economics or racism

This is not true. Reading The Prince, you see that Machiavelli did not think much of murder, mass or rotherwise, and was very Christian in his outlook. However, he does imply that the Prince has a right to defend his own life. If groups and conspiracies threatened him, then he was justified in defending himself. Machiavelli preferred, however, to teach the Prince about how to avoid such situations in the first place, by promoting good government and protecting the interest of the people.

Machiavelli simply held no sympathy for failed assassins, and in a world where regicide was a fact of life, he could hardly blame rulers for offing their wannabe successors. Machiavelli considered certain political influence groups to be an evil stain on society, and these were exactly the ones a Prince might have cause to fear.

:dubious: Perhaps one should read Machiavelli & consider what they think of his advice based on what he wrote, rather than deciding that one will consider it good or evil before knowing what it is.

In the previous sentence, one could substitute any writer’s name for “Machiavelli.” Except Anne Rice, whose books should be burned publicly. (I kid, I kid.)

My take on Machiavelli is that it works both as social science, being an amoral analysis of maintaining power; & as subtle propaganda, discouraging actions destructive to the people as destructive to the prince. It is pretty cynical at the outset, but if he’d advocated perfect Christian virtue, they wouldn’t take him seriously. And, interestingly, amoral pragmatic advice is not entirely antithetical to considered & just wisdom.

It goes further than that – Strauss believed philosophers should write esoterically – because that’s the only way to be safe (look what happened to Socrates), but also because true wisdom is properly the province of an elite and should be kept out of the hands of the masses. From

Very Machiavellian! :slight_smile:

“It is better to feared than to be loved”. Discuss.

Thing is, even a would-be idealist can learn something from Machiavelli, whose message is NOT “Evil and cruelty are positive goods.” Rather, his message is, “If you want to lead a nation, regardless of your motivations, you have to understand power and how to use it.”

Even an idealistic leader can’t accomplish much if he doesn’t understand how to get what he wants, and how to persuade people to accede to his will. And he won’t stay in power long if he doesn’t understand that he has enemies who want to take his place, and who doesn’t have the stomach to crush them, if that’s what’s called for.

Well, first off, Machiavelli’s line was intended to refer to the power figures. He advocated strongly that rulers needed to win the admirations and love of the common folk, precisely because he could not always trust the elites. The elites might kill him - but not if they feared retribution from the commoners. Thus, if one could not be loved by the elites, it was better to be feared by them. In Machiavelli’s day, the word of a powerful man was not worth much. Their love was a fickle thing designed to advance their interests.

Machiavelli was very percetive about people. He noted, for example, that it was often beter to confide in thsoe who opposed you at the start of r reign rathwer than those who suppported you. The former were at least independent thinkers, whereas the latter were often just sycophants.