The Prince – A Study in Expediency

Santi di Tito - Niccolo Machiavelli's portrait headcrop

Therefore it is unnecessary for a prince to have all the good qualities I have enumerated, but it is very necessary to appear to have them. And I shall dare to say this also, that to have them and always to observe them is injurious, and that to appear to have them is useful; to appear merciful, faithful, humane, religious, upright, and to be so, but with a mind so framed that should you require not to be so, you may be able and know how to change to the opposite. 

Through much of the first half of Niccolò Machiavelli’s The Prince, I did not understand the reason so much malevolence is associated with the author’s name.  The first seventeen chapters come across as a detailed guide or manual to being a successful ruler.  Machiavelli initially comes across as pretty fair-minded for his time; he gives examples of successful princes, discusses soldiering much in the vein of Sun Tzu (he would later write his own The Art of War), and even admonishes against tyranny.  The princes he analyzes are both contemporary and historical, and it makes for an interesting lesson.

Finally, we come to chapter 18, and here the book becomes its own punchline.  If we’re to take him literally, the Machiavellian way is to appear to be good, and if it’s expedient to actually be moral, that’s a bonus.

Published in the early 1500s, The Prince is hardly the place one would look for ideas of a government “by the people, for the people,” and the advice it contains is from the vista of a single power-holder chiefly interested in self-preservation.  The book and its author have been reviled throughout history, and today opinions remain mixed; some readers even find the entire thing a satire.  I was not overly surprised at his sometimes cold-blooded maxims, because these kinds of political decisions are not unusual and even from the nations which claim to be most morally upright.  While that doesn’t make it right, I suppose modern readers are just more immunized to the ideas.  And, while “Machiavellian” has become a fancy euphemism for “bad,” I feel that is almost giving him too much credit – there’s no novelty in realpolitik; in fact, it’s as groundbreaking as “me first.”

This is one of those rare books which I would like to re-read with an annotated edition.  A lot of the historical references were quite honestly unfamiliar to me, and so it is hard to come to a complete opinion without that background knowledge.  I recommend it to anyone wanting to know what the hype is about, but don’t expect to learn something new, only to be reminded of some of our less admirable history.   

3 out of 5 stars.  (Side note – if you’re interested in how I choose a rating for a book, I have a new episode about this very topic on Classics Considered).

Friday Thoughts: Zeitgeist, Faulkner, and The Prince

Friday Thoughts… a new weekly feature where I talk about stuff.  Excited yet?

I don’t know exactly where this series will take us.  Per my blogging goals for this year, I want to share more candid thoughts about reading – reading as an experience and as a part of life.  Friday, as the week winds down, seems like a good time to reflect.

This week I have been reading The Sound and the Fury by William Faulkner, as well as listening to The Prince by Niccolò Machiavelli.  Both of these are new authors and new books to me, perhaps an over-ambitious start to the year.

As I get further and further into The Sound, I seem to be learning more about myself than Faulkner, which was not at all the intent.  For example, more than ever do I dislike reading dismal fiction, a la Thomas Hardy and, in a certain sense, Fyodor Dostoyevsky (though the latter wins me over every time).  The real world is gloomy enough; why should I read novels that hit me over the head with it again?

The current zeitgeist is full of fear, no matter where you live or where you are on the political spectrum.  This realization is something that’s followed me into the new year – not in a sense of personal fearfulness (it comes and goes) but rather in a cognizance of how society is operating within it.  Again, I find myself more and more seeking escapism, rather than realism, in fiction.  Is it silly to prefer fairy tale monsters over real-world ones?  I can’t apologize for trying to find some respite from the ongoing, permeating atmosphere of dread.

If Faulkner’s prose is harsh and provokes many a wince, then the soothing tones of Clive Catterall reading The Prince may explain my somewhat warmer reception to it.  I’ve long known the term “Machiavellian” to mean something Sinister and Bad; listening to this book has clarified it somewhat, since I see what is really being referred to is a kind of realpolitik – that is, making choices based on sheer logic rather than a moral code.  While Machiavelli hasn’t by any means persuaded me to agree with his views, I’m at least hearkening back to fond memories of taking history electives in college, so when I say I’m enjoying The Prince, that and the LibriVox reader are really the main reasons.

A head’s up: On Monday, I’ll be finally sharing my review of That Hideous Strength, the last book in C. S. Lewis’s Space Trilogy.  In the meantime, I shall soldier on through The Sound and the Fury and, if I survive the fury, will hopefully have some more thoughts on that one in a week’s time or so.  If you’ve read it, let me know – does it get better?!