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  A lot of the historical references were quite honestly unfamiliar to me, and so it is hard to come to a complete opinion without that background knowledge.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).


Nightmarish Utopia

Utopia.orteliusI believe Sir Thomas More meant well when he penned Utopia (1516), but it is quite possibly the worst book I have ever read.

Given the standard of living for the majority of human beings in the early 16th century, More’s dream of a perfect nation must have sounded as idyllic as it gets.  Yet even so, 16th-century Europeans hardly lived sheltered lives.  By what reasoning, then, could More ever seriously imagine the existence of a Utopia, in either reality or fantasy?  In his world, all men have the will to be saints, and if not, then their angelic neighbors find the power to overcome all evils of society.  He speaks of shared gardens, and shared houses, and property that belongs to no one because it belongs to everyone.  He talks of quasi-elections and rulers for life, in the same breath.  Human nature, if it exists in Utopia, is easily kept in check by the noble ideals that all the citizens yearn for, as well as their continuous eagerness to work together.

I am far from finished with this book, but already it’s a struggle.  The overdose of either extreme naivete or wishful thinking is hard to read. 


Mackinder’s Heartland Theory


Who rules East Europe, commands the Heartland
Who rules the Heartland, commands the World Island
Who rules the World Island, commands the World

Though they may be deemed outdated now, Sir Halford Mackinder‘s Heartland Theory and his writings on geopolitics offer some fascinating–and still relevant–pieces of wisdom on the relations between geography, history, and foreign policy.  My poli-sci class inspired me to do some further reading, so I read “The Geographical Pivot of History” (1904) and its follow-up, Democratic Ideals and Reality (1919).

The “Geographical Pivot” (5/5 stars) is a succinct description of the Heartland Theory, while Democratic Ideals (4/5 stars) is much slower and more intense, focusing heavily on Mackinder’s historical basis for the theory.  Most of the history went over my head, but the gist of it–sea power vs. land power–provided a good argument for the eminently strategic location of Eastern Europe.

It’s debatable whether the Heartland Theory holds true today: new technology and increasing globalization have certainly altered geographic advantages/limitations.  If nothing else, however, Mackinder masterfully demonstrates the kind of critical thinking and analysis that people (not just politicians) would do well to use today.  Democratic Ideals was written in December 1918, and already Mackinder was hinting at the possibility of WWII, if peace treaties and the League of Nations were not effective.  He also predicts aspects of the Cold War, as in the following quote:

It may be the case that Bolshevik tyranny is an extreme reaction from Dynastic tyranny, but it is none the less true that the Russian, Prussian, and Hungarian plains, with their widespread uniformity of social conditions, are favorable alike to the march of militarism and to the propaganda of syndicalism.  Against this two-headed Eagle of land-power the Westerners and Islanders must struggle.

The last two chapters of Democratic Ideals are the most worthwhile, dealing with the potential success or failure of the League of Nations (and, theoretically thereby, world peace). This is also where he presents additional arguments on certain subtopics, such as the importance of nations’ “balanced development” and local vs. international organization.

There are a few problems in the book.  One is the term “democratic”, which he uses rather loosely.  Secondly, some of his opinions/perspectives seem to be negatively biased by the era in which he lived (though this is unsurprising for a book 100+ years old).  Thirdly, there is his idea of reorganizing/locating certain people in Central Europe.  [Of this last, it is unclear to me whether he really supports the idea (as it seemed to me), or is simply illustrating his low expectations for peaceful relations in that area.]  Read with a grain of salt.

I highly recommend “The Geographical Pivot of History” (online PDF) to anyone, and poli-sci enthusiasts will want to check out Democratic Ideals and Reality as well.

Favorite quotes:

“To the eighteenth-century ideal of Liberty, and the nineteenth-century ideal of Nationality, we have added our twentieth-century ideal of the League of Nations.”

“Productive power, in short, is a far more important element of reality in relation to modern civilization than is accumulated wealth.”

“You may strike at the two flanks of your enemy, the right and the left, but unless your force is sufficient to annihilate you must decide beforehand which stroke is to be the feint and which the real attack.”

“The end of the present disorder [in Germany] may only be a new ruthless organization, and ruthless organizers do not stop when they have attained the objects which they at first set before them.” (Nazi Germany foretold)

“…the lessons of History are not to be learned from a single instance.”

“Civilization, no doubt, consists in the exchange of services, but it should be an equal exchange.”

“…most people today are very open to ‘suggestion’, a fact well known to the experienced in elections, who rarely stop to reason with their audiences.”

“Why were Athens and Florence the wonderful founts of Civilization which have made them the teachers of the world?  They were small cities as we now count the size of cities, but they were sovereign cities both in the political and economic sense.”

“…his [the Londoner’s] life of ideas is detached from his responsible life, and both suffer infinitely in consequence.”