The Prince

I am no scholar of history (or of anything); when I started Machiavelli’s Prince, I was expecting something more fundamentally philosophical. Not that it is totally unphilosophical as a work, but it felt more like a lesson in (particularly Italian) history than anything else. I have started to suspect that perhaps the reactions to Machiavelli are more strictly philosophical than Machiavelli himself.

Instead of trying to be lofty and dredge some philosophical insights out of this, I’m just going to consider some principles of being a prince (or ruler) that Machiavelli discusses. As I was not so gently reminded, if I would read the Tractatus Politicus I could write something on Spinoza on Machiavelli, but that’s not happening anytime soon. Regardless, I find Machiavelli’s depiction of men to be alternately hilarious, offensive, and mostly right.

Perhaps Syria’s Assad is familiar with this text, for he seems to live in whole-hearted agreement with the sentiment that: “…it should be noted that men must either be caressed or wiped out; because they will avenge minor injuries, but cannot do so for grave ones. Any harm done to a man must be of the kind that removes any fear of revenge” (11). Although one might also note that in killing all of one’s subjects, one is effectively rendering oneself subject-less – and what is prince without his subjects?

The most famous passage from The Prince seems right, but also obvious: “And what physicians say about consumptive illnesses is applicable here: that at the beginning, such an illness is easy to cure but difficult to diagnose; but as time passes, not having been recognized or treated at the outset, it becomes easy to diagnose but difficult to cure. The same thing occurs in affairs of the state; by recognizing evils in advance (a gift granted only to the prudent ruler), they can be cured quickly; but when they are not recognized and are left to grow to such an extent that everyone recognizes them, there is no longer any remedy” (12). I’m not sure what to say about this except maybe ‘duh?’ and congratulations to dear Niccolo for putting it so eloquently.

“We have said above that a prince must have laid firm foundations; otherwise he will necessarily come to ruin. And the principal foundations of all states, the new as well as the old or the mixed, are good laws and good armies… good laws cannot exist where there are no good armies, and where good armies exist there must be good laws…” (42). So what is a good army, then? Machiavelli focuses on the men that make up the army, more than anything else; it is foolish to rely on mercenaries or auxiliaries: “In short, the weapons of others slide off your back, weigh you down, or tie you up” (49). A good army can’t be composed of hired soldiers for the obvious reason that they don’t have much loyalty to the prince who has hired them, nor can a good army be composed of auxiliary soldiers from allies who also lack the firm loyalty of an army of one’s own subjects. In many ways Machiavelli’s psychology of men is on point, but on the other hand, it is a dangerous generalization. However, given the context, much of what he writes about psychology and warfare has not become outdated or obsolete.

This passage about arms and laws is an important one; it is one of the moments where Machiavelli makes clear that for him, authority and legitimacy aren’t the key components to political power – authority and legitimacy follow from force and coercion; power is coequal with authority. After stating that the foundation for a prince must be good laws and a good army, he goes on only to discuss the latter. This concept of power and legitimacy can be read to release the prince from any moral obligations, leaving him free to rule without regard to the common virtues of justice, piety, peace…

I don’t have a hard time imagining why women weren’t (I assume) lining up to be the Signora Machiavelli: “Men are less hesitant about injuring someone who makes himself loved than one who makes himself feared, because love is held together by a chain of obligation that, since men are a wretched lot, is broken on every occasion for their own self-interest; but fear is sustained by a dread of punishment that will never abandon you” (58). While I do think that to some extent this may be right, I also think he misses a critical point. To be loved by the masses and feared by those who bring about serious harm – the revolutionaries, the opposition, and in many cases, the progressive thinkers of a society – would certainly be more effective. I look to the recently deceased Bal Thackeray, whose funeral was attended by tens of thousands of people in Mumbai in November; indeed the whole of the city shut down. He was a man who was loved by the people of Maharashtra  but known to be something of gangster; though he maintained the image of a beloved public figure – something that could be seen by the weeping Indians at his funeral – he was known to many, particularly intellectuals, as a gangster and the enemy of the common man (though the ‘common men’ were blind to it). But as Machiavelli points out:”Men are so simple-minded and so controlled by their immediate needs that he who deceives will always find someone who will let himself be deceived” (61).

Machiavelli advises new princes to arm those who are now his subjects, for “when armed those arms become yours: those whom you suspect become loyal, and those who were loyal remain so…” (72). This seems immediately counter-intuitive, and from what I’ve seen, is one of the most-cited passages when scholars argue that Machiavelli was a brilliant satirist, that The Prince was meant to warn the people or trap the prince. I haven’t read enough of his work to know if there’s any force behind those claims, so I’ll get back to this after reading the Discorsi.

I think it is safe to say that in many ways, the path of history has justified the thought of Machiavelli. What he writes about power and authority in particular seems to get at the right point; most who abhor this line of thinking do so on moral grounds. But today I’m feeling like morality is a just a trap leading into the inescapable spiral of relativism, so let’s leave it there for today.


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