Unlike Aristotel’s “Politics”, Plato’s “Republic” or Roussou’s “Social Contract”, which belong to metaphysical thinking and, therefore, derive from it, Machiavelli’s “The Prince” starts from the facts. His desire is one of reform and the reason he writes “The Prince” is because the political circumstances urge him to do so and not to illustrate a simple theory.
The context of “The Prince”
“The Prince” is the most responsible for bringing the word Machiavellian into usage as a pejorative term. However, its varied fate derives from a partial understanding of it. There is a fallacious tendency of taking the teachings outside the political context in which it was written.
There was a delicate political moment for Florence as well as for Italian states.
A defensive course of action followed by reinforcement was needed then more than ever. He refers to the internal political decisions that must be taken, in order to build a strong and unified state.
What he proposed as a solution for the times he lived in was wrongly attributed to an eternally acceptable and viable course of action.
The paradox of “The Prince”
Bear in mind that the treatise is intended to be used for the state of affairs of his time and his time only. Taken it out of the context would mean to attach it a different connotation than the one he intended. This could easily bring about the faulty assessment regarding the negative nature of his teaching.
On the other hand, not doing so, would be against his very teachings, because it is Machiavelli who states in “The Prince” the need for a prince to adapt himself to the changing times and circumstances. Even the most brilliant of princes can be doomed to failure if he insists on sticking to the same tactics as he had done during new and changing times.
We could even take the chance of using an extrapolation by stating that his thesis could also be applied to other environments outside the political one? Since Machiavelli refers a great deal to human nature and what are the results of dealing with it, wouldn’t it be a pity not to think about how some principles can be applied to other human environments, such as a working place or a community?
The book is straight-forward, and the language cannot be simpler, Machiavelli wanting to impress through the depth and not form. Bold ideas as the ones proposed don’t need a “dressing code” to be powerful.
The types of Principalities
- Hereditary – they have been under the rule of the same family over a long period of time. The difficulty in keeping them is pretty small. People have been accustomed to the manner of ruling. If the prince doesn’t stray from the old governing manner, he will have a peaceful reign over his subjects. Unless he has an unusual vice, there is no reason why his subjects don’t love him. His reign can only be threatened by a new and powerful enemy, but he will lose the principality at the smallest mistakes
- New – a) completely new – it’s possible the principality is not completely new but part of another one. In this case, people have nothing against changing their ruler, thinking better times will wait for them. In most cases, they will be disappointed. Experience has shown that their new fate is even worse than the old one.
When becoming a ruler, it’s impossible to gain the support of the people. It’s also impossible to satisfy the wishes of those that helped you gain power.
No matter the choice, the prince needs the support of his people, who will have no problem taking up arms against him if he doesn’t live up to his word.
When the principality is lost but regained a second time, it’s much easier to keep it. The prince will have no problem punishing the guilty who helped with overthrowing him.
b) added to the old territory of the prince
- when the newly added principalities have the same customs and language, it’s much easier to keep the peace and rule over them. In order to ensure a smooth rule, the new prince has to make sure to eliminate the family of the old ruler
- when the new principality differs in customs, language, etc. – the difficulty in keeping the rule can be overcome by making the decision of settling there
As a rule of thumb, it’s good to remember that there are two ways of dealing with people, depending on the right circumstance:
- Persuade them nicely
- Destroy them completely
The Prince’s strength?
As far as new principalities are concerned, the hardships in keeping them will be greater or smaller, depending on the personality and ruling ability of the prince.
Great qualities are not sufficient. You also need favourable circumstances to provide the opportunity for exercising those great qualities.
However great you are, you need to take advantage of the appropriate timing and demonstrate outstanding capabilities to seize the moment and ensure your victory. One cannot be without the other.
When becoming prince this way, it’s better to impose your way and not to beg for compliance because it’s easy to convince people of something but more difficult to keep that conviction. When people stop believing, force them to believe. Stand on your strength, demolish old armies and build your own. Break off old friendships and make new ones that keep you where you need to be.
Or somebody else’s strength?
When your road to power is fast and without effort, there’s much more strength required to keep what you’ve achieved. There are only a few chances where you are prepared and know exactly what to do the moment you have that power.
If you gain your strength through the aid of others, there is little you can do to keep control. You are in the debt and at the whim of those that put you there and you will be in their debt. The result is constant instability as far as your position is concerned since human nature is a fickle friend.
Power through cruelty or murder
If you come to power through a horrible act, make sure you think beforehand what you have to do once you get it. Do all the cruelties you have imagined in advance, all at once. Once you’re over and done with, your subjects can expect a constant and peaceful rule and they’ll turn their loyalty towards you.
If, by any chance, you decide to do one cruel act after another, you will be forced to always watch over your shoulder and defend yourself because people won’t feel safe.
Remember to do the bad things all at once, in the beginning, and to scatter the good deed in order for your subjects to savour them a long time.
Good foundation for “The Prince”
Your weapons are your laws and your armies. Unlike mercenary armies, who are paid soldiers that will have no problem running away when the times get hard, your armies will be under your control.
In times of peace, your soul preoccupation should be to prepare to hard times, through words and action. Study the great people in history before you. Learn from their successes and prevent their mistakes. Immerse yourself in their teachings.
The key is to expect the best but prepare for the worst. It would be foolish of you not to think ahead and plan for whatever situation might arise.
Make sure you always have the sympathy of the people. Even if, by any chance, powerful people helped you come to power, remember you have the possibility to appoint the people around you. This would be much more difficult to do when it comes to your subjects.
Qualities of a “prince”
- Be giving with the “spoils of war” but don’t indulge in giving to gain a reputation that will be hard to sustain
- It’s great to be feared and loved at the same time. “The Happy Brain” tells us we need a bit of both extreme in order to be happy. There must be a balance to gain our mental stability. For example: as much as we love people, we sometimes need a break from the crowd to regain our inner balance. Unlike Dean Burnett, Machiavelli tells us that having both it’s a hard thing to accomplish. If you were to make a choice, choose fear over love. It’s better to count on something you have control over than to rely on something that is under other’s control
- Don’t stand by your word when the circumstances have changed. Sometimes you have to fight according to the rules. Other times you have no choice but to use force. “Becoming bullet proof” teaches us the same. Instead of having a rule of thumb for all circumstances, use the circumstances to bring yourself into an advantageous position
- Be honest, have integrity, mercy and faith in God. However, be prepared to only appear so in order to deceive. People cannot be trusted and it’s good to be ready to break your word in front of people with no integrity
- Don’t be afraid of conspirators when you have the admiration of the people. Fear them only when the people don’t support you
- When conducting business that is to the detriment of your people, make sure to appoint the task to another. Assume those actions that attract the admiration of the people
- When you don’t have a real enemy, go ahead and “invent” one in order to come out as a great benefactor and get the admiration and support of your people
More qualities of a “prince”
There is an old belief that a great ruler is great to the extent to which he surrounds himself with wise people. However, wise people cannot help the prince unless he himself posses the qualities necessary to take heed of a wise piece of advice.
- Choose some wise people around you to give advice. However, when they offer you advice without you asking for it, dismiss it harshly.
- Hear their advice but make your own decisions
- Be constant in your decisions and don’t change them daily depending on the advice you receive
- Avoid taking the advice of only one man. He, in time, can become powerful and have no problem overthrow you
- Whenever you ask for advice, make sure you listen to it until the end
The people you choose to be near you have to have your best interest at heart. On the other hand, make sure you divide the spoils and keep those near you happy and satisfied so they know what they lose if they don’t support you.
- The worst thing you can do, in any situation is to adopt a neutral position. Choose either left or right but make the choice. Anything is preferable to not choose. If you lose, you will have the support of the losing party and the admiration of the winner. If you win, you find yourself in a privileged position. Either way, make the choice.
Takeaways from “The Prince”
There are some who believe that our lives have already been set by faith. There are some who deny it and support free will to the detriment of an already laid-out path.
Machiavelli chooses the middle. It’s great to believe there are favourable circumstances already laid out for you, but you cannot rest only on that idea. The best thing you can do is prepare. Don’t depend only on fate without making the necessary preparations.
There is no ideal course of action. Sometimes it’s better to be calm and plan ahead. Other times, it’s better to dive right in and take the plunge.
Decide in advance which type of game you’re playing, whether “Finite or Infinite Games”.
If we were to analyse the treatise through the “Finite and Infinite Games”’ perspective, we can interpret that Machiavelli warns about the dangers of finite games while praising and preparing for the infinite one.
The ruling, much as people, must change together with circumstance. No matter how brilliant you are as an individual, you are doomed to failure if you don’t adapt to changing circumstances.
Studying the great people before us doesn’t mean implementing their exact words and actions but putting them into context and adapting them to the ever-changing circumstances.
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Il Principe / The Prince by Niccolo Machiavelli£7.50
- The teachings are as valid today as the times for which it was written
- Easy to read
- Easy to understand
- The language is simple but the ideas are full of depth
- Can be considered machiavellian when taken literally
- it can be dangerous in the right hand
- Not very flattering regarding human nature