Print Story Machiavelli
By clover kicker (Sun May 24, 2009 at 09:22:42 PM EST) (all tags)
A few people discussed Machiavelli's The Prince a while ago, and although I read it once, not much stuck with me.

I had a chance to quickly re-read it this weekend (didn't bother reading footnotes etc.) and I'm wondering what exactly about this book made it so controversial and satanic?

Some of his themes are anachronistic - yeah Nicci, mercenaries are unreliable, we get it, calm down man.

Some of his advice rings very true today, like "get unpopular things over with quickly, but ration out popular changes over time". Machiavelli says that most people will soon forget the short burst of really bad news, and will be appeased by the constant trickle of sorta good news.

You see this with any half-competent elected government these days - do the tough things right after you're elected, and slowly pass out the goodies afterwards, ramping up the goodies as the next election approaches.

You also see morons not following this advice, as in a big company that has several waves of layoffs, you wonder if they're trying to make that sticky bandaid hurt as long as possible.

I assume the really wicked part of the book is section XVIII, how princes should honor their word.

Nevertheless our experience has been that those princes who have done great things have held good faith of little account, and have known how to circumvent the intellect of men by craft, and in the end have overcome those who have relied on their word.


Therefore a wise lord cannot, nor ought he to, keep faith when such observance may be turned against him, and when the reasons that caused him to pledge it exist no longer. If men were entirely good this precept would not hold, but because they are bad, and will not keep faith with you, you too are not bound to observe it with them.

The above seems harsh but rings true, but I'm an atheist and a cynic living in a cynical, post-monarchy world. I'm guessing had a different flavor for guys who thought the monarch derived their power straight from The Invisible Sky Giant?

PS - I am pleased to see that Wikipedia's article about The Prince names under "similar works" the "Evil Overlord List".

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Why Machiavelli caused a brouhaha by lm (4.00 / 8) #1 Mon May 25, 2009 at 12:11:09 AM EST
It's sometimes a bit difficult for we moderns to understand why Machiavelli was so controversial because we think as moderns do. With regards to politics, modernism was ushered in by Machiavelli. Machiavelli's real innovation was in looking at political philosophy as a description of the way things are rather than seeking out the way things ought to be. Consider a couple of examples.

``It is a thing truly very natural and ordinary to desire to acquire and when men who are able to do so do it, they are always praised; but when they are not able and yet want to do so in every mode, here is the error and the blame.''

This one is a double whammy. First, ambition is defined as normal and natural. Second, good and evil are redefined in terms of popularity depending on success and failure with regards to achieving one's own goals. The second of these is especially pernicious to the classical mode of thought.

``all armed prophets conquer; the unarmed ones are ruined.''

Muhammad and Moses were both armed prophets. The conquered and are worthy of emulation if a ruler seeks to be virtuous. Jesus was not an armed prophet. By implication, Jesus did not conquer but came to ruin and so will any ruler that seeks to emulate Jesus.

Those are the sorts of things that made The Prince a work of controversy and why it was (and still is in some quarters) understood as an attack on morality.

There is no more degenerate kind of state than that in which the richest are supposed to be the best.
Cicero, The Republic
But... by Metatone (2.00 / 0) #2 Mon May 25, 2009 at 03:22:20 AM EST
while Jesus may not have been an armed prophet, didn't he generate what became a seriously armed church?

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That was the Roman Emperor Constantine by jump the ladder (4.00 / 1) #4 Mon May 25, 2009 at 06:47:29 AM EST
It became the state favoured religion and then under his sucessors the state religion. It's not called the Roman Catholic Church for nothing as it inherited its secular auithority from the Roman Emperor.

[ Parent ]
That secular authority was based on a forgery by wumpus (2.00 / 0) #5 Mon May 25, 2009 at 06:56:52 AM EST
<No documenT> Wumpus

Seriously, look up the "donation of Constantine". Some king was looking for ammunition to keep the Pope off his back when one of his scholars noticed that the "donation" was rather badly forged and used the wrong Latin.

[ Parent ]
Yeah I know it was a forgery by jump the ladder (4.00 / 1) #6 Mon May 25, 2009 at 07:12:57 AM EST
But the "donation of Constantine" worked well enough to get the Church into a position of secular power by the start of the Middle Ages.

[ Parent ]
yes and no by lm (4.00 / 1) #7 Mon May 25, 2009 at 09:32:55 AM EST
Western Christianity did eventually develop into a well armed nation state of sorts with the Pope holding temporal control over large swaths of europe. And it is also true that in both east and west, the Christian Church became a very close ally of the eastern and western empires.

But that's besides the point to a Machiavellian understanding of history. For Machiavelli, it would have been Pope Leo III who first became an armed prophet in the west by making the Holy Roman Empire subservient to the papacy. In the east, I would guess Justinian for the same role. Because Machiavelli redefined virtue as wielding temporal power, by his metric, Jesus ended in ruin.

There is no more degenerate kind of state than that in which the richest are supposed to be the best.
Cicero, The Republic
[ Parent ]
thank you sir by clover kicker (2.00 / 0) #3 Mon May 25, 2009 at 06:42:44 AM EST
That makes a great deal of sense.

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themes are anachronistic ... mercenaries by wiredog (2.00 / 0) #8 Mon May 25, 2009 at 10:10:30 AM EST
Today we call them contractors. As Niccolo said
The mercenary captains are either capable men or they are not; if they are, you cannot trust them, because they always aspire to their own greatness, either by oppressing you, who are their master, or others contrary to your intentions; but if the captain is not skilful, you are ruined in the usual way.

"oppressing ... others contrary to your intentions"

Yep. How many times has that been an issue in Iraq and Afghanistan?

Earth First!
(We can strip mine the rest later.)

Mercenaries by ucblockhead (2.00 / 0) #9 Mon May 25, 2009 at 12:48:43 PM EST
It's probably worth noting that in the context of an Italian city-state, "mercenary" meant "foreign mercenary".  More like if Blackwater were a Russian firm.
[ucblockhead is] useless and subhuman
[ Parent ]
correct me if I'm wrong by clover kicker (2.00 / 0) #10 Mon May 25, 2009 at 12:57:28 PM EST
But I thought that regular troops were doing their share of oppressing the locals?

I confess I haven't paid much attention to Iraq lately, the Canadian press got bored with the whole thing once we started taking casualties in Afghanistan.

[ Parent ]
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