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Machiavelli's Prince Charming

When I was 16, I had unusual ambitions: assuming political and popular power; kindling a cultural revolution; and overthrowing the remaining monarchies of the world, starting with the British (don't ask). Like any power-hungry teenager, I consulted (quite ironically) Niccolò Machiavelli's The Prince.

Written in the 16th century by the Italian diplomat, the guide for assuming, using and maintaining power has been criticized for its brutality, immorality and despotic rage. Many are disgusted with the coolness and frankness Machiavelli deploys in this 71-page text, suggesting one do whatever is possible to maintain their power. Others, however, are refreshed by this text. Not because they're relieved at finally having found a guide for themselves; rather because they've finally come across a political text that lays out the world as it is, not as it should be. Whether a cynic or not, even the most optimistic ones have to admit that dreaming for what can remain only in dreams becomes exhausting.

Machiavelli was not the first to suggest such ruthless tactics in obtaining power; he was just the first to cut out the fluff and faff in naming it. What The Prince does is lay down the cards for what the game really is. It doesn't pretend to live in a utopia, and it doesn't waste the reader's time by giving in vain a guide to achieving utopia. It calls out the world for what it is, and gives the reader a fighting chance to play along, because that is the only alternative to perishing. But of course, that's how us cynics would look at the matter . . .

Machiavelli understood better than anyone that nice guys finish last. Certain that goodness and traditional Christian virtue would only hinder the Prince, Machiavelli urges the would-be monarch to use goodness merely as a front. Deception, manipulation and sly tricks are all to be learned and used if necessary. As a School of Life video describes, "what citizens most need from their rulers is effectiveness, which may well call upon some 'darker arts.'"

It might be cynical to assume great things cannot be achieved only through goodness and kindness, but it is a position I'm willing to stand by. Those two virtuous traits have the nasty tendency of quickly becoming blind spots that are later used against those practicing them. To reiterate, the virtue and morality Machiavelli warns against are those championed by Christianity.

It was common in Machiavelli's day to hear how a good ruler was the same as a good Christian. The political theorist, however, was not convinced. In An Analysis of Niccolò Machiavelli's The Prince, Ben Worthy and Riley Quinn elaborate on Machiavelli's belief that morality hampers a ruler's ability to rule effectively, which is really all that matters. To him, so long as the ruler is able to maintain and further encourage the glory of the State, all is well. Whatever means the ruler uses are completely justified - granted the means are calculated, thoughtful and without alternative.

For this reason, Machiavelli's suggestion of using cruelty is coupled with the warning that cruelty must be husbanded for only when it is absolutely essential. Worthy and Quinn summarized the naivete of a moral ruler with, "But in a world where people are willing to be ruthless, a moral prince would make himself, and his state, vulnerable. His morals might make him hesitate to act - and this could cost him everything."

Machiavelli knew this, and wrote this text precisely to warn against the religious habit of confusing good rulers for good people. As the essay "A Critical Analysis of Machiavelli's The Prince" describes, "In Machiavellian opinion, Christianity should not constrain any political activity. The matters of government should be solely secular." As such, Machiavelli dismisses the constricting and vulnerable-making Christian way of ruling and focuses, instead, on a cold and calculated way of doing things.

Uncomfortable though it may be to read the two-faced suggestion, Machiavelli's strategy on effective ruling relied upon facades, smoke and mirrors. As he states in his guide, "It is not essential, then, that a Prince should have all the good qualities which I have enumerated above, but it is most essential that he should seem to have them; I will even venture to affirm that if he has and invariably practices them all, they are hurtful, whereas the appearance of having them is useful. Thus, it is well to seem merciful, faithful, humane, religious, and upright, and also to be so; but the mind should remain so balanced that were it needful not be so, you should be able and know how to change to the contrary."

Succinctly put, "It is essential, therefore, for a Prince who desires to maintain his position, to have learned how to be other than good, and to use or not to use his goodness as necessity requires."

When the Prince must rely upon underhand tricks, cruelty and cunning, the rate at which he executes is imperative. It is essential that the blow is laid quickly and all at once to ensure two things: firstly, that the enemy is completely crushed. Secondly, the list of blows is short and concise, which Machiavelli thought would make the Prince less hated, as opposed to drawing out the attacks. Machiavelli advises " . . . the usurper should make haste to inflict what injuries he must, at a stroke, that he may not have to renew them daily . . . "

To smooth out whatever hate must be boiling in the veins of the usurped, Machiavelli suggests to " . . . win them over by benefits . . . little by little, that so they may be more fully relished."

By now it must be crystal clear to the reader that Machiavelli was not one to sugarcoat things. Indeed, he states quite bluntly that the Prince runs the risk of not being loved by his people. He assures that so long as the Prince is not hated, he is not in danger. Being loved is not necessary; in fact, it may be better for the subjects to fear the monarch. The most famous line, perhaps, is also one of the most crucial to understand: "[S]ince love and fear can hardly exist together, if we must choose between them, it is far safer to be feared than loved."

Humans are so deeply flawed that their love may not even be something worth fighting to gain. If you're to take anything away from this column, it's to not bother over gaining someone's love if they're "thankless, fickle, false, studious to avoid danger, greedy of gain, devoted to you while you are able to confer benefits upon them, and ready, as I said before, while danger is distant, to shed their blood, and sacrifice their property, their lies, and their children for you; but in the hour of need they turn against you."

Machiavelli agreed with me, and warned precisely for this reason that humans are always in a position more advantageous to the Prince when they fear their ruler, not love them. "Nevertheless," Machiavelli chimes, "a Prince should inspire fear in such a fashion that if he does not win love he may escape hate."

The best way is to construct an environment where the subjects feel a dependency upon their Prince. It's suggested that "a wise Prince should devise means whereby his subjects may at all times, whether favorable or adverse, feel the need of the State and of him, and then they will always be faithful to him."

Through a manufactured sense of necessity, Machiavelli assures the reading would-be Prince that his subjects, however much or little they might love him, will always turn to and be loyal to him. I'd be lying to you if I said I looked forward to drinking my multivitamins; however, I simply have no other alternative than to continue consuming them, lest I keel over from slightly less-than-ideal dietary choices. The principle is similar when running a State.

Machiavelli tells the reader that there are two types of threats when running a State: one is external, the other is internal. The latter is always worse than the former. To prevent domestic conflicts, the Prince is advised to not only keep his subjects from hating him, but to "show himself a patron of merit." Honoring the arts and entertaining the subjects with festivals and shows are sound ways to keep the people distracted from what's really going on. So long as the people's need for the State is coupled with carefully weighed benefits, rights, and entertainment, the subjects shouldn't be a problem. What's that old saying? Panem et circenses . . .

Now that I'm slightly older, not much wiser, but retired from my political ambitions (the British can finally rest), I'm able to see Machiavelli did two things: he very well may have armed would-be tyrants with a step-by-step guide, but he also disarmed them by giving the general public the same guide, giving the people knowledge of what to expect. That is what most people fail to realize when reading this text: this work is just as much of a guide as it is a warning. The power-hungry may be taking notes as they flip through The Prince as their bedtime story as I might have done in my youth, but the ever-prudent people, now finally getting a glimpse of the cards the beast holds, are also taking notes.


Previously by E.K. Mam:
How Studying History Made Me A Stoic.

* Dear High School Students And Recent Graduates . . .

* Tunes To Remedy Any Existential Crisis.

* Flex You.

* Simply Cynicism.

* Suffering With Stoics & Cynics.


Comments welcome.


Posted on August 11, 2020

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