Friday, January 29, 2016


A review of David Wootton’s translation Machiavelli: Selected Political Writings of The Prince, Selections from The Discourses, and Letter to Vettori (circa 1513, The Prince) (1994, this translation)  

(Rating 5 of 5)

Around ten years ago I was taking a college course called Lying and Politics and this book was one of the textbooks we used.  I found it fascinating then and even more so now.  Niccolo Machiavelli was a man and public servant who lived in Renaissance Italy.  He was on hand for many historic events and met many important people.  During the restoration of the Medici in Florence he was tortured for the crime of being an official of the previous regime.   After surviving his torture he would go on to write these famous works. 

            The introduction in this book discusses how Machiavelli’s work has been interpreted over the centuries.  There is apparently some controversy around to what is referred to as ‘the two Machiavellis.’ They try to reconcile the apparent contradiction of the author of The Prince, who gives advice to rulers and would be rulers, to the author of The Discourses, who prefers republican government.  I personally do not see a real contradiction because they are about two different things. The Prince is simply a how-to book for a dictator that was written for a potential employer while The Discourses is Machiavelli sharing his own view and preferences.  
“In order to properly understand the behavior of lower classes one needs to be a ruler, and in order to properly understand the behavior of rulers one needs to be a member of the lower classes.” (pg. 6)
           I am not sure this is true although subject and ruler might have a unique perspective on the other its highly unlikely that this automatically grants them so much insight that they understand the other more than they understand themselves.  I currently work in call center, this would be like me declaring that I was an expert on the behavior of CEOs because I am regular wage employee.  There are elements of the CEO’s job that I am certain I do not understand, just as there is much about their low ranking employees’ job that the CEO does not think about in his or her daily function.

“Is it better to be loved than feared, or vice versa?  My reply is one ought to be both loved and feared; but since it is difficult to accomplish both at the same time, I maintain it is much safer to be feared than loved, if you have to do without one of the two.” (pg. 51-2)
          This is of course is probably Machiavelli’s most famous quote.  This is the one line that captures the very heart of The Prince.  I always thought it would be better to be loved.  For if you are loved than your subjects would take your side even when your chips were down, where as if they just feared you they may betray you in a moment of weakness.  Machiavelli would probably point out that just because they loved you does not mean that they would look out for their own necks primarily when they felt that they or their interests were in danger.  
Niccolo Machiavelli 

           We know Machiavelli thought about rulers keeping their word.  He felt it is better to be crafty than honest. 

“Everybody recognizes how praiseworthy it is for a ruler to keep his word and to live a life of integrity, without relying on craftiness.  Nevertheless, we see that in practice, in these days, those rulers who have not thought it important to keep their word have achieved great things, and have known how to employ cunning to confuse and disorientate other men.  In the end, they have been able to overcome those who have placed store in integrity.” (pg. 53)  

            Throughout The Prince Machiavelli is giving advice on how to rule people and the challenges one faces when ruling a people you had previously conquered.  During the course of the book Machiavelli jumps back and forth from ancient times of Alexander, Scipio, and Hannibal to the more “modern” times of Renaissance Italy.  Machiavelli finds quite a bit to praise of ancient leaders and much to criticize in the modern ones.  He completely chastises King Louis XII of France and his misadventures in Italy. 

 “Thus, Louis had made the following five mistakes: He wasted his alliance with the lesser states; he increased the strength of one of the more powerful Italian states; he invited an extremely powerful foreign state to intervene in Italy; he did not go and live in Italy; he did not establish settlements there.” (pg. 13)

The part of Machiavelli’s criticism that I find rather weird is his insistence that a conqueror should move into his conquered territories despite being the ruler of another place.  The example that he gives is the Sultan of Turkey moving into Constantinople, that is true but the Ottoman Empire did not change capitals every time it expanded. Now it should be noted in Machiavelli’s time it wasn’t that long ago that the fall of Constantinople happened.  So I suppose he could be excused for the oversight.  

            Quite bitter with the example of leadership that he had seen in Italy politically, he clearly shows his anger at what Italy had been going through in his own time. 

“The outcome has been that Italy has, in quick succession, been overrun by Charles, plundered by Louis, raped by Ferdinand, and humiliated by the Swiss.” (pg. 42)

When referring the types of principalities there are he makes it pretty clear that the long established powers are the best.

“It is much easier to hold on to hereditary states, that are accustomed to being governed by the family that now rules them, than it is to hold on to new acquisitions.” (pg. 7)
             I do not think Machiavelli is anything here that is not obvious.  It is much easier to inherit power in an established dynasty than to go out and try to take it.  Of course you would have to be born into an established dynasty for that to occur.  Since one who seeks power is likely to have it just handed to him by luck of birth they are required to take it and hopefully set up their own system.  Machiavelli is quick to point out how dangerous that actually is.

“One ought to pause and consider the fact that there is nothing harder to undertake, nothing more likely of failure, nothing more risky to pull off, than to set oneself up as a leader who plans to found a new system of government.  For the fonder makes enemies of all those who are doing well under the old system, and has only lukewarm support from those who hope to do well under the new one.” (pg. 19)

            There was however one ideal guy who showed the way on how to do it.  When advising new rulers on the best path to success, his ideal candidate was Cesare Borgia.  This was odd because he lost in the end.  Yet to Machiavelli, he was perfect and he served as a duel example.  He was the model to follow but he also came with a warning: that one can act perfectly and still fall due to bad luck with no fault of your own. His power was dependent on the patronage of others and when those 'others' went away he was alone and vulnerable.  Borgia was the son of the Pope. (Yeah, I know how strange that sounds.)  His father, Alexander VI, and his ally King Louis XII of France were his primary backers and without them he had no independent power.  

“So, now I have surveyed all the actions of the duke, I still cannot find anything to criticize.  It seem to me I have been right to present him as an example to be imitated by all those who come to power through good luck and someone else’s military might.  For since he was great-hearted and ambitious, he had no choice as to what to do; and he only failed to achieve his goals because Alexander died too soon, and he himself fell ill.” (pg. 26-7)
Cesare Borgia, son of the Pope

            Part of the reason Machiavelli admired Cesare so much was how he would do what he thought needed to be done and not only was he not hesitate, he would be in a hurry to get it accomplished.  In Machiavelli's world any bad you need to do you must do it quickly. 
“Do all the harm you must at one and the same time, that way the full extent of it will not be noticed, and it will give least offense. One should do good, on the other hand, little by little, so people can fully appreciate it.” (pg. 31)
           Machiavelli also gives a hint of his populism in his next bit of advice. It is better to become monarch at the head of a popular movement than it is to have the title awarded to you by a small elite. This advice is a tad bit strange when you consider his comments on Julius Caesar are in The Discourses.  For Caesar is the one who comes to mind when I hear these statements. 
“He who comes to power with the help of the elite has more difficulty in holding on to power than he who comes to power with the help of the populace, for in the former case he is surrounded by many who think of themselves as his equals, and who consequently cannot order about or manipulate as he might wish.  He who comes to power with support of the populace, on the other hand, has it all to himself.” (pg. 31-2)

In The Discourses, Machiavelli discus the history of ancient Rome a great deal.  It is embarrassing to say this especially in light on how brilliant The Prince is, but all of his theories on Rome are wrong.  Machiavelli comes off as complete Catoian in his views on the Roman Republic.  He fails to see the Republic that could manage a city well could not manage an empire.  He seems to think that the Republic’s downfall was due to lack of character of the people living at the time who failed to live up to the ideals of their ancestors. 

Machiavelli was one of the most fascinating minds of Renaissance Italy, a place not lacking at all in marvelous minds.  The father of political realist thought. 

{Video from the Showtime series the Borgias}

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