Not being very well-read in the classics or in the areas of political science, philosophy or psychology, and being a guy who uses the term “Machiavellian” more than anyone I know, I thought it made sense for me to read Niccolo Machiavelli’s The Prince. The version I read was translated by Daniel Donno.
Given (a) how short this book is (less than 100 small pages), (b) how much I assumed I already knew about what it means to be “Machiavellian, and (c) that this book was written almost five hundred years ago, in another language, I really didn’t expect a whole lot here, other than perhaps some difficult to understand confirmations of what I thought I already knew. I don’t think I’ve ever been more wrong in my presumptions regarding a book.
There’s a reason that this book is heralded as a masterwork on what it takes to obtain and hold power. I can’t think of another book in which such fundamental theories (whether they be right or wrong, and regardless of subject matter) have been articulated so clearly and succinctly, yet so profoundly. I refuse to quote any passages here, because there is virtually no excess verbiage in the entire book; it’s as if to pick and choose any of Macchiavelli’s distinct ideas to the exclusion of others would be to rank the others as less deserving of mention, which would be wrong. In fact, I didn’t even read this book so much as I studied it; I used a highlighter, which I ran dry as I found myself highlighting almost every sentence.
Macchiavelli is incredibly astute in his descriptions of the different types of principalities that exist and the proper way to maintain power of each of them, how best to deal with the military, the nobles, and the common people, the types of persons to surround yourself with when in power, how to treat the assets of your people vs. assets acquired from others, and, perhaps most famously of all, whether it is better to be loved or to be feared, to be kind or cruel, and when it is appropriate to be a “fox”, and when it is appropriate to be a “lion”. He presents his case so clearly and so compellingly that it is nearly impossible to argue that the prince who has the requisite skill and ability, and who is wise enough to prudently manipulate those around him (or her) as circumstances warrant and opportunities arise, is the most powerful and enduring of all.
Now, to the moral and ethical dilemmas raised by Macchiavelli’s ideas. I read this book objectively, without an eye toward right or wrong or any bias as to what would happen if everyone attempted to follow Macchiavelli’s advice. And in that regard, I stand by everything I said above — this man was an absolute genius. But, it must also be remembered that a genius, or someone following the direction of a genius, can do terrible things. And in that regard, Machiavelli’s wisdom, if appropriated and misused for evil, would be a very bad thing.
But the good news is that I am absolutely one hundred percent confident that a certain world leader in power right now is not smart enough to be Machiavellian.