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Niccolo Machiavelli: The Prince

If you were to read a book a week, between the ages of 10 and 70, taking two weeks off a year for Christmas, give or take, this would give you an achievable target of about 3000 books to read in an average lifetime, before you would have to take that train to meet your Maker. Assuming fifteen hundred of these are strictly entertainment by Tom Clancy, Stephen King, Ian Fleming, Douglas Adams, Terry Pratchett, Frank Herbert, Ernest Hemingway, John Steinbeck, and Isaac Asimov et al, to get you through the night, and five hundred are by Robert Heinlein, Ayn Rand, and Alexander Solzhenitsyn et al, to blend some serious education with some palatable fiction, this leaves you with about a thousand strictly educational books to educate yourself with, about life, the universe, and everything.

Not many.

Now we could discuss what nine hundred and ninety nine of these books could be, in a must-be-read anti-statist canon. Books by Von Mises perhaps, or Rothbard, or Pinker, or Popper, or Hitler, or Marx, or even Hans-Hermann Hoppe. But there is one book which should come ahead of all these others, in my humble opinion, particularly for those who wish to understand the origins of the modern state and its calamitous works. And that book is The Prince, by Niccolo Machiavelli.

A major Florentine diplomat and part-time militia general around the turn of the sixteenth century, Machiavelli lived in an age of turbulence and Renaissance-inspired change, and astonished the world of international politics with his study of classical, mediaeval, and from his point of view, modern government, which he formulated in ‘The Prince’. Its tenets became the substrate in which all of our own subsequent politicians have been swimming ever since, with its mixture of candour, violence, treachery, and skulduggery, a world in which a modern government can both mouth its belief in the rule of law and licence its agents to kill its enemies at will, wherever they may be, and however innocent they may be before this sanctified rule of law.

The book is simply astonishing. I discovered it while browsing the Penguin Classics stall recently, in my local bookshop, where it cost a whole three pounds and fifty pence. I have been blown away by it ever since, almost forgetting to eat my Bakewell tart in a local tea shop as I devoured its initial pages. Almost, of course, but not quite. Just love those Bakewell tarts.

For anyone who has ever struggled to understand the power and tenacity of the modern state and the overwhelming force the modern state’s politicians have over our lives, despite their legion shortcomings, numerous failures, and outright incompetence, everything becomes clear.

Machiavelli offers advice for George Bush on how he should conquer a Muslim state:

But if once the Turk has been vanquished and broken in battle so that he cannot raise new armies, there is nothing to worry about except the ruler’s family. When that has been wiped out there is no one left to fear, because the others have no credit with the people.

So, capture Saddam Hussein and kill his sons. But once we achieve that, what do we do next with a former Muslim leader’s country:

When states newly acquired as I said have been accustomed to living freely under their own laws, there are three ways to hold them securely: first, by devastating them; next, by going there and living there in person; thirdly, by letting them keep their own laws, exacting tribute, and setting up an oligarchy which will keep the state friendly to you.

So, set up an interim appointed government and eventual elections guaranteed to keep the interim appointed government in place, with good options on the oil supply made out to your business friends. But what do we do about a possibly resentful population?

Violence must be inflicted once and for all; people will then forget what it tastes like and so be less resentful. Benefits must be conferred gradually; and in that way they will taste better.

Ah, yes. Gradually re-establish the water and the electricity supplies, then link in the ‘election’ of your interim appointed government to coincide with further improvements, so as to keep this government in place and suitably disposed towards yourself.

But we should avoid blaming Machiavelli for our own modern world. It is our politicians who have created it, not this wonderful Florentine writer. He was just telling it like it was. Many of his views even coincided with our own:

The main foundations of every state, new states as well as ancient or composite ones, are good laws and good arms; and because you cannot have good laws without good arms, and where there are good arms, good laws inevitably follow…Rome and Sparta endured for many centuries, armed and free. The Swiss are strongly armed and completely free.

His belief in the sanctity of arms would even have stood comparison with the National Rifle Association:

There is simply no comparison between a man who is armed and one who is not. It is unreasonable to expect that an armed man should obey one who is unarmed, or that an unarmed man should remain safe and secure when his servants are armed.

So next time you hear your local police calling themselves public servants, ask yourself who has the guns, and who has the power.

Machiavelli also kept little time for Utopians:

Many have dreamed up republics and principalities which have never in truth been known to exist; the gulf between how one should live and how one does live is so wide that a man who neglects what is actually done for what should be done moves towards self-destruction rather than self-preservation.

So socialism is right out, with its insistence on some future wonder-world where all will become peace and love. Yeah, says Machiavelli. Right.

Above all though, as you speed through this short and riveting book, there is much which informs you of virtually every modern politician and his relations with those politicians around him. Take, for instance, and I wish somebody would, Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, our own loveable anti-British rogues.

In the early nineties, when I was, shamefully, a Brownite, along with many in the Labour Party, it seemed inconceivable that our man would be bested by that lightweight Bambi prancing around in the guise of Tony Blair. Yet not only was our Great Dour Man bested, but absolutely shafted to within an inch of his metaphorical sporran. So how was this achieved? Now I know. Tony Blair read ‘The Prince’ and Gordon Brown forgot to. Take a look at this and think who it may remind you of in modern British politics:

A certain contemporary ruler, whom it is better not to name, never preaches anything except peace and good faith; and he is an enemy of both one and the other, and if he had ever honoured either of them he would have lost either his standing or his state many times over.

It gets better:

So it follows that a prudent ruler cannot, and must not, honour his word when it places him at a disadvantage and when the reasons for which he made his promise no longer exist…But one must know how to colour one’s actions and to be a great liar and deceiver. Men are so simple, and so much creatures of circumstance, that the deceiver will always find someone ready to be deceived.

Blimey O’Reilly. I did not have sex with that Bernie Ecclestone.

As well as much else to discover if you hand over your three pounds fifty pence to Penguin books, you get to find out Machiavelli even advised Tony Blair on how to react to the threat from Al-Qaeda, when they knocked down the Twin Towers:

A prince also wins prestige for being a true friend or a true enemy, that is, for revealing himself without any reservation in favour of one side against another. This policy is always more advantageous than neutrality…It is always the case that the one who is not your friend will request your neutrality, and that the one who is your friend will request your armed support.

So when America asks you to help them go to war and France asks you to desist, all you need to do is turn to ‘The Prince’ to find out what to do next. Marvellous.

I also know Gordon Brown has failed to read ‘The Prince’, because Machiavelli has plenty of advice for my favourite Chancellor of the Exchequer, which he has obviously failed to take:

He will be hated above all if, as I said, he is rapacious and aggressive with regard to the property…of his subjects.

Yes, Gordon. That’s you he’s talking about.

Machiavelli even outlines the entire seven years of Gordon Brown’s spending programme, with its initial use of tight spending plans combined with the later unleashing of the financial floodgates, to wash the government service sector in billions and gazillions of lovely taxpayer cash:

If you want to sustain a reputation for generosity, therefore, you have to be ostentatiously lavish; and a prince acting in that fashion will soon squander all his resources, only to be forced in the end, if he wants to maintain his reputation, to lay excessive burdens on the people, to impose extortionate taxes, and to do everything else he can to raise money. This will start to make his subjects hate him, and, since he will have impoverished himself, he will be generally despised.

So Gordon, just read the Machiavelli if you want to be the Principal, or the Prince, or the Ruler. Just get out of our lives and do what the man says:

Then he must encourage his citizens so that they can go peaceably about their business, whether it be trade or agriculture or any other human occupation. One man should not be afraid of improving his possessions, lest they be taken away from him, or another deterred by high taxes from starting a new business.

If you wish to refuse this advice, Gordon, Machiavelli also knows what is going to happen to you next:

But as for how a prince can assess his minister, here is an infallible guide: when you see a minister thinking more of himself than of you, and seeking his own profit in everything he does, such a one will never be a good minister, you will never be able to trust him.

Tony Blair, the current British Prince and Discworld-style Patrician, will know what to do:

So a prince must not worry if he incurs reproach for his cruelty so long as he keeps his subjects united and loyal. By making an example or two he will prove more compassionate than those who, being too compassionate, allow disorders which lead to murder and rapine. These nearly always harm the whole community, whereas executions ordered by a prince only affect individuals.

So it’s bye bye, Gordon, if you keep spoiling all of the Dear Leader’s reform plans.

But Machiavelli offers more than just a wonderful analysis of political relations and how rival politicians should assess each other. He also offers lessons on how the future may go:

Here it should be noted that princes cannot escape death if the attempt is made by a fanatic, because anyone who has no fear of death himself can succeed in inflicting it; on the other hand, there is less need for a prince to be afraid, since such assassinations are very rare.

Osama Bin Laden is an educated man. I suspect he may have been reading ‘The Prince’, too.

All of the quotes above are just my personal favourites from the book. I am convinced you will find many of your own favourites in its slim 85 pages of quickly-read advice, written for a Renaissance ruler. It is a remarkable piece of work, driven by Machiavelli’s classical scholasticism, his diplomatic successes, his military failures, his torture and imprisonment at the hands of his former master, and his eventual triumph and return to the court and inns of Florentine power.

Make sure you get George Bull’s razored translation, in print form, though you may wish to go for W. K. Marriott’s online version. Then get yourself a Bakewell tart and a cup of tea, before settling down to what I must now consider is the best book ever written on the nature of human political relations. Frightening.

28 comments to Niccolo Machiavelli: The Prince

  • George

    Interesting post, Andy. And I having no argument about The Prince.

    But the reading plan in your first paragraph has a serious flaw imho. The very best (or most important) books aren’t read only once. They’re read several times, perhaps many times; they only get better with each reading (which is why they’re the best).

    Two examples of my own: I’ve read Crime and Punishment seven or eight time, first when I was 15. I’ve read Huntington’s The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of the World Order three times since it was published in 1996.

  • I first read The Prince in college, when I had to produce a 15-20 page report analyzing King Henry in KH part 2 as a Machiavellian leader. One of the more interesting assignments I had in 4 years of college.

    I’ve returned to it several times since then. It’s not a bad manual for getting ahead in the business world either, if gaining and weilding power is your goal.

  • Andy Duncan

    George writes:

    But the reading plan in your first paragraph has a serious flaw imho. The very best (or most important) books aren’t read only once.

    Yes, on re-reading the post, I suppose I also forgot to mention J.R.R.Tolkien. And I’m just not going to tell you how many times I’ve read TLOTR. If I did, you’d realise just what a very sad schlepper I am! :-)

    Chris O’Donnell writes:

    It’s not a bad manual for getting ahead in the business world either, if gaining and weilding power is your goal.

    Yes, I was slightly worried in that helping advertise the book I might just let some proto-tyrant socialist in on the trick, and help kickstart their career in demagoguery. But if we can all read this, we’ll get to know their tricks, and be forewarned, and as you say, it will help anyone understand business politics better too and help make them wealthier. And what could be better than that! :-)

  • M. Simon

    Well how long did it take Machiavelli’s Princes to get the electricity going in the Italian territory they conquered?

    Three or four hundred years.

    America got it going in Iraq in less than a year with production currently at 150% of pre-war levels.

    If America was as devious as you say we would have dragged it out over decades if not centuries.

    Did you also note that hospital supplies are at 20X pre-war levels?

    Cell phone and internet useage are up by factors of 5 or more.

    You know if we are trying to control the Iraqis by dribbling out the goods we are doing a damn poor job.

    I don’t understand why we are treating them well and making their lives better when we could be robbing them blind.

    That Machiavelli was quite a guy.

  • M. Simon

    You know if we were really smart in Iraq we would be setting the Sunni against the Shia against the Kurds. Divide and conquer.

    Instead we are working to help these people resolve their differences. What’s with that? Don’t Americans read the classics?

  • Mashiki

    Ahhh. Good stuff all around. Maybe the ‘God’s that be’ here at Samizdat will add these URL’s to the list of important stuff.

    Most people don’t read enough to know what’s going on past their face, then again most don’t know what happened 150 years ago, let alone what was going on during the days of Plato, or Cicero. Yes I stick by those two the most as they are my favorites.

    The Gutenburg Project
    Project Gutenburg 2

    For those that do not know, the two largest online repositories of ‘free’ reading material online.

    Bah I’m not going to get on a high horse or anything, but anything to expand peoples knowledge is a good thing.

  • Andy Duncan

    M. Simon writes:

    Well how long did it take Machiavelli’s Princes to get the electricity going in the Italian territory they conquered?

    I think Machiavelli’s suggestion that you should plan lightning war to take your target country over, get the killing over with, stop the killing, and then start gradually making the lives of the conquered people gradually better still stands. Obviously not with electricity in Italy, circa 1500, seeing as it hadn’t been invented yet, but as 500 years later he’s still struck a nerve with you, he must have been saying something right. No doubt you think Thomas Edison would’ve invented electricity anyway, without the help of all those in Renaissance Italy who pushed forward the maxims of science, and the challenging of religious authority, protected quite often by families like the Medicis in Florence, who preferred profit to religion, who were advised by the likes of Machiavelli. Perhaps the coining of the word electricity, from the Latin, in 1600, had nothing to do with Renaissance Italy, but I would suggest maybe it did.

    America got it going in Iraq in less than a year with production currently at 150% of pre-war levels.

    Good. Fulfilling Machiavelli’s maxims then, right on schedule, to get the conquered population behind you. In the modern age timescales are drastically reduced on everything, in this age of light-speed communications, but the governments of America and Britain are still on the right lines as laid down by the master, in order to take over the Middle-East. If you don’t believe me, buy the book and read the rest of it, before you start laying into a mere book review with its limited room for a limited number of quotes.

    If America was as devious as you say we would have dragged it out over decades if not centuries.

    Well, at this point I’d like to dissociate linking ‘America’, by which I take it you mean the Federal US Government, from Americans, several hundred million individuals who live in that part of the world controlled by the Federal US Government, some of whom, I should imagine, don’t always see eye to eye with their masters in Washington.

    Having said that, are you actually seriously suggesting that the CIA, the American government, the Pentagon, and the general statist establishment in the US aren’t devious? You’re not paying them enough, if they’re not. I would hope and pray that if they’re ever going to destroy Al-Qaeda, they be the most devious people in the world. Otherwise Al-Qaeda are going to beat them.

    Did you also note that hospital supplies are at 20X pre-war levels?

    Well, our friends on the Left would say that this is because we in the west cut them off from hospital supplies for thirteen years, but hey that’s a cheap point.

    Cell phone and internet useage are up by factors of 5 or more.

    Seeing as Saddam Hussein operated the most evil national socialist regime in the world, with the possible exception of North Korea, I’m surprised it’s not 500 times or more.

    You know if we are trying to control the Iraqis by dribbling out the goods we are doing a damn poor job.

    M., it’s a 500 year old book, written in general terms about principles of political action applying across millennia, from ancient Persia through to sixteenth century Florence, and I would suggest even the modern age. It’s not a cookbook. Buy it. Read it. Then slate it as much as you like.

    I don’t understand why we are treating them well and making their lives better when we could be robbing them blind.

    Could it be perhaps that in doing so the US government will actually succeed in making that part of the world more friendly to the US, and therefore make the spread of the power of the US government that much greater in the world, and that by robbing them blind, although the US government would gain some revenue in the short-term, the costs of maintaining a massive permanent garrison to maintain this robbery, plus the eventual failure of control, as experienced by the British in the 1920s, would wipe out all the gains of a highly successful military campaign of takeover if such a plan of confiscation was to actually be implemented? What’s the clever thing to do to help advance US global interests? Rob Iraq blind or make their lives better? Machiavelli helps statists do the clever thing, not the obvious thing.

    That Machiavelli was quite a guy.

    Yes. He was. That’s why he’s struck such a nerve in you, 500 years after he died. And that’s why if you actually read his book, you’d understand why his ideas are still driving the entire world of western politics, yes, and I know I really shouldn’t say this, even inside the United States.

    You know if we were really smart in Iraq we would be setting the Sunni against the Shia against the Kurds. Divide and conquer.

    Machiavelli studied the Romans in great depth and learned their mistakes, which led to their eventual downfall. And one of these was always applying the same technique of control to every country they conquered, such as ‘divide and rule’, rather than by varying their methods dependent on the country under attack. Therefore Machiavelli supplies many different examples, and the different ways of taking over and controlling different kinds of country. If you read the book, you’ll see that in the example of the Turkish empire, perhaps the one in his book closest to Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, the best thing to do after you’ve conquered it and destroyed the ruler’s family, is to keep it whole, as it is used to being kept whole, and that by deliberately breaking it up you’ll cause more problems than a ‘divide and rule’ solution would actually solve. However, in other situations, it is better to ‘divide and rule’, especially when one faction calls you in to help them overcome the other faction.

    Instead we are working to help these people resolve their differences.

    Hey M., it’s a book, a definitive one, about statecraft, and how politicians should control countries. For months I’ve been worried about this imposition upon Iraq of a transitional and growingly authoritarian government, which I’m certain will become the permanent authoritarian government, and the endless problems this will cause, foisting western democratic government onto a country which is really three countries in one, as it was under the old Ottoman empire anyway, and on which British Imperialism, Soviet Friendship, and American Intervention, have left such great scars. Machiavelli’s book helps me understand what is going on, and what the British Foreign Office and American State Department are up to, because I’m sure everyone working for these two great offices of state is fully aware of Machiavelli’s lessons. If you want to avoid learning them for yourself, and only wish to criticize a review containing a handful of quotes from his book, rather than actually reading the book yourself, go for it. I’m sure that’s exactly what all the politicians using his principles want you to do.

    What’s with that? Don’t Americans read the classics?

    Read this one M. Just read the book. It’ll cost you about five dollars and take you about two hours. You can even read it online for free. Isn’t the Internet wonderful?

  • Dishman

    Another book which may be even better is “The Art of War”. If you can learn to read it as metaphors, it might as well be named “The Art of Conflict”, because it is so broadly applicable.

  • My copy cost $.10, used. I found it completely covered at least 3 engineering management courses I took.
    Re: Mr Brown, it’s remarked in the book that you can let one of tour henchmen doo as much dirty work as you require, then endear yourself to the electorate by having the heartless barstid publicly executed. Correcting any of the “mistakes” he made can be done at leisure, if at all.
    A fellow in this position at Ford was transferred to Alaska for 6 months. What no one noticed was that it was the company hunting and skiing lodge facility.

  • “It’s remarked in the book that you can let one of tour henchmen doo as much dirty work as you require, then endear yourself to the electorate by having the heartless barstid publicly executed. Correcting any of the “mistakes” he made can be done at leisure, if at all.”

    “Dizzy with Success” – Stalin knew his Machiavelli back to front.

  • The Snark Who Was Really a Boojum

    “The Prince” is a good start but don’t neglect “The Discourses on Livy” either. That one discusses the building and maintenance of a good republic. ^_~

  • Steven DallaVicenza

    “would give you an achievable target of about 3000 books to read in an average lifetime”

    Now there is a depressing thought.

  • The Wobbly Guy

    Was it because of my mention of this fellow in another comment thread that prompted this post? :P

    BTW, thanks for the links!

    The Wobbly Guy

  • Andy Duncan

    The Wobbly Guy writes:

    Was it because of my mention of this fellow in another comment thread that prompted this post? :P
    :-)

    Perhaps subconsciously. But consciously it was more to do with the Library being closed, and me needing something to read with my Bakewell tart. Oh, and I’d already read that week’s issue of Private Eye.

    My favourite books in the Penguin Classics range had been those by Julius Caesar, on his conquests in Gaul. But Niccolo just about tops old Julius! ;-)

  • Verity

    George – Yes, indeed. I’ve read P J’s Eat The Rich three times and some of the observations still make my jaw drop. I’ve also read Holidays in Hell three times, but only because I needed the laugh.

  • D Anghelone

    Three lives to live on one DVD. Which life to choose?

  • Findlay Dunachie

    Andy Duncan: You might care to read “The Originality of Machiavelli” by ISAIAH BERLIN in his collection of essays “Against the Current” (£3.95 – but that was 1981 – I trust it’s still in print). He does say “an atheist can read Machiavelli with perfect intellectual comfort.”

    By the way, why do so many bloggers write it’s when they mean its (= of it)?

  • Wild Pegasus

    It’s a depressingly common error in all forms of writing to confuse “its” and “it’s”. People are accustomed to using apostrophe-s for possessives and rarely stop to realise that they can’t properly use apostrophe-s for the third person singular gender neutral possessive.

    “An apostrophe does not mean, ‘Look out! There’s an ‘s’ coming!’” – Dave Barry

    - Josh

  • M. Simon

    Andy,

    Funny thing is I have read the book.

    Nico was one very sharp guy and would have been right at home re: politics in any remaining tribal area on earth.

    Less sharp on modern national politics and completely out of his league in the brand of international politics first hinted at by the Brits and more fully developed by the Americans.

    Which is why my poor attempt at humor re: old Nick.

    He does have a very lot of good things to say about palace intrigues and those still go on in the best of places. However, some new ideas have come along rather well since he stopped blogging politics.

  • M. Simon

    Another Italian, Oriana Fallaci has quite a bit to say about the value of self government. And why going up against the plebes, especially the American plebes, is such a fools game.

    Nickky was writing for autocrats.

    Different audience different prescriptions.

    American policy is to create independent states not dependent ones.

  • M. Simon

    BTW the electricity in Italy bit was a joke.

    Nice to see the extensive rebuttal.

    In any case I think what you do to create an independent state aligned out of sympathy and common culture (Japan any one?) is different than what you do to create client states (which was Nickky’s orientation). Think American foreign and military policy vs. the USSR.

    Think the Brits and the Commonwealth vs the excresences of Belgium or the excesses of France.

    Nick would have been right at home in the Foreign Office of France. He would not be well attuned to the foreign policies of Foggy Bottom. And even less so the American Department of War.

  • M. Simon

    There is one good that Americans are doling out:

    self government.

    Point one for doing this is that it is nice to have the Iraqis dependent on America – for a while.

    Point two is that the Iraqis need a period of adjustment.

    So in a way Nick was right. It is just that as Tom Paine pointed out Liberty is very valuable indeed. More so these days than food, oil, or any material possesion. So the material goods are given freely. Only the most valuable stuff is doled out.

    But that is a kind of world the adviser to Princes never imagined.

  • Stevely

    M. Simon -

    How about a reading assignment: The Discourses on Livy by N. Macchiavelli. That way you can get a better idea of the extent of Macchiavelli’s political expertise as well as his preferred form of government, and spare yourself the embarrassment of writing silly and ill-informed posts like your contributions to this thread.

  • M. Simon

    Stevely,

    I was under the impression that we were discussing “the Prince”.

    Under those terms my points are apt.

    OTOH your point is well taken that I am not acquained with Nicky’s other works. No doubt a significant defficiency.

    In times to come I hope to remedy that defect.

    In the mean time I hope you will not hold it against me for discussing “The Prince” on it’s own terms.

  • M. Simon

    Well I have found a copy of Livy and have embarked on the great adventure of learning something new.

    I must say it is not at all promising. Nicky starts out by saying the inhabitants of a city will have closer relations if the city is poor and that laws ought to compel men to work because work is better than idleness. He does go on to admit that men choose wealth over poverty and here is what can be done about it.

    Maybe I was wrong to think the electricity bit was a joke. Well at least they had Marconi some years later.

    I am still of the opinion that Mr. M. lacks vision re: the modern age but I don’t hold it against him. He was born a long time ago.

  • Super post. Loved it. And loved the comments more than I did the post. Read Prince some time back in school, and couldnt make head or tail out of it. (I was naive, am still)
    But now that Dubya Man and Blairboy have shown me the way, I think I will be better able to follow the book.

    By the way, there is another classic book on Statecraft and Politics – Indian one – Artha Shastra (Rules of wealth or something) by Chanakya..From what my dad and grand mom tell me, it sounds a lot similar to Prince. And much older.

  • well done!
    inurl:blog/archives