The Social Affairs Unit

Print Version • Website Home • Weblog Home


Use the buttons below to change the style and font size of our site.
Screen version     Print version:   
February 02, 2006

Get Real! - Niccolo Machiavelli's Il Principe (The Prince)

Posted by Lincoln Allison

Il Principe (De Principatibus)
by Niccolo Machiavelli
written around 1513; first published 1532

edited by Brian Richardson
Pp. 153. Manchester University Press, 1979

The Prince
by Niccolo Machiavelli
translated and edited by Peter Bondanella and Mark Musa
Pp. 101. Oxford University Press (World's Classics), 1984

A new translation - also by Peter Bondanella - of The Prince is now available (Oxford World's Classics, 2005).

Indictment:
Having posed as a teacher of the history of political thought without having read Machiavelli. Furthermore, having engaged in common and fraudulent academic practices including quoting The Prince, talking about it as if one has read it, footnoting it, &c. But if "reading it" is taken to mean all the words, in the order the author put them, then no. Begun it!

Extenuating circumstances:
One: the accused only taught the history of political thought (as opposed to contemporary political philosophy) from the age of 21 to 23.
Two: it is quite difficult to read, being densely packed with references to how this Sforza put too much reliance on mercenary troops or that Borgia was too generous to the ordinary people (quite good in itself, but not if you go broke) or that Medici got it just about right. (It is addressed to Lorenzo de Medici). It is, as it were, the musings of Sir Humphrey about how cabinet ministers and Prime Ministers to different degrees cocked up their own careers and the national interest. Except that you would need a very good knowledge of Renaissance Europe to appreciate it fully.
Three: it is not really political theory in our sense, let alone political philosophy. Rather, it is a strategic and tactical manual with more relevance to political science.

The historical reason why I never had to read it goes back to 1923 when the University of Oxford allowed "modern" studies (which became Philosophy, Politics and Economics). Political theory began with Hobbes, setting a pattern which remains to this day and was imitated by most British universities and many others in the English-speaking countries, though not in the USA where courses on political thought tend to have a much broader sweep, taking in the classics and often non-European traditions of thought. The Hobbes-Locke-Rousseau-Burke-Marx-Mill tradition of doing it does represent a coherent and continuous debate about the philosophy of politics with its central questions about human nature and the possibilities and limitations of government.

Machiavelli, on the other hand, belongs in the business school of a modern university. When I was a young visiting academic at Stanford I used to sneak into lectures at Stanford Business School. (I played rugby and soccer for them and assumed they owed me a lecture.) I was shocked by the extent to which their training gave you not just the skills, but the tactics of how to further the interests of the organisation you worked for and thereby your own career without regard to any notion of the public interest. Differentiate your product so as to have an element of monopoly and so be able to raise prices. Always have investment options abroad so as to be able to keep wages down at home. Academic economists do not tell you how to run a company and the academic study of law is more relevant to the conceptual dilemmas faced by high court judges than to the negotiation skills needed by commercial lawyers. The study of politics certainly does not tell you how to have a political career or run a country. Only in the business school do they tell you how to be politic in the way that Machiavelli does.

Political philosophers are much interested in forms of government. Machiavelli is not. He runs through the question in a very short first chapter: eleven lines in Italian, twelve in English. You can become a prince through hereditary right or an ecclesiastical career, by republican procedure, military strength or downright nefariousness. That doesn't matter, but what you do with it does (Ch. XV):

. . . many writers have imagined for themselves republics and principalities that have never been seen nor known to exist in reality; for there is such a gap between how one lives and how one ought to live that anyone who abandons what is done for what ought to be done learns his ruin rather than his preservation: for a man who wishes to profess goodness at all times will come to ruin among so many who are not good. Hence it is necessary for a prince who wishes to maintain his position to learn how not to be good . . .
Get real, in other words and don't think that virtue will get you through in a wicked world. Machiavelli would have agreed with Alexander Pope’s sentiment:
For forms of government let fools contest,
What'ere is best administer'd is best . . .
Except that Pope was born in England in the year before the Glorious Revolution and spoke for an age which was heartily sick of theology, moral enthusiasm and religious wars whereas Machiavelli was writing around 1513 when it was assumed that ethical and political questions had religious answers.

For two centuries "Machiavellian" was a synonym for cunning and wickedness and the adjective retains some of its emotive power. Was it just that he was ahead of his time, a modern business consultant in a mediaeval age? I think it's partly that, but with a very important twist. Later philosophers – most notably Hobbes and Bentham – who sought to construct Godless moralities based on reason and consequence built themselves new ethical systems.

Bentham, for example, in his essay Of Torture faces the undeniable proposition, for a consequentialist, that we ought sometimes to torture people because the goodness which will come from the information we obtain will outweigh the badness of the torture. In doing so he outlines no fewer than 14 conditions which must be met before torture must be applied. Having done that torture becomes the right thing to do according to the only moral code which makes sense.

Machiavelli uses moral language in an entirely different way. He often talks of established moral precepts as if they were true, but trivial. Chapter VIII, for instance, is about princes who acquire their power through wickedness. (Wickedness here is scelera in Latin – it is a curiosity of the text that the chapter headings are only in Latin – and scellerata e nefaria in Italian.) One's judgement, says Machiavelli:

. . . depends on whether cruelty be well or badly used. Well used are those cruelties (if it is permitted to speak well of evil) that are carried out in a single stroke, done out of necessity to protect oneself, and are not continued but are instead converted into the greatest possible benefit for the subjects.
Cruelty here is crudelta, evil is male. And if you think this is a Benthamite sentiment then consider the original of "the greatest possible benefits for the subjects": piu utilita de' sudditi.

Once one is used to a linguistic style which allows that it is often right to do wrong most of Machiavelli's practical maxims seem pretty much common sense. You must be both lion and fox: there are times for strength, but also for cunning. Have a sustainable plan for expenditure. Spin like mad (as we would say) because there are opportunities to be bad while looking good. You may have to deal harshly with the upper classes and can sometimes afford to, but you cannot be so hard on the lower classes because they are numerous and you actually need them for economic and military purposes. Develop your own loyal professional soldiery: mercenaries and auxiliaries can't be trusted. Beware of flatterers: you should do the spinning.

There is one which might prove more controversial. Chapter XVII is Of Cruelty and Mercy . . and it insists that a prince should aim to be both loved and feared. I guess that most Prime Ministers, Managing Directors, Vice-Chancellors, Headmistresses &c in our own day would agree with that. But they might not go on to argue that:

. . since it is difficult to join them together, it is much safer to be feared than to be loved when one of the two must be lacking.
Much vaguely liberal sentiment in our own day insists that love is more durable than fear, but Machiavelli professes the exact opposite.

The primacy of fear is based on an account of human nature which is parallel to that of Hobbes (Ch. XVII):

For one can generally say this about men: they are ungrateful, fickle, simulators and deceivers, avoiders of danger, greedy for gain; and while you work for their good they are completely yours, offering you their blood, their property, their lives and their sons . . . when danger is far away; but when it comes nearer to you they turn away.
And also in the spirit of Hobbes is Machiavelli's oft-repeated view that if you offer men order and refrain from stealing their women and confiscating their property you will have a good deal of leeway. With Hobbes, of course, this becomes a precise calculation of the rights which must be ceded to the sovereign and the limits of the subject's obligation to accept and obey. But in Machiavelli it is a general form of advice to princes about what you can usually get away with.

I have suggested that Machiavelli is a consequentialist in a modern way, even a Utilitarian. He fits well into that form of argument about Utilitarianism which suggests that, as the scale of consequences increases, Utilitarianism becomes increasingly unanswerable. "Thou shalt not kill" is a perfectly decent rule for perfectly decent ordinary chaps, but it is a rule which princes must disobey. But the cruel and nefarious must be justified by consequences. One of the people whose wickedness was gratuitous and useless was Commodus, Emperor of Rome 180-92 and the son of Marcus Aurelius (Ch. XIX). The account of Commodus is essentially similar to that in Gibbon – or, for that matter, in Ridley Scott's film Gladiator.

But in the final, twenty-sixth, chapter there is another purpose by no means simply derived from the general ideas of order and utility. A certain political passion, which has been absent so far, gives Machiavelli's voice a different tone. It is an Italian national project for ridding Italy of the "barbarians" who stomp all over it and a yearning for a prince who is up to the task. It will not be easy and will require the construction of complex alliances for:

whenever there has been an army made up completely of Italians it has always made a poor showing.
The model must be Ferdinand of Aragon and his achievements in Spain: Machiavelli sees his famous piety merely in terms of excellent tactics. Unfortunately, the candidate whom he had in mind was Lorenzo de' Medici, who died shortly after Il Principe was written - so Machiavelli did not bother to publish it.

Lincoln Allison has recently retired as Reader in Politics, University of Warwick. His previous Retrospective Reviews can be read here.


Comments Notice
This comments facility is the property of the Social Affairs Unit.
We reserve the right to edit, amend or remove comments for legal reasons, policy reasons or any other reasons we judge fit.

By posting comments here you accept and acknowledge the Social Affairs Unit's absolute and unfettered right to edit your comments as set out above.
Comments

"... Machiavelli's practical maxims seem pretty much common sense. You must be both lion and fox: there are times for strength, but also for cunning."

But how does the ruler know *which* time it is? No "crib" can tell him that - and surely Oakeshott is right in calling _The Prince_ a crib:

"The project of Machiavelli was, then, to provide a crib to politics, a political training in default of a political education, a technique for the ruler who had no tradition."

http://www.mugu.com/cgi-bin/Upstream/oakeshott-rationalism-politics

Posted by: Mike at February 2, 2006 03:23 PM
•••
"Machiavelli, on the other hand, belongs in the business school of a modern university. When I was a young visiting academic at Stanford I used to sneak into lectures at Stanford Business School. (I played rugby and soccer for them and assumed they owed me a lecture.) I was shocked by the extent to which their training gave you not just the skills, but the tactics of how to further the interests of the organisation you worked for and thereby your own career without regard to any notion of the public interest. Differentiate your product so as to have an element of monopoly and so be able to raise prices. Always have investment options abroad so as to be able to keep wages down at home. Academic economists do not tell you how to run a company and the academic study of law is more relevant to the conceptual dilemmas faced by high court judges than to the negotiation skills needed by commercial lawyers. The study of politics certainly does not tell you how to have a political career or run a country. Only in the business school do they tell you how to be politic in the way that Machiavelli does."
Indeed - I know many first year philosophy students who expected something along the lines of exploring how to think and instead had a more historically based education of what other people thought.

One must always remember that the core aim of most academic courses is to create more academics. For instance, those who love reading often end up hating their courses in English Lit or similar because of the unweaving of the rainbow most such courses involve, not realising that appreciation of literature in any organic sense is entirely beside the point - its about creating a future generation of eager producers of journal articles about the role of sexuality in early modern Italy et al

Posted by: jimmy mcqueen at February 7, 2006 10:50 PM
•••
Post a comment








Anti-spambot Turing code







Creative Commons License
Except where otherwise noted, this site is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

The Social Affairs Unit's weblog Privacy Statement