Machiavellian

December 3, 2010

So I’ve finished with The Prince. I actually think it’s gotten a bad rap. Machiavelli is really just making an argument about the most effective way to gain and retain power, in a very specific historical context (I skipped some of those bits). He’s not making moral arguments, and in fact, when he does, I often found myself agreeing with him:

“Thus it happens in matters of state; for knowing afar off (which it is only given to a prudent man to do) the evils that are brewing, they are easily cured. But when, for want of such knowledge, they are allowed to grow so that everyone can recognise them, there is no longer any remedy to be found.”

“Whoever thinks that in high personages new benefits cause old offences to be forgotten, makes a great mistake.”

And of course the famous feared/loved dichotomy, although people don’t seem to quote the first part:

“…one ought to be both feared and loved, but as it is difficult for the two to go together, it is much safer to be feared than loved, if one of the two has to be wanting.”

I enjoyed the writing style; Machiavelli is clear in terms of the goals of his argument and the topics he chooses to cover, and offers historical explanation for his views. If we don’t want to read the book as political science anymore, maybe we can use it as a writing example for first year English students?

I was struck by one comment in the introduction (by Christian Gauss), though, and maybe it was because I was reading G.W. Bush’s memoir right before:

“To keep our consideration of Machiavelli in perspective it is necessary to remind ourselves that f there is any error involved, it is intellectual error, and that it is one of the fundamental tenets of American democracy that intellectual error is innocent.”

Maybe my liking of Machiavelli, and my disagreement with applying this principle in modern history, is just because it’s so removed from my time that I don’t see the other errors that accompanied the intellectual ones.

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One Response to “Machiavellian”

  1. I think most people find reading Machiavelli anticlimactic. Funnily, tohugh, this may have been how English readers felt when they finally read Machiavelli for the first time. It winds up reaching England well after its original printing on the Continent, but was “pre-read” (still half a century after its original Italian printing) in interpretive pamphlets like Gentillet’s _Anti-Machiavelli_ before a full translation reached Britain. So the first impression the book made in English culture was something far more shockingly anti-human than what’s actually in the text. The perception seems to have stuck!

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