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 imperial aggressors on how they 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, such as all of our recent clones of Tony Blair, such as Nick Clegg and David Cameron.

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, who cast such a long shadow 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, because I’m a pretty straight guy.

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 Middle East blowback:

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 George Bush asks you to help him go to war in Iraq and Afghanistan, 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 failed to read ‘The Prince’, because Machiavelli had plenty of advice for our favourite ever Chancellor of the Exchequer, which he has obviously missed:

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 was talking about, as well as George Osborne, another rapacious clot.

Machiavelli even outlines the entire decade of Gordon Brown’s spending programme, which has the UK in such a fiscal mess, 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, in your next life, just read the Machiavelli if you want to be the Principal, or the Prince, or the Ruler. The Italian also has this advice:

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.

He even manages to offer advice for the Cameron and Clegg relationship, as well as the earlier Blair and Brown relationship:

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.

So all British Princes and Discworld-style Patricians 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.

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.



About Andy Duncan

An Austrian Internet Vigilante trying to live Outside the Asylum
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One Response to Niccolo Machiavelli: The Prince

  1. Pingback: » Blog Archive » Machiavelli’s “The Prince” — a review

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