This past week, I was doing a little light reading on the beach while on vacation. What’s lighter and fluffier than Niccolò Machiavelli’s political, philosophical page-turner, The Prince? Ok, so it’s not much of a beach read, but the teacher in me thoroughly enjoyed the lessons in humanities and theories of dictatorships. It is quite clear that he had an affinity for Cesare Borgia. Cesare embodies the virtu and prowess that Machiavelli praises in his treatise on ruling principalities. Not a chapter goes by without a mention of this infatuation and idolization of the late, great Cesare Borgia. Machiavelli’s man-crush aside, as I read through this short book about how to become a maniacal, deposit ruler (who is not hated but feared…I’m getting ahead of myself already), three questions kept surfacing in my mind:
1. Does the end always justify the means?
2. Is it better to be loved or feared? (see? I already answer it!)
3. Who holds the fate of the world: fortune, God, or both? And how does one gain favor?
Question 1: When total domination is at stake, does the end always justify the means? For the average person, the end does not always justify the means. Most people who live by this maxim end up pumping iron and learning new languages in prison. Just because you conned all those people out of their money via Ponzi scheme, doesn’t mean the long arm of the law won’t find you and lock you up courtesy of the hardworking taxpayers. But, things in Renaissance Italy were a little different than today’s view of morality and justice. So, again I will pose the question that was stewing in my mind this week as a I read The Prince: does the end always justify the mean? Machiavelli would shout a big “HELL, YES!” Here’s one of the many reasons why it’s ok to throw the rulebook out the window: “men are wicked and not prepared to keep their word to you, [clearly] you have no need to keep your word to them.” Basically, it’s ok to lie to liars. But, hold the phone! He also says in the same chapter a mere two paragraphs later, “a prince must be careful that no word escape his mouth that is not filled with the five qualities…mercy, loyalty, humaneness, integrity, and scrupulousness.” Hmmm, interesting, what about all that lying to liars business? Bipolar-much? Thus is the nature of this handbook on world domination.
Question 2: Ok, so I already hinted at where this is going, but if you’re reading this blog, you have probably read The Prince and know the answer to this question as outlined by chapter 17: as a ruler, is it better to be loved or feared? In this case, you probably cannot have your cake and eat it too. In Machiavelli’s perfect world, to be loved and feared at the same time would be the bee’s knees, but since Fortune is so capricious and God is so indifferent, you can’t have both. Sorry. Therefore, Machiavelli would suggest that being loved is not of importance to a prince or leader or ruler (what have you), but it is more important not to be hated. You might think that not being hated is reciprocal of being loved; however, it is not always the case. Really, Machiavelli is more concerned with the appearance of being loved. It’s all so political. It’s all a front. And really its all about control. As Machiavelli explains in chapter 18: “Everyone sees what you seem to be, but few experience what you really are” (my translation puts it: “but few feel what you are”). Princes should play “good cop” once they have gained their position (the gloves come off and hitting below the belt and other idioms about playing dirty are all acceptable while trying to obtain the title). He says in chapter 19, “Princes must delegate difficult tasks to others and keep popular ones for themselves.” Spoken like a true adviser to politicians. It is better to be “not-hated” and feared at the same time. He finishes his chapter on mercy versus cruelty with this poignant opinion: “Returning to the question of being feared or loved, I conclude that since men love at their own will and fear at the will of the prince, a wise prince [like the dreamy Cesare Borgia with a heart dotted on the i] must build a foundation on what is his own, and not on what belongs to others. At the same time, he must do all in his power to escape being hated, as I have already said [you stupid reader…don’t you get it yet? I already explained this!] At least that’s how I read it…he’s seems a little annoyed and exasperated that he has to repeat himself. I might be reading into it.
Question 3: This one’s a doozie! First, we need to define Fortune. For Machiavelli, Fortune is a fickle woman who needs to be beaten into submission. In chapter 25, nearly the end of his text, Machiavelli advises: “it is better to be impetuous than cautious, because Fortune is a woman, and if you wish to dominate her [and the rest of the world…think Pinkie and the Brain…sorry, I had to lighten the mood…it’s about to get real heavy; back to the quote] you must beat and batter her.” Wait?! What?! Beat and batter her…sounds about right for someone who idolizes the Borgia family. Machiavelli goes on to describe how one “dominates” Fortune: “It is clear that she will let herself be won by men who are impetuous rather than by those who step cautiously. Therefore, like a woman, she is partial to young men, because they are less cautious, wilder, and command her with great audacity.” Can you tell Machiavelli spent a lot of his time in the company of prostitutes? “Oh yes, I love being told what to do,” says the woman being paid to satisfy a man, “please beat and batter me until I capitulate and acquiesce to your demands. Gosh, I love a man who leaps before looking.” Sorry, my inner feminist just emerged…she hasn’t surfaced since college. But, while I’m on the subject, what’s the deal with men’s view of Fortune. Hamlet called her a whore…or rather, the more poetic term, “strumpet.” Either way, it seems that Nicco and Will got the short end of the stick one too many times and have immortalized Fortune as a fickle, in-need-of-a-good-beating, fawning harlot.
Where’s God in all this? Basically, according to Machiavelli, God did his thing with the Israelites back in the Old Testament times, and now he’s on sabbatical. We must take hold of our destiny/beat Fortune into submission, “for God does not want to do everything, lest he take from us our free will and that part of the glory that belongs to us.” Right! Because that’s what the omnipotent, omnipresent, and omniscient Creator of the entire cosmos wants…for us to get our “five minutes of fame”; that’s what it’s all about — our glory. Right! This is what happens when your BFF is Cesare Borgia.
On that note, I will conclude by assuring you that I do not hate Machiavelli or his theories. I do, however, see some flaws in his presentation to the Medici family via Lorenzo de’ Medici. Perhaps, as some have suggested, this pamphlet is all satirical. In which case, well played, Niccolò! The joke is totally on Stalin who used this as a “how-to” book; well, then maybe the joke is actually on us…
In all, The Prince was an interesting read and even more interesting to write about. What are your thoughts on Machiavelli and The Prince?