Crawl Across the Ocean

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

57. The Prince

Note: This post is the fifty-seventh in a series. Click here for the full listing of the series. The first post in the series has more detail on the book 'Systems of Survival' by Jane Jacobs.

As you might have guess by the title, this week's post concerns the book, 'The Prince' by Niccolo Machiavelli. Written in 1513, it consists of advice to those who would be Prince (leader) of a territory.

Machiavelli starts with a discussion of the value of tradition for the Prince, vs. the hazards of innovation. Machiavelli sees this not so much as a question of morals but a practical question - given that subjects prefer tradition to innovation, this is the easier course for the Prince:

"I say at once there are fewer difficulties in holding hereditary states, and those long accustomed to the family of their prince, than new ones; for it is sufficient only not to transgress the customs of his ancestors, and to deal prudently with circumstances as they arise, for a prince of average powers to maintain himself in his state, unless he be deprived of it by some extraordinary and excessive force; and if he should be so deprived of it, whenever anything sinister happens to the usurper, he will regain it."

and later,

" ought to be remembered that there is nothing more difficult to take in hand, more perilous to conduct, or more uncertain in its success, than to take the lead in the introduction of a new order of things, because the innovator has for enemies all those who have done well under the old conditions, and lukewarm defenders in those who may do well under the new. This coolness arises partly from fear of the opponents, who have the laws on their side, and partly from the incredulity of men, who do not readily believe in new things until they have had a long experience of them. Thus it happens that whenever those who are hostile have the opportunity to attack they do it like partisans, whilst the others defend lukewarmly, in such wise that the prince is endangered along with them."

Machiavelli reserves some of his harshest criticism for the use of mercenaries (a classic case of mixing guardian and commercial virtues) - he sees the use of mercenaries as the primary reason why Italy was unable to defend itself against foreign adversaries:

"...if one holds his state based on these arms, he will stand neither firm nor safe; for they are disunited, ambitious, and without discipline, unfaithful, valiant before friends, cowardly before enemies; they have neither the fear of God nor fidelity to men, and destruction is deferred only so long as the attack is; for in peace one is robbed by them, and in war by the enemy. The fact is, they have no other attraction or reason for keeping the field than a trifle of stipend, which is not sufficient to make them willing to die for you.

They are ready enough to be your soldiers whilst you do not make war, but if war comes they take themselves off or run from the foe; which I should have little trouble to prove, for the ruin of Italy has been caused by nothing else than by resting all her hopes for many years on mercenaries"

On the topic of ethics, Machiavelli seems to have two classes of morals. There is one set of behaviours that is so vile that it cannot be praised, even if it allows the prince to hold on to his territory and his command. Thus Machivelli, describing Agathocles of Syracuse,
"Yet it cannot be called talent to slay fellow-citizens, to deceive friends, to be without faith, without mercy, without religion; such methods may gain empire, but not glory. Still, if the courage of Agathocles in entering into and extricating himself from dangers be considered, together with his greatness of mind in enduring and overcoming hardships, it cannot be seen why he should be esteemed less than the most notable captain.

Nevertheless, his barbarous cruelty and inhumanity with infinite wickedness do not permit him to be celebrated among the most excellent men."

But with respect to other behaviours, Machiavelli takes a different approach suggesting that,
"It is not essential, then, that a Prince should have all the good qualities which I have enumerated above, but it is most essential that he should seem to have them; I will even venture to affirm that if he has and invariably practices them all, they are hurtful, whereas the appearance of having them is useful. Thus , it is well to seem merciful, faithful, humane, religious and upright, and also to be so; but the mind should remain so balanced that were it needful not to be so, you should be able and know how to change to the contrary.

And you are to understand that a Prince, and most of all a new Prince, cannot observe all those rules of conduct in respect whereof men are accounted good, being often forced, in order to preserve his Princedom, to act in opposition to good faith, charity, humanity, and religion."

Machiavelli believes that this course will work out because, "...if a Prince succeeds in establishing and maintaining his authority, the means will always be judged honourable and be approved by everyone."

Having said all that, Machiavelli goes on to clarify that a Prince should avoid at all costs taking those actions which will cause him to be hated by the people, making a distinction between being feared and being hated,
"a prince ought to inspire fear in such a way that, if he does not win love, he avoids hatred; because he can endure very well being feared whilst he is not hated, which will always be as long as he abstains from the property of his citizens and subjects and from their women. But when it is necessary for him to proceed against the life of someone, he must do it on proper justification and for manifest cause, but above all things he must keep his hands off the property of others, because men more quickly forget the death of their father than the loss of their patrimony."

Furthermore, Machiavelli states that, "a Prince is despised when he is seen to be fickle, frivolous, effeminate, pusillanimous, or irresolute."

Generally, Machiavelli's recommendations hew quite well to the Guardian syndrome. He opposes the use of mercenaries which violates the precept of 'shun trading', he acknowledges the value of respect for tradition in Guardian work, he approves of 'deceit for the task' and commends those Princes who 'exert prowess' and those soldiers who are loyal, obedient and respect hierarchy. The one point of disagreement between Machiavelli and the guardian syndrome is that whereas the Guardian syndrome contains the precept, 'dispense largesse', Machiavelli cautions against doing this to excess as it will only lead to the financial ruin of the Princedom, suggesting that a reputation as a miser is something a Prince must put up with in order to be able to run military campaigns without overburdening the populace.

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