Currently Reading:

Desert Solitaire
by Edward Abbey

The Prince

Niccolò Machiavelli
The Prince

The Prince
Also from my pile of books-you-should-have-read-but-never-did, my most recent read was Machiavelli’s The Prince. We use the word “Machiavellian” in the English language with such regularity that I thought it might be a good idea to give the man a chance to speak for himself. As is so often the case, the result surprised me. First off, it seems impossible to really understand Machiavelli without a pretty thorough knowledge of his contemporary Italian history, which I decisively do not have. Not the big stuff like the date of the fall of Rome, but the little stuff like which Pope courted favors from which prince in which city, and to what effect. While some of Machiavelli’s examples are drawn from the classical Greek and Roman figures, the majority use his lesser-known contemporaries, which leaves quite a bit of his nuance lost on me reading today. I can infer a lot of history from his political examples, but it’s supposed to work the other way around.

However, I can still grasp his principles, which are intended to transcend history. When we invoke the name of Machiavelli, we mean for it to be synonymous with treachery, deceit, and mercilessness. Machiavelli does indeed advocate those things when appropriate, but only as means to an end. That end is the maintenance of the power of the monarch and the order of the state. His point is not that a leader should be cruel, but that a leader should be capable of cruelty when the situation calls for it. A leader need not be subversive all the time (indeed, should not be subversive all the time), but must be skilled at and capable of subversion when necessary to maintain power. It makes an interesting complement to Plutarch’s Lives of the Greeks, which I’ve been reading at the same time. Machiavelli is pretty clear that the preferable method for a monarch is to win the loyalty of the people; failing that, he must subjugate them utterly as to keep them powerless and incapable of revolt. When conquering a foreign state, the ruling family must be wiped out; without that, there are credible forces for organizing a popular uprising.

I’ll admit that it is impossible for me to read The Prince without drawing some parallels to the modern American state. The Bush administration seems to have treated Iraq as a monarchy in the sense that Machiavelli would have understood it — hang the monarch, hunt down the ruling family, and there is nobody left to lead the populace against you. The miscalculation, of course, is to treat “the populace” as a unified body, which it isn’t. In hanging the monarch, you may instead create a power vacuum into which heroes from previously-subjugated castes can arise. As such potential heroes arise in Iraq, they are assassinated in short order. At some point, a more successful hero will probably arise (or be installed by more powerful military forces), and the fear of assassination will mean that he will be a well-armed and highly militant leader, which doesn’t bode well for the region. (Bin Laden, anyone?) As for American domestic politics, it looks like nepotism is alive and well. We’ve endured 12 years of Bushes, and it looks likely that we’ll endure at least 12 years of Clintons. 24 (and maybe 28) consecutive years of the presidency in the same two families? I’ll confess that it worries me, no matter what their political platforms may be. It’s not quite the Medici court, but we’re moving in that direction with major consolidation of executive branch power, and that can’t be good.

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