The Prince: or “How to be a Savage 101”

This is a story all about how to flip the world and turn it upside down. Niccoló Machiavelli says, “Sit right there.” as he shows you how to become a prince anywhere.

This was one of the most fascinating and shocking things I’ve ever read and I’d have to file it under “the top 10 most intense intellectual guilty pleasures out there”. It’s essentially a manual on how to get what you want by being a heartless savage.

I don’t have time or space to give this book the in-depth analysis it deserves, but I will give a detailed enough summary to show that I’ve read the book. This post is to show that I’ve read this book, not that I’ve studied volumes of Machiavellian political theory. That being said, I’m going to talk about 3 principles in this book that stood out the most to give you an idea of what The Prince is about.

Also, a lot of the juiciest and most relevant nuggets in this book are in the middle between the pages of 40 and 50. The surrounding chapters talk about things like how the only way to lead a country that’s used to freedom is to destroy it(chapter 5), how violence is the only way to bring change(chapter 6), why it’s always a bad idea to hire mercenaries(chapter 12), and why a prince should be thinking about war 24/7(chapter 14). The principles I’m covering are all in chapters 17 and 18, but are repeated and threaded throughout the book more often than the ones I mentioned above.

Before we get started, a disclaimer. I am in no way endorsing the philosophy in this book so please don’t think that Emmanuel has gone rogue. And please don’t take these principles and run with them yourself because that’s not what I’m encouraging either. I’m just explaining what the book is about.

Principle #1: Don’t be good all the time—just know when and how to be evil

“He ought not to quit good courses if he can help it, but should know how to follow evil courses if he must.”(p. 46)

Machiavelli writes with a very important assumption in mind that has to be stated before reading anything else he says and that’s that everyone is essentially wicked. In his words, “The vulgar are always taken by appearances and results, and the world is made up of the vulgar, the few only finding room when the many have no longer ground to stand on.”(p. 47). Valid—most of us will probably agree that the world is made up of messed up people. But Machiavelli then moves on to assume that, therefore, if you want to be an effective leader, you cannot be good all the time. You will have to also be wicked in order to get things done. Because the vast majority of people are wicked, leaders who are honest, truthful, and merciful will eventually get taken advantage of at best or killed off at worst.

He argues that effective leaders need to be as wise as foxes, but as brutal as lions. The same way a fox will never beat a wolf no matter how clever it is, an effective leader will never defeat cruel enemies by simply being wise—he has to match their cruelty when it’s necessary.

So, Machiavelli argues, it’s critical for “a prince who desires to maintain his position, to have learned how to be other than good, and to use or not use his goodness as necessity requires.” (p. 40) In other words, if you want to be an effective leader, you have do be willing to do bad things.

Principle #2: It’s better to be feared than loved

“It might perhaps be answered that we should wish to be both, but since love and fear can hardly exist together, if we must choose between them, it is far safer to be feared than loved.”(p. 43)

Machiavelli argues that while it would be wonderful for a leader to be both feared and beloved by his people, it’s not realistic. The reality is that people are wicked, selfish, and deceitful. So if they have a leader that they love, they’ll most likely disobey him because they assume he’s not going to punish them. Therefore, the only way for a leader to keep his people in check is to make them fear him. 

But, Machiavelli argues, a leader shouldn’t be so cruel that his people hate him. There is, he argues, a tasteful way of using cruelty. Bad cruelty, he says, increases with time and the power that results doesn’t last. Good cruelty, on the other hand, is used once in the beginning, and is followed by wonderful blessings on the people. “Injuries, therefore, should be inflicted all at once, that their ill savor being less lasting may less offend; whereas, benefits should be conferred little by little, that so they may be more fully relished.”(p. 23) In other words, make everyone remember the cruelty to keep them in check, but make them feel the goodness of the rewards to keep them happy.

Principle #3: You don’t have to be good—just look good.

“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.”(p. 46)

This is the signature Machiavellian quality. Even though it’s important to have people fear you more than they love you and you have to be willing to do certain cruel and evil things, Machiavelli argues that an effective leader still needs to look like a good person to the people. If you’re just cruel and deceitful and you’re not even trying to act godly, then no one’s going to like you. But if you manage to maintain an image of goodness, then everyone appreciates that. This is why, regardless of how shady or unshady the actions of politicians are, they usually make every effort to show that they’re a Bible-believing Christian.

To take it a step further, in the second half of the quote above, Machiavelli says it would be detrimental for a leader to actually possess nothing but godly qualities. If the leader is relentlessly godly, he argues, they’ll ultimately tie their own hands because they won’t be willing to do the dirty, savage acts that will inevitably be required of them.

The most brutal example of this comes from the book itself. Machiavelli mentions that a man named Duke Valentino took over Romagna(a region in Italy) and appointed a man named Remiro d’Orco over it for a little while. D’Orco was stern and cruel, cutting off people’s heads, stealing property, and all other sorts of not fun things in order to get the region under control. Then, once everyone was in check because of d’Orco’s savagery, Duke Valentino came in and beheaded d’Orco in front of the people to convince them that he hadn’t been a part of that cruelty. And as a result everyone was both shocked and satisfied with the Duke’s actions(pp. 17-18),

Conclusion

The essence of a Machiavellian prince is that he is trying to do good by using both good and evil acts. The end justifies the means. In addition, while doing evil, he has to still maintain a good reputation with the people. So the equation is essentially:

evil acts + good image = machiavellian prince.

According to Machiavelli, it’s impossible to be both ethical and effective—you have to be evil to beat evil. You have to fight fire with firebending, knowing how and when to manipulate it so you don’t get burned, and all the while, making everyone think that you’re still more good than you really are.

Whether you agree or disagree, comment to let me know your thoughts.

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