Niccolo Machiavelli’s The Prince

And here we reach stop #2 on my apparent Read and Become an Asshole Tour. (If I continue, #3 might as well be either Atlas Shrugged or I Hope They Serve Beer in Hell) Now what would be more appropriate than a book whose author attained such notoriety that his name became synonymous with the Devil?

Evil Fun Fact: the Satanic epithet “Old Nick” comes from Niccolo.

Ah, the Italian Renaissance---when men were men who looked ostensibly like women.

Ah, the Italian Renaissance---when men were men who were so often mistaken as women.

Machiavelli’s most reviled statement, which has come to define The Prince as a whole, is that a leader is better off being feared than loved. But that line is actually preceded by Machiavelli’s somewhat less reprehensible observation that “it would be best to be both loved and feared. But… the two rarely come together.” So as for the rest of us… well, consider growing an imposing moustache and wearing an eyepatch, for starters.

Okay, there’s more to it than that. Here are some of his iconic statements on how a leader must think and behave:

“Men must either be pampered or annihiliated. They avenge light offenses; they cannot avenge severe ones. Hence, the harm one does to a man must be such as to obviate any fear of revenge.” (Ch. 3)

“He who causes another to become powerful ruins himself.” (Ch. 3)

“All armed prophets have succeeded where all unarmed ones have failed.” (Ch.6)

“Injuries must be committed all at once so that, being savored less, they will arouse less resentment. Benefits, on the other hand, should be bestowed little by little so as to be more fully savored.” (Ch.8)

“The mob is always impressed by appearances and by results; and the world is composed of the mob.” (Ch.18)

“….when occasion serves, a wise prince will cunningly provoke opposition and then, by routing it, increase his own stature.” (Ch.20)

Story goes that Machiavelli wrote and presented The Prince as an educational gift for the fledgling Lorenzo de Medici, practically with a resumé and cover letter asking for a permanent job as political advisor. The author was a statesman who knew both success and failure (though his most dramatic failures are historically thought to be the fault of the reckless ruler he was advising), legitimizing his claim to wisdom in all political situations.

Anachronistic Fun Fact: If Machiavelli had been advisor to President Bush during the Iraq War, he’d have been fired. Niccolo would have suggested the preemptive strike, certainly, but his insistence that The President then pack his bags and actually go live in the desert nation he had just smashed and conquered, though, would not have been as appreciated.

There are plenty of logical criticisms one might fling at The Prince, but anyone who decries it as “bad ethics” is making a silly statement. The Prince, in reality, has nothing at all to do with ethics—and that’s precisely the problem people have with it. What is right, according to Old Nick, is not the issue but rather what is effective; acting effectively may include the right thing or it may not. In short, if you’re worrying about the morality of your actions as a leader, you are handicapping your abilities. In The Prince, ethics is a non sequitur.

“A man who strives after good in all his acts is sure to come to ruin, since there are so many men who are not good.” (Ch.15)

I’ll leave off with what to me was real WTF statement of The Prince, which had little to do with its philosophy per se:

“… fortune is a woman and in order to be mastered she must be jogged and beaten.” (Ch.25)

Enchanting. I think that’s a perfect tone to set for reviewing Tucker Max, if I really had to.

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