Early Impressions of The Prince, Machiavelli

The best parts of reading the Great Books is seeing the delta between what you think a book is about versus what the actual text says. I say “what the actual text says” because there really is no substitute to reading the original text (even in translation!). George Bull, in his introduction to The Prince, notes that the book is “more often cited than read,” an observation which feels true of all the books more generally.

My first impression finishing The Prince is surprise in two main areas.

First, I was familiar with the pejorative “machiavellian,” which Apple’s built-in dictionary defines in part as “unscrupulous, especially in politics.” But beyond House of Cards-ian political maneuvering, I was expecting also torture and general depravity for some reason. (As I write this, I realize I was confusing Machiavelli with the Marquis de Sade. Whoops.)

Second, I never knew how specific to a time and place it was. Whether he’s discussing contemporary political figures or exhorting for the freeing of Italy from the barbarians, he’s writing about Italy in the early 1500s, confronting problems specific to the region at the time, and drawing general inferences from there. It feels surprisingly specific: I’m not certain how much I could take generally from it, were I a Frank Underwood type. In fact, given how much he says is circumstantial (fortresses: sometimes good, sometimes bad) and how much vices and virtues have variable definitions based on the realities and specifics of your situation.

On the point of The Prince being a product of its author and his time, it’s also worth noting that Machiavelli was trying to regain favor with the Medici family in Florence at the time: I say this not to deny what he’s saying or to render it untrue, but just to point out that the agenda is there in the background.

I’m indebted to Charles Van Doren who, in The Joy of Reading, points out that Machiavelli’s worldview is predicated on his belief that people are ultimately selfish and fickle in their loyalties. This dim view of humanity is rejected by a lot of people, but we do have to acknowledge that this is the fundamental question that tends to drive most people: are they good and selfless, or are they, in Van Doren’s words, “as cruel as their circumstances allow them to be”?

Irrespective of your worldview, it makes for an interesting debate, then: is Machiavelli (or a Machiavellian outlook) overly cynical and negative, or merely pragmatic?

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