Some more thoughts on the specificity of The Prince

Early impressions here.

The benefit to doing two discussion salons on the Great Books is that you read a book, discuss a book, and then discuss a book again a month later with the second group. This digestion period has been the most useful thing when it comes to reading the books, since it provides a reason to come back to my notes and assorted post-its about each work.

Having the benefit of a second go-around, I’ve clarified a lot of my first impressions about the book, especially around the broader applicability of what he’s talking about. Specifically, I realized that I was reading it as a guide for people, when really it’s about states. The Prince might more accurately be titled The Principalities or something like that.

To the extent that great “men” move history, The Prince is about how to win the game. (Not, it should be noted, a game you necessarily want to play.) Once you reframe the book to be about states and not people, from “Machiavelli’s guide to life” to “here’s how  states maintain power,” it makes a lot of sense. (I can’t remember who said this in the discussion, but a distinction was drawn between “inward philosophies” and “outward philosophies” that I think is quite useful. Most self-help is inward-facing, whereas The Prince is decidedly outward-looking.)

Ruling, to Machiavelli, is about doing the effective thing, not necessarily the most good. That, for better or worse, is a rule of the game. Within those parameters, law and force, goodwill and hatred, virtue and vice — all become dependent on context and the end result. The Prince is ultimately a book about the macro goal, about effectiveness.

The question is whether he’s right. He takes this pessimistic view of humans, openly acknowledging that some (most?) are fickle and untrustworthy and just out for their own lot. Machiavelli isn’t interested in defining personal morality, only being part of a whole. Society, to him, needs to be organized a certain way because people aren’t entirely altruistic.

I don’t have any concluding thoughts to wrap this up in — all of this is just sort of floating around in my head, probably until I either reread The Prince or until I have time to check out the secondary material in the Norton Critical Edition. This is why reading the greats is so enjoyable, though!

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