When reading “The Prince,” one cannot help but feel Machiavelli’s frustration and pain. His pain could have been rooted in his exile, his desire to return to political life, or perhaps even the desire to reunite Italy. Or maybe it was something else entirely. Perhaps only Machiavelli knows for sure.
Machiavelli clearly loved his country, but he also seemed to have a strong understanding that both power and rule were fragile. In that, he provided a few suggestions to Lorenzo de’ Medici – but perhaps the world. Machiavelli believed that his study of Cesare Borgia was as valuable as any gift often provided to a ruler. This is evidenced by his dedication which states that “those who are seeking favor from the ruler typically bring gifts of ‘horses, weapons, cloths of gold, precious stones, and similar ornaments,” and that “I have found among my possessions none that I so much prize and esteem as a knowledge of the actions of great men.” He was right. Insight into leadership and power is precious, regardless of where you find yourself in the pecking order. This is because such insight can provide both steps to take and cautions to exercise.
While Machiavelli provides readers with an exceptional example of political realism, he also demonstrates a need to distrust political processes and those in power. At the same time, he details the tactics that tyrants use. Was this on purpose? I was once told that “The Prince” could be considered the handbook for authoritarian leaders, a proverbial “how to” of authoritarianism. After all, Machiavelli does a fantastic job of demonstrating expedient practices of corruption, deception, and the deployment of fear tactics for solidifying power and long-term control.
Maybe that is the point. When I read it, I hear it as a warning. While “The Prince” speaks of securing and fostering power in a way that might flatter Medici, I cannot help but see it as Machiavelli pulling back the curtain and providing the robust list of tactics used by tyrants. I also cannot help but wonder if this piece was a coded message.
Start by considering that Machiavelli was imprisoned, tortured, and exiled by the Medici family. It would be hard to imagine anyone helping the family responsible for such things. Let us also remember that this was evidently a personal message to Lorenzo de’ Medici. If that was Machiavelli’s true purpose, then his attempt to demonstrate his knowledge and strategic abilities to Medici was ultimately unsuccessful because Machiavelli died before the book was published and because Medici never read the contents.
Furthermore, some clues support this interpretation. Laced throughout his work are voices of contrast to the supposed instruction of oppression. A great example of this is the obvious statement that “a Prince can never secure himself against a disaffected people, their number being too great.” Another great example might be in his words that “men are so simple, and governed so absolutely by their present needs, that he who wishes to deceive will never fail in ﬁnding willing dupes.” It seems to me that if Machiavelli was making a case for anything, he made the case against tyrannical methods while also providing instructions on how to identify and guard against them. These examples might translate into “think long-term, do not fall for the misdirection and unite.” These are powerful but merely a couple of examples of many.
Unfortunately, regardless of how one interprets this piece, it is probably safe to say he was unsuccessful. Not only was his work not received by the stated intended recipient, but his work continues to be debated (and perhaps misunderstood) hundreds of years later. Many today see his work in a negative light. Meanwhile, people continue to fall for the divide-and-conquer tactics and the “ends justify the means” approach often used by power-hungry rulers. I don’t believe this would be the case if people were more aware of how such tactics are deployed.
One of the more significant lessons I pull from this is that we need to remember that there is a difference between “good information” and “emotional information.” One can receive good information that is negative, and one need not like the information provided to weaponize it. Knowing how to do something does not necessarily equate to immoral or unethical behavior. Intentions and outcomes matter. In the end, the result is simple: if the message was missed (or unexamined), so too was the lesson – which equates to the status quo.
THE PRINCE by Niccolò MACHIAVELLI
UPDATE: Since first writing this, I have found an article that echoes my position. A story by Dr. Erica Benner titled “Have we got Machiavelli all wrong?” A great read… and she articulates the spirit of what I’m saying MUCH better.
Machiavelli, Niccolo. The Prince, translated by N.H. Thomson. Vol.XXXVI, Part 1. The Harvard Classics. New York: P.F. Collier & Son,1909–14; Bartleby.com, 2001. www.bartleby.com/36/1/.