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14 October, 2007

Machiavelli, The Prince And I

Well, that's another one off my list of Books I Really Ought To Read. I finally got round to finishing The Prince by Niccolò Machiavelli. And it wasn't at all what I expected.

For a start, Machiavelli himself seems so paltry. I imagined he would be a man of soaring vision, a man with a deep and convoluted mind, a rich and interesting character. Don't ask me why. What I discovered was a dry, rather dull pedant. In fact, an academic.

I've worked a lot with academics. I had six years studying at uni, three years post-doc research and nine years of collaborative industrial-academic research. So I know of what I speak. There is a type among academics – a very common type, I'm afraid. Intelligent, yet boring, this type will study even the most profound and exciting subjects like a caterpillar chewing at a leaf. They will consume what matter there is, digest it thoroughly, and produce neatly-packaged analyses that, while they contain the essence of what is to be learned, have robbed the subject of all colour and interest.

Essentially a historian rather than a scientist or philosopher, his 'big idea' seems to have been to dump all the quasi-religious, moralistic nonsense about how a leader gets his authority, or how he should operate and instead to look at what really goes on in the world of power-politics. The flat tone of the writing in The Prince is therefore matched by the flat moral tone of the ideas. Machiavelli sensibly concludes that the human race isn't particularly pleasant but from this he seems to deduce that doing unto others before they do unto you is a reasonable foundation for a personal ethic. Which may explain the basis of his analysis of the best ways to get and maintain power, which takes the success of the enterprise as the main criterion for judging the actors in it. It's not exactly that the ends justify the means, more that, since getting and keeping power is all that people strive for, any means to those particular ends are alright by Niccolò.

And why does that seem so academic? Because you see academics all the time who don't seem to connect at all with the real world of human emotion. For them, the world is a puzzle to be solved, a fact is a fact, the rules that govern the world are to be found and written down. Mostly, this is harmless. They get their kicks from solving hard puzzles – they get their kudos from solving harder puzzles than their peers, or solving them first. They like to believe that morality and ethics are irrelevant to their endeavour – primarily because they don't have the emotional maturity to deal with the complexities of real life. So they do their work for tobacco companies and religious think tanks, repressive regimes and greedy capitalists just as happily as they would for medical charities and universities in pluralist democracies. And this is what Machiavelli seems to have been like.

Ironically, I've sometimes heard Machiavelli referred to as a realist.

Now I don't know much about the art of war, nor about statecraft, and especially about the acquisition and exercise of power but I do know there was some pretty dodgy reasoning in The Prince. I suspect that, had anyone taken it to heart, it wouldn't have been a great success for them (although possibly it was better than anything else available at the time). I also don't know why Lorenzo de Medici, to whom the work was dedicated, didn't accept it wholeheartedly and rush off to unify Italy as Machiavelli wanted him to (perhaps, if he read it, he used the book to help him become Pope – which he achieved about a decade after the book was written).

The thing is this; if you'd just dreamed up a sure-fire scheme to allow someone to gain great power and then hold it, regardless of who got hurt, would you rush out to put it in the hands of a Medici?

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