The Prince

I should have blogged about this book by Niccolò Machiavelli earlier, because I read it months ago in June during the end of the academic year for the course Leadership. For that course we could choose different leadership theories to analyze for a literature assignment, The Prince was available as a choice because it is seen as the first serious treatise on leadership in Western culture ever. I already possessed the book and it was catching dust on my desk for months because I don’t spend enough time reading books, so the course was a good opportunity to finally read it.

Like the Iliad and the Commentaries on the Gallic War which I discussed previously on this blog, I got the version published in the Oxford World’s Classics series. All three works have English translations which are in the public domain and available for free through Wikisource for example, but I prefer the OWC versions because the introduction, additional information and explanatory notes greatly aid in understanding the work. This is even more the case in The Prince. The work has frequently been misinterpreted to propagate that ‘the ends justify the means’. In fact, Machiavelli never wrote that, he wrote that ‘the ends matter when no other means of establishing a decision exist’, if there is ‘no tribunal to which to appeal’ because he thinks those tribunals rarely exist in political affairs, according to the explanatory note.

In his work Machiavelli gives advice to princes on how to gain, secure and expand their states, utilizing many contemporary and historical examples in the process. While I think Machiavelli is not useful for leadership theory specifically, but very useful for leadership and life in general. Let me give some favorite quotes.

Concerning this, it should be noted that men should be either caressed or wiped out; because they will avenge minor injuries, but cannot do so for grave ones (chapter III).

This made me remember reading about the Battle of the Caudine Forks, of which the Wikipedia article mentions the treatment of Germany after World War I as another good example.

Once evils are recognized ahead of time, they may be easily cured; but if you wait for them to come upon you, the medicine will be to late, because the disease will have become incurable (chapter III).

A beautiful metaphor, as is not uncommon in the work. Note that the introduction also discusses Machiavelli’s mastery over the art of rhetoric extensively. In other words, princes (leaders) need to be visionary, they cannot afford to concern themselves with merely the here and now, but they need to anticipate the future. My interpretation is that life is a game of chess which is best played by looking ahead as many steps as possible.

I consider it to be true that Fortune is the arbiter of one half of our actions, but that she still leaves the control of the other half, or almost that, to us. I compare her to one of those destructive rivers that, when they become enraged, flood the plains, ruin the trees and buildings, raising the earth from one sport and dropping it onto another. Everyone flees before it; everyone yields to its impetus, unable to oppose it in anyway. But although rivers are like this, it does not mean we cannot take precautions with dikes and dams when the weather is calm, so that when they rise up again either the waters will channeled off or their forces will be neither so damaging nor so out of control.

As one of the articles I read for the course Leadership put it, today we live in an illusion of control. Both Fortuna and you are in control of your life. We can never be free from her grasp, but we can anticipate Fortuna’s caprices as good as possible to influence the outcome.

For the literature assignment of the course Leadership I searched for scientific articles concerning Machiavelli and discovered that Machiavelli is still very relevant in the fields of psychology, management and ethics. In psychology Machiavelli is used for the scale of Machiavellianism to describe the behavior of individuals. If a person agrees more with propositions taken from Machiavelli’s work, the person scores higher on the scale [1]. Machiavelli is condemned by some [2], but there are also those that see it in a more positive light. There is much popular literature aimed at transforming Machiavelli’s lessons to modern business, and the most interesting article I read analyzed that literature. It concluded that most of that literature gave a wrong account of Machiavelli’s work and that not all of Machiavelli’s lessons can be applied to modern business. There also is praise for some of Machiavelli’s more useful advice which that literature fails to communicate [3].

While the subject of The Prince is the principality, Machiavelli’s other work titled the Discourses on Livy covers the republic. I have become very curious about it’s content due to the many references made to it in the introduction of my version of The Prince and scientific articles discussing Machiavelli, so I certainly intend to read this work as well.

References:

  1. Bedell, Katrina et al. “A Historiometric Examination of Machiavellianism and a New Taxonomy of Leadership”. Journal of Leadership & Organizational Studies 12:4 (2006), p. 50-72.
  2. Brown, Michael E. and Linda K. Treviño. “Ethical leadership: A review and future directions”. The Leadership Quarterly 17 (2006), p. 595-616.
  3. Galie, Peter J. and Christopher Bopst. “Machiavelli & Modern Business: Realist Thought in Contemporary Corporate Leadership Manuals”. Journal of Business Ethics 65 (2006), p. 235-250.

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