Book Review: The Prince, by Nicolo Machiavelli

Note: I read the George Bull translation, published by Penguin Classics. It has the same content as other versions, but my quotations may be rendered differently elsewhere.

Taught in political science, history, philosophy, and comparative literature classes, there's a lot of angles to take on Machiavelli's magnum opus. Is it a product of his time and experience useful only for monarchs or a timeless how-to guide for democratic politicians, desk jockeys. pick up artists, and athletes alike? That depends on how literally you take it.

Here are the take-aways for those of us focused on self-improvement, rather than for its intended audience of state leaders:

Consequentialism: No Pain, No Gain


The controversy surrounding Machiavelli largely stems from his advocacy of consequentialism, which is the idea that the ends justify the means (though he never wrote that). He says that "[the prince] should not deviate from what is good, if that is possible, but he should know how to do evil, if that is necessary" (57-58). In Machiavelli's view, a small act of evil that serves the larger good is in fact not evil at all. This idea has since been extrapolated into the more general 'ends justify the means' paradigm, and I intend to extrapolate it further for our purposes.

I've talked a lot about process orientation, and how you need to enjoy the process if you ever hope to reach the goal. More than that, goals should be ignored entirely once you have begun the path. Well, what does that mean when the path is itself evil or painful or otherwise decidedly awful?

I don't think Machiavelli's apparent goal-worship contradicts valuing the process. It's not that the process doesn't matter. It's that the intrinsic good of the goal is transferred to the process, making the process all that much better. So maybe don't ignore the goal if it helps you appreciate the process. I do still caution that you should ignore the goal if it stresses you out more than it motivates you.

Aligning Your Interests With the Common Good


What motivated Machiavelli to write such a masterpiece for any one prince? The book shows he has respect for so many different leaders that it's surprising he committed himself to the Medici family. He understands that if a single leader can reign for a significant period of time without subjecting his people to war and bloodshed, that's a huge improvement on the state of affairs in southern Europe circa the 16th century. He aligned his personal interests (fame, glory, security, prosperity) with that of the prince and of his nation. If he just wanted those interests, it would have been insufficient motivation to put so much thought into the work.

He seems to understand this concept himself. He begs Lorenzo de Medici to demand the same loyalty of all his court advisors so that together they can accomplish more than any one alone. And it's not that a collaborative effort is better than an individual's contribution. It's that the individual's contribution, when aligned with the interests of those around him or her, is that much greater in and of itself.

Fortune and Free-Will: Does Anything We Do Matter?



I don't really think you would be reading this blog if you had any doubts about free will. Yes, fortune plays a role. I was born heterosexual, upper middle-class, white, male, and American. I hit the demographic jackpot. And yet I suffer heartbreak, lovesickness, and illness like any other. I was lucky, but finding happiness requires more than what my parents provided me with. Yes, some are luckier than others. But all must work hard to find contentment and success in what they do. All must face ups and downs in their life.

Machiavelli writes that "fortune is the arbiter of half the things we do, leaving the other half or so to be controlled by ourselves" (79). I think that's about right. Being born about as lucky as possible got me no more than half-way to where I'm going. I still have the capacity to be anxious, lazy, frightened, stupid, weak, angry, bitter, and mean.

A Final Word on Machiavelli's Sexism


In one of the most salacious lines of the book, Machiavelli declares, "it is better to be impetuous than circumspect; because fortune is a woman and if she is to be submissive it is necessary to beat and coerce her" (81). I'm not going to bother excusing the line by saying that violence against women was normal in the 16th century or that his accidental celebecy led him to direct his frustration toward women. I'm just going to leave the quotation there and let you make your own conclusions.

Also, if you can get past how disgusting violence against the innocent and defenseless is, he has a point. If you want something, take it. That goes for women (who are already attracted to you) as much as it does for business and anything else. Nobody's going to give it to you.

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Working a full time job for the first time in my life has worn on me. I went to bed before 8pm last night and felt not the slightest bit of shame.