Sunday, December 14, 2008

Review: The Prince by Niccolò Machiavelli

I find the portrait of Machiavelli by Santo di Tito intriguing (shown on the right, generously sponsored by Wiki-something), and I'm evidently not alone: it graces most editions of The Prince that turn up on a quick browse through Amazon. (My own edition, translated and excellently annotated by Wayne A. Rebhorn, is from the bonanza of Barnes and Noble cut-rate classics, and sports a contemporary Portrait of a Gentleman by Bartolomeo Veneto. Those Tuscan Renaissance painters had a thing for knowing looks.) It's a young, boyish Machiavelli, and his smile is a little impish, his eyes are bright and eager. Niccolò looks like a man who is hiding nothing, happy in his knoweldge of the system, unconcerned about its smaller consequences. I hate to judge his work this way, but that smirk is affecting how I scope out how I feel about Machiavelli, raising up a small affection for the man.

Machiavelli is on a par with the big set of Renaissance geniuses, and it's fascinating to me how art and politics became scientific well before chemistry and physics did, how in Machiavelli's case, the study of the workings of the state took such a pragmatic, evidence-based turn under his pen, a good hundred years before Galileo's scientific reasoning got him into trouble with the church. Machiavelli had actually collaborated (unsuccessfully) on some civic works projects with that other great empiricist of his generation, Leonardo da Vinci, and had extended the occasional professional courtesy to the artist. Did one's epistemological sense affect the other's, crossing disciplines, as they were? Certainly there was something in the Tuscan air in those days.

The Prince is written as a primer to young rulers, an alarmingly honest instruction manual to supplant the idealistic moral lessons that new princes might normally receive at that time. (According to Dr. Rebhorn's notes, Erasums had at the time of Machiavelli's writing, recently published such a hopeful instruction manual for instance, chock-a-block with decent Christian humanist motivations.) The Prince came instead from the author's careful diplomatic observations, and from his personal study of Latin historical texts. Machiavelli's tone is a little didactic, but there's a sense of irony, a hint of sarcasm, the occasional wordplay. He's lecturing, and going after the truth as he sees it, but there's an inner amusement behind the writing. The damn smirk.

Although he writes in a lot of thinly supported declarative sentences, he allows himself a great deal of room to work through his thoughts and entertain alternative ideas in the text, and he provides plenty of examples. These are not always easy to follow to his conclusions, in part because his times are so politically complicated to the eyes of a non-historian (or at least this non-historian). He's surrounded by a divided Italy that's constantly shifting alliances with foreign imperial powers, throwing up short-lived rulers and popes to pursue neighboring territories and cities under a too-limited set of proper names. The lengthy supplemental material could take away from the reading if you paused at every footnote, but it's very welcome. Contrasting his complex political environment, the examples Machiavelli pulls from antiquity are often suspect for their simplicity. He's pulling heavily from Livy and other Roman historians, as well as a couple Biblical anecdotes, and when the history gets distant enough, he doesn't shy from accepting the occasional legendary origin story at face value. If the stature of rulers are necessarily fallen in Machiavelli's present, it's unclear whether it's his nostalgia that's coloring his opinion, or his disappointment with Italy's international impotence, or if the mythology is intentional in the comparisons the practical man is trying to draw.

Machiavelli's motivations for The Prince are transparent--he's trying to work up some favor from the Medicis; Niccolò wants his old job back--but it's also clear that Machiavelli is hungry for the renewed international power of a reunited Italy, a new Rome, and he exhorts a new prince to take command and resist the other European powers with Italian forces. He also hungers for a modern version of a Roman-style republic, and there's a strange undercurrent in the writing where, he instructs a prince to power, but the message that he must never earn their contempt through oppression (through theft and disrespect of their customs--they get past love easily enough) or displays of weakness, seems at odds with the contention that a populace allowed to remain accustomed to freedom will eventually overthrow a prince (or will be able to hold out for a weak one). Nor does Fortune, according to Machiavelli, favor the longevity of princely rule. The Prince is a stark lesson on how to be a monarch, but it doesn't really justify monarchy. Aside from that final urge to cast off Italy's foreign bonds, Machiavelli fails to ask the obvious question, the one that contrasts so oddly with his advice to let the people be the people: what good are princes in the first place? They're a natural way to organize society, he implies, but Niccolò the republican also has his own agenda. Are the failures of monarchs built in, and would Italy be better unified under a king, who could then be cast off? Machiavelli is certainly smart enough, and cynical enough, to write in a couple layers of meaning.

Niccolò Machiavelli's political philosophies are very much products of that complicated international context. When wars among small states were inevitable, a military-minded monarch was well-advised, and controlling people with fear and respect could be considered a necessary defense against foreign powers. Machiavelli often notes that a prince succeeds when the people are motivated to fight for him, and he discards other "nobler" internal motivations that idealists would assume lead men to that end. As a modern reader, an obvious question is whether his lessons carry over to today's world, or whether they have been borne out in practice in the intervening five centuries of civilization. Certainly, militarism is alive and well, and those who've risen from the barracks have earned respect, but we moderns often like our bureaucrats too. Machievelli's advice on colonies probably didn't envision such vast cultural differences as the West would eventually encounter in those efforts, but his advice about governing foreigners in their own states while preserving their customs can probably be interpreted on similar grounds. Did the invaders instill fear and respect in the locals? Did they take care to understand local ways? Did they give too much gravy away too early? Did they steal and tax unduly? His advice in conquest to embrace the powerless opposition while keeping them powerless, and domestically to use consel without letting the counsel lead, has likewise not been rediscovered in many an adminstrative post-mortem. There remains a problem of the extent to which a foreign prince is damned by failure to understand the local power structure very well, or the local customs, or even the extent to which he can. (I'm reminded of recent readings of Graham Greene, say, who'd eloquently novelize its inherent doom, and Howard Zinn, who reported the success of stamping out customs and local power on the North American continent, both voicing the people's views of history instead of a prince's.) Machiavelli's advice to project an image of honesty, respect, and fear which is at odds with any personal qualities a leader may have is almost too widely taken and obvious to mention these days, but still, it's best not ignored.


daveto said...

ahh, thanks for that. a while ago i discovered chosing extremely modest (in size) books for on-plane reading fare was the way to go. i'd say like 150 pages max. so many excellent choices. and to go from start to finish, well that's the way to go. anyway, i love this book, it's guileless, priceless and timeless. (p.s. i know you went from memory here, i'd be chicken!)

Keifus said...

More worried about writing it in a rush (and little time now to correct, and awkward to concentrate on that with boss sitting across from me, so maybe tomorrow). Funny how much I'm motivated by the chance to not look stupid. It was how I evaluated the business trip today too.

One thing that I found amusing: political science has made some progress in the intervening 500 years but a lot of his points are still apropos. Meanwhile, in 1513 (or so) chemistry and physics were comically badly informed, and are now so much much further ahead. Scientific approach to politics can only be so useful, maybe. Stupid human behavior, really complex system, and poor data.

"Guileless" is exactly the right word, dammit.

Keifus said...

Evidently, my family feels that a pile of illegibly scribbled scrap papers are indistinguishable from "garbage." The nerve.

Also, I think your example was clever. Tangentially to that: Niccolo had this one line that came out of the blue, about the need to knock Fortune around like any ordinary woman. I mean, I know it's the sixteenth century and all, and you have to let some things go for the times, but it threw me for a loop. (Worse, it culminated a pretty interesting construction.)

Unknown said...

Good insight... keep-up the good work.

May I share an Interview with Niccolo Machiavelli (imaginary)