Thursday, 21 October 1999

Niccolò Machiavelli: The Prince (1514)

Translation: George Bull, 1961
Edition: Penguin, 1977
Review number: 368

There are a few books whose fame is based more on a distorted picture of their contents than on those contents themselves. Examples include the abstraction of the "unities" from The Poetics, and, more recently, the relationship between the writings of Stanislavsky and the dogma of "method acting". The Prince has perhaps suffered more than these two from its reputation, for that reputation accuses Machiavelli of advising princes to act in a hardly honourable way. Machiavelli was so strongly disapproved of that he was frequently equated with the devil during the sixteenth century. This is thought to be the reason for the popularity of the name "Old Nick" in England at this time, for example, though it seems to pre-date Machiavelli in origin. He appears in various Elizabethan plays in this character, notably Marlowe's The Jew of Malta (under a punning version of his name, Make-Evil).

The reason for this disapproval was based around Machiavelli's abandonment of the ideal man of virtue for the man who wishes to succeed in the real world. He explicitly denies that he is writing about the idealised states beloved by ancient philosophers (Plato's Republic is probably the most famous); he is writing about things the way they are. "The gulf between how one should live and how one does live is so wide that a man who neglects what is actually done for what should be done learns the way to self-destruction rather than self-preservation."

This is the seed on which Machiavelli's reputation as a demon was built. For it amounts to a rejection of the teachings of the Christian church, and of the chivalric ideals of the later Middle Ages. The church told men that God would protect and bring honour to the virtuous; chivalry that virtue was the duty of the true knight his burden being to accept what his conduct brought upon him. (I am using the male gender because the idea of a successful female ruler was alien to Western culture for many years to come; England's Elizabeth I succeeded by being as manlike as she could manage.) Such high standards were never maintained; many rulers went beyond Machiavelli's teachings in cynicism and opportunistic behaviour (Philip IV of France is a good example). Machiavelli openly states that this sort of thing is the way to behave in advice aimed at rulers; this is what is shocking about The Prince.

The reason that Machiavelli states this so openly is because of the underlying assumptions he makes. To him, the aims of a ruler are, first and foremost, to retain posession of a kingdom - The Prince deals only with monarchial forms of government - and secondly to enhance his own standing as a ruler. His advice about morality is derived from these ideas. This presupposition is in contrast to the earlier idea that the aims of the ruler should be to honour God, to set an example of obedience to the church, to act as the fount of chivalry for his people, and so on.

Having seen how Machiavelli breaks with the past, the question that follows is how relevant is is writing to the present day, almost five centuries later. The way that nations work and rulers relate to them was already changing in the early sixteenth century; in some ways, the type of states that Machiavelli was writing about already belonged in the past. He still retained unquestioned the idea that the principal function of the prince is to lead the nation in war. Virtually nothing that does not ultimately pertain to warfare is given any attention. But as the modern economic structure developed, this swiftly changed so that finance and trade came to be the dominant factors. Today, too, we in the West live in a culture in which government is far more intrusive into our everyday lives. Custom and tradition are less important and more easily manipulated (principally through the popular media).

But although Machiavelli's understanding of the function of a ruler is today out of date, and with it much of the detail of The Prince (for example, the need to become an excellent hunter to practise skills needed in fifteenth century warfare), his cynical and pragmatic view of life has not. Indeed, it is perhaps the dominant philosophy of our age and is the natural consequence of accepting the idea that we do not answer to any "higher power" for the actions we perform. The methodology adopted by Machiavelli could be applied to almost any situation: first, decide what is to count as success; then look at various ways in which it is possible to act in terms only of whether they will increase chances of success. The word "only" is important; Machiavelli would have us ignore the conventions of morality except to remember that they will influence the way that others think of us, which itself may be an element of the criteria for success.

No comments: