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September Books 22) The Prince

22) The Prince, by Niccolò di Bernardo dei Machiavelli

As part of my newly self-inflicted reading programme, this was a merciful relief in that it is a) very short and b) a non-fiction essay about a subject that I am very interested in. Also I read it electronically, thanks to the excellent FictionWise. No trees died for this review.

I found it very thought-provoking. The style is a little reminiscent of Sun Tzu's The Art of War - less staccato, of course, and with rather too many references to events contemporary to Machiavelli which I have only dimly heard of, if at all. Machiavelli's strictures on statecraft for the autocratic ruler are not hugely relevant for Western democracies, where the executive's freedom to do what they want is (thank God!) hemmed in by many legal and political restrictions.

But for a number of the countries that I take an interest in, which have democratic form but not content, his analysis is actually a much better explanation of their rulers' behaviour, and a useful metric for predicting whether they will succeed or fail, than any appeal to democratic theory. To take one example that is no longer contemporary, I read the passage on a Civil Principality, "where a leading citizen becomes the prince of his country, not by wickedness or any intolerable violence, but by the favour of his fellow citizens", and thought of Eduard Shevardnadze and his downfall.

And indeed some of his strictures have a wider application than merely to autocratic rulers' domestic policies. His observation that while you may have to choose being feared over being loved, you must avoid at all costs being hated, has obvious read-through to external as well as internal interventions in any country's politics.

The last few chapters - on choosing the right person to be your right-hand man, while at the same time avoiding the attentions of flatterers - are obviously (as matgb commented) to be seen in the light of the entire book being a job application; but they are none the less important observations on the psychology of leaders and their advisers.

So yeah, an excellent read. The next on the list will take me a bit longer, I think...

Comments

( 11 comments — Leave a comment )
sciamanna
Sep. 27th, 2006 09:41 pm (UTC)
...psssst.... Bernardo :-)

I like Il Principe. In secondary school once, on a kind of a dare, I turned in an essay about it in cross-rhymed quatrains. The teacher didn't actually complain, but said she wanted the prose version as well :-)
nwhyte
Sep. 28th, 2006 06:24 pm (UTC)
Bernardo's right, as Anna claims.
I've changed the Wikipedia page.
And though it took me quite an age,
I almost managed crossed quatrains!
sciamanna
Sep. 29th, 2006 11:39 am (UTC)
Bravo!

(I thought for a while of an answer, but my brain is fried. Funnily enough, that wouldn't stop me writing metrically-correct verse in Italian, but in English it's a lot harder because, after all these years, I still have trouble with stresses and where they're supposed to fall...)
matgb
Sep. 27th, 2006 11:19 pm (UTC)
On the style and structure, the way he laid it out is very interesting (as in, learning this passed me my degree); it's deliberately set out to naturally lead to the area that he most wants to cover, by at each point having to areas to write about, and essentially dismissing one as easy to deal with, etc.

IIRC, one of the earliest examples of a coherent logical structure, but that might be me misremembering. My copies are on the back seat of my car, found them while tidying, I keep lending them out. It may be considered owning two editions, with different translators, is overkill, d'you think?

Must reread, and the discourses, glossed them when studying a little, will make more sense now. Anyway, nice review I think, thanks.
sciamanna
Sep. 29th, 2006 11:40 am (UTC)
Overkill? Learning Italian so you can read it in the original *may* be overkill... (mind you, it's beautifully written, as the Other Anna says...)
matgb
Sep. 29th, 2006 12:08 pm (UTC)
Friend of mine did that, I mentioned he was getting a tad obsessive, he responded that learning another language was a good thing regardless. Monlingual me shut up at that point...
annafdd
Sep. 28th, 2006 06:07 am (UTC)
It's a pity, but probably also a mercy, that you read it in English, because Machiavelli's language is arrestingly, and distractingly, beautiful. Il Principe is, as correctly pointed out, a job application. It's not that Machiavelli lied in it, but it was written for a specific purpose and a specific person. The Discourses, that he wrote mostly for himself, are not as tightly argued or beautifully written, but I would be intrigued to know your opinion of them.
inulro
Sep. 28th, 2006 08:18 am (UTC)
I recently finished The System of the World. While it didn't engage the level of "leave me alone, I'm reading" response that the first two volumes did, I thoroughly enjoyed it.

Apparently it's a minority opinion, but I loved the whole series.

And yes, I should really read "The Prince" one day too.
jdigital
Sep. 28th, 2006 04:57 pm (UTC)
I've been reading that on my PDA. Oh gods it is boring.
nwhyte
Sep. 28th, 2006 05:54 pm (UTC)
But short!
inuitmonster
Sep. 28th, 2006 08:49 pm (UTC)
They often say that The Discourses on Livy is the thing to read if you really want to get to grips with Machiavelli's actual ideas, though I gather it is a bit on the long side. Someone has probably already said this.
( 11 comments — Leave a comment )

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