Written to win favour with the Governor of Florence, Lorenzo de Medici, Machiavelli’s ‘The Prince’ was conceived in a desperate attempt to return himself to politics. His intention was to produce a practical guide on how to attain and retain political power. In this article the question I’m interested in is whether Machiavelli’s ‘The Prince’ is still relevant today.
Now hailed as one of the seminal works of the time, it is easy to read the first chapters and wonder what all the fuss is about – I know that’s how I felt. While the first half of the book may seem obsolete, the second half is fantastically perceptive, and there are multiple parallels to modern politics which I shall draw later under ‘The Prince In Modern Times’. Before that let’s take a quick look at the book in summary.
Chapters I to XI
Machiavelli outlines the book’s purview in chapters I and II. It is clear from the start that ‘The Prince’ is a book about autocracy, with the first chapters used to define the different forms of principality and prince to which the book applies.
Moving through to the next few chapters, Machiavelli outlines the relative strengths and weaknesses of hereditary, mixed, ecclesiastical and new principalities, and sets the scene for the core of the book, which I think arguably starts at chapter XV.
The central tenet here is that a prince must rule in accordance with the type of principality he is governing over – for example, hereditary principalities are much more easily maintained than new principalities because the subjects are accustomed to the family rule.
Chapters XII to XIV
Chapters XII to XIV are concerned with military proficiency, and explain the desired composition of a prince’s army. Native soldiers, born into a hereditary principality, are by far the most reliable (and therefore desirable) cannon fodder. Mercenaries and Auxiliaries, for obvious reasons, are much less desirable – an astute prince should never allow that he is fully dependent on such an army.
While chapters I to XIV offer an insight into the nature of sixteenth century political rule, I thought the context was anachronistic, and less useful in today’s context than what comes later.
Chapters XV to XXIII
It is at this point that Machiavelli’s ‘The Prince’ realises itself as the momentous treatise it is. From chapter XV, Machiavelli is concerned with the nature of the prince himself. Although the changing political landscape may have rendered the first part of the book out-of-date, the nature of a ruler remains as it did in 1500.
What separates Machiavelli is his ability to relate his work to reality. Of course, people would all agree that there is an ideal character of a prince. However, Machiavelli concludes that this is not achievable and in striving for it, the prince will ruin himself. It is crucial that the prince knows when to be immoral.
Machiavelli answers questions about the legitimate characteristics of a successful leader, and how it is that he might be required to behave. I have reduced Machiavelli’s thoughts into a series of postulates listed below:
- It is important for the Prince to maintain the goodwill of his people – this will be a far better defense than any stronghold.
- It is better for the prince to be feared rather than loved.
- The successful prince must strive for great projects to enhance their reputation.
- Princes must surround themselves with wise advisers instead of flatterers.
- It is better to break a promise than keep a promise in opposition with the prince’s interests.
- It is better for the prince to be stingy rather than generous
These insights are logical. Machiavelli is firmly rooted in practicality and as such makes no pretenses to ideology. The role of the prince is a dirty one, and requires of the prince an ability to act unethically without a second thought.
Why must the prince be stingy? Because generosity is an important illusion to maintain – If a prince gives other people’s property away he can afford to publicly display lavishness, but if he is giving up his own wealth, he will end up penniless and loathed.
This same sort of thought process is continued through for each maxim; this particular section of the book is the reason why to this day it is my favourite work I have ever read, and why I chose to write about ‘The Prince’ before any other book on this blog. If ever you are stuck on what to read next, this is the reason why you should pick up a copy of ‘The Prince’.
The Prince In Modern Times
Armed now with a brief introduction to the book and having condensed these maxims right down, it is fascinating to consider whether the concepts are still prevalent in mainstream politics today, five hundred years after first being written. I suppose this isn’t too surprising – Tony Blair was once rumoured to keep a copy of The Prince in his jacket pocket at all times.
Ruling With Fear
Remember the recent parliamentary campaign ran by Theresa May? She received the highest number of votes and seats with a campaign centred around her being a ‘bloody difficult woman’. It is true to say that she is more feared than loved.
The Importance of Wise Advisers
We need only look back to the Conservative leadership campaign and ask Boris Johnson how important wise advisers are! We won’t be forgetting that palaver with Michael Gove for a long while.
Of course, left right and centre, politicians are striving to achieve great projects for reputational gain. Donald Trump’s plans for a wall spanning the Mexican border springs to mind (of course I am using ‘great’ in the loosest sense of the word here). Farage and co. managing to successfully begin the process of withdrawal from the EU might serve as a more applicable example here.
It’s obvious that in today’s age of mainstream media no politician can break a promise and go unnoticed. This doesn’t mean that they’re not at it! Political commentators agree that the Conservatives failed to implement a large percentage of their manifesto pledged in 2010 – the most recent full term had by a Government. Of course they had their obstacles, but nonetheless this alone goes some way towards validating my belief in Machiavelli’s relevance today.
Stingy Government Policy
This one is quite straightforward. George Osborne’s entire mantra was centred around political austerity and proved the epitome of stinginess.
Returning full circle back with the 2017 General Election, Theresa May thought it was important enough to risk her commons majority that she strive for vindication of her leadership. Of course, this didn’t work out as well as she had hoped. In the coming days, I will be interested to see whether she can hang on to the goodwill of her party, or whether she will be off to the Job Centre along with her other unsuccessful MPs. Take a look at my article assessing her most likely replacements here.
There you have it, my quick review of Machiavelli’s ‘The Prince’ and a few examples of why it is especially relevant today. Leave a comment below – have you read the book? Did you love it as much as I did? Let me know!