Reading Machiavelli's 'The Prince'
Title: The Prince
Author: Niccolò Machiavelli
Publisher: Oxford University Press, 2008
ISBN-13: 978-0199535699, 186 pages
Review: The Prince
By Thomas Bergen, getAbstract
The end justifies the means. This simple, pragmatic maxim underpins Niccolò Machiavelli's classic work, The Prince. Written in 1513, when Machiavelli was a Florentine registry official, this handbook of political power provoked controversy like no other. Its central theme is how Renaissance rulers should act if they want to prevail. According to the author, a strong state requires a leader who is able to defend his power at all costs. Machiavelli maintains that a ruler may deceive, trick, oppress and even murder his opponents, as long as his misdeeds serve the state's stability. Without question, this short treatise offers enough material to demonize its author. However, Machiavelli does not champion unlimited ruthlessness and violence. Nor does he justify any objectives that seem to warrant violence. However, he also does not try to align his work to Christian morals as he examines the practice of statecraft and leadership. The term "Machiavellian" emerged in the 16th century to describe a devious, cruel tyrant, who uses any means to achieve his goals. When 20th century dictators praised Machiavelli's masterpiece, it came into disrepute, but in contemporary thought its literary foresight makes it a classic.
Modern readers will be able to understand the book's significance thanks to the accessible translation and annotations by Peter Bondanella. To put the treatise in context, Maurizio Viroli explains in his introduction, "For Machiavelli, the old way of building and preserving a regime...had to be abandoned in order to embrace a new conception...based on the principle that no state is a true dominion unless it is sustained by an army composed of citizens or subjects." getAbstract recommends The Prince to literature and history buffs, be they subjects or citizens, and to strategists and political scientists as this is a core work in their field.
Forms of rule
People live under two types of governance: Either they are citizens of a free state, such as a republic, or subjects of a principality, such as an autocracy. A leader can achieve sole rule through inheritance or through obtaining new territories. The leader can be the founder of new entities, as was the case in Milan, or he can conquer existing towns and regions. A leader who inherits his kingdom will encounter fewer problems in both ruling and retaining it. First, the people accept and respect his power because he comes from a long tradition of leadership. And second, any potential opponents would be at a disadvantage since they would have to turn to cruelty to gain respect, thus losing the support of the people.
The correct form of conquest
Language plays a large role in the successful annexing of states. When the new, added territory uses the same tongue as the existing territory, the ruler can take over by ousting the former ruling family and keeping the existing laws. In most such cases, the subjects will pose no problem. However, to assert his authority and make his presence known, a head of state should always erect an official residence. Creating colonies is a cheap, effective way to increase your power, and it is easier than conquering whole countries. With colonies, a ruler needs to dispossess only a few powerful inhabitants and render them too poor to pose any meaningful threat thereafter. Drive them away and settle your followers on their land. In general, aim to strip the powerful of their power and make the less powerful your allies.
Kingdoms, such as Turkey, are more difficult to take over since they have sole, supreme leaders who are hard to depose or eliminate. If you do manage to dethrone a king, leading subsequently will prove relatively easy since the land had only one ruler, so you won't have to tackle territorial lords pushing their own agendas. In states such as France, seizing power is simple, but holding it is difficult. A number of power-hungry princes and barons surround the king and so forging alliances is easy. Should you defeat the king, but fail to dispossess the other barons, maintaining power will become a miserable, Sisyphean undertaking. Once you conquer a territory, take three necessary steps to secure your governance...
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