I have read “The Prince” by Niccolo Machiavelli. Feel free to read my review.
Books Books are, undoubtedly, very different. Some books are hard to read, some are easy. Some books are fun, some leave you with a feeling of sorrow. Some require preparation to be read, some can be read at once.
Context “The Prince” by Machiavelli is certainly from that kind which requires preparation. I should say, this was one of the most Google-intensive books I have read. He somehow expects his readers to be familiar with his contemporary history, as well as ancient history almost from the beginning of time.
Google Auspiciously, we have Google at our disposal, so we can compensate for the typical lack of context that a modern reader would have with respect to a book of some 500 years old.
Translation The book was translated by Ninian Hill Thomson, whom I have not found an abundance of information about, but apparently she was an Oxford University graduate, and a Scholar of British India law, living in the XIX century.
Language The translation language is a bit archaic, I believe, even for her times; this embellished the narrative quite substantively, but was a bit challenging at first for me, but I dealt with it in my usual manner. Having a vocabulary prepared made that read just one more exercise.
Narrative As opposed to the language, the narrative looks surprisingly fresh. I haven’t managed to resist writing out a lot of parallels with contemporary life and politics, of both the plots unwrapping in the times of Machiavelli, and the plots from long B.C.
Topics Indeed, it is hard to avoid covertly smiling when you see politicians in the XXI century making exactly the same mistakes as the ones from the XVI. It is also interesting to notice how many modern controversial discussion points Machiavelli is already aware of, 500 years ago. In particular, he touches the ideas of a “nation state”, “armed citizenry”, the “sources of political legitimacy” (although he, obviously, does not call them the way Max Weber does), “republics and autoritiarianisms”, “government by consent”, and even “importance of being ethical” (which he completely refutes).
References So, the book is discussing things that have not aged pretty much at all for the past 500 years, and if not for the necessity to Google a lot, would have been an easy (although not simple) read. Unfortunately, the tradition of making reference lists have not yet been rooted deeply by his time, so unequivocally identifying, who exactly it mentioning in his examples requires a little work, but the good thing is that, because The Prince is so well-known, there is plenty of commentary on the Internet that polyfill the lacunae.
Puzzle The obvious benefit of having so many references to historical events is that this book foments that web of knowledge that an erudite is expected to have, covering European history. We all kind of know what is Roman Empire, who is Alexander, and what was the difference between Guelfs and Ghibellines, but having been nudged into re-googling a lot about them helped me to put those disperse pieces of a jigsaw puzzle into a cohesive picture.
Depth With respect to the actual advices given to the aspiring princes, Machiavelli does a nice job of systematising many aspects of a prince’s life, but I cannot say that his study is sufficiently deep. Naturally, when a researcher is one of the first in his field, it is acceptable for him to do the broad stroke picture. Many other researchers of the nature of power have continued his track. Still, I would like to read much more about a prince’s interaction with his ministers and advisers, a single short chapter is just not enough.
Ethics One of the important points in his reasoning is the difference between “being” and “seeming”. Both should serve the purposes of the prince. This is what “machiavellianism” owns its name to. And hence the biggest controversy of this book. If it is hardly possible to maintain authority without telling the truth, is every authority ever immoral? And, this is the place where we see prominently the attitude that “effectiveness of things should be judged by experiment”.
Republics Machiavelli also speaks about republics, and I even found out that he has a prequel to The Prince, where he discusses republican power. He certainly understands the benefits of giving power to the people, such as stability, faithfulness of the army, and so on, although, I believe, a lot of his reasoning only applies to small city-states where social cohesion is much higher than in big countries, such as Russia. On the other hand, he seems to be positively convinced that only princedoms are really capable of big change, and this is, arguably, the main raison d’être for the book: to make an all-Italy reform.
Summary In general, I believe that The Prince is a very good book, which every aspiring tyrant should read. (I remember a rumour that Stalin had The Prince in his library.) Even a non-prince could benefit from it, trying to make a career in an office environment. History lovers would relish in its rich historical context. Excellent, enjoyable, and useful book, if you are not afraid to digress and do some googling.
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