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"The Prince"

Machiavelli’s The Prince has become the foremost treatise on power. The driving idea in it was how do you make a dangerous and fluid situation stable? His answer: by any means necessary.
Professional Experience
Professional Experience
Niccolo Machiavelli was born around 1449 in Florence. He served as a diplomatic official, where he had some formative experiences with the Catholic Church. Machiavelli was contemporary with the infamous Borgia family, and he grew to know the Papacy to be a vile and brutal institution. At the time, the Papacy was waging acquisitive wars to conqueror various city-states, attempting to bring them under the moral sway of the Church and to aggrandize the wealth of the Borgia family. 

Machiavelli’s context greatly influenced his political thinking. When the Medici family reconquered the Florentine Republic, Machiavelli went into a sort of retirement from the public sphere where he began writing treatises on politics. He also was a composer of rather popular comedic plays, carnival songs and some poetry. And at the time of his death, he was perhaps best known in his region for these more lighthearted things he authored. But it is his political thinking that has endeared through the ages and which has given us the term Machiavellian.

The term Machiavellian or Machiavellianism has filtered into the English vernacular as a pejorative term that refers to an individual who will stop at nothing to maintain power.
The Ends Justify the Means
The Ends Justify the Means
The Prince was written in 1513. It was written in Italian, which was the vernacular as opposed to Latin. It is likely that Machiavelli was trying to get a job through his work on the book. Although he was in retirement, it was a forced retirement. He may have been trying to use it to solicit a position from the Medici family in his native Florence. Machiavelli was writing about a prince that was taking power and had to stabilize power. He wasn’t necessarily writing about the prince at the time. He was writing about the strong man, somebody who had to seize control in a very fluid, high-risk political or military situation. 

Machiavelli was fashioning himself to be a sort of person that we take for granted today, the political consultant. He never got his old job back but his political treatise endures. In Machiavelli’s analysis there was a tremendous difference between private morality and public morality. In private, it was good to be honest, hard working and pious. In the public sphere you could do anything that was necessary to stabilize one's power. In fact, if resorting to violent and dishonest actions would likely secure your power, then it is necessary for the good of the people governed. 

It was no good being an idealist in the political or military sphere. You had to be a realist who realized that wickedness works. It is a little unclear where public good stopped and the prince’s individual good started. For Machiavelli, it’s pretty much one in the same. The prince wasn’t published widely until five years after Machiavelli’s death and the response to it was immediately negative. Then the Catholic Church banned it. 

The Prince departed from conventional teachings as espoused by the Catholic Church in terms of both politics and ethics. They banned it because Machiavelli was saying anything goes in the public sphere.

In fact, it’s hard to point to a time in history in which Machiavelli has had a lot of popular support for his writings. Jean-Jacques Rousseau, one of the leading philosophers of the French Revolutionary period loved Machiavelli, and said that Machiavelli only advocated brutal, realpolitik because it was necessary. Sometimes you have to shed blood in order to bring about freedom. This was a sentiment that became very popular in the French Revolution.
As a political creature, I think Machiavelli is someone that we would immediately recognize in modern day politics. He would be a political consultant, a talking head, or that guy who used to be in political office but was ousted for various reasons and now shows up in all the news TV programs to offer his opinion and his expertise on the issues of the day.

Machiavelli persists today in our culture as the voice that says yeah, but that’s not how it really works. How it really works is brutal. He is not advocated as a political philosopher but he is used as a political philosopher and as a cultural philosopher.

What equates to power might have changed over the last five centuries, but the thoughts around maintaining power, are probably not that different. Warren Buffett said that there are really only two rules of doing business successfully: the first is that you never lose any of your shareholders money, and the second rule was you never break rule number one. If we think about current business, what is the contemporary variation of the prince’s kingdom that Machiavelli wrote about and what keeps people in power? It’s shareholder value.

The term Machiavellian also gets used in psychology as the definition of a certain kind of manipulative personality type. In art, artists as cutting edge as Tupac have quoted Machiavelli as someone who understands the hard grit and competition of the street. 

The Prince has never really been out of print. It is always the book that you love to hate. It exists in political understanding as an example of what pure unadulterated realpolitik, strongman politics is like and in that sense it’s been enormously useful. Machiavelli has never been a hero but he is often been an inspiration.

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