276. The Prince by Niccolo Machiavelli (1532)

“A leader doesn’t have to possess all the virtuous qualities [compassionate, loyal, humane, honest and religious] … but it’s absolutely imperative that he seem to possess them”    (page 70)

Thoughts : A slim volume, a little reminiscent of The Art of War, but discussing political strategy more than military.

In the world of sixteenth century Europe, a prince meant any leader of a state, including popes, emperors, kings, queens and dukes. Italy is a seething bed of internal states at each others’ throats (Naples, Florence, Milan, Venice and the Papal States) and external threats looking to carve up whatever they can get (France, Spain, the Turks). The time of the Medicis and the Borgias, warrior Popes greedily snapping up land and temporal power.

Machiavelli was a discredited diplomat and courtier who had been tortured then exiled from the Florentine court. He wrote this guide to success for rulers, citing many examples of ancient and ‘modern’ history to prove his points, as a means to get back into court life as a courtier to the Medici, but was ignored, which is a shame because there is a lot of value in this little book if you wish to a successful tyrant. Of course, you have to be ruthless, and willing to be feared rather than loved, but then you can’t have everything.

His book was considered shocking as he insisted that “winning and holding political power was possible only if a leader was ready to act outside the moral codes that applied to ordinary people”. As I say, ruthless, but I would imagine realistic in the times he was living.

I always thought the adjective Machiavellian meant sneaky, but after reading The Prince, I realise he actually advocates ruthless pragmatism. For example:

  • If you have to be cruel, do it early and at sufficient level to remove the threat. Increasing cruelty in your reign will only make you hated, and while its ok to be feared, being hated will bring about your downfall.

“You must either pamper people or destroy them; harm them just a little and they’ll hit back; harm them seriously and they’ll be unable to”  (page 10)

  • Don’t rely on mercenaries. They are a lazy drain on your treasury during peacetime and untrustworthy when war comes.
  • If conquering a new country/city, it is easier if
    • The previous ruling system was a monarchy,
    • The populace share the same language, customs and traditions,
    • The new ruler goes to live in the conquered territory (to nip any rebellion quickly and stop his ministers from rapaciously sacking the place),
    • The new ruler establishes colonies rather than leave an occupying army in place,
  • Your two priorities after conquering a monarchical state are (1) kill off all members of the previous ruler’s family), and (2) leave all laws and taxes as they were. The people will settle down under the new yoke all the quicker and there will be no legitimate contender for potential rebels to rally to
  • Befriend (but do not strengthen) weaker neighbouring states, and undermine the stronger states if you can.
  • Institute a parliament. It keeps the public happy and the nobles in check without the Prince seen to be involved in unpopular decisions

“A ruler must get this to carry out policies that will provoke protest, keeping those that inspire gratitude to himself”  (page 75)

If certain current world leaders could actually read books without pictures, I can well imagine this being on their bookshelf.

While The Prince was not an immediate success, Macchiavelli turned his hand to writing sex comedies. I kid you not. Now, they would have been interesting!!

Personal rating:  6/10

Source :  Penguin Black Classic edition, translated by Tim Parks (a shelf damaged copy I scored free from my bookshop 😊 )

Meanwhile, in the years 1490-1510:

  • Capture of Granada from the Moors completes the Christian conquest of Spain, 1492.
  • Lorenzo d’Medici of Florence dies, succeeded by Piero the Unfotunate, 1492.
  • Christopher Columbus sets off west to find a new route to Asia. Reaches the Indies, believing them to be Japan, 1492.
  • Pope Innocent VIII dies, succeeded by Rodrigo Borgia (Alexander VI), 1492.
  • Charles VIII of France invades Italy to claim Naples, 1493, defeated by the Holy League (the Emperor, the Pope, Milan, Spain and Venice), 1494.
  • Perkin Warbeck, an impostor posing as the dead Richard of Shrewsbury, Duke of York, (who supposedly died in the Tower with his brother Edward V), is captured 1497 after several small skirmishes. He confessed and was finally hanged in 1499.
  • Leonardo da Vinci paints The Last Supper, 1497, and the Mona Lisa, 1504; Michelangelo creates the Pieta sculpture, 1498, and David in 1503.
  • Vasco da Gama sails around Africa to reach India 1498.
  • African slaves transported to the West Indies, 1501.
  • Henry VII of England dies, succeeded by Henry VIII, 1509.

from The Book of Key Facts, Paddington Press, 1978.

Books not read : The Book of the Courtier by Baldassare CastiglioneAn after-dinner discussion about the ideal characteristics of a courtier. Perfect for a Renaissance lock-down with the family. I opted for how to be a Prince instead, and had the author of this other book executed. It’s good to be the King.

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