Bookpost: The Prince by Niccolo Machiavelli

One of my Diploma students wanted to do his Extended Essay on Hamlet, and after some discussion decided to focus on Claudius as a political figure. After doing some background reading, he came across a reference to Claudius as a Machiavellian character, and after a bit more reading decided to look at Machiavelli as a possible source for Shakespeare in characterizing Claudius as one element of his essay. I haven't read The Prince since I was an undergraduate, so I thought I'd give it a go.

First of all, the new translation by Peter Constantine is very readable, much crisper than I remember from twenty years ago. Second, I checked the BBC4 In Our Time archive, and sure enough they did a show on Machiavelli, which gave me a lot of useful context for the reading. And then I tucked into the little red book.

The Prince is an advice manual for a prince about the best way to gain, maintain and fortify power in a state. It is about power for its own sake, which makes a lot of sense if the target audience is autocrats, which it is. He uses history -- both ancient and recent -- as support for his position, identifying relatively successful and unsuccessful leaders and explaining why things fared the way they did.

What struck me is how well it is structured. Machiavelli makes assertions, supports them with historical and contemporary evidence, then moves to the next point. It is a model of the kind of writing I ask my students to do. The evidence is easily detailed enough to be convincing (although the details of the King of France's incursions into Italy may not hold the 21st century reader's attention as it did for those who lived through it). His transitions are marvelous.

As for the content, well, I don't know. His central idea is that a leader ought to do whatever it takes to remain in power, and I'm not very sympathetic with that position. My culture sees its leaders as public servants. I see freedom as an inalienable right, not something a prince might do to keep people placated so they don't overthrow him. On one hand, holding him to moral standards created in the eighteenth century doesn't make sense; and on the other, his position is also a challenge to the medieval concept that a good king is a good man, which we all find laughable at this point. (Right?)

Aside from this, he has some compelling ideas. One has to do with being pragmatic -- accepting the world as it is, not as it should be. He writes in the chapter entitled 'Concerning Things For Which Men, And Especially Princes, Are Praised Or Blamed:'
As my intention is to write something useful for discerning minds, I find it more fitting to seek the truth of the matter rather than imaginary conceptions. Many have imagined republics and principalities that have never been seen or heard of, because how one lives and one ought to live are so far apart that he that spurns what is actually done for what ought to be done will achieve ruin rather than his own preservation.

For me as a teacher, there is some wisdom there. Yes, I want to teach ideals, but I also need to prepare students for reality. Virtues are important, but you need the right one in the right situation. However, it is possible to be realistic without being cynical, which I think Machiavelli pulls off here.

So am I advocating for a Machiavelli for Teachers? Not in the slightest. Well, maybe in the slightest, but not much further than that. His famous maxim 'It is far safer to be feared than loved,' is of course true for teachers if safety is the teacher's biggest concern (and it would be better to replace 'feared' with 'respected'); equally true for teachers is his addition that being hated is disastrous. And his general point that an excess of kindness can end up being a problem is certainly applicable as well.

But in general, Machiavelli is interested in power for its own sake, and good teachers are only interested in authority or respect to the degree that it is necessary to help kids learn. Likewise, Machiavelli sees human nature as basically evil, and the prince is necessary to keep that in check. While a teacher might see the flaws in humanity at large, seeing their students as basically evil is fundamentally inconsistent with the basic concept of education.

So in the end, I'm glad I read it. It got me thinking about the nature of pwoer and morality, and that's never a bad thing. And I am convinced that Claudius is a Machiavellian.

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