About 500 years ago, a minor Florentine official found himself out of a job and wanting to ingratiate himself with the party in power. Niccólo Machiavelli was looking for a way to get back in the game. In an attempt to gain the good graces of Lorenzo Di Piero de’ Medici, who was the boss man at the time, he wrote The Prince, which is ostensibly a manual on how to win and keep power.
It didn’t work particularly well, and Machiavelli had to take up playwriting as opposed to governing. But just because the Medici’s ignored his book at the time doesn’t mean that the rest of the world did. Power, as you can imagine, has been a fascinating subject throughout history. Machiavelli’s book enjoyed a life long beyond the Renaissance. Corporate executives and others interested in power read it during the first half of the twentieth century, and I think that we will later discover echoes of The Prince in some of The Federalist papers.
For now, though, we will take the work as it is, though I do so with some trepidation. When I was in high school and college, I read The Prince several times and occasionally fancied myself smart enough to try to apply its lessons. This usually did not work so well for me and instead got me in trouble. There is probably more to my getting myself into trouble than Machiavelli can be blamed for, but suffice it to say that I have always done a poor job in my attempts to Machiavellian. (There maybe another reason in the work may have been on big Machiavellian scheme, but I will address that in an upcoming post.)
“Machiavellian” – there is an interesting term. In some ways I think it may be misapplied. But the common understanding of this term is that it refers to a person who is scheming and probably evil, or at least bad. But let’s be perfectly clear, this is a book about obtaining and keeping power. In an Italy made up of warring city-states that was being invaded by surrounding powers as a Pope tried to take control, there was not a lot of room for Pollyanna views of human nature. Come to think of it, given some of the things happening today, it seems now is not a time for that either. Maybe Machiavelli does have something useful for us.
The Prince is written for someone who is in charge of a state, with an army, subjects, and various political issues. Since most of us will not be politicians, it is tempting to dismiss this work, but for anyone who may find himself or herself in charge of something, there might be parallels that can be drawn.
Machiavelli writes about Princes who come to power in a variety of ways, including ability, luck, and wickedness. He advises a new prince that he should, as soon as he can after taking power, do all the things that he knows will injure his new subjects. This way, he gets the bad stuff out of the way and can let the wounds heal. “For injuries ought to be done all at one time, so that, being tasted less, they offend less; benefits ought to be given little by little, so the flavour of them may last longer.” I think this may be sound advice, though perhaps in a less extreme situation. If you have just taken over a department in your company for example, it makes sense to make all the changes that you want to make at once so that they are out of the way and people can get used to the new order.
A lesson from the art of war may actually have relevance for our modern managers as well. In describing how to measure the strength of municipalities, Machiavelli writes about German towns that have a year’s worth of weapons, ammunition, and provisions in their fortresses and so remain free because a year-long siege is hard to maintain. He addresses the question of whether a prince’s subject will remain loyal to him during this time if they see their homes and farms burn while sitting in the castle. His answer is that the invader will burn these homes and farms while people still are fired up to defend the state. The he writes that “For it is the nature of men to be bound by the benefits they confer as much as those they receive.” I think that this is a strong argument for allowing friends and family to help you. It is an interesting tendency, especially among young people seeking independence and in our individualistic society that we do not want to rely on anyone for help, but in the way Machiavelli describes it can actually increase our power.
In advising a prince on how to manage those around him, Machiavelli says that the intelligence and discernment of a prince can be seen by the counselors and ministers that he surrounds himself with. “He also advises princes to find prudent people that they can rely on to tell them the truth as a way to avoid the snares of flatterers. Having friends and co-workers who you can trust to tell you the truth are valuable people to have in your life. But Machiavelli is careful about this as well. “Therefore a wise prince out to hold a third course by choosing the wise men in his state, and giving to them the liberty of speaking the truth to him, and then only of those things of which he inquires, and of none others; but he ought to question them upon everything, and listen to their opinions, and afterwards form his own conclusions.”
There are few more things we should cover as we consider Machiavelli for the modern businessman. First, Machiavelli talks about when a Prince should keep and break faith with others. Machiavelli says that all princes need to know how to be both a fox and a lion. A prince needs to be a fox in avoid snares and a lion in driving off wolves. “You must know that there are two ways of contesting, the one by the law, the other by force; the first method is proper to men, the second to beasts; but because the first is frequently not sufficient, it is necessary to have recourse to the second. There it is necessary for a prince to understand how to avail himself of the beast and the man.” This is a trickier thing for modern man to manage, as the law is generally paramount in our day-to-day lives. Though one wonders whether or not force must merely mean physical violence. While that is clearly the intent here, as Machiavelli is talking about armies, nonetheless it seems there could be the force of money and resources, or even just intimidation of position or presence in the business world.
Machivelli further explores this theme in considering whether or not a Prince always ought to keep his word. “Therefore a wise lord cannot, nor ought he to, keep faith when such observance of may be turned against him, and when the reasons that caused him to pledge it exist no longer. If men were entirely good, this precept would not hold, but because they are bad, and will not keep faith with you, you too are not bound to observe it with them. Nor will there ever be wanting to a prince legitimate reasons to excuse this nonobservance.” I think there is a strong temptation and trap here to never keep one’s word, but it seems to me that the most important part is that the reasons that cause you to pledge faith do not exist. In other words, you shouldn’t destroy yourself by trying to be a more honest person than the one who seeks to dupe you into something by means of your honor.
Finally, I want to talk about Machiavelli’s precept that it is better to be feared than loved. While a Prince should want to be loved, it is better to be feared, so long as that fear does not engender hatred towards the prince. He says that men can only love according to their own will, but a prince can make them afraid, so a prince should stick with what he has control over.
“Upon this a question arises: whether it is better to be loved than feared or feared tan loved? It may be answered that one should wish to be both, but, because it is difficult to unite them in one person, it is much safer to be feared than loved, when, of the two, either must be dispensed with. Because this is to be asserted in general of men, that they are ungrateful, fickle, false, cowardly, covetous, and as long as you succeed, they are yours entirely; they will offer you their blood, property, life, and children, as is said above, when the need is far distant; but when it approaches, they turn against you.”
While it is possible to force people to do want you want if they fear you, I am not sure that this is the best approach to trying to get people to do what you want. I don’t see how it is possible to make people fear you and not have them end up hating you. Mohandas K. Gandhi once said that we think the enemy is hate, but it is really fear. I thought about that for a long time, and I realized that Gandhi is right, all the things that we hate are the things that we fear.
Machiavelli’s advice to avoid hatred is that a prince should not touch his subjects’ women or property. He says men more quickly forget the death of their father than the loss of their patrimony. It is a dark view of human nature that he presents. While I find it hard to argue with him on this, I still think that it is better to be a leader than a commander. In The Rise of the West, William McNeill talks about the difference between command and leadership. I think I have mentioned this before, but it seems worth repeating in this context. He says commanders command because they can impose some sanction on the followers, but leaders lead because people trust them to know what is best to do or to make a sound decision.
For Machiavelli, the way to avoid hatred is as follows.
“It makes him contemptible to be considered fickle, frivolous, effeminate, mean-spirited, irresolute, from all of which a prince should guard himself as from a rock; and he should endeavour to show in his actions greatness, courage, gravity, and fortitude; and in his private dealings with his subjects let him show that his judgments are irrevocable, and maintain himself in such reputation that no one can hope either to deceive him or get round him.”
Those qualities may not be far off of a true leader. In this way, Machiavelli may be coming around to that idea of leadership. It seems to me that in today’s world. Someone in a leadership role in a company has the ability often to fire someone, though not much opportunity to take someone’s wife or property.. So it should be a little easier to avoid being hated. But there are still opportunities to do harm and to have employees hate you. So Machiavelli’s advice on that level is at least worthy of consideration.
I think similar lessons could be drawn for the leaders of clubs, civic organizations and the like. Next time, I will explore some of Machiavelli’s statements about politics and leading a state. Then we will talk about the book as a scheme and what Machiavelli led me to in high school.