Machiavelli’s “The Prince” Part II – The Prince as a Head of Country

Last time, I wrote about how Machiavelli might apply to the modern world in the form of a management guide. That is how is has been applied in modern times, recommended as essential reading for the executive suite. Now, however, I want to turn my attention to the reason it was written, which is as a guide for leading a country.

Machiavelli says that “a prince ought to have no other aim or thought, nor select anything else for his study, than war and its rules and discipline; for this is the sole art that belongs to him who rules, and it is of such force that it not only upholds those who are born princes, but it often enables men to rise from a private station to that rank.”

He says that this is also the chief cause of losing a state. While I think that Machiavelli is talking about gaining and losing a state through battles, in the modern world, and in the United States in particular, it is possible for a leader to lose a state in a different way. They can find themselves removed from office by their own people, either through elections or through elections.

Machiavelli advises his princes to follow the example of Philopoemen, Prince of the Achaeans, who while travelling with friends, talk about what would happen if they had to fight a battle in the country they were travelling through at the time. He would compare notes and discuss with them what he thought and compare his opinions with them.

The interesting thing about this is that Machiavelli is describing something that has been described as an element of success in a variety of contexts. It is the principle of continual practice whenever the opportunity presents itself. Olympic athletes talk about visualization and practice all the time. But, in the warrior context, an example from World War II might be a good example. In a guide to troops going off to the Pacific Theatre, the War Department published the experiences of troops who fought in some of the first battles in the island.

One of the sergeants interviewed was Platoon Sergeant C.C. Arndt, H & S Company, Fifth Marines, and his message was one of similar practice.

“I practice walking quietly over rocks, twigs, grass, leaves, through vines, etc. I practice this around the bivouac area. I received instruction in scouting and patrolling at Quantico, but I still practice this around here in the bivouac area. I believe because I practice this is the reason I am still alive. Some of the other NCO’s laughed at me because I am always seeing how quietly I can walk around and because I go out and practice on my own. But they have stopped laughing because I have been on more patrols than any other man in the Regiment and I am still alive.”

This advice from Machiavelli harkens back to another reading from earlier in the set. We read in Plutarch about how Alexander the Great Alexander was concerned with military accomplishment, and spent his off hours hunting because this was the way to keep his battle skills sharp.
Perhaps this is why Machiavelli tells his Prince pupils that they should study history and the actions of great men. Success leaves clues, and they can be learned from the study of history. Machiavelli says “ it is said Alexander the Great imitated Achilles, Caesar Alexander, Scipio Cyrus….A wise prince ought to observe some such rules, and never in peaceful times stand idle, but increase his resources with industry in such a way that they might be available to him in adversity, so that if fortune changes it may find him prepared to resist her blows.”

Despite having written another book “The Art of War,” Machiavelli gives plenty of advice on martial matters.

Mercenaries, he says, “are useless and dangerous; if one holds the state based on these arms, he will stand neither firm nor safe; for they are disunited, ambitious and without discipline, unfaithful, valiant before friends, cowardly before enemies; they have neither fear of God nor fidelity to men, and destruction is deferred only so long as the attack is….they have no other attraction or reason for keeping the field than a trifle of stipend, which is not sufficient to make them willing to die for you.” It makes me wonder what Machiavelli would think of the use of private contractors in our current wars. I suspect that he would not approve, and really, I find it hard to argue with his logic. He says that ones own forces are the only ones that can be relied upon, noting that “it is more difficult to bring a republic, armed with its own arms, under the sway of one of its citizens than it is to bring one armed with foreign arms. Rome and Sparta stood for many ages armed and free. The Switrzers are completely armed and quite free.”

Machiavelli talks about building and provisioning fortresses to keep the state free. He says that these give a prince and his state the recourse to hold out against invaders and thus will protect their sovereignty. He makes the point that sometimes beating the enemy means outlasting him, and thus recommends that enough arms, food, and water be laid in for a year.

The idea that War, and thus foreign affairs are the chief concern of the prince is interesting. Foreign affairs, even in our modern times, draw much of the debate and critique when it comes to politics. Concerns about terrorism, North Korea, trade, and the like are all matters of foreign affairs, and Machiavelli would likely argue, fall under the heading of warfare. I think part of the reason that these issues command so much attention is that they are easy and exciting. More people would rather talk about the war in Afghanistan or Iraq than would want to talk about roads and garbage pick-up. Yet things like infrastructure can never be for from a leader’s mind, it seems to me.

It is interesting, because in the January 2011 issue of Smithsonian magazine, there is an article “Power and the Presidency” by Robert Dallek that talks about how the presidency of John F. Kennedy was the beginning of the rise of executive power. The main focus of the article is on foreign affairs, and it quotes President Kennedy saying to Richard Nixon in a phone call “’It really is true that foreign afffairs is the only important issue for a President to handle, isn’t it?’ he asked rhetorically. ‘I means who gives a s— if the minimum wage is $1.15 or $1.25 in comparison to something like this?’” The ‘this’ in question was the Bay of Pigs. While starting an all out war could have a huge impact on people’s lives, it seems that the minimum wage is much more important in the long run, but managing that balance is not easy.
Is it possible that Machiavelli is giving bad advice by telling his potential princes to focus so heavily on war? Is this the kind of advice that leads a prince to doing the kind of adventuring that would cost him the leadership of his state? We have seen that Alexander’s men eventually got fed up with his adventuring. How long would a city-state put up with a prince constantly getting them into battles?

Next time, I plane to explore how one scholar thinks that The Prince is all about bad advice, and deliberately. Stay tuned.


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