". . . little shall I grace my cause

In speaking for myself. Yet, by your gracious patience,

I will a round unvarnish'd tale deliver . . ."

(William Shakespeare's Othello, I.iii.88-90)

Friday, February 6, 2009

The Prince

I'm having my homeschool literature class read Machiavelli's The Prince right now. It's been a while since I read it myself, so I can't remember what my reaction was the first time around. But this time I find myself thinking that this guy gets a bum rap. These days when you hear the adjective "Machiavellian" it is almost always pejorative. When Shakespeare called a character a "Machiavel" it was not a compliment. To be Machiavellian is bad--we don't like all that "ends justifies the means" stuff. But I keep coming across lines in this book that make me want to stand up and cheer! For example:

From Chapter 16, "Of Liberality and Niggardliness"

" . . . it would be well to be considered liberal; nevertheless liberality such as the world understands it will injure you, because if used virtuously and in the proper way, it will not be known, and you will incur the disgrace of the contrary vice [niggardliness]. But one who wishes to obtain the reputation of liberality among men, must not omit every kind of sumptuous display, and to such an extent that a prince of this character will consume by such means all his resources, and will be at last compelled, if he wishes to maintain his name for liberality, to impose heavy taxes on his people, become extortionate, and do everything possible to obtain more money. This will make his subjects begin to hate him, and he will be little esteemed being poor, so that having by this liberality injured many and benefited but few, he will feel the first little disturbance and be endangered by every peril. If he recognises this and wishes to change his system, he incurs at once the charge of niggardliness.

A prince, therefore, not being able to exercise this virtue of liberality without risk if it be known, must not if he be prudent, object to be called miserly. In course of time he will be thought more liberal, when it is seen that by his parsimony his revenue is sufficient, that he can defend himself against those who make war on him, and undertake enterprises without burdening his people, so that he is really liberal to all those from whom he does not take, who are infinite in number, and niggardly to all to whom he does not give, who are few. In our times we have seen nothing great done except by those who have been esteemed niggardly; the others have all been ruined. . . .

For these reasons a prince must care little for the reputation of being a miser, if he wishes to avoid robbing his subjects, if he wishes to be able to defend himself, to avoid becoming poor and contemptible, and not to be forced to become rapacious; this niggardliness is one of those vices which enable him to reign."

(Oxford University Press translation by Luigi Ricci); emphasis mine

I'll post a few more of these quotations over the next day or so. But right now the teacher has to get ready for class!

1 comment:

The Rebellious Pastor's Wife said...

I read it a few years ago and found that I really have fewer objections to it than I thought...but maybe that is the pragmatic nature of democracy.

He got in trouble for being so bold as to suggest this to a man who had a born right to rule.

It also reminds me quite a bit of the letter that Luther wrote to the pope during pretty much the same time period (the Babylonian Captivity of the Church...I think)