The third of three short items for today concerns Niccolò Machiavelli and The Prince. I read the work for an excellent Modern Western Civilization course in high school, but hadn't seen the text again until an excerpt in Lapham's Quarterly prompted these remarks.

Everyone realizes how praiseworthy it is for a prince to honor his word and to be straightforward rather than crafty in his dealings; nonetheless, contemporary experience shows that princes who have achieved great things have been those who have given their word lightly, who have known how to trick men with their cunning, and who, in the end, have overcome those abiding by honest principles.

(Italics mine) Consider that "contemporary" means "16th century Florentine" and that the intended audience was Lorenzo de' Medici. The book has great value, certainly, but it lies in discerning the motivations of such people and some rulers who have since attempted to emulate them. It worries me to see friends and colleagues admire it as a work of personal philosophy or modern politics, purposes for which it is ill-used.

Men are so simple, and so much creatures of circumstance, that the deceiver will always find someone ready to be deceived.

Amid today's economic turbulence, espousing such views puts one in the poor company of predatory lenders who made a tidy profit trapping homeowners into bad loans. A mercenary approach to public institutions weakens them; the tarnish the Bush administration has left on the apparatus of government being a clear example. As citizens, if we undermine aspects of society when they are of personal inconvenience, we risk obsoleting functioning structures which must then be replaced or bolstered by more, more complex and more costly ones. This is in no-one's self-interest.

Men in general judge by their eyes rather than by their hands; because everyone is in a position to watch, few are in a position to come in close touch with you. Everyone sees what you appear to be, few experience what you really are.

In our private lives, few are entirely free from scrutiny, and we rarely—if ever—can manage to hold ourselves in princely remove from those around us. The discrepancies between our words and actions are plain, detracting both from our integrity and the cooperation it earns us from others.

I say nothing against pragmatism or even against the pursuit of self-interest. However, if you are seeking applicable lessons, there are far better sources than one which assumes you are the law, can exercise physical force with impunity, and are fully insulated from the consequences of your deliberate dishonesty.


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