“If an injury has to be done to a man it should be so severe that his vengeance need not be feared.” In other words, hit him so hard he can’t get back up. “Men are so simple and so much inclined to obey immediate needs that a deceiver will never lack victims for his deceptions.” And the most well known piece of advice to come down to us from the famous Florentine Niccolo Machiavelli is, “It is better to be feared than loved.” We know these sayings so well, or at least their sentiments, they have become commonplace. But when they were written readers were shocked. So new and shocking was his advice in The Prince, that it ushered in what we now call modern political theory. Politics had never been discussed in this way before.
However, this is the only way we discuss politics now. Movies like J. Edgar and The Ides of March hardly cause the watcher to raise an eyebrow, because we expect those in power to abuse it. Opinion polls show that politicians are perceived to be among the least trustworthy among us.
When Machiavelli wrote The Prince he had two audiences in mind. The first was Lorenzo de Medici to whom he offered it as a gift and meant for Lorenzo to read the book as a how-to guide. The ostensible message, “If you want to come to power and stay there; this is what you will have to do.” The second audience was the average person. Having written the book in Italian, ‘the vulgar tongue’, and not the customary Latin, Machiavelli was signaling to this audience a different message entirely. He was exposing the means and modes of securing political power to the average person with the hope that this audience might begin to desire a republican form of government rather than rule by the Medicis. Let’s remember, Machiavelli was sent into exile by the Medicis, and wouldn’t it be perfectly Machiavellian to give his greatest political opponent a Trojan Horse? After all, it was Machiavelli who proclaimed, “It is double pleasure to deceive the deceiver.”
If Machiavelli wrote today, however, his book would be mundane. We have become accustomed to politicians who act badly. Watergate, Iran-Contra, and Solyndra are only a few of the hundreds of examples in American politics that come to mind when we think of abuses of power. Of course, this is child’s play compared to Pol Pot, Stalin, Gaddafi, Bashar Assad, and Mubarack.
American college students are just as jaded as the rest of us, which is why I have stopped assigning The Prince. Machiavelli was under the impression that if the people knew just how nasty and deceitful political leaders were, they would rise up and demand a republican form of government in which the people could hold the leaders in check. Presumably, if the people had this power, politicians would behave themselves. I would assign The Prince to try to convince students that it was important to be politically engaged. I thought The Prince, with its tales of gruesome murders and apparent disdain for morality, would drive the point home. But, if news headlines and popular culture don’t shock students and convince them that we need to remain vigilant in the political arena, a book nearly 500 years old certainly won’t.