My take on Machiavelli’s The Prince, and a little history…

Okay, so way back in the end of 2012, I found out I qualified for a college scholarship. I got my first degree in 1985, which managed to be enough until we got to human resources databases that reject people if they don’t have the “right” degree.

After being stuck in a dead-end part-time job for the better part of three years, I figured that there was only one way to move forward again, and that was by going back to college for a degree that proved I knew what I was doing with web design and art. Unfortunately, the requirements for the AA degree (in Interactive Media, if you must know) included taking a basic art class on which everything else hinged, and without that class, I was dead in the water.

So, okay. Take the one class, start full time in the fall. I can get behind that, especially since I’m only part time at work anyway. But in order to get the scholarship money (or a fraction thereof), I need to be at least part time at college, and that meant taking a second class in something. Anything.

When I launched this blog back in 2012, I was already compiling a bunch of historical data (dates, names, events) for arguments on Facebook and Live Journal, and that was a darn sight better than I did the last time I took a history course (American history, and I got an incomplete, so there was a reason to worry).

I looked at the catalog and found World History to Modern Times. The actual range of dates (which I wasn’t expecting when I walked in that first day) was 962-1949. Daunting? You bet. Until the professor allowed me to use my laptop for taking notes. That, friends, changed everything. And it’s a good thing, too, because I still have the spreadsheet I used for tracking my timeline.

See, the professor threw dates, names, events and phrases around with wild abandon. He offered a set of study guides that were essentially in timeline form, and he insisted that we read a book (that he never actually referred to more than twice in the entire semester, or I’d have included the title here). There were questions from the timeline study guides, and questions from the stuff he threw out in his lectures. And if I hadn’t captured ALL of it and then checked for sources and more data using the campus internet connection, I’d have bombed this class, too.

Instead, I built a fairly solid picture of where we were and how we got there, from the Holy Roman Empire to Nazi Germany.

You can check out the spreadsheet to see what I mean. Lots of notes, some of which are designed as simple date reminders for regurgitation on the tests. I’ve only just added an eighth column, to hold the relevant Wikipedia link, which I should have done way back then but didn’t bother to do because I could always look it up when I wanted to. Since I’m making my work available to you, I figure anything to make the source easier to locate is a good thing.

Now, before you go all “Yeah, Wikipedia. Like THAT’s trustworthy!” on me, bear in mind that some pages, like the one on Hitler, contain so many outside references, there’s no limit to the number of additional reading sources for you to consider. And I encourage you to do just that. Go check the sources. Get lost in the data. And then come back to the spreadsheet for further source material. Eleven centuries of history (give or take a year) is a lot to digest in one sitting, or even one class. And this is World History, not just American History, so context is everything.

Anyway, with the class, there was a required paper. It’s a history class, and I think I got off easy with just one paper and an extra credit question, aside from the weekly quizzes and midterm exam. The paper is reproduced below. It’s long, so you’ll have to go under the cut to find it. If you haven’t read The Prince yet, the link to Gutenberg is below. There’s really no excuse.

I’ll leave the rest as an exercise for the reader.

How did we get here?

One step at a time.

Oh, and the class? Got an A. (On the paper, too.)

A Reflection Paper: The Prince, by Niccolò Machiavelli

April 26, 2013

When I decided to return to college this year (2013), I had some serious concerns. My past history as a student taught me that I needed to have some interest in the subject or I would have considerable trouble completing reading and assignments. My last brush with History left me with an incomplete, as a result of my failure to hand in a paper.

As a result, I lack fundamental courses for my new career track (Interactive Media). 2-Dimensional Design was the underlying course required for all other classes I needed to take in the field. I had a minimum requirement of six credits to fulfill for receiving a grant to offset the cost of classes. Looking at the degree requirements, and knowing how much time I spent daily debating politics online in forums and in my own Blog, I decided it would be prudent to take a course in modern history, and I settled on Western Civilization.

While I was surprised that we started with the middle ages, I understand the value in gaining perspective on the European political landscape at the start of The Enlightenment, as the knowledge bears directly on events and motivations for the French Revolution and everything that came after. In many ways, this course has helped me recognize events that helped shape our world today, and the traps we might have avoided with a little of that perspective, combined with today’s communication tools.

Early on in this course, we covered the subject of Machiavelli’s The Prince, but only in the context of material that would eventually inform political leaders in Germany, Italy and the other areas most affected by World Wars I and II. It seemed worthwhile to me to take the time outside of class to read the book, in order to gain a little more of my own enlightenment on the subject, and be better able to recognize its influences over world leaders. I decided to read the Project Gutenberg edition, translated by W. K. Marriott, available online at: http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/1232.

Of the book in general, I find the language tough to read. As with writers of the period, flowery, overly descriptive writing makes reading and understanding intent difficult at best, even as the style of writing places the document firmly in its time. It is more a lengthy analysis of personal observation (a Renaissance-era ‘blog of sorts, or perhaps better described as a diatribe) rather than a purely historical retelling of facts and events. That this document could be taken as an instruction manual for dictators is both frightening and a telling point for anyone currently documenting the behavior of our political leaders.

Following are my impressions of a few select passages. For example, in CHAPTER III, CONCERNING MIXED PRINCIPALITIES, Machiavelli writes:

He who would attack that state from the outside must have the utmost caution; as long as the prince resides there it can only be wrested from him with the greatest difficulty.

And the usual course of affairs is that, as soon as a powerful foreigner enters a country, all the subject states are drawn to him, moved by the hatred which they feel against the ruling power. …he who does not properly manage this business will soon lose what he has acquired, and whilst he does hold it he will have endless difficulties and troubles.

Machiavelli’s specific target in the chapter, Louis XII and his actions against Florence, can easily be construed as a guide for future “dictators” in the way that his arguments are written. By not specifying whom the writer intends as the subject of the writing, leaving the reader open to interpret the text as an instruction manual of sorts, rather than a simple historical documentation of the effect Louis’ actions had on the people of Florence. Machiavelli’s writing comes across as the codification and sharing of philosophical ideas rather than the description of actual events. It is remarkable that this work survived over the course of 500 years, but I believe it has done so because of the colloquial language and the simple (if diabolical) illustrations provided within its chapters.  

The Prince succeeded in serving as an instruction manual of sorts, because Machiavelli’s observations of activities in his own time are adaptable to current conditions, and because many of the same political structure survived long past the lives of the specific monarchies and individuals to whom he referred in his book.

CHAPTER VIII — CONCERNING THOSE WHO HAVE OBTAINED A PRINCIPALITY BY WICKEDNESS

…a prince ought to live amongst his people in such a way that no unexpected circumstances, whether of good or evil, shall make him change; because if the necessity for this comes in troubled times, you are too late for harsh measures; and mild ones will not help you, for they will be considered as forced from you, and no one will be under any obligation to you for them.

It is easy to imagine the crowned heads of Europe reading Machiavelli’s words and heeding his cautions as reasons to act against their enemies in the way they do, but that leads me to wonder what our world political structure might have been if he had not written the book and if it had not been published subsequent to his death. Was his work simply an illustration of inevitable behavior or was it something more sinister: The fundamental key to the rise of Nazi Germany and the foundation for the Holocaust? Clearly, his views on propaganda regarding an outward show of (though the current term was not made popular until the early 18th century, according to the Merriam-Webster Concise Encyclopedia, http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/propaganda)

CHAPTER XVIII(*) — CONCERNING THE WAY IN WHICH PRINCES SHOULD KEEP FAITH

For this reason a prince ought to take care … that he may appear to him who sees and hears him altogether merciful, faithful, humane, upright, and religious. There is nothing more necessary to appear to have than this last quality, inasmuch as men judge generally more by the eye than by the hand, because it belongs to everybody to see you, to few to come in touch with you. Every one sees what you appear to be, few really know what you are, and those few dare not oppose themselves to the opinion of the many…

Machiavelli’s instructions to be careful about appearance, to seem better than one actually is for the sake of controlling the people, is at the heart of Hitler’s rise to power and the war that followed. His enigmatic speeches, the frenzied response of the people to supposed injury by the Jews, Russians, Poles, their sympathizers and anyone else who appeared to oppose Hitler’s regime, and even the counter propaganda that allowed for so many Allied troops to join in the defense, were proving Machiavelli’s points, that the outward appearance was everything, and that all manner of evil actions could be justified if given the proper grounding. People who are taught not to question authority are capable of unspeakable acts if they believe those acts to be in their best interests. Fortunately, there were people who were capable of seeing through the smoke and mirrors and were still empathic enough to risk their lives and oppose the Nazi movement, but the vast majority (as borne out by recent discoveries of unmarked graves will attest) were not much better than the Schutzstaffel (SS) themselves.

CHAPTER XXIII — HOW FLATTERERS SHOULD BE AVOIDED

A prince, therefore, ought always to take counsel, but only when he wishes and not when others wish; he ought rather to discourage every one from offering advice unless he asks it; but, however, he ought to be a constant inquirer, and afterwards a patient listener concerning the things of which he inquired; also, on learning that any one, on any consideration, has not told him the truth, he should let his anger be felt.

I find it more than a little disturbing that viewing recent military actions through the filters suggested in The Prince such as those between the United States and Middle East, Eastern Europe and elsewhere, our country’s leadership bears a striking resemblance to those most reviled in terms of justification and outcome. For that matter, viewing President Nixon’s behavior between his resignation and the subsequent Frost interviews, one might gather even he had something to learn from The Prince, concerning propaganda and flattery.

For example, look at the way we are viewed in Iraq. Some of our nation’s leaders at the time of the Iraq War’s launch viewed our role in the war as helpful, while at the same time we were (and still are) reviled by those we claimed to be “helping,” because we didn’t approach our role from a standpoint of aid and assistance, but of violent upheaval, and we are not there to enjoy the fruits of our labor, but as overseers. That role is destined for failure.

CHAPTER III — CONCERNING MIXED PRINCIPALITIES

From this a general rule is drawn which never or rarely fails: that he who is the cause of another becoming powerful is ruined; because that predominancy has been brought about either by astuteness or else by force, and both are distrusted by him who has been raised to power.

Just so. We gave Iraq our support, then when they exercised their power, we went back in and took it away again, with disastrous results. And now, with the onset of the Tea Party in our most conservative forms of government, we have allowed the “neutral” press to serve our propaganda on a silver plated Fox News platter.

When discussing propaganda, as one frequently does when discussing Fox News, Time Magazine, CNN or other suspect news sources, are we led to the Nazi comparison in Godwin’s law (Mike Godwin’s 1990 Internet-based adage: “As an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Nazis or Hitler approaches 1.”) because of their constant use of propaganda instead of unbiased reporting? Is it a natural follow-on to the theme of making the bad guy appear to be good and vice versa that leads to the inevitable comparison to Hitler?

Narrowing down this paper’s scope, the correlation between the adage and our own news media occurred to me, specifically because I got caught pulling the Hitler card a couple of days ago in a conversation regarding Same Sex Marriage (a Biblical reference to Adam and “Steve” that reminded Christians that Hitler was also God’s responsibility).

My problem is that I can see the seeds of Nazi Germany in the dealings of the Tea Party’s leadership, in the actions of the Koch brothers and others and that correlation, frankly, scares the hell out of me. Muslims in the US, specifically in relation to the Marathon bombing, are seeing a resurgence of the initial reaction to 9/11 that has set off a firestorm of racial hatred which I fear is backed by indiscriminate vigilantes with guns. Their implication seems to be that unless you’re the right flavor of Christian, you’re not safe to be around and you might just be something less than human, and that appears to be exactly what the current-day propagandists hope to accomplish.

Anything can be justified if it’s done to less superior human beings. All it takes is a prince in charge who knows how to control the population.

Thanks, Machiavelli.

Sources:

The Prince. Nicolo Machiavelli, Translator: W. K. Marriott. Release Date: February 11, 2006 [EBook #1232] [This file last updated October 19, 2010] Project Gutenberg: http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/1232.

Additional reading:

1.6 Billion Rounds Of Ammo For Homeland Security? It’s Time For A National Conversation. Forbes Magazine Online. Posted: 3/11/2013 @ 8:00AM  (http://www.forbes.com/sites/ralphbenko/2013/03/11/1-6-billion-rounds-of-ammo-for-homeland-security-its-time-for-a-national-conversation/)

Tea Party Nation Blames Boston Bombing On Obama, ‘Radical Islam’
Huffington Post Politics. Posted: 04/16/2013 5:37 pm EDT  |  Updated: 04/16/2013 5:53 pm EDT (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/04/16/tea-party-nation-boston-bombing_n_3094621.html)

The billionaire brothers who are waging a war against Obama. By Jane Mayer.  The New Yorker Magazine. AUGUST 30, 2010 (http://www.newyorker.com/reporting/2010/08/30/100830fa_fact_mayer)

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