Lions and foxes – lessons in power


I’m having a hard time finding an entry point into the material for this week’s class – King Lear and The Prince. Both works deeply embedded in our political/historical culture and thus difficult to unpack in the space of 500-1000 words. My own digestion of the material is just too fresh for any meaningful depth of discovery, and in the case of King Lear I found it a real struggle to get it down in the first place. More on that later, as today’s reading journal entry is focused on The Prince – a guidebook to seizing and maintaining power, written in early 16th century Florence.

Though some have posited that this may have been satire rather than advice, I have a difficult time believing that – particularly as the Machiavelli had spent some time being tortured in prison for an alleged role in a plot to overthrow the Medici family – and any word taken the wrong way would have surely been used painfully against him. At the same time, some of Machiavelli’s prescriptions in The Prince seem over the top in their amoral inference that the door is certainly open to understand the book as a satirical critique of power if one should choose to do so.

It is better to be feared than loved if you cannot be both. But you must avoid being hated.

So, taking the book at face value – Machiavellis famous for saying things like the above. And also things like:

Men should either be caressed or crushed, for if the injuires are slight they can always gain revenge, but they cannot if they are heavy.

Really, the book is packed with handy tips like these which cover everything from how to take power, the necessity of destroying bloodlines of former rules, the requirement for civic rather than mercenary armies, the types of fortifications and arms one should need for maintaining power, and the requirement for chucking morality out the window should the need to hold onto power supercede it. Oh – and don’t bother looking for your rewards in heaven, being a good prince pretty much necessitates behaviour which will send you straight to hell. A very straightforward, no-bullshit approach to power if you ask me, even as I cringe at the self-interested autocracy of it all. And the prose is direct, not flowery or euphemistic, a clear communication from one who fancies himself an insider-strategist to those who actually hold the levers of power.

In this way, Machiavelli may be our first evidence of the political strategist as we understand that role in modern politics. The Prince is, after all, an attempt to get to the heart of the leadership question during a time of emergence for the modern state in Italy. This was not a friendly or fanciful context, but one in which torture was used routinely – one where the church had all but abandoned any pretences to morality under Pope Alexander VI (the “Borgia” pope who sought to feather the nests of his children through use of the Papal armies and his own political strategies). Although Machiavelli may seem cynical in the writing of this, he is not promoting so much as reflecting on the way the maintenance of power really works, as opposed to how it “ought” to work morally or ethically.

The perfect leader in Machiavelli’s opinion, is one who can balance reason and passion, playing the strengths of each – the astuteness of the fox alongside the ferocity of the lion – in order to alternately smoothtalk and create fear among the public.  It is not enough to simply ride in and take what one wants without endangering the whole enterprise. A good prince may not be virtuous in his actions, but he must always be seen to be virtuous. A good prince must not be afraid to inflict cruelty, but if he does so it should be in the very beginning of his taking power so people can eventually forget that cruelty. It’s all a bit of a Jedi mind-trick really, but when one thinks of the success of the “100 days” plans of most conservative governments as of late, the effectiveness of the strategy is clear. (By “100 days” I mean the strategy by which a government comes to power and enacts its most regressive cuts and legislation in the first hundred days as part of the new “mandate” from the public. Closer to elections, governments become a lot more giving – this is all in keeping with Machiavelli’s edicts for holding onto power).

What justifies this all? The end of course – as usual, holding up the means by which one gets there. But then the question is, what are the ends? Are the most important ends sought by the individual prince? the political party? on behalf of the people? This is where the real deception comes in, because even Machiavelli seems to believe that the ends are based in the needs of the people being met, as opposed to the needs of the individual ruler in meeting his own bloodlust or addiction to political rulership. As in modern politics where the needs of the public are continually held up as the motive, when in fact they become the driver for the real motive – concentration of wealth and power in the hands of the few.

And therein lies my issue with reading Machiavelli’s words as satire. While it may *seem* over the top – what in his words is not the truth of how rulers do rule successfully? North American political parties may seem a long way removed from Florence during the Rennaissance, but no fewer political conspiracies and intrigues abound today, and while the direct murder of an opponent may be verboten (here and now) – to slaughter someone’s character through lies and innuendo is seen as perfectly fair game. Power is not a game for the ethical, then or now. And if the tone of the work is sometimes detestable, does that not simply reflect a desire on the part of Machiavelli to shock his reader into careful consideration of what he has to say?

These are my initial thoughts on The Prince – which I appreciated for the lucidity of thought, much more than the world prescribed by those thoughts. The question I am left with is one of the human capacity to see and act on power differently than what is laid out in this handbook – for we aren’t even one step removed from the cynical approach to ruling than the Florentine monarchs of the 16th century were.

One thought on “Lions and foxes – lessons in power

  1. I have gotten into so many arguments with people about “The Prince”. I don’t agree with it, I believe we need to think differently as a species even if the purpose of these ideas is aimed towards a better end result for people.

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