The Prince's Relevance to the Modern Student
Is it prudish of me to focus on the obvious antisocial element that most people notice first when they read The Prince? Is it naive to reject the version of reality that he was selling? Each time I read this book, I think of what a good movie it would make, filled as it is with tough, cynical lines giving those who hold high office advice that would be more appropriate in jail: that only suckers play by the rules. I wonder about our motives as a society, about what we hope to gain when we read this.
Like most good novels, its attraction to us is mixed—it can teach us something about the world, but it is also (and this is a facet too frequently ignored) a fine piece of entertainment. We shouldn't confuse the two and value it for what it is not. The Prince calls itself a primer for novice politicians, and it is full of iron-clad truths, but it does not really offer much advice that can be applied to life in any practical way.
We should have no problem admitting that we enjoy reading Machiavelli: we like the serious, efficient tone of his cutthroat attitude, even while pretending that we don't. It has been nearly five hundred years since The Prince was written, and still we read it, analyze it, discuss it and assign it in schools. Ninety percent of books written are not in print five years after their initial publication, let alone fifty years or a hundred. There must be some reason for his popularity.
I think that there is an aspect of entertainment to be drawn from an idea like "cruelties badly or well used," that our culture is constantly trying to think up ways to fill that mysterious category of "cruelties well used" at the same time that it wants to tell us that cruelty has no place in the civilized world.
This ideal prince belongs to a long history of imaginary characters who make their own laws. Increasingly, as the world has gotten more crowded and laws more restrictive, we dream up do-gooders who transgress the conventional morality in their search for some higher good. There have always been, and always will be, the Zorros and Billy Jacks and Dirty Harrys and Buffy the Vampire Slayers, using bad means for good ends, and Machiavelli's ideal ruler falls right in with them.
The book explains that the prince must use cruelty sometimes, or else his subjects will quit their support of him and leave the government defenseless against anarchy and eventual overthrow by persons who would not use their cruelty so well. Our culture is brimming with antiheroes who are forced to step over to the dark side and engage in immoral behavior in order to preserve morality.
Their appeal may stem from a sense that the prevailing social order is absurd. It may come from an inherent sadism that, in a desire to watch somebody take advantage of somebody else, twists the rules of what is acceptable to make such bullying just. The important thing is that this rogue element is and always has been entertaining, a crowd-pleaser, and this is the category where I think The Prince belongs.
It is more problematic to consider The Prince an educational experience. It was written as a handbook—its only stated goal is to advise anyone who might come into control of a Renaissance city-state on how to maintain order. Compassion has no place except as a tool for keeping the people's support. Yet most of us are not princes, and we do not live in principalities. We have a right to wonder what this book has to offer beyond its entertainment value.
The book would be well worth serious attention if only because it has the educational value that any five-hundred-year-old artifact has. Curious Americans go to Colonial Williamsburg and wonder what the seventeenth century must have been like; they visit Civil War battlefields that saw action less than a hundred and fifty years ago. The works of Shakespeare (almost a century after Machiavelli) are important to us today because of the writer's artistry, but a common person's diary from the same time is also important for telling us...
(The entire section is 10,545 words.)