As I continue my journey to catch up in the reading for the Great Books Reading Project, I just completed the reading for May 2015, Machiavelli’s famous tract on leadership, The Prince. This is now the fourth time in my life that I have read The Prince and I was struck, as I have been in each reading since the first, in how different its effect upon was from previous readings.
The first time I read The Prince I was a teenager and, like all teenagers of an intellectual bent, a lover of Nietzsche. At that time, Machiavelli seemed to me to be a sort of proto-Nietzsche, and I loved it. I read The Prince again twice during my college years, for two different classes, one of which was while I was in my early 20s and the other while I was in my mid-20s. I think the line of separation that stands between these two readings is the experience of war. In the first, I was just beginning my time in the military. In the second, my stint in the Army was drawing to a close. As a result, in the first reading of the two college-era readings I saw in Machiavelli a brutal realist and in the second I saw in Machiavelli a realistic brutality.
It is only a thread that separates this brutal realism and realistic brutality from each other, but there is a world of difference in that thread. On the one hand, I think it is possible that Machiavelli is merely describing what he sees, and this was certainly my impression from my early college reading of him. On the other, he does seem to take some delight in describing and to turn his descriptions into prescriptions about how a prince should behave, which, in a sense, positions him as an advocate for a more brutal world.
I am undecided as to where I stand this time around, though I have to say that I like Machiavelli less each time I read him and this reading has been no exception. What are your thoughts? Is Machiavelli describing how to succeed in a brutal world or is there something brutal in Machiavelli himself that he prescribes for his prince? Or … ?
The heavens themselves, the planets and this centre
Observe degree, priority and place,
Insisture, course, proportion, season, form,
Office and custom, in all line of order;
And therefore is the glorious planet Sol
In noble eminence enthroned and sphered
Amidst the other; whose medicinable eye
Corrects the ill aspects of planets evil,
And posts, like the commandment of a king,
Sans cheque to good and bad: but when the planets
In evil mixture to disorder wander,
What plagues and what portents! what mutiny!
What raging of the sea! shaking of earth!
Commotion in the winds! frights, changes, horrors,
Divert and crack, rend and deracinate
The unity and married calm of states
Quite from their fixure! O, when degree is shaked,
Which is the ladder to all high designs,
Then enterprise is sick! How could communities,
Degrees in schools and brotherhoods in cities,
Peaceful commerce from dividable shores,
The primogenitive and due of birth,
Prerogative of age, crowns, sceptres, laurels,
But by degree, stand in authentic place?
Take but degree away, untune that string,
And, hark, what discord follows! each thing meets
In mere oppugnancy: the bounded waters
Should lift their bosoms higher than the shores
And make a sop of all this solid globe:
Strength should be lord of imbecility,
And the rude son should strike his father dead:
Force should be right; or rather, right and wrong,
Between whose endless jar justice resides,
Should lose their names, and so should justice too.
Then every thing includes itself in power,
Power into will, will into appetite;
And appetite, an universal wolf,
So doubly seconded with will and power,
Must make perforce an universal prey,
And last eat up himself.
Ulysses, in Shakespeare, Troilus and Cressida, Act 1, Scene 3
What I might call, by analogy, the ‘false religion’, is obsessed not only by God’s power over men but also by His power to create a world; similarly, false rationalism is fascinated by the idea of creating huge machines and Utopian social worlds. Bacon’s ‘knowledge is power’ and Plato’s ‘rule of the wise’ are different expressions of this attitude which, at bottom, is one of claiming power on the basis of one’s superior intellectual gifts. The true rationalist, in opposition, will always be aware of the simple fact that whatever reason he may possess he owes to intellectual intercourse with others. He will be inclined, therefore, to consider men as fundamentally equal, and human reason as a bond which unites them. Reason for him is the precise opposite of an instrument of power and violence: he sees it as a means whereby they may be tamed.
Karl Popper, Conjectures and Refutations: The Growth of Scientific Knowledge, p. 363