“The lion cannot defend himself against snares and the fox cannot defend himself against wolves. Therefore, it is necessary to be a fox to discover the snares and a lion to terrify the wolves.” – Niccolo Machiavelli, The Prince (Il Principe), 1513
When we use the term “Machiavellian,” it’s usually not meant as a compliment. It’s an adjective generally attached to actions by someone who shamelessly and ruthlessly schemes, deceives, and manipulates others for personal gain without concern for matters of morality. A so-called Machiavellian ruler, for instance, may be an expert in the wily art of duplicity, knowing how to appear as a benevolent ruler to some and an iron-fisted tyrant toward whom it would be wise to exercise caution and obedience. The Machiavellian is likely to subscribe generously to the notion that the ends justify the means, and doesn’t shy away when those means border — or fully immerse themselves in — what the non-sociopaths among us would easily identify as “evil.”
It’s unlikely (though debated for centuries) that Niccolo Machiavelli, the man who lent his name to the term Machiavellian was, himself, Machiavellian in his personal philosophy. The association was struck when Machiavelli penned a book called The Prince (Il Principe), which was greatly influenced by his observations of the powerful Cesare Borgia, in whose court he served for a time. The Prince is presented from the point of view of an adviser to a new prince, who must rely on his own cunning to claw his way into, establish, and retain power — unlike a traditional, hereditary prince whose title is handed down by the lucky grace of his own ancestry. The Prince is seen as a first in western philosophy and political thought as illustrating a break between the notions of political idealism and political realism. Some have speculated that the work was intended as more of a satire than an actual “walkthrough” manual to seizing and holding political power (I’m among those who hold that opinion). The fact that many of Machiavelli’s non-political writings were comedic in nature, to me, supports this.
Whatever your take on Niccolo Machiavelli and the ideas he presented in The Prince, it’s an interesting read, and can be downloaded from Amazon for The Kindle for free. Does this mean that Amazon is an altruistic force of good shining upon the world, or is it just giving away free stuff in a Machiavellian ploy to seduce you into buying a Kindle? Maybe you’ll have a better answer after reading The Prince.
Don’t have a Kindle? You can still read Kindle publications on your computer or mobile phone of choice.
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Or, you know. There’s always The Kindle itself if you’re into that sort of thing.
Happy birthday, Niccolo Machiavelli!