What Can We Learn from The Five Hundred Year Old Prince?

Niccolò Machiavelli's The Prince (1532)
Government sequestration, furloughs, bailouts, and bipartisan bickering have increased the sentiment of cynicism and disillusionment among voters (young and old alike) in the United States.  While internationally, more and more of the populace has subverted oppressive governments’ (i.e. The Arab Spring) for a democratically elected republic and demand to be a part of the process of choosing the government officials. Throughout the world diverse forms of governments are disappointing its citizens.
 
Back in America, the disgust and frustration with the system vis-à-vis political leaders in the US government extend across the nation to not just the federal government but state and city government as well. In New York City, the recent political bribery scandal continues to unveil itself.  The New York City Mayoral race is about to heat up this year as Michael Bloomberg’s third term will expire at the end of 2013, leaving some to use methods not seen since William Boss Tweed’s, Tammany Hall days.  In Italy, citizens have grown accustomed to futile governments and corrupt public officials.  While at the same time, other forms of governments do not escape the unscrupulous acts of elected officials or the abuse of power and despicable behavior of oppressive rulers’ like Bashar al-Assad or Kim Jong Un.
  
 
One literary reference, however, may offer arguably some sense of solace and rationale behind the global abyss that reflects many governments and that is Niccolò Machiavelli’s The Prince. This year marks the 500th anniversary of The Prince, (Il Principe) written in 1513 but not published until 1532. Many academic institutions from around the world have had or are about to conduct scholarly conferences with experts in the field of history, psychology, philosophy and political science. These scholars will explore many aspects of Machiavelli and almost certainly examine the relevance of his premise to global politics today.  Many may argue that despite the present political structures, Machiavelli’s theories can still be applied.
 
Machiavelli wrote his book based on his political observations of Florentine leaders such as Cesare Borgia and Piero Soderini. After being appointed by the latter to lead a militia group, the prominent Medici family ascended, and subsequently released him from his government duties.  Apparently, some claim he became disgruntled by the Medici clan, and he wrote his book to prove his worth to Lorenzo (The Magnificent) de Medici. Once Lorenzo de Medici died Machiavelli was hired as the official historian of Florence under Pope Giulio de Medici.
 
Yet, his name will always be associated with politics as he wrote about several themes in The Prince that include: the idea of free will, the inevitable result of cruelty, generosity and military force that leaders use as a form of control; concepts still seen in governments today. Another significant theme in his literary manuscript is the importance of government leaders studying history and how they learn from past achievements or mistakes of other political figures.   
 
“In a recent interview with the New York Times, Pulitzer Prize–winning author Jared Diamond was asked which book he would require President Obama to read if he could. His answer? Niccoló Machiavelli’s The Prince, written 500 years ago.” Of course, the idea of learning from past mistakes is not only a Machiavellian concept, but simply common sense. At a recent conference, James Johnson, an associate professor of history at Boston University says, “Machiavelli stripped the language of ideals from the genre, omitted the ornamental qualities of personal style and polish, and drew examples from history. He wrote that anyone who ignores reality in order to live up to an ideal will discover that he has been taught how to destroy himself.”
 
Undoubtedly, the President, Speaker Boehner, New York City Mayoral Candidates as well as Vladimir Putin, Xi Jinping, and many other world leaders, are very familiar with the chapters of Machiavelli’s The Prince. Perhaps some may even justify their actions based on the famous or infamous maxim (depending on your perspective) written by the Florentine “the ends justify the means.” Nonetheless, the question is, does The Prince serve these government officials so they may use it as a guide to maintain or procure power. Or can we the citizens of the world use the document to educate ourselves in recognizing self-serving governments as well as megalomaniac leaders, and when necessary take a proactive stance toward change? For several centuries scholars have debated about who is truly Niccolò Machiavelli’s audience, those in power or the masses. 
 
Antonio Gramsci, another Italian political theorist and philosopher and devout Marxist of the early twentieth century, argues that Machiavelli’s audience “was not even the ruling class but the common people because the rulers already knew these methods through their education.” Based on this assumption and regardless of the political hierarchy, should citizens or the common folk, throughout the world, begin to use The Prince, at the undergraduate and graduate level as well as in book clubs, and begin to discuss how to address the problems of government and redirect its path?
 
 As Professor Johnson believes, “The impact of the book has instead been to force countless readers over the past 500 years to confront, in the starkest terms possible, the most important questions about politics and morality.” According to some critics, the legacy of The Prince just encourages politicians to disregard all ethical and moral convictions when governing republics or any other form of government. So why would we want to read something that fosters and vindicates this behavior? Of course the other way to understand how this book can serve us is by using the book to challenge our own thinking of government and identify these malevolent characteristics in our leaders.
 
Although the marking of the 500-year-old publication of The Prince has commenced this year, many who are interested will debate its true purpose and effect for the upcoming centuries.   One of the many celebratory elements of this political classic is that it not only serves as a political guide for rulers and citizens but it was also written in Italian; a vernacular that thanks to Dante, was becoming more popular than Latin, the lingua franca prior to the Renaissance Period.  
 
By writing in Italian, Machiavelli’s vision, as that of other Italians living in the city-states at the time, was to unite Italy under the control of one prince.  Ironically, the country where Machiavelli  wrote The Prince, like many forms of governments throughout the world, has had several democratically elected officials (post World War II) from various political parties making questionable decisions, forcing citizens to wonder how should we interpret The Prince.  
 

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