Tuesday, July 29, 2008

"The Prince" by Machievelli is about how to be effectively powerful in a situation where all the powerful people tend to be sneaky and nasty.

So it's largely about how to be effectively sneaky and nasty. Not entirely--sometimes being sneaky and nasty, Machiavelli observes, is not the best way to preserve power, so do something else. But mostly "The Prince" is indeed about being Machievellian.

He may not have thought that was the best way to be. He may have just been observing and summarizing the most effective behavior of princes in Northern Italy in the Renaissance.

I think of "The Prince" and "The Leviathan" by Thomas Hobbes at the same time. Both have low opinions of human nature. Hobbes says life is nasty, brutish,and short and is a struggle of all against all. In that context, he thinks about what governments should be. You gotta protect yourself from the all against all situation, and therefore give the government more power than you might want to.

"The Prince" and "The Leviathan" were both written during periods of civil war, I think. Civil war makes people pessimistic about each other and about what people together might do. The people together possibilities seem grim, and only grim.

Thomas Hobbes would agree with my opinion that he lived in a period of civil war. He wrote from what he learned about living through the English Civil War of the sixteen hundreds.

Machievelli did not think he lived in a time of civil war. For him, the city states of Northern Italy struggling against each other politically and going to war against each other was not civil war. These were different governments, they were fighting, this was how to operate in that environment, which wasn't civil war.

Therein lies the dumbness of "The Prince." He observed and summarized the short term political smarts of some very smart people who were collectively missing the historical boat.

Smart people--Nothern Italy in Machievelli's time was doing the Renaissance, multiple world historical high points in many arts.

Including the art of clever and sometimes armed struggle among city states.

But city states were on their way out. The future was with nations who united, like France, to the north of Italy, was doing.

The ongoing struggle between the city states, which Machievelli advised on how to participate in, was one reason Italy wasn't united until the mid-nineteen hundreds, which had bad effects for Italians and others.

"The Prince" is fairly easy to read, and short, for a book. Parts of it can seem like good advice for a ruthless approach to office politics. A way to use smartness is to win at whatever game is going. Sometimes a way to use smartness is to make the game nastier than it was when you walked in and win at that.

People are good. People are bad. People are nasty, are kind. It depends on many things. Part of what it depends on is what is going around them.

If people around are mostly acting like nasty power plays are great, or like it's all against all, they tend to act in a way that makes that continue to be true.

It is a good thing if people can use the smarts they have to make a situation in which life is not nasty, brutish, and short so their imagination can make life something other than and more interesting than all against all.

"The Prince" is so short, for a book, that it is often put together with something else Machievelli wrote to make a (still small) book. Usually it's put with his "Discourses" which are more idealistic, less read, and (darn) less good.

Another bit of writing about humans and government that is so short it isn't often a book by itself is "Civil Disobedience" by Thoreau.

It would be fun to make a book that put "The Prince" and "Civil Disobedience" together, because they are both about government and think about it so differently that they are as if from parallel universes.

"The Prince" is top down. How to be clever, powerful, and win from the top and toward other people at the top of other governments. "Civil Disobedience" is about democracy and how if you are in a democracy that is doing wrong you shouldn't participate, shouldn't pay for it. Gandhi learned a lot from "Civil Disobedience" and all other civil disobeyers since have learned from Gandhi.

So you could put win in a monarchy with little concern for right and wrong together with don't participate in a democracy if it is doing wrong. For one thing, that would make clear there is a missing masterpiece--a short, great book about participating in a democracy from the bottom, not the top, in a way that keeps it from going wrong.

Maybe that isn't meant to be a book. Maybe it is to stay a way of life, of many lives.