Monday, May 03, 2010

Machiavelli: The Prince of Power

The shifting alliances and quicksilver borders of Central Europe during the Renaissance make for an interesting - if confusing - time in history; within the historical record of that era dozens of Popes and Princes jostle for attention amongst some of the finest minds (and talents) the human race has ever produced. Fascinating as it is, I've always found the age a tiny bit daunting; still, the blog must go on, which as always compels me to delve into it wherever and whenever I can.

PhotobucketOne of the finest minds of the time belonged to Niccolò Machiavelli (born on this day in 1469) whose works have proven so useful through the centuries that his name has been adjectivized - a singular honour in pop cultural terms. So, while 'Machiavellian' may not have the greatest connotation these days - with its insistence on the use of cunning and deceit for personal gain - in the context of its time and place, obviously, it was just the thing.

The chief work of Machiavelli's literary legacy is a book called The Prince - which is shocking in the way it subverts the natural order by being essentially a lecture, delivered by a civil servant, instructing his 'betters' how they should comport themselves while conducting the business of government. Probably for this reason the book, although written in 1513, wasn't published until 1532 - five years after its author's death. While far from being the only book Machiavelli ever produced, for better or worse, it's the one whose reputation seems to be the most durable.

The Vatican later placed The Prince on its Index Librorum Prohibitorum, which is as sterling an endorsement as I could hope to give it; unsurprisingly, the ideas presented in it were shunned by humanists such as Erasmus, whose insistence on goodness offers a method of self-improvement which is far too much work for most people. Machiavelli, obviously a realist*, must have known that a certain portion of any populace - in other words, the ruling class or anyone hoping to attain that status - has no time for kindness, and at least offered them a way to temper the worst excesses of their cruelty by appealing to their inborn need for respect.

*An archaic word we may now better recognize as 'cynic'.

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TheQuestionMan said...

I loved the Prince, but hated its message.

Odd, no?


Anonymous said...

Torquemada will not approve this reading...