Misunderstanding ‘The Prince’

This isn’t exactly game related but Machiavelli’s work is a big influence so I thought I’d post about it.

I read a recent article by Laurie Penny entitled The Eton Scholarship Question: this is how the British elite are trained to think which riled up some controversy about values in our leaders. The question is asking kids to write a speech about what they would say following a protest in which protesters are killed. The morality of the question doesn’t concern me here, what did bug me about the article was the following sentence;

“[Eton boys are being trained in the school’s values], values that include responding to a question about shooting protesters dead with clever rhetoric rather than a long, hard look at your own conscience, as well as reading Machiavelli as an instruction manual rather than a satire.”

The Prince is not a satire. This is a public misunderstanding that needs to die already. People need to actually read the book. It’s only 113 pages! Almost every single quote taken from The Prince is taken wildly out of context and portrays it as some sort of Manual for Evil.

The Prince is very dark at times, here is a nice quote for you;

“Indeed, there is no surer way of keeping possession than by devastation”


But to call it a manual for evil and tar the whole book with that brush is just ignorant. So here, I have collected a range of quotes from The Prince that aren’t completely evil. As I read through the book (which I’ve done 3 times now), I make note of nice quotations since it really is a wonderful read with a lot of incite and profound knowledge and doesn’t deserve the stigma that’s attached to it.

“For always, no matter how powerful one’s armies, in order to enter a country one needs the goodwill of the inhabitants”

Machiavelli arguing that you cannot just rampage into civilizations and take them with full force, there must be some desire for change from the inside or you will fail.

“Men do you harm either because they fear you or they hate you”

This is an important quote that requires context because much of The Prince is giving you advice how NOT TO BE HATED AND FEARED. Which is morally good advice, right?

“Yet it cannot be called prowess to kill fellow citizens, to betray friends, to be treacherous, pitiless, irreligious. These ways can win a prince power but no glory.”

Machiavelli is all about prowess or virtu (hey, that’s the name of my studio!). His book tries to give a prince advice as to how best to run his state and behave in a way that will give him everlasting glory. So, if you follow his advice… you WON’T be a complete bastard.

“I believe that here it is a question of cruelty used well or badly.

We can say that cruelty is used well (if it is permissible to talk in this way of what is evil) when it is employed once and for all, and one’s safety depends on it, and then it is not persisted in but as far as possible turned to the good of one’s subjects.

Cruelty badly used is that which, although infrequent to start with, as time goes on, rather than disappearing, grows in intensity”

Important part highlighted here. Cruelty is evil, but if you are forced to use it then this is Machiavelli’s advice. I’d totally get into Eton with that answer!

“Against a man who is highly esteemed conspiracy is difficult, and open attack is difficult, provided he is recognized as a great man, who is respected by his subjects”

If you want to survive conspiracies, be a great man.

“One would like to be both the one and the other; but because it is difficult to combine them, it is far better to be feared than loved if you cannot be both.

The prince must none the less make himself feared in such a way that, if he is not loved, at least he escapes being hated.”

The classic quote used to portray Machiavelli as the Satan of the Renaissance. Almost every article stops at the “It is far better to be feared than loved” part, missing out “if you cannot be both” and, more importantly, “escapes being hated”. Fear doesn’t have to be through evil and much of The Prince is telling you how to avoid being hated by not being an asshole.

“He should appear to be compassionate, faithful to his word, kind, guileless, and devout. And indeed he should be so. But his disposition should be such that, if he needs to be the opposite, he knows how.

He should not deviate from what is good, if that is possible, but he should know how to do evil, if that is necessary.”

This is my final quote, which sums up the entire book of The Prince. It’s balanced. It’s realistic. It is half good, half evil… because do you really want an ignoramus who lives in la-la land to be in charge of your state?

The reason The Prince isn’t a satire is because it doesn’t ever delve into pure evil. There is way too much emphasis on actually being a nice guy and a ton of real historical examples to illustrate the facts. Furthermore, reading any other Machiavelli works will inform you that his style and beliefs are present across more than just this single book. The Prince is an instruction manual, and like any instruction manual, it’s impartial and presents the way things are. And while I don’t want to go into the whole “should we be teaching our kids this stuff” debate, I do want to say that I’d rather have a leader who knows everything than a leader who means well and doesn’t know how or if something can be achieved.

More game stuff later this week!

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