November 03, 2006


Caption: The wise prince must have the support of the people. Or the chickens.

This is the final post in a lighthearted series on reading Machiavelli's The Prince for fun and profit.

If this is your first visit, please scroll down to the earlier entries.

To recap briefly, Machiavelli, though best known for The Prince, was a lifelong supporter of republican government. This book, aimed at the hardball Italian politics of the Renaissance, represents his thinking about how to make the best of a bad situation until conditions for republican government were more favorable.

While the book contains some ideas which are a little over the top (or below the bottom), it still offers food for thought about politics, strategy, and public life.

To conclude, no discussion of The Prince would be complete without a little more on two pairs of key ideas: lion/fox and virtu/Fortuna.

First, the critters. In general, people can accomplish things in the public sphere in the face of opposition through either power, strategy, or ideally, some combination of the two.

The problem with relying on power alone is that it can lead to arrogance, self-destruction, weakness in the face of crafty opponents, laziness, and/or a huge waste of energy, life and resources.

Relying on strategy alone can be problematic since it takes a degree of power to implement it (although anyone who has seen aikido or judo in action will know that a little power with a good strategy can do quite well against a big power without strategy).

Old Nick referred to the two as the lion and the fox, respectively:

It is therefore necessary for a prince to know well how to use both the beast and the man....A prince being thus obligated to know how to act as a beast must imitate the fox and the lion, for the lion cannot protect himself from traps, and the fox cannot defend himself from wolves. One must therefore be a fox to recognize traps, and a lion to frighten wolves. Those who wish only to be lions do not understand this.

But the key to Machiavelli's idea of strategy is found in the previously mentioned dyad of virtu and Fortuna. First, virtu has nothing to do with virtue as we use the word today and everything to do with power and self assertion. Think of it as voluntary activities designed to achieve a goal, i.e. things over which we have control.

Fortuna is associated with the goddess Fortune in classical and medieval beliefs, which symbolizes things beyond our control. For some, such as Dante (Inferno, VII), Fortuna was a goddess bestowing goods and evils which people could only accept.

Machiavelli is more optimistic than Dante, believing that while we cannot completely control fortune, we anticipate, prepare for, and adapt to it. And that's the key to political success:

...I think it may be true that fortune is the ruler of half our actions, but that she allows the other half or thereabouts to be governed by us. I would compare her to an impetuous river that, when turbulent, inundates the plains, casts down trees and buildings, removes earth from this side and places it on the other; everyone flees before it, and everything yields to its fury without being able to oppose it; and yet though it is of such a kind, still when it is quiet, men can make provisions against it by dykes and banks, so that when it rises it will either go into a canal or its rush will not be so wild and dangerous. So it is with fortune, which shows her power where no measures have been taken to resist her, and directs her fury where she knows that no dykes or barriers have been made to hold her.

The key to success, in Machiavelli's day as in our own, is the matching of virtu to Fortuna, which above all means adapting to the needs and opportunities of the moment:

...the prince who bases himself entirely on fortune is ruined when fortune changes. I also believe that he is happy whose mode of procedure accords with the needs of the times, and similarly he is unfortunate whose mode of procedure is opposed to the times....

I therefore conclude then that fortune varying and men remaining fixed in their ways, they are successful so long as these ways conform to circumstances, but when they are opposed then they are unsuccessful.

Whatever we think about the rest of The Prince, observations like those are pretty compelling and are as true today as they ever were, which makes Old Nick a good friend to have, bad reputation and all.


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