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The only way it was possible to get ahead was to be part of the inner circle. It didn’t really matter what the issue was or what sort of implications it carried. All that mattered was knowing the right person, having the right information, making the right introductions, and going to the right parties. The most valuable information was not necessarily something you knew about an enemy but something you knew about a friend. Staff and “advisors” were, in many ways, far more powerful than the aristocrat holding office. As much as it sounds like it, it was not late 20th century Washington, D.C. but early 16th century Italy. The tell all book is not “Primary Colors,” “And the Horse He Rode In,” or any other modern political tell-all but the most infamous political book of all time, “The Prince” by Niccolo Machiavelli (1469-1527). Machiavelli entered government service as a clerk and rose to prominence when the Florentine Republic was proclaimed in 1498. His duties included missions to the French king (1504, 1510-11), the Holy See (1506), and the German emperor (1507-8). In the course of his diplomatic missions within Italy he became acquainted with many of the Italian rulers and was able to study their political tactics, particularly those of Cesare Borgia, who was at that time engaged in enlarging his holdings in central Italy. From 1503 to 1506 Machiavelli reorganized the military defense of the republic of Florence.
Although mercenary armies were common during this period, he preferred to rely on the conscription of native troops to ensure a permanent and patriotic defense of the commonwealth. In 1512, when the Medici, a Florentine family, regained power in Florence and the republic was dissolved, he was deprived of office and briefly imprisoned for alleged conspiracy against the Medici. After his release he retired to his estate near Florence, where he wrote his most important works. Despite his attempts to gain favor with the Medici rulers, he was never restored to his prominent government position. It is not hard to understand how Machiavelli developed his theories considering his years in politics with all of the constant ins and outs of being in favor with the powerful or not.
Machiavelli spent the great majority of his political and governmental career attempting to establish a state that would be fully able to resist any sort of foreign attack. All of his thought and all of his writing revolves around the means by which a state is created and maintained. In his most famous work, The Prince, he describes the method by which a prince can acquire and maintain political power. This study, which has often been regarded as a defense of the authoritarianism and tyranny of such rulers as Cesare Borgia, is based on Machiavelli’s belief that a ruler is not bound by traditional ethical norms. In his view, a prince should be concerned only with power and be bound only by rules that would lead to success in political actions. Machiavelli believed that these rules could be discovered by deduction from the political practices of the time, as well as from those of earlier periods.
One of the most powerful premises of the book is the idea that a leader must do what they’ve got to do. They should do what works, always keeping in mind the real nature of those who are the followers.
As the 15th century came to a close, Italy became the grounds for many successive wars, waged by France, Spain, and Austria, which ended in the rise of the Spanish and Austrian Habsburgs. In 1494, King Charles VIII of France undertook to conquer the kingdom of Naples, then under the rule of the house of Arag n. Charles was induced to conduct this campaign by the Milanese regent Ludovico Sforza and by the citizens of Florence, who were restive under the Medici family. He invaded Italy, occupied Naples, and concluded a treaty with Florence, by the terms of which the Medici was expelled and the pope was brought to submission. In consequence, however, a league formed against him by Spain, the pope, the Holy Roman emperor, and the Italian cities of Venice and Milan, Charles was forced to retire from Naples and fight his way out of Italy. This French invasion, although it produced no great political results, was highly important as a means by which Italian culture was spread throughout Europe. In fact we can see how it shaped European politics around the time when reading The Prince.
There are, of course, lasting qualities of The Prince that have proven to transcend time and place. Without regard to its historic application, The Prince still remains a great work. The theory of human behavior that Machiavelli presents, which even if not acceptable by the prevailing morality of the time or even of the modern world, still deserves respect. The premises he put forth and the attitudes he suggested were to change the view of the aristocracy by the general populace and vice versa forever. If one accepts his belief that man is essentially corrupt (which is not especially different from Church dogma), and if one believes that man will not be called upon to answer for his sins in the afterlife, leaving him free to pursue worldly goals, then The Prince presents an extremely logical world. It is an attempt to deal with the world as it is, and not as it should be. Machiavelli never describes any of his theories as utopian; his theories are simply a guide to survival in the cutthroat political climate of the time. Machiavelli is not interested in reforming human nature, but rather in using it to serve his own ends.
In Machiavelli’s view, enemies and potential enemies should be summarily executed, because only those still alive can plot revenge; it is absolutely necessary for a prince to appear religious, and utterly disastrous for him actually to be religious; one should not hesitate to break one’s word when interest requires it. Such sentiments are only a small sampling of what has led to centuries of attacks on the Machiavelli for his immorality and earned him a reputation, in Shakespeare’s words, as “the murderous machiavel”.
To a great degree, the world is not that difficult for the properly trained and aware “prince” to control. As he explains in Chapter XIV: “How may the Prince be successful in his endeavors? By studying little but war, for that is the only art necessary for one who commands. Correct knowledge of war can keep a Prince who has been born to rule in power, and may enable those who were not born princes to rise to that position” (Machiavelli). In the same chapter, Machiavelli goes on to tell the story what can happen to the princes who fails: “Francesco Sforza, a private citizen, learned the arts of war, and through their use became Duke of Milan. His sons, who were not interested in war, lost Milan and became private citizens. The Prince who is uninterested in war becomes contemptible, and this attitude on the part of others must be guarded against at all costs.”
At the core of all his writing, Machiavelli was determined to eliminate pretense and examine what he perceived as reality. Before this could be done, he had to develop his political hypothesis, which was based, not upon the Christian ethic, as other writers had done before him, but rather upon what he considered as obvious and observable occurrences. Through his eyes, modern readers have had an opportunity to see the political maneuvering of an age of great intrigue and deceit . . . not unlike the close of the
20th century in America.
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