Applying Machiavelli to Life

“It is better to be feared than loved” is by far the most famous quote from Machiavelli’s The Prince, but the short book has much more to offer than a pithy statement voided of its true nuance (for Machiavelli importantly added “…if you cannot be both.” Written in 1513 for the new Florentine ruler, a member of the Medici family, The Prince failed in its attempt to win Niccolo Machiavelli favor from the new government. Nonetheless, this classic political work is the foremost reason Machiavelli’s name has been remembered for centuries past his time. A short yet practical work, The Prince enumerates the principles a successful prince (or any pseudo-absolute ruler) should follow. As there is some symmetry between good principles of political leadership and wisdom in ordinary life, there is something for everyone to learn from Machiavelli.

Be independent

Independence, for Machiavelli, meant using one’s own army as opposed to mercenaries and the armies of allies.

I conclude, therefore, that no principality is secure without having its own forces; on the contrary, it is entirely dependent on good fortune, not having the valor which in adversity would defend it.”

The Prince, Niccolo Machiavelli

As Machiavelli pointed out, using mercenaries and the soldiers of allies meant letting armed men with no true obedience to the prince direct the fate of a conflict. Even if mercenaries help win the day, there’s no guarantee men who fight for the highest bidder won’t find a more attractive offer shortly after a victory.

For us average citizens, applying this Machiavellian wisdom means relying on our own resources, trusting those who are truly friends or family, and only outsourcing tasks when absolutely necessary. This means, for example, taking control of your finances, your data (for our over-digitized world), and your responsibilities to your family, e.g. education (parents are children’s primary teachers).

Consider war in times of peace

Machiavelli praised Philopoemen, Prince of the Achaeans, for his constant ruminations on war tactics. The Achaean prince, out with on a walk with friends, would reportedly discuss various battle scenarios, such as “What if an enemy army appeared there on that wooded hill? What would be the best mode of defense or attack for such a situation?”. This is the principle of preparation, and Machiavelli extends it beyond war to other stately affairs.

A wise prince ought to observe some such rules, and never in peaceful times stand idle, but increase his resources with industry in such a way that they may be available to him in adversity, so that if fortune changes it may find him prepared to resist her blows.”

The Prince, Niccolo Machiavelli

Though we aren’t likely to command armies anytime soon, self-defense and anticipating natural disasters and the like are preparations everyone should make. Your “battle scenarios” may resemble those found in the movie Home Alone than those of Philopoemen, but such preparation is vital to protecting your home. Buying a firearm and learning to use it is a great first step, as is installing security devices (flood lights, cameras, alarms, etc.). Run through your head the various points of possible entry for a burglar and know how long it would take you to respond (e.g. retrieving and potentially firing a weapon). I’m running through these types of scenarios more often during these turbulent times.

The second area of preparation is in surviving various environment circumstances: food shortages, power outages, and natural disasters. Consider how long you can go without electricity, access to grocery stores, running water, and where you might take shelter during severe storms. Where would you go if your home was completely destroyed? Asking questions like these may help your react more calmly and rationally if some catastrophic event should happen. You may want to further consider a reasonable stockpile of non-perishable food, bottled water, and perhaps a generator.

Act princely

Machiavelli lived among the aristocracy, met foreign leaders and emissaries, and travelled Europe widely all leading to his “insider knowledge” of what makes a good or bad prince. This third advice from Machiavelli is quite different from the previous two in that this point relates to how a Prince should act, at least in the sight of others. The previous two points largely regarded matters opaque to the ruled people, but Machiavelli knew appearances were everything for a prince.

…a prince ought to take care that he never lets anything slip from his lips that is not replete with … five qualities, that he may appear to him who sees and hears him altogether merciful, faithful, humane, upright, and religious. There is nothing more necessary to appear to have than this last quality, inasmuch as men judge generally more by the eye than by the hand…

The Prince, Niccolo Machiavelli

Our modern politics validates this last statement a hundred times over, that “men judge generally more the eye than by the hand…”. Politicians make many promises, but few are kept. We also know by personal experience (e.g. interviews and dating especially) that first impressions (what we see) matters a lot. A simple fact is that we judge by what we can see (the false promises, the way someone looks) because the truth behind the vision is not often observable. We can see that Jim goes to church every week, but we can’t really know what he believes. Machiavelli knew the people can’t see into the heart of a prince for those five most important qualities (merciful, faithful, humane, upright, and religious), but they can see how he walks and talks in public.

While I much prefer the interior life of a person to match their exterior life, there are reasons and situations when our self-restraint (an inward quality after all) prudently reigns in our natural habits. For example, a father does well to exhibit those five qualities to his children. He should appear, in the eyes of his children altogether merciful, faithful, humane, upright, and religious because he is their role model. Children will mimic their father and the examples given to them more generally (recall the Bobo doll experiment where children exhibited the behavior they watched). Appearances do matter to the developing child. Appearances also matter to your boss for getting promoted.

Again, the ideal situation is that you don’t merely exhibit good qualities, but you internalize those good qualities too. But, I think our outward “faking” of good behavior is often the first step toward internalizing what is good.

Separate the Good from the Bad

Apply too much of Machiavelli, and you might be called Machiavellian – not a complement (meaning: unscrupulously, politically scheming or cunning). Any leader who applies all of Machiavelli’s advice would likely be a good politician, but democratic republics also require different sorts of politicians than pseudo-monarchies. Keep in mind, Italy in Machiavelli’s time was a chess match with a half dozen players, so much of what he says is geared toward avoiding utter destruction by one’s own people or a foreign army.

Taking the good, applicable advice out of the political, The Prince should remind us to avoid dependency, prepare for the worst, and demonstrate our virtues.

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Published by Christian Bottenfield

Catholic | Father of two | Husband | Engineer | Founder of ThinkingWest blog

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