September Books 22) The Prince

22) The Prince, by Niccolò di Bernardo dei Machiavelli

As part of my newly self-inflicted reading programme, this was a merciful relief in that it is a) very short and b) a non-fiction essay about a subject that I am very interested in. Also I read it electronically, thanks to the excellent FictionWise. No trees died for this review.

I found it very thought-provoking. The style is a little reminiscent of Sun Tzu’s The Art of War – less staccato, of course, and with rather too many references to events contemporary to Machiavelli which I have only dimly heard of, if at all. Machiavelli’s strictures on statecraft for the autocratic ruler are not hugely relevant for Western democracies, where the executive’s freedom to do what they want is (thank God!) hemmed in by many legal and political restrictions.

But for a number of the countries that I take an interest in, which have democratic form but not content, his analysis is actually a much better explanation of their rulers’ behaviour, and a useful metric for predicting whether they will succeed or fail, than any appeal to democratic theory. To take one example that is no longer contemporary, I read the passage on a Civil Principality, “where a leading citizen becomes the prince of his country, not by wickedness or any intolerable violence, but by the favour of his fellow citizens”, and thought of Eduard Shevardnadze and his downfall.

And indeed some of his strictures have a wider application than merely to autocratic rulers’ domestic policies. His observation that while you may have to choose being feared over being loved, you must avoid at all costs being hated, has obvious read-through to external as well as internal interventions in any country’s politics.

The last few chapters – on choosing the right person to be your right-hand man, while at the same time avoiding the attentions of flatterers – are obviously (as commented) to be seen in the light of the entire book being a job application; but they are none the less important observations on the psychology of leaders and their advisers.

So yeah, an excellent read. The next on the list will take me a bit longer, I think…

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