11 surprisingly apt lessons from Machiavelli's The Prince

The 16th-century treatise is known for its detached ruthlessness. But you can still learn a lot from reading it.

Man holding scepter
(Image credit: <a href="http://shutr.bz/1fwGakJ">Courtesy Shutterstock</a><a></a>)

British philosopher and Nobel laureate Bertrand Russell once called The Prince a handbook for gangsters.

The book, a slender political treatise by the Italian Niccolo Machiavelli, was offered to Lorenzo de Medici as a sort of job application. Written in 1513, it was not widely published until 1532, five years after the author's death. Upon its publication, The Prince became well known as among the controversial of many advice books for rulers. Generally, these advice books framed their instruction around Christian virtue. The Prince did not.

A voracious reader, Machiavelli stripped out the ideals and drew examples from history. He believed that anyone who ignores reality in a misguided attempt to live up to an ideal will quickly destroy himself. He de-emphasized the importance of moral considerations, and focused instead on effectiveness. He believed that the ends justified the means.

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Canadian scholar and politician Michael Ignatieff puts it this way: The Prince forces readers to confront, in the starkest terms possible, the most important questions about politics and morality. In the book, what would normally shock us become simple precepts. The book is wickedly simple.

Some of his most objectionable recommendations are put in ways that make them sound eminently reasonable. In order to get a secure hold on new territories, the book advises, "one need merely eliminate the surviving members of the family of their previous rulers." How innocent-sounding is that "merely." [Ignatieff, via BU Today]

Yes, the book can be ruthless. But there are still many surprisingly apt lessons. Here's what I've learned from reading The Prince.

1. Be present

"... if one is on the spot, disorders are seen as they spring up, and one can quickly remedy them; but if one is not at hand, they are heard of only when they are great, and then one can no longer remedy them."

2. Be careful who you trust

"... he who is the cause of another becoming powerful is ruined; because that predominancy has been brought about by astuteness or else by force, and both are distrusted by him who has been raised to power."

3. Learn from the best

"A wise man ought always to follow the paths beaten by great men, and to imitate those who have been supreme, so that if his ability does not equal theirs, at least it will savour of it."

4. Be picky about who works for you

"The mercenary captains are either capable men or they are not; if they are, you cannot trust them, because they always aspire to their own greatness, either by oppressing you, who are their master, or others contrary to your intentions; but if the captain is not skillful, you are ruined the usual way."

5. Read

"... to exercise the intellect the prince should read histories, and study there the actions of illustrious men, to see how they have borne themselves in war, to examine the causes of their victories and defeat, so as to avoid the latter and imitate the former."

6. Prepare for the worst

"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."

7. Don't be cruel

"... every prince ought to desire to be considered clement and not cruel."

8. Don't steal

"... above all things he must keep his hands off the property of others, because men more quickly forget the death of their father than the loss of their patrimony. ... he who has once begun to live by robbery will always find pretexts for seizing what belongs to others; but reasons for taking life, on the contrary, are more difficult to find and sooner lapse."

9. Appearances matter

"... men judge generally more by the eye than by the hand, because it belongs to everybody to see you, to few to come in touch with you. Every one sees what you appear to be, few really know what you are, and those few dare not oppose themselves to the opinion of the many, who have the majesty of the state to defend them; and in the actions of all men, and especially of princes, which it is not prudent to challenge, one judges by the result."

10. Sometimes your enemies are your friends

"I must not fail to warn a prince, who by means of secret favours has acquired a new state, that he must well consider the reasons which induced those to favour him who did so; and if it be not a natural affection towards him, but only discontent with their government, then he will only keep them friendly with great trouble and difficulty, for it will be impossible to satisfy them. And weighing well the reasons for this in those examples which can be taken from ancient and modern affairs, we shall find that it is easier for the prince to make friends of those men who were contented under the former government, and are therefore his enemies, than of those who, being discontented with it, were favourable to him and encouraged him to seize it."

11. Avoid flatterers

"It is that of flatterers, of whom courts are full, because men are so self-complacent in their own affairs, and in a way so deceived in them, that they are preserved with difficulty from this pest, and if they wish to defend themselves they run the danger of falling into contempt. Because there is no other way of guarding oneself from flatterers except letting men understand that to tell you the truth does not offend you; but when every one may tell you the truth, respect for you abates."

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