Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

A reader's group devoted to the discussion of meaningful books.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010


The world has changed a lot since 1500. That’s about the time Machiavelli wrote his famous book about how to be a successful prince. Today we sometimes hear about a politician or business leader being “Machiavellian” and we know it’s not meant as a compliment. It means this guy is a bad guy. But if Machiavelli was such a bad guy then why do we still read him today? Few of us will ever be called upon to act in the role of a Renaissance ruler. So a better question might be: can Machiavelli’s philosophy work for ordinary people in modern America? In this selection the answer is both yes and no. There’s a lot of bad advice here if you want to live in a modern democracy like America. But there’s a lot of good advice too.

Let’s concentrate on two or three major themes from Machiavelli that can be adapted for modern life in America. First, Machiavelli advises us to build our lives on a firm foundation. He says that …men change their rulers willingly, hoping to better themselves, and this hope induces them to take up arms against him who rules: wherein they are deceived, because they afterwards find by experience they have gone from bad to worse… In modern terms the grass isn’t always greener on the other side. It’s usually worse than what we have now. So don’t put your faith in daydreaming about some utopian life. Live in the real world. One way to do this is by looking around or reading about how other successful people lived their lives. Why? According to Machiavelli Men almost always walk the path made by others and conduct their affairs through imitation. Find out how other people did it. Then try to be like your successful role model. People can be successful in different ways. Socrates was successful in a different way than Henry Ford, for example. But once you make a decision, stick with your choice. Machiavelli says a man should be firm in his decisions. He should carry through what was decided and be firm in his decisions…because if he doesn’t It comes about that things he accomplishes one day, he destroys the next, and that no one ever understands what he wishes or plans to do.

Once you know what you want to accomplish then go for it. But if one thing is certain in life, it’s this: there will be obstacles in any path to success. Other people may want the same things you do or may want to keep you from achieving your goals. So Machiavelli’s second piece of advice is: Learn to deal with conflict effectively. Everyone will have conflict. The only question is when and where and how to deal with it. Machiavelli is blunt on this topic. He reminds us that At the beginning the disease is easy to cure but difficult to recognize, but as time goes on…it becomes easy to recognize and difficult to cure. If we put things off and let problems fester they’ll only get worse. This is true for political and military leaders but it’s also true for ordinary people dealing with conflict. War cannot be avoided but only postponed to the advantage of others…one must never permit disorder to develop in order to avoid going to war, because one does not avoid war but rather defers it to his own disadvantage. This doesn’t mean we should deal with conflict like a bull in a china shop. Instead we should use Machiavelli’s method of the lion and the fox: The lion has no protection from traps, and the fox is defenseless against the wolves. Therefore it is necessary to be a fox in order to know the traps, and a lion to frighten the wolves. That’s easy to say and hard to do.

Of course many of Machiavelli’s theories wouldn’t work today. He advises the prince to eliminate his enemies by killing them off. That’s illegal in modern America. Some of his other advice is also questionable, like his famous statement that it’s better to be feared than loved. But Machiavelli knows how the real world works. That’s why we still read him in 2010.


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