Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

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Monday, December 09, 2013

MACHIAVELLI: The Prince (An Immoral Book?)

The Prince may seem vaguely familiar to some readers, especially older readers. Corleone. That’s it. The Godfather. The Godfather was one of the most popular movies in American history. It is currently ranked as the second greatest film in American cinema (behind Citizen Kane) by the American Film Institute. The Vito Corleone family was from Italy. Machiavelli was from Italy. This kind of stuff was in the Corleone bloodline. Machiavelli’s book isn’t about how to be a successful mafia godfather in modern America. But it is a book about how to get (and hold on to) power. And it’s a serious book, a great book. A good question for Great Books readers: is it an immoral book?
First let’s define a couple of terms. What do we mean by “immoral?” Merriam-Webster defines “immoral” as “not morally good or right: morally evil or wrong; conflicting with generally or traditionally held moral principles.” Now let’s consider a word that sounds similar but has a different meaning: amoral. Merriam-Webster defines “amoral” as “having or showing no concern about whether behavior is morally right or wrong.” By these definitions is The Prince an “immoral” book or an “amoral” book? Let’s analyze this passage from Machiavelli’s work.
“…the Romans did in these instances what all prudent princes ought to do, who have to regard not only present troubles, but also future ones, for which they must prepare with every energy, because, when foreseen, it is easy to remedy them; but if you wait until they approach, the medicine is no longer in time because the malady has become incurable; …Therefore, the Romans, foreseeing troubles, dealt with them at once, and, even to avoid a war, would not let them come to a head, for they knew that war is not to be avoided, but is only put off to the advantage of others; moreover they wished to fight with Philip and Antiochus in Greece so as not to have to do it in Italy; they could have avoided both, but this they did not wish…” (p. 205)
We see how methodically Machiavelli’s mind works. He thinks like a doctor diagnosing a disease. The Romans faced the same problems all powerful countries face. They had many enemies and many potential enemies. How did they handle them? They “dealt with them at once and… would not let them come to a head.” Machiavelli approves of this method. How do we know? Because, he says the Romans “knew that war is not to be avoided, but is only put off to the advantage of others.” The Romans wanted to fight in Greece so they wouldn’t have to fight in Italy. Today we fight in Baghdad so we won’t have to fight in Boston tomorrow. The idea of pre-emptive war is troubling to many Americans. Do we have the moral authority to attack another country not because of anything they’ve actually done but because of something they may (or may not) do in the future? Machiavelli would respond: that’s not the right question. Your first concern is preservation. Leave morality to philosophers and theologians. Your job (if you’re the leader of a country) is to get power and hold on to it. If you want to study the relationship between politics and ethics, read Plato or Aristotle. If you want to be a successful leader then read my book, The Prince. You may have fine moral ideas and want to accomplish many good things. But without power you won’t accomplish anything. First get power. That’s the only way you can really change the world. Machiavelli would not consider The Prince to be an immoral book but he might concede that it’s amoral. There’s no room for moral/immoral distinctions in politics; or in the mafia. In The Godfather Michael Corleone knew that the Tattaglias posed a mortal threat to his “business” and his family; if not now, then in the future. No hard feelings; he just did what he had to do. Machiavelli would have approved.

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