Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

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

Monday, December 16, 2013

MACHIAVELLI: The Prince (Safety and Security vs. Freedom)

Americans love personal freedom. We love it so much that we tend to think everyone else must love it too. This is partly true, partly not true. In the Great Books we see examples of civilizations which didn’t think of personal freedom in the same terms we do. In Exodus we read that Pharaoh ruled Egypt as absolute dictator. In Herodotus’ Persian Wars we read that Xerxes ruled the Persians as absolute dictator. Modern readers often wonder why the Persians and the Egyptians didn’t rise up and throw off tyrannical rule. Maybe they didn’t want to. Maybe they loved safety and security more than they loved freedom. This is exactly what Pharaoh of Egypt and the King of Persia offered their people: safety and security in exchange for freedom. In contrast, the ancient Hebrews and Greeks wanted freedom more than they wanted safety and security. In Exodus Moses leads the Hebrews out of slavery in Egypt to the freedom of a promised land. In The Persian Wars Herodotus tells how the Greeks astonished the world by standing up to, and defeating, the vast Persian army and navy. Great Books authors generally take strong stances in these two opposing values of security versus freedom.
Machiavelli seems to agree with Hobbes: safety and security are the most important things. Hobbes wrote that “During the time men live without a common power to keep them all in awe, they are in that condition which is called war; and such a war as is of every man against every man.” Machiavelli believes the ruler’s job is to be that “common power” which holds a nation together. It’s not an easy job to keep men from fighting “every man against every man.” That’s why Machiavelli thinks “it is much safer to be feared than loved…” This was also the philosophy of Pharaoh and Xerxes. Most Americans believe freedom is more important than safety. Many of us think that way because we’ve been safe and secure for so long we don’t seriously consider what the alternative would be like. Hobbes tells us what it would be like: “Whatsoever therefore is consequent to a time of war, where every man is enemy to every man… there is no place for industry, no culture, no navigation, no building, no arts, no letters, no society; and which is worst of all, continual fear, and danger of violent death, and the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty brutish and short.” This bleak view is what Machiavelli’s ruler hopes to avoid. But ruling people takes a certain kind of ruthless wisdom and courage. Machiavelli says a ruler must “be a fox in order to know the traps, and a lion to frighten the wolves.” Hobbes may have had this concept in mind when he wrote that “I know that Aristotle in the first book of his Politics, for a foundation of his doctrine, makes men by nature, some more worthy to command, meaning the wiser sort, such as he thought himself to be for his philosophy; others to serve, meaning those that had strong bodies, but were not philosophers as he…”
Aristotle the philosopher says this about safety and security versus freedom: “…is there any one thus intended by nature to be a slave, and for whom such a condition is expedient and right, or rather is not all slavery a violation of nature? There is no difficulty in answering this question, on grounds both of reason and of fact. For that some should rule and others be ruled is a thing not only necessary, but expedient; from the hour of their birth, some are marked out for subjection, others for rule.” Machiavelli read Aristotle and agrees that some are born to rule, others to be ruled. The prince is born to rule. He may read Aristotle or Hobbes but Machiavelli thinks a prince should “ask about everything, and listen to opinions, and afterward deliberate by himself, in his own way.” Being wise in “his own way” is the key factor to being a good ruler. Why? Machiavelli explains that “a prince who is not wise in his own right cannot be advised well.” Even Aristotle or Hobbes can’t help a prince who isn’t already wise as a fox and strong as a lion.


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