13 February 2010

The Prince, part 2 (Chapters 1 and 2)

The Prince, chapters 1 and 2.

I'll begin my discussion of The Prince by covering two chapters, because they are so very short. Most weeks I'll likely cover only one, so that these posts don't become egregiously long and rambling.

Chapter 1: How Many Kinds Of Principalities There Are, And By What Means They Are Acquired
The first chapter of The Prince threw me for a loop the first time I read it. It's only four sentences long, and says nothing substantive--it just notes that a) all states are either republics or principalities, b) principalities are either hereditary or new, c) new principalities are either brand new, or they are new possession annexed to an existing hereditary principality, and d) these acquired possessions are either used to living under a prince or they are used to being a republic.

I found this confusing because it just seemed like a ever-expanding list of types of states. But the second time I read it I realized that it is actually a nested list, and with each step he goes deeper, making finer distinctions, so that the reader understands that all principalities are not alike, nor even are all new principalities alike, and implicitly noting that the differences between them are important. This is, after all, a work of practical theory. No airy, wishful, handwaving here, he is telling us that to properly manage a principality, you need to understand the details of what type of state it is. And note also that republics are discarded after the first distinction. This work is not meant for the governor of a republic, which should be a warning to all those who casually believe that Machiavelli is writing about leadership in general. There are lessons to be learned here, but they may not apply to our contemporary democracies.

Chapter 2: Concerning Hereditary Principalities
Machiavelli works himself up to a whole five sentences in this chapter, the sum total of his argument being that it is easier for a Prince to hold onto a hereditary state than a newly acquired one, because the people are already accustomed to his family's rule. Barring an "extraordinary and excessive force" from outside--i.e., Germany marching into Poland--all a hereditary Prince has to do is not mess with the country's traditions and avoid "extraordinary vices [that] cause him to be hated." The later is probably easier said than done, as those born to wealth and power often seem naturally inclined to extraordinary vices. Never actually having been constrained, they lack the common person's intuitive understanding of social propriety (I'm looking at you, Charlie Sheen).

"Extraordinary" is a key qualifier here, I think. He doesn't expect Princes to lack vice, and the chapter can be read to say that tradition and custom are strong enough that the Prince's subjects will allow some, perhaps considerable, degree of self-indulgence, rather than engage in the effort and risks of a revolt. The attachment to tradition does seem to be a major factor in human behavior, both social and political. From the family that gets together every Christmas despite not really liking each other all that much, to the continuing support for now-politically powerless royal families, as in, for example, Britain, Denmark, and the Netherlands.

I, too, believe in the value of tradition. A tradition shouldn't be overthrown lightly because it's quite plausible that its longevity is closely related to its utility. Of course tradition should not be fetishized, either. It's not beyond the bounds of reason that a particular tradition could have disutility, and is only clung to through superstition. And it's more than a little probable that some traditions' utility accrues only to a subset of the population, while creating disutility for the rest. Nevertheless, some people will fetishize tradition, a fact that an adept political analyst will not ignore.

There is also a veiled warning to those who try to take new possessions. The hereditary Prince, he notes, has "less necessity to offend," the subjects, meaning that an invading Prince must of necessity, cause offense. And how could it not be so? And yet time after time invaders seem to be surprised that their actions--waging war, blowing things up, disrupting the economy, changing the political institutions--cause offense (we're all looking at you, Dick Cheney).

Next Week:Chapter 3

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