On “The Prince” by Nicolo Machiavelli

Image from Jacobin

Anyone interested in change should be interested in Machiavelli.

That many of the observations in The Prince have been cited by leaders with questionable methods in fields such as business and war means the 16th Century Italian adviser has a negative reputation. But investing time in reading the source text on which most of Machiavelli’s reputation is based (i.e. not including The Discourses) will reveal more subtlety, wisdom and honesty than you might expect.

For anyone at any level who is interested in driving or influencing change, it provides plenty of practical advice:

[N]othing more difficult to take in hand, more perilous to conduct, or more uncertain in its success, than to take the lead in the introduction of a new order of things. Because the innovator has for enemies all those who have done well under the old conditions, and lukewarm defenders in those who may do well under the new. This coolness arises partly from fear of the opponents, who have the laws on their side, and partly from the incredulity of men, who do not readily believe in new things until they have had a long experience of them.

From within this setting derives much of Machiavelli’s advice about how to work with different groups of people in the new order. This includes both people who have become “enemies” and, perhaps a harder group to manage, those who were supportive of change. In the latter’s case, Machiavelli recommends you, first, understand the motivations for their support:

[H]e 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 then understand the implications:

and you are not able to keep those friends who put you there because of your not being able to satisfy them in the way they expected, and you cannot take strong measures against them, feeling bound to them.

A risk of not addressing either enemies or supporters quickly enough is the emergence of factions, on which Machiavelli has a clear view:

I do not believe that factions can ever be of use; rather it is certain that when the enemy comes upon you in divided cities you are quickly lost, because the weakest party will always assist the outside forces and the other will not be able to resist.

As well as considering external circumstances, there is equally sound advice for the ‘Prince’ or leader of change, especially in how they should carry and prepare themselves:

But to exercise the intellect the prince should read histories, and study there the actions of illustrious men, to see how they have borne themselves[,] to examine the causes of their victories and defeat, so as to avoid the latter and imitate the former; and above all do as an illustrious man did, who took as an exemplar one who had been praised and famous before him, and whose achievements and deeds he always kept in his mind


he ought to be a constant inquirer, and afterwards a patient listener concerning the things of which he inquired.

Machiavelli is clear this holds at all times, not just at times of change:

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.

Such diligence can help prepare for whatever eventuality may arise, which it surely will:

And in examining [great leaders’] actions and lives one cannot see that they owed anything to fortune beyond opportunity, which brought them the material to mould into the form which seemed best to them. Without that opportunity their powers of mind would have been extinguished, and without those powers the opportunity would have come in vain.

Preparation will also allow “evils to be foreseen” and an ability to “distinguish the character of troubles, and for choice to take the lesser evil”. Ultimately, building such foundations will also help with sustainability:

 Nothing can be so uncertain or unstable as fame or power not founded on its own strength.

Of course, all of these insights aimed at ‘princes’ are equally useful for those seeking to influence change: they help provide an insight into the way leaders may be thinking, and therefore an indication of how influencers should accordingly position themselves.

The Prince is only short. Even then, a reasonable proportion is taken up with describing the actions of various leaders drawn from Italian history and beyond that can (unless interested) easily be passed over. Investing time in reading it, and putting to one side what you think Machiavelli might represent, is time well used.


Man walks into a column, no.6: Machiavelli

Jonathan Powell’s The New Machiavelli (sub-titled How To Wield Power In The Modern World) offers fascinating insights into the mind of a once-powerful man, but that man is Powell himself, not Machiavelli.

Powell, Tony Blair’s chief of staff, says in the preface that the book ‘is an attempt to test whether Machiavelli’s maxims still hold in the world of modern politics’. But it turns out that this is just a handy excuse (or ‘washing line’, to use Peter Mandelson’s term for the over-arching theme of a speech) for the second and third objectives: drawing lessons on leadership based on Powell’s experience in Number 10, and recounting anecdotes to illustrate what life at the top was really like.

JP is being a bit disingenuous when he says this is ‘not another memoir of the Blair years’, because that’s exactly what it is. I’m no Machiavelli scholar, but the breadth of the Italian apparatchik’s theorising allows Powell to find enough quotes to bolster his argument, most of the time anyway – towards the end it feels like Powell just gives up, and the chapters on ‘War and Peace’ and ‘Europe’ in particular are almost all anecdote, no Prince.

Still, I guess most people will read The New Machiavelli for the behind-the-scenes stuff – I know I did – and there’s certainly fun to be had. We hear how during the 2005 election campaign Powell assumed that Tony’s faltering delivery of a speech on immigration was due to a bust teleprompter, when it was actually the PM not looking at the camera on purpose, thus ensuring that the media didn’t report on the most politically sensitive bits of the speech. Or, when Blair was in hospital for a heart operation, we learn that Prince Charles sent a get-well card and box of Duchy of Cornwall fudge, signed from ‘Dr Wales’, which the security service thought was a suspicious package and proceeded to blow up, fudge and all.

What lets this book down, however, is the bloody-mindedness of Powell’s determination to defend the record of the Blair governments. I’ll leave aside the rightness or wrongness of the arguments he puts forward for specific decisions; the fact of the matter is that after only a short time the one-sidedness of the account really grates.

A big part of this defence is a hagiographical approach to Blair himself. Powell is convinced that Tony was a Truly Great Leader, and that the only things holding him back were Gordon Brown, an inexperienced and inept bunch of ministers, and the lying media. Whatever you may think of Blair, the complete and utter lack of balance is really distracting.

The stuff about Gordon is frequently hilarious (unintentionally and not) for the depth of hatred – there’s no other word – that it reveals. So on page 37 we have this entirely typical example:

Gordon’s influence on those around him was at times extraordinary. After a few years working with him his aides became changed people. Ed Balls, who had been a pleasant young man as a Financial Times leader writer, was transformed by his connection with Gordon. He reminds me of Quintus Fabius in [Machiavelli’s] The Discourses, who came under the influence of the tyrant Appius: ‘though an excellent fellow, [he] was after a while blinded by a little ambition and, under the evil influence of Appius, changed his good habits for bad and became like him’.

Blair, on the other hand, can do no wrong: consistently strategic, conciliatory, reforming, self-deprecating, visionary. His only failing, it seems, was being too much of a nice guy and not sacking people soon enough. I was talking to a colleague about this, who said that a friend of theirs also worked in Number 10 for a time under Blair, and that they (the friend) felt exactly the same way and would not hear even a modestly critical word against the ex-PM. The power of charisma, I guess: Machiavelli would’ve been proud.