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Realistic Map of How Power is Achieved and Maintained
on August 14, 2000
There are two good reasons to read Machiavelli's classic, "The Prince."
First, so you'll know what everyone is referring to when you come across the adjective "machiavellian" in news stories or other media. This adjective has become so commonplace (and overused) it is almost a cliche. Also, most who use it have never read this letter from Machiavelli, a Rennaisance courtier to his Prince (written from prison), but they insist on peppering writings with this noun turned adjective so much that as a matter of clearly understanding what is meant by the term, famiality with this brief treatise is helpful.
Second, this book does describe most (not all) power situations very well. From politics to corporations to most settings where advancement, influence and control exist, Machiavelli's observations and rules apply.
You will also discover that Machiavelli was not as evil as he is understood to be in popular thought. What he was doing was describing the rules of the game that have existed and always will exist for many situations involving selfish humans in competition. Machiavelli's rules are neither good nor bad in themselves -- they describe a process. What is good or bad is how those who master Machiavelli's rules use their power and position, in a society that tempers actions according to law and basic Judeo-Christian principals. When those principals do not exist (as in Nazi Germany, the Middle Ages or under Communism, or by those who refuse to live by these constraints), Machiavelli's rules take on their demonic and evil cloak; usually because they serve demonic and evil ends. In societies where positive constraints exist, for example the U.S. political system, Machiavellian behavior can produce excellent results. A good example involves Abraham Lincoln, whose ambition led him to use every legitimate trick and stragety to master (and remove) political opponents. His mastery of Machiavellian behavior constrained by the US political system allowed him to save the Union and end slavery.
To fully appreciate the modern lessons that can be taken from this writing, one must translate Medieval sensibilites to their contemporary counterparts. The casual way in which Machiavelli discusses the need to kill opponents was necessary to those who wished to be princes 500 years ago. Today, of course, "killing" is translated as rendering less powerful, or taking an opponent out of the game.
What does one get from this book? It is a roadmap with insights and lessons about how to 1) get ahead of others to attain power; and 2) maintain and expand one's power in the face of others who would usurp one who is in a desirable position.
This book is about ruthlessness and putting the attainment of goals ahead of any other consideration. Plenty of maxims that are also tossed about frequently in media are to be found in Machiavelli's book: "the end justifies the means," "it is better to be feared than loved," "if you fight the prince, kill the prince" to name a few.
It is essential reading to anyone who would be in a competitive environment and hope to advance, if for no other reason than many of one's competitors operate by Machiavelli's dictums (which arise out of human instinct and selfishness). One does not have to operate according to Machaivelli's code -- many examples of alturism and "pluck and luck" exist to defeat any claim that Machiavelli's road map is essential for success. However, human nature and human history deliver far more examples of ruthless self-interest (Machiavellianism) behind success in power situations.
Is Machiavellianism bad? Not in and of itself. Remember, one must translate the Middle Age ethos to current practices -- there usually isn't blood spilled as a result of today's Machiavellian duels, just power and positon. Most political and business leaders are at least partly Machiavellian. The trick is using one's power to good ends. Thus, even though Lincoln and all of our presidents were Machiavellian in their climb to the White House, some of them did darn good work there. The same is true for business leaders. Jack Welch (GE), Bill Gates (Microsoft), anyone who advances past the first few rungs of the corporate ladder or dominates markets at the expense of competitors is using Machiavelli's dictums. The trick of a just and good society is to set the bounds by which power can be attained and exercised so that good and benefits will flow from those who are able to "claw their way to the top."
To summarize, read this book if you want to 1) truly understand when the adjective "Machiavelli" is used to describe people and 2) understand the rules by which most people navigate their way to power.