Blue Heron in flight

Thursday, September 6, 2012

The Prince

My father was a big fan of the writing and ideas of Niccol├│ Machiavelli (1469 - 1527). I grew up hearing a lot about the concept of the benevolent despot and Machiavelli's brilliant strategies of dealing with kingdoms and subjects. I thought he was some sort of fascistic manipulator and tyrant. I thought I knew what he was about but I had never actually read him. The reality is of course that I knew very little about the writer since I had never taken the time to really study his words.

I was at the library the other day when I saw a copy of The Prince and other writings, the principal story written by the author after his prison term, during his exile to his own villa in Percussina in 1513. I borrowed it and it is not only very fascinating but gives the reader a great course on italian history.

Machiavelli had been an important diplomat and courier during the time when Florence was ruled by the brutal monk Girolamo Savonarola. Italy was a country of small city states. Machiavelli had made missions to the Holy Roman Emperor Maximillian, King Louis XII and the future pope, Julius II.  But Machiavelli had the misfortune of being thrown in prison and tortured for supposedly conspiring and plotting against the Medicis, the powerful family that had reclaimed power in the city of Florence. This occurred after Spain invaded Italy in 1512 and had dismantled the in situ Florentine regime on orders of the Catholic church.

Niccol├│ Machiavelli wrote these texts in hopes of reconciling with the Medicis; unfortunately for him it never happened.  But he did end up writing a treatise on strategy, governance and human beings that is remarkable in its lucid, sober and realistic appraisals of human nature. He was a great student of history and like to reach back to the time of Borgia, Darius and Alexander for illustrative examples. He speaks about the influence of fortune and virtu in the proper rule of a kingdom.

The book is ostensibly a primer on how to successfully conquer and rule a people. The narrative is principally concerned with how a Prince acts towards his subjects in a world at constant war. It is full of insightful looks at human nature and in some ways is an early look at game theory.

Many of the chapters concern the art of war, the title of one of his discourses, Dell'arte della guerra. Which was odd because that was the name of the other book I borrowed from the library the same day, Sun Tzu's Art of War. published somewhere around 500 b.c. It is interesting how remarkably similar they are in thinking and tenor. Sun Tzu counsels war strategies for every conceivable situation, season and degree of enemy force.

I wonder if any scholar has noticed how Confucian Machiavelli sounds? I will give you some examples of both writings and let you draw your own conclusions. Perhaps they still pertain to the present as well. It is fascinating stuff to me. Next stop Clausewitz. I believe that there are precepts in these books that might prove beneficial to all of us in our daily lives and conquests, be we warriors or not.

Inasmuch as the legitimate prince has fewer reasons and less need to harm his subjects, it follows that they would love him more, and if no extraordinary vices make him hated, it stands to reason that they would naturally be disposed to him. The Prince, Chapter 2

When you engage in actual fighting, if victory is long in coming, the men's weapons will grow dull and their ardor will be damped. If you lay siege to a town you will exhaust your strength.

Again, if the campaign is protracted, the resources of the State will not be equal to the strain.

Now when your weapons are dulled, your ardor damped, your strength exhausted and your treasure spent, other chieftains will spring up to take advantage of your extremity. No man, however wise, will be able to avert the consequences that must ensue. Sun Tzu - Chapter II

It is only one fully acquainted with the evils of war that can thoroughly understand the profitable way of carrying it on. ST

It must be noted that men must either be caressed or else destroyed, because they will revenge themselves for small injuries. but cannot do so for serious ones. TP

On the other hand, the proximity of an army causes prices to go up and high prices cause the people's substance to be drained away.

In war then, let your great object be victory not lengthy campaigns. ST

There is a related admonition in Yoshikawa's recount of the life of Japan's most celebrated 16th century zen warrior, Miyamato Musashi. Musashi wrote the following notice and hung it up outside the village of Hotengara after freeing the hapless villagers from mountain brigands.

"Reminder for the people of the village. Your plow is your sword. Your sword is your plow. Working in the fields, don't forget the invasion. Thinking of the invasion, don't forget your fields. All things must be balanced and integrated. Most important, do not oppose the way of sucessive generations."

Machiavelli evidently concurs: "...He must never take his thoughts away from the exercise of war, and in peace train himself more than in war..."TP Chapter 14

The desire to acquire things is very natural and ordinary, and when men who can do so are successful, they will always be praised and not blamed, but when they cannot and want to do so at all costs, here there is error and blame. TP

If equally matched, we can meet offer battle, if slightly inferior in numbers we can avoid the enemy, if quite unequal in every way, we can flee from him.

Hence the saying: If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear for the result of a hundred battles. If you know yourself but not the enemy, for every victory gained you will suffer a defeat. If you know neither the enemy nor yourself, you will succumb in every battle. ST

Nor is it sufficient to wipe out the family of the prince, because the lords who remain will make themselves the heads of new rebellions and being unable either to content or exterminate them, you will lose that state whenever the possibility presents itself. TP

Whoever is first in the field and awaits the coming of the enemy will be fresh for the fight, whoever is second to the field must hasten for battle, and arrive exhausted. ST

This passage from Sun Tzu is actually the opposite of what Musashi practiced in his duels and battles. He like to appear hours late, a strategy that kept his enemies pissed off. This was demonstrated in his bouts with both Kojiro and Denischiro.

...all armed prophets have become victorious and all unarmed have come to ruin. TP

And whoever believes that with great men new benefits make them forget old injuries is deceiving himself. TP

Do not repeat the tactics which have gained you one victory, but let your methods be regulated by the infinite variety of circumstances. ST

The following is one of my favorite passages from Sun Tzu:

Tu Mu says; "When your army has crossed the border, you should burn your boats and bridges, in order to make it clear to everybody that you have no hankering after home."

Now that is hardcore.

Thus it is to be noted that in taking a state, its conqueror must consider all those cruelties he has to do and do them all in one stroke so as not to have to renew them every day, and to be able, by not repeating them, to reassure men and win them over by benefitting them.

This is a very pragmatic approach. Think Scott Walker in Wisconsin.

(to be continued)

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