Who hasn’t heard something described as “Machiavellian” before? To me the description has come to mean something that is depraved, evil, despicable, cruel. And of course the mans whose name has become an adjective must be like that too and his book, The Prince, must be filled with unspeakable horrors. That’s how I imagined it anyway. When OneWorld Classics offered me a copy of their new translation of The Prince I was curious enough to want to know whether the reality matched my imagination.

Of course it didn’t. The Prince has got to be one of the dullest well-written books there is. Being a treatise on how to both become a prince and keep your power as a prince, it is straightforwardly calculating. We are talking about power, how to get it, how to use, how to keep it. In the world of Renaissance Italy made up of the shifting alliances of city-states, ruled by families that often made me think “mafia,” this can be a useful little book.

Is there cruelty? Yes. Machiavelli suggests the a prince use only as much cruelty as is necessary to make a point otherwise he will lose the support of the people and find himself in danger of being assassinated and/or overthrown. There certainly is no depravity, but evil, well, I suppose that could be up for debate depending on one’s view of power.

Machiavelli (1469-1527) was your standard Renaissance kind of man. He was interested in music, poetry, theatre, and history and served as a chancery official and diplomat for the city of Florence from 1500-1512 after the Medicis had been (temporarily) ousted from power and Florence established as a Republic. When the Medici’s returned to power, Machiavelli was out of a job. He turned to writing. The Prince was his first book. Written in 1512 (but not published until 1532), he dedicated it to Lorenzo de Medici, Duke of Urbino, hoping the Medici’s would sort out Italy’s problems and maybe provide Machiavelli with some employment in the process. He didn’t get the political employment that he had hoped for, but he was commissioned in 1520 by the Medici Pope Clement VII to write a history of Florence. He finished it just in time in 1526 because a year later the Medicis were overthrown again and a month after that Machiavelli died.

Throughout The Prince Machiavelli uses examples taken from Italian politics and history and when he can’t get it there he scours Roman, Greek and Persian history. He uses these examples to illustrate and provide a sort of proof to his arguments. Here is a prince who used mercenaries in his army and see how ill it went for him. Here is a prince who had his own army and refused to use mercenaries, see what success he had. He was successful because of X, Y, and Z.

Of course there is quite a lot of murder and war involved in attaining and keeping power. For instance, if your arrival at prince is not obtained through heredity, you had to reach the heights through political maneuvering and rising through the ranks of the military. Once the title of prince is yours, it behooves you, says Machiavelli, to kill every member of the ousted ruling family. If you do not, it is only a matter of time before the few surviving members gather enough power back to themselves and end your reign. And of course once you are a prince, you might have to make an example of someone from time to time just to remind everyone who is in charge. And then there is the matter of strategic alliances and going to war to get more property. Because when it comes down to it, a prince’s real job is the military. One must either be leading his men out to war or preparing his men for war should you be lucky enough to have some peace.

Perhaps it should be of no surprise that even though the book is about being a prince, there were things that rang out now and then as sounding very corporate. And why not? I suppose in America at least, the heads of large corporations act like princes and while there may only be metaphorical wars and murders, companies get “taken over” and people get “axed” all the time. And tell me if this doesn’t sound like something you’ve experienced at work before:

And it should be borne in mind that there is nothing more difficult to arrange, nor more doubtful of success, nor more dangerous to carry out, than to be the master and introduce new procedures; because he who introduces them makes enemies of those who benefited from the old order, while all those who would benefit from the new measures will be lukewarm in supporting him. This lack of enthusiasm comes partly from their fear of their adversaries, who have the law on their side, and partly from men’s lack of faith, since men do not really put any trust in new things until they have experienced them; so it comes about that any time one’s enemies have an opportunity to attack, they do so with a partisan spirit, while the defenders have no enthusiasm, with the result that they, together with their prince, are endangered.

Or how about this less bloodthirsty piece of advice that we can all agree with:

one can never avoid one drawback without running into another; wisdom consists in being able to recognize the kinds of drawbacks and choose the least bad.

Even though my lack of Italian history made reading The Prince a challenge and forced me to constantly rely on the marvelous notes on the text (at the end of the book instead of footnotes, grr), and I am sure my lack also kept me from grasping some of the more nuanced examples, I am still glad I read the book. I finally know what it is about and Machiavelli no longer sits among my personal pantheon of evil crazy people. I must confess, however, that a small part of me is a bit disappointed that I will no longer be able to imagine what twisted atrocities might reside in the book. I’m not sure what that says about me, but there you go.