Machiavelli's Principles Still Relevant Today
When Machiavelli wrote The Prince in 1513, he shocked Italians with is controversial advice for potential rulers to set aside ethics should they need to.
Despite the world's changes since tben, despite
the ways in which warfare and politics are dif-
ferent today as Americans and their allies face a
new kind of conflict both at borne and abroad,
The Prince continues to be a popular work of
literature. The look at the mind ofa ruler and
his motivations is an enduring - and controversial - classic.
"Everybody ,knows how laudable it is i17. a prince
to keep this faith and to be an honest man and not
a trickster. Nevertheless, the experience of our times
shows that the princes who have done great things are
the ones who have taken little accoun.t of their
promises and who have kywull7 how to addle the brains
of men with craft. In the end they have conquered
those who have put their reliance on good faith.
"A prudent mler can.not obse Yl/e faith when sl<ch
observance is to his disadvantage and the causes that
made him give his promise have vanished. if men were
all good, this advice would riot be good, but since men
are wicked and do not keep their promises to YOI<,
you likewise do not have to keep yours to thern."
- Niccolo Machiavelli, The Prince
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A recent class in the GAA's Carolioa College
for Lifelong Learning focused on The Prince
and how its themes remain timely today. The
class was taught by Dino Cervigni, a professor
in UNC's department of Romance languages
and literature. UNC is the only university in
the South that offers a graduate progranl in
Italian through the department.
In Machiavelli's time, rulers traditionally
espoused Christian ideals and principals, at least
superficially, says Cervigni. But Machiavelli
wrote The Prince in his native Italy: Florence,
Naples, Milan,Venice and Rome. Although tbe
city-states were supposed to be free, in reality
they were under the political influence of
France in the north and of Spain in the south.
"Machiavelli says that in ideal circumstances,
it is good for a prince to be faithful, kind and
truthful," Cervigni said. "But he noted that
they did not live in normal circumstances."
A prince must have the appearance of
being good but be ready to lie wben the need
arises. The demeanor ofbeing good could be
put on or taken off, like clothing.
Machiavelli often is erroneously attributed
with stating that the end always justifies the
"He never said this," Cervigni stressed.
"What he said was that in everything we do, we
must look at the end of it." Cervigni noted that
a religious perspective would consider that all
one does in this life affects the hereafter.
"It is not necessaryfor a prince to have all the
virtues mentioned above, but it is very 11ecessary to
seem to have them. I mean that he should seem compassionate, tntstworthy, humane, honest and religious,
and acwally be so. Yet he should have his mind so
trained that, when it is necessary not to practice
these lIirtues, he can change to the opposite and do it
"It is necessary to have a mind capable of tum·
ing in whatever direction the winds qf Fortun.e and
the variations ofaffairs require. "
- The Prince
Rightly or wrongly, Cervigni said, TIle Prince
long has been read as an effort by Machiavelli
to separate ethics from politics. Machiavelli
emphasizes good laws and good disciplioe, but
for extraordinary circumstances, he describes
an ideal leader capable of chasing away the
enemies. Before and after The Prince appeared,
leaders, politicians and philosophers have grappled witb the questions ofputting aside ethics
in some situations.
Cervigni said he likes Machiavelli because he
makes us confront shocking and sigrrificant
issues."Most people are good and law abiding.
They don't want to believe there is a wicked
aspect of ourselves and others," Cervigni said.
"But Machiavelli tells us there is a lot of
wicked in ourselves and in others. We don't
want to agree with this."
"Is it better to be loved than to befeared? A prince
sh.ol<ld wish for both. But it is difficult to reconcile
them, I hold that it is much more secure to befeared
than to be lOlled, if one of th.em must be given up.
One ml<st say ofmen generally that they are
ungrateful, mutable, pretenders, prone to avoid dan-
ge" thirsty for gain. So long as you benifit them,
they are all yours. When need comes upon you, they
tl<m around. Men hesitate less to injl<re a man who
makes himself loved than to in)ure one who makes
himselffeared,jor their love is held by a chain of
obligation, which, because of men's wickedness, is
broken on every occasiOll for the sake ofselfish
prqfit; but their fear is secured by a dread of
punishment which neverfails Yol< ."
"Machiavelli is relevant and also disturbing,"
said Dr. Dixon Qualls ' 55, a retired dentist, who
took the short course with his wife, Landy. He
quipped that he "came up short in hllillanities"
as an undergraduate and while he was in dental
school at Carolioa, graduating from there in
1959. "Now I want to learn who these people
"We can learn a great deal about the
human psyche, about hllillan relationships and
the shocking realities about politics from
Machiavelli," Cervigni said. "Hopefully we will
be so shocked and disturbed that we'll feel tbe
urge to work for peace and goodwill for all."
- EleanorYates ' 78