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A guide for leaders, morality be damned

Yale UniversityBill ClintonBenito MussoliniRichard NixonRod Blagojevich

Every so often a book comes along that changes the world in some way. Here is one such book.

What it is: "The Prince" by Niccolo Machiavelli (1532, Italy). It was written around 1513 after the Medici regime reconquered the Florentine Republic and stripped Machiavelli of his political titles. The book was published posthumously.

How it changed the world: In this controversial treatise, Machiavelli, a Renaissance historian and political philosopher, gives readers a beginner's guide of sorts to becoming a successful "prince" or political leader. Many scholars call the book one of the first examples of modern political thought because it examines political leadership through a lens of realism rather than idealistic ideology. Nevertheless, after almost 500 years, readers still debate whether the book's message that politicians cannot be successful without resorting to amoral deeds is simply realistic or just outright disturbing.

The book's influence has been demonstrable throughout history, said Steven Smith, Alfred Cowles professor of political science at Yale University. Tyrants and successful leaders alike — including figures as different as 20th century Italian dictator Benito Mussolini, French Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte, and American presidents John Adams and Bill Clinton — have studied, followed or made reference to the book while in power.

Not all leaders will openly admit to using the book as a guide. This makes finding direct connections difficult for political theorists who have been using the book to analyze the world's most successful politicians.

"Machiavelli does have a bad reputation," Smith said. "If you were a good Machiavellian, you would never admit you are being influenced by him."

What the book says: Among the book's most striking suggestions is that a commitment to honesty and virtue is not possible for successful leadership. Deceit, cruelty and war are essential to maintaining power, Machiavelli says. "Hence it is necessary for a prince wishing to hold his own to know how to do wrong, and to make use of it or not according to necessity," he writes.

Why you should read it now: "The Prince" isn't addressed to the ordinary man, Smith said. Still, readers can see startling parallels between what is written in it and what is going on around them. This can be both frightening and enlightening for modern readers.

What we think of it: "The Prince" seems at times shocking and at other times wearisome, which can make it challenging for those not aspiring to be princes. But some of its points seem quite logical and — even more eerie — commonplace in modern Western politics.

It may give readers an insight into the mindsets of leaders caught taking an ends-justify-the-means approach. A few notable politicians, such as former President Richard Nixon (whose presidency failed in the 1970s after he was implicated in covering up his campaign's illegal activity) and more recently, former Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich (who has been sentenced to federal prison after being convicted on corruption charges), have outraged many by emphasizing their supposed good intentions over their wrongdoings.

Ultimately, the book challenges readers' conceptions of right and wrong. This makes "The Prince" a controversial work — the reason it remains widely read.

"Any reader of "The Prince" is inevitably captivated," Smith said. "We all know (that) what is forbidden has its fascination."

ctc-books@tribune.com

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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