ALL HAIL ‘THE PRINCE’ Ital­ian Em­bassy hosts ex­hibit on Machi­avelli’s sig­na­ture work


he Prince” is one of the most in­flu­en­tial books pub­lished in Western lit­er­a­ture, and peo­ple have been get­ting it wrong for five hun­dred years.

Bri­tish philoso­pher Ber­trand Rus­sell, for ex­am­ple, dis­missed Machi­avelli’s canon­i­cal work as “a hand­book for gang­sters.”

A typ­i­cal mis­con­cep­tion, ac­cord­ing to Gi­u­liano Amato, a for­mer prime min­is­ter of Italy, who this week opened an ex­hi­bi­tion at the Ital­ian Em­bassy en­ti­tled “Nic­colo Machi­avelli: The Prince and its Era, 1513-2013.” In re­al­ity, ac­cord­ing to Mr. Amato, “like him or not, Machi­avelli was the cre­ator of po­lit­i­cal sci­ence” and “The Prince” a sem­i­nal po­lit­i­cal es­say that re­mains rel­e­vant to­day.

Well, in a way. Machi­avelli’s work is a trea­tise on how to achieve ab­so­lute power and re­tain it. That’s why it’s called “The Prince” and not “The Demo­crat­i­cally Elected Leader.” Its main theme (though never ac­tu­ally stated) is that the end — no mat­ter how im­moral — jus­ti­fies the means. Its im­pact lies in the fact that it presents the most im­por­tant ques­tions of pol­i­tics and mo­ral­ity in stark terms.

Bri­tish po­lit­i­cal the­o­rist Isa­iah Ber­lin said Machi­avelli “helped cause men to be­come aware of the ne­ces­sity of mak­ing ag­o­niz­ing choices be­tween in­com­pat­i­ble al­ter­na­tives in pub­lic and pri­vate life.”

For ex­am­ple, Machi­avelli writes that “it is de­sir­able to be loved and feared, but it is dif­fi­cult to achieve both, and if one of them has to be lack­ing it is much safer to be feared than loved.”

He also said, “The prom­ise given was a ne­ces­sity of the past — the word bro­ken is a ne­ces­sity of the present.”

A diplo­mat, philoso­pher, play­wright and poet, Machi­avelli wrote “The Prince” while un­der house ar­rest. He had oc­cu­pied high of­fice when his na­tive Florence was a repub­lic, but lost his post and his per­sonal free­dom when the Medici fam­ily was re­stored to power as rulers of the Re­nais­sance city state. He ded­i­cated his most fa­mous work to Lorenzo de Medici, it is said, in the hope of fur­ther em­ploy­ment.

As a job ap­pli­ca­tion it failed: Machi­avelli didn’t find em­ploy­ment with the pow­er­ful Medi­cis. But “The Prince” be­came the most fa­mous book in the Ital­ian lan­guage and the most widely trans­lated. (The sec­ond in the trans­la­tion cat­e­gory is Carlo Col­lodi’s “Pinoc­chio.”)

To­day, “The Prince” is avail­able in prac­ti­cally all the lan­guages of the world, and some of the for­eign ver­sions are in the ex­hi­bi­tion — as are some of the fakes, apoc­ryphal ver­sions, pla­gia­risms and re­worked ver­sions that it has at­tracted.

The au­thor’s orig­i­nal manuscript has been lost, but this com­pact and slightly quirky ex­hi­bi­tion does in­clude one

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