The Prince and The Rights of Man

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

I recently decided to read both The Rights of Man and The Prince. It was interesting to read the two political pieces back-to-back. I definitely preferred The Prince, but there were aspects of both that I liked.

The Prince
The Life of Castruccio Castracani of Lucca
by Niccolo Machiavelli

The Prince is filled with advice for leaders hoping to hold on to their positions. This book does a great job at describing situations of power and statesmanship. From political and corporate power struggles to attaining advancement, influence and authority over others, Machiavelli’s observations apply. He gives advice based on the example of many leaders who came before, especially those in Italy.

I loved reading this while watching Game of Thrones. So much of the advice is applicable. The show is all about vying for the throne and multiple people desperately maneuvering to get closer to the power. The book is all about the different ways of ruling, gaining favor, ruling with fear, etc. I loved seeing how the advice in The Prince was so perfectly mirrored in the different actions of characters on GOT. Every Lord or Prince in GOT takes a different route in their struggle for power and each one is like an example acting out the pros and cons of the advice in The Prince.

There’s even a very “Red Wedding” moment in the book…
“He therefore sent for his son Neri, who was the governor of Lucca, and commissioned him to take Castruccio prisoner at a banquet and put him to death.”

So much of the book deals with the tightrope leaders must walk between being loved and feared…

“Upon this a question arises: whether it be better to be loved than feared or feared than loved?”

Just like being a parent, the ruler must decide which is more important to him. If he is only feared there is always the chance of disloyalty and revolt. If he is only loved than people might not respect his leadership and will rise against him. It is a difficult decision to make.

BOTTOM LINE: Ruling has always been a cutthroat profession. One must almost always chose between making your subjects love you or fear you and that decision is at the heart of this book. I enjoyed reading about the different ruling styles and once again realized that not much has changed in politics.

“This has been figuratively taught to princes by ancient writers, who describe how Achilles and many other princes of old were given to the Centaur Chiron to nurse, who brought them up in his discipline; which means solely that, as they had for a teacher one who was half beast and half man, so it is necessary for a prince to know how to make use of both natures, and that one without the other is not durable.”

“Therefore, one who becomes a prince through the favour of the people ought to keep them friendly, and this he can easily do seeing they only ask not to be oppressed by him. But one who, in opposition to the people, becomes a prince by the favour of the nobles, ought, above everything, to seek to win the people over to himself, and this he may easily do if he takes them under his protection. Because men, when they receive good from him of whom they were expecting evil, are bound more closely to their benefactor; thus the people quickly become more devoted to him.”

“But to exercise the intellect the prince should read histories, and study there the actions of illustrious men, to see how they have borne themselves in war, to examine the causes of their victories and defeat, so as to avoid the latter and imitate the former”

“A prince, therefore, ought always to take counsel, but only when he wishes and not when others wish; he ought rather to discourage everyone from offering advice unless he asks it; but, however, he ought to be a constant inquirer, and afterwards a patient listener concerning the things of which he inquired.”

The Rights of Man
by Thomas Paine

Written during the era of the French Revolution, this book was one of the first to introduce the concept of human rights from the standpoint of democracy. The Rights of Man was actually published as a direct response to a piece written by Edmund Burke attacking the French Revolution. Paine’s book focuses on the positives of that revolution and why it was necessary.  

I think it’s important to learn more about the conversation that was happening when our nation was being developed. We were building something from scratch, but we were being influenced by everything that was happening in the countries around us.

“If there is a country in the world where concord, according to common calculation, would be least expected, it is America. Made up as it is of people from different nations, accustomed to different forms and habits of government, speaking different languages, and more different in their modes of worship, it would appear that the union of such a people was impracticable; but by the simple operation of constructing government on the principles of society and the rights of man, every difficulty retires, and all the parts are brought into cordial unison. There the poor are not oppressed, the rich are not privileged. Industry is not mortified by the splendid extravagance of a court rioting at its expense. Their taxes are few, because their government is just: and as there is nothing to render them wretched, there is nothing to engender riots and tumults.”

The core argument in the book rings true. A government’s job should be to protect the rights of its people. It’s not the government’s job to create those rights, only to protect them. Paine argues that the more power a government has the more it takes away the rights of its people, the opposite of what it’s supposed to do. He argues that because man is inherently evil, he will default to evil when given too much power.

BOTTOM LINE: Not a book I’d reread for fun, but one that I think it is important to read. Understanding the decisions that were made when your nation was created helps you understand many of the conversations currently happening in our country.

“Independence is my happiness, and I view things as they are, without regard to place or person; my country is the world, and my religion is to do good.”

p.s. These books have the ugliest covers!


Nikki Steele @ said...

So cool and such heavy reading you're doing over there! Certainly not the summer usual :D

I think The Prince and the Game of Thrones series would be the most excellent pairing.

Jeanne said...

Last week I asked if anyone was doing contemplative reading this summer, and had the impression that no one was until I read this!

Melissa (Avid Reader) said...

Nikki - Oh my gosh, I couldn't stop thinking about the politics in GOT while reading The Prince. It was like a blueprint for the screenplay.

Jeanne - I love a good beach read occasionally, but I'm not a fan of reading nothing but fluff in the summer!