Recently, while staying in a hotel in Geneva, I read from Machiavelli‘s The Prince each day at breakfast. Having read earlier that the book had met with a lot of criticism for its “ends justify the means” approach to retaining power, I was not really shocked by it. On occasion, one is amused by his cruelty, but not shocked – like here, for example:
I consider that it is better to be adventurous than cautious, because fortune is a woman, and if you wish to keep her under it is necessary to beat and ill-use her; and it is seen that she allows herself to be mastered by the adventurous rather than by those who go to work more coldly.
The book reminded me of Sun Tzu’s The Art Of War, which has found its way into the management section of most bookstores – almost a de facto standard reference on how to thrive in a capitalist environment. (Incidentally, Machiavelli also wrote a book by the same name.) Somehow, we seem used to the notion that skirting around what we consider ethical and proper, might not be such a bad thing if our goals are met in the process. Half a century ago, in his chapter on Machiavelli in A History of Western Philosophy, Bertrand Russell was right on the mark:
The world has become more like that of Machiavelli than it was, and the modern man who hopes to refute his philosophy must think more deeply than seemed necessary in the nineteenth century.